x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

John Cleese is in Dubai and he's got a lot on his agenda

We sit down with the comedian and actor to discuss his career and plans for the future.

John Cleese
John Cleese

Cleese once famously hit the road for the "How to Finance Your Divorce Tour" to drum up some income after a costly split from his third wife Alyce Eichelberger. Now he is in the UAE this week for shows at the First Group Theatre, Madinat Jumeirah, and has more than enough planned to keep him busy when he returns to the UK after this tour. On the agenda: he plans to finish writing Wanda, write a book on creativity, tackle an adaptation of a George Feydeau (French playwright) farce as well as an autobiography he has been considering for 15 years.

Welcome back to Dubai, John. What do you enjoy doing when you come to town?

I just like being here and I'm very curious about the place as I don't know it very well. I'm looking forward to exploring it more in the next few days. It's quite beautiful and there's wonderful architecture.

Tell me about your show?

The first half will, more or less, be guided by the Madinat Jumeirah's general manager Andy Cuthbert and he'll be great. It takes me from the year dot – when I was born, through to Monty Python and in the second half I go out on my own and I talk a bit more about Python and where I got my black sense of humour from – my mother. Then I'll touch upon Fawlty Towers and then there's a little tribute to Graham Chapman who I wrote with for 25 years and who died in 1989. Then I talk about A Fish Called Wanda.

Was the Monty Python era the favourite of your career?

Not particularly. I always felt Python was like a sausage factory as we had to turn out one show a week for 13 weeks. It was a big effort with never enough rehearsal time, and by show 11 I was always pretty exhausted. It was a little too frantic. But I think I was very lucky to have been working at the time I did – in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s – it was a great time to be in television and the best place for TV then was Britain.

Did your instinct tell you Fawlty Towers was going to be as huge as it was?

No, I thought it would be less popular than Python, but in fact, it got bigger figures because it was more accessible.

Basil was so high energy, it must have been an exhausting for you as an actor?

Yes it was, because you had to be very fit to do it and one of the problems was that you only had five days to learn the show and there was a lot of material; not just the words, it was the very physical comedy with Manuel. So figuring out exactly how to make it work and the lack of time, was always the problem.

How do you find the series when you watch it back?

Oh, I find it funny! But I don't sit around watching my own programmes. I watch it because of the stage show where I play three clips and every time I watch them I still find them funny. It's not the lines you laugh at, it's the performance. For example, there's something that Andrew Sachs does where Manuel is completely bewildered and it makes me smile every evening – it's the perfection of confusion.

What's your overriding memory of A Fish Called Wanda?

It was a very happy and easy experience because we got the script 100 per cent right, the rehearsal period was very good and I had lots of energy. Kevin Kline and Michael Palin were wonderful and Jamie Lee Curtis was perfectly cast.

Which medium are you most comfortable with?

I love radio. But I also very much enjoy talking to business groups because I've always had a connection with education and used to be the rector of St Andrews University, and I'm now a visiting professor at Cornell. I talk to the students about various things I am interested in but I also talk a lot to businessmen about aspects of management. Teaching people to be creative is one of the things I'm best at – I basically take individuals and say "this is what you need to do if you want to be able to come up with more creative and innovative solutions to things". Comics often think they are a bit of a luxury – if you know what I mean? So it's quite nice to do something useful. I like the UAE – so people here may be interested to know they can find out more about my creativity talks through the website TheJohnCleese.com.

Going back to acting for a second... Which I don't find very interesting! I love to say this to people, because people think acting is wonderful but actually I don't think it's very creative. I think it's an interpretative art and there are some who are superb at it and that's great, but for me the really creative bit is always the writing. I have far more interest in writers than I have in actors.

So which writers are best in class for you?

My happy days were when I used to go to the theatre and see Alan Ayckbourn, Tom Stoppard, Alan Bennett and Michael Frayn. I know Michael quite well, he's the most wonderful man, kind, funny, totally modest – he's my hero.

What makes you laugh?

Politicians, mainly. Recently, my best laughs have come at the expense of News International. It leaves me thinking, do they really think we are so stupid that we would believe these platitudes? When obviously those poor journalists were working under the most appalling pressures.

What is the status of the musical, Wanda?

My daughter Camilla and I completed the book, and are excited to have an experienced Tony award-nominated director. We are about to embark on a second draft, and he's advised us to take more risks.

Why did you decide to turn the movie into a musical?

I wasn't keen on the idea at first, but when I realised it could be a new project, using the film just as a springboard, I got enthused about working on it with Camilla. We have the same prejudices about musicals. We find most have too much dancing and long production numbers. We're keeping the songs short, so the pace won't lag.

What was it like working on two James Bond movies?

I was very surprised. The big thrill was meeting Desmond Llewellyn [the Welsh actor]. Desmond had been in a prisoner of war camp for five years, from 1940, and [had] some astonishing stories about the way MI6 could get maps to them in camps. Pierce Brosnan was a delight to work with – so pleasant and professional. Also, producers were happy for me to have a hand in writing, so I was confident in the material.

You also starred in Harry Potter and Shrek – what is the most memorable aspect of your involvement?

Shrek was perfect for me. They knew exactly what they wanted, and encouraged me to come up with some stuff. It was completely stress-free.

Harry Potter was boring and uncomfortable because it was all about special effects, and the only person who knew what was going on was the special effects supervisor who'd had little experience of working with human beings.


An Evening with John Cleese takes place at the Madinat Jumeirah, Dubai from tomorrow to Saturday. Call 04 366 6546 for information

artslife@thenational.ae

With files from Maey El Shoush