John Cleese: In it for the money – interview

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 the oft-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 are certain character traits he shares with his comedic creation: he’s antsy, irritable, short, and 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 be remembered as a legend for his place in Monty Python, the surrealist troupe that revolutionised comedy over four movies and their Flying Circus sketch show. He was also the writer-star of classic A Wish Called Wanda, and played Q in a couple of Bond movies. 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 voiceovers to a number of videogames. 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 at others you do other jobs that subsidise that.’

It’s the highs from this 50-year career in showbiz which Cleese will be sharing onstage with an audience at Dubai’s Madinat Theatre, during a five night run starting on Tuesday May 7. If the ‘An Evening with…’ concept sounds familiar, it’s because he brought exactly the same show to the same theatre in the same month last year.

‘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, I think it’s absolutely 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 US$1 million, on top of a one-off settlement of US$12 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 forth 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 absolutely wonderful for me, 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 just weeks before the British tax-year was over, meaning no savings were made. The decision was sparked, he tells us, when exile meant he was forced to missed 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 scarred 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 sit down and 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’.

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