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So, Anyway ...

John Cleese

(London Times)

Do publishers have a death wish? Why do they keep paying massive advances (millions in some cases - and never to be recouped) for celebrity memoirs? Is it because the editors like lunching with internationally acclaimed globetrotting showbusiness phenomena and famous faces off the telly? On the whole the books are absolute duds - hastily assembled, flabby, padded, soggy, and of zero literary distinction. Beans are never spilt, boats are not rocked, and already this season we have had two classic examples of this cynical genre: Paul Merton's Only When I Laugh and Stephen Fry's More Fool Me. The levity of the titles is enough to induce the dry heaves, but neither of those can quite compete with John Cleese's So, Anyway . . . How dismissive, off-hand and bored-with-the-whole thing can a person possibly get? It's a step away from Will This Do?, a title Auberon Waugh once used satirically for his memoirs. The dramatic highpoint, I can reveal, comes on page five, when Cleese is 'bitten by a rabbit'.

Nevertheless, if you crave a day-by-day account of what it was like being a pupil at Clifton College, Bristol, from 1955 to 1958, then race to the lending library now. School was 'the happiest time of my life', writes Cleese, who remembers and lumbers us with the name of every teacher: Mr Gilbert, Mr William Flew, Mr Sanger-Davies, Mr Hickley . . . He tells us the examination questions he answered and the marks he received. Good at Latin and maths, Cleese won a scholarship to Cambridge, where 'life now settled into a routine, and I became a rather dull fellow'.

This is all nonsense, of course. Despite the way he goes about presenting himself in his memoir, Cleese is an authentically bonkers clown. The more he tries to be normal and respectable, the more it is clear he is obviously none of those things deep down. For a start, he was five-foot-three as a toddler, and passed 'the six foot mark before I was twelve'. Mr Gilbert, Mr Howdle and the rest of them affectionately referred to this BFG as 'six foot of chewed string'.

Then there was his home life in Weston-super-Mare, a town proud to be bombed during the war as it gave the inhabitants 'a sense of significance that was otherwise lacking in their lives'. To all outward appearances, Cleese's parents were nice and normal middle-class folk residing in Burnham, upon whose beach Viscount Montgomery's wife was killed by a bee. In fact, examined closely, the Cleeses - who changed their name from the Cheeses to sound less silly – were nuttier than fruitcakes. Cleese's mother, for instance, was always 'self-obsessed and anxious', her mood 'bordering on incipient panic'. She was phobic about albinos, fire engines, thunder, sheep, clocks 'and people wearing eye-patches', perhaps in case they were pirates. 'Mother experienced the cosmos as a vast, limitless booby trap' - as did, for that matter, Inspector Clouseau, Jacques Tati and Buster Keaton. How could Cleese not have become a comedian with these wacky genes?

His father, meantime, faced with a wife who threw violent tantrums if discombobulated, was understandably nostalgic for the peace of the Somme, where he'd served as a lieutenant before resigning his commission and re-enlisting as a lance corporal, having worked it out that officers were the first ones the Germans took aim at. Cleese Sr knew PG Wodehouse's brother and, one way and another, he embodied what Cleese Jr admiringly calls 'the Edwardian gentleman's approach to life: courtesy, grace, restraint, the careful avoidance of embarrassing others'. He also must have built up considerable internal pressure from a lifetime's bottled up rage and irritation being married to a woman who (so says her son) kept herself frantically busy by polishing cans of peas or boiling knitting needles.

The origins of Cleese's comic style will be immediately apparent - all those suppressed 'feelings of humiliation and fear' that gave rise to Basil Fawlty, who gets into a fearful lather about health inspectors seeing rats, or who goose-steps before German tourists, or who lives in mortal dread of Sybil. Also, the glee with which the hero of A Fish Called Wanda turns to crime is another expression of liberty. And Monty Python's surrealism, although heavily indebted to Spike Milligan, is a classic form of comedy breaking rules and taboos.

At Cambridge, Cleese met David Frost, and at last 'I went a little bit mad'. He appeared in Footlights' shows, which toured to the Edinburgh Festival, and he became chums with Graham Chapman, an alcoholic homosexual who 'seemed dead butch and slightly taciturn.' We are also given brief descriptions of Bill Oddie ('prickly and slightly competitive') and Terry Jones ('a swarthy, excitable, plump Celtic demi-dwarf' ).

Upon graduating with a degree in law, Cleese became a BBC trainee producer, writing scripts for Dick Emery and Deryck Guyler. He got gigs on The Frost Report, where he discovered that on screen he resembled 'a wounded heron'. Cleese performed alongside Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett, wrote scripts with Chapman for Peter Cook and Peter Sellers, and tells us about being in a Broadway musical with Tommy Steele, who had a habit of 'telling people firmly and forcefully what they had done wrong', although probably only slightly.

By the age of 24, Cleese had a London flat, plenty of money, and had met Connie Booth, the first of his four wives. Never at ease with 'a person of the same sex as my mother', phrasing that would make Freud's eyes pop, Cleese found himself always being placatory and over-polite, his 'unending solicitude' meaning, it seems, that he could never wait to get married and divorced so that he could give away vast fortunes in alimony settlements.

'So, Anyway' fizzles out with Monty Python's Flying Circusgetting commissioned in 1969 by a BBC Head of Comedy, who casually says, 'Go away and make 13 programmes.' On the brink of stardom, Cleese received a letter from his father in Weston 'asking if I had ever considered applying for a job in the personnel department of Marks and Spencer'. I think I would have loved John Cleese's dad, an inadvertent comic genius.

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