The legendary British comedian brings his tour back to Dubai, and proves a prickly customer as he talks to Rob Garratt about his ex-wife, tax exile and fear of death.
John Cleese will tell you he’s nothing like his most renowned comic creation, Basil Fawlty. ‘It simply isn’t true,’ he protests, when recalling often-made comparisons between him and the eccentric, highly strung hotelier, familiar to a generation of Brits from eponymous ’70s sitcom Fawlty Towers. And yet, taking a long distance call from Cleese, it does seem there’s certain character traits he shares with his comedic creation: he’s irritable, short, and, it seems, not particularly impressed with the world around him. ‘Everyone actually quite likes Basil,’ says Cleese. ‘They’d loathe him if they actually had to deal with him, but because they laugh at him and understand where his fear and ridiculous behaviour is coming from, they feel affection.’
And like Basil, despite his prickly phone demeanour, it’s hard not to feel some affection towards Cleese. To comedy fans he will always be remembered as a legend for his place in Monty Python, the surrealist troupe who revolutionised comedy over four movies and their Flying Circus sketch show, as well as the writer-star of classic film A Fish Called Wanda. More recently Cleese, now 73, has found favour with younger audiences as the voice of King Harold in the Shrek movies, and Harry Potter’s Nearly Headless Nick. He’s also co-written two self-help books, appeared in a string of embarrassing supermarket adverts and supplied voice overs to a number of video games. Surely with such a diverse workload, there’s a shameful element of just doing some jobs for the cash.
‘Oh sometimes of course – do you feel any shame about working for Time Out and doing interviews for money? It’s not that interesting you know,’ barks Cleese. ‘Sometimes you do things that are enormous fun that don’t pay very well, and sometimes you do other jobs that subsidise that.’
It’s the highs from this 50-year career in showbiz which Cleese will be sharing on stage with the audience at the Madinat Theatre, during a five-night run starting on Tuesday November 5. If the ‘An Evening with…’ concept sounds familiar, it’s because he brought exactly the same show to the same theatre last May. ‘There are changes,’ says Cleese, ‘but no major changes. Anyone who saw the show last time, unless they’re reverent fans, does not need to see it again.’ Isn’t that slightly lazy, we venture? ‘If a show works and still gives people pleasure, it’s legitimate to go on doing it while there’s still an audience for that show,’ Cleese corrects us.
The comedian has made no secret of his financial difficulties. Following his third divorce in 2008 he was reportedly tied into annual alimony payments of more than Dhs3 million, on top of a one-off settlement of Dhs45 million. Cleese dubbed one show and DVD The Alimony Tour, and recently auctioned off vintage film props and keepsakes. ‘The alimony has pretty much dominated my activities for the last few years,’ he admits. Yet Cleese got married for a fourth time last year to a woman more than 30 years his junior. At 73-years-old, has he not learned from his mistakes? ‘Naturally,’ says Cleese, laughing for the first and last time in our interview. ‘Jenny and I have been together for three and a half years and the relationship has been wonderful, so I don’t anticipate any further alimony payments.’
When we talk to Cleese he’s waiting for some furniture to be shipped from Monaco. The happy couple decamped to the tax-free haven last year, but suddenly upped and left this spring, just weeks before the British tax-year was over, meaning no duty savings were made. The decision was sparked, he tells us, when exile meant he was forced to miss the funeral of his friend, film director Michael Winner, in January. ‘I just began to feel more and more isolated,’ says Cleese. ‘I found I was missing my friends, several of them are not very well. At this stage of my life that’s really about as important as anything.’
Does Winner’s passing make Cleese scared of death himself? ‘I think I’m scared of dying soon because there’s a lot more things I’d like to do. It would be nice to be able to write something just for the fun of it, the way I used to be able to do,’ says Cleese. So does that mean, when all those alimony payments are out the way, Cleese might have one more masterwork in him? ‘It would be nice to think I live long enough and have enough energy to do that,’ he says sombrely, ‘but we’ll see’. Dhs350 (balcony), Dhs380 (last seven rows), Dhs450 (first eight rows). Tuesday November 5 to Saturday 9, from 7.30pm. Madinat Theatre, Souk Madinat Jumeirah, www.timeouttickets.com
Telling it like it is:
His biggest vice. ‘An addiction to sudoku crosswords – I waste a lot of time on that. [And also] physical laziness.’
On the world’s best living comedian. ‘I have no idea. But the general feeling is that this is not a golden era [for comedy].’
On being remembered when he’s gone. ‘I’d like people who knew me to say “basically he was a kind guy”. That would make me very pleased.’
On his best acting role. ‘My performance as Petruchio in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, in 1980. People were a little bit surprised that I had more of a range than they thought.’
His biggest failure. ‘Fierce Creatures, because the expectation from A Fish Called Wanda was too high. Fierce Creatures is like most comedies – it’s a mixture, there are some funny scenes in it, but there are two or three that are not good at all, and slightly embarrass me.’
On the best Bond. ‘I thought Pierce [Brosnan] was great – Pierce or Sean [Connery]. With Daniel Craig they’ve made it grittier. The humour that used to be trademark they don’t bother with so much now.’
On reports that he worked as a scriptwriter for President Obama. ‘It was not true – I offered services by hosting a couple of [events], and that’s it.’
On the modern world. ‘There so much strangeness and madness out there in the world now – much more than there was 20 or 30 years ago. It’s rather hard for comedians to stay ahead of what’s actually happening. There was a story in the newspaper a couple of weeks ago about a burglar who appealed on human rights grounds that being in jail deprived him of his right to a family life – and he got some time out [of prison]. That’s a Python sketch.’