Santa Cleese: Interview with comedy hero John Cleese
PUBLISHED: 14:46 05 December 2016 | UPDATED: 14:47 05 December 2016
Actor John Cleese shares his Somerset Christmas memories as he talks turkey with Bernard Bales
Who are you inviting for Christmas dinner? Can you imagine if Weston-super-Mare’s own John Cleese turned up to tuck into your turkey? He would certainly outdo the Christmas cracker jokes, perhaps offer a funny walk into the kitchen and keep you and your other guests entertained with a never-ending stream of stories.
“Christmas is a funny time of the year, you either love it or hate it,” says John.
“I can never really make up my mind. I was born just as World War Two was about to break out so I don’t remember much in the way of Christmas fun when I was very young.
“It got better when the war was over of course and living in Weston was a big bonus because if nothing else there was still the beach and the sea to enjoy. Most people can’t take a walk on the beach on Christmas Day unless they drive a long way first of all.
“You can do other things too like diving off the pier when the tide’s out, ideal if you can’t swim. You can try counting the seagulls or building Santa’s sleigh in the sand instead of a castle.
“I still like the idea of a walk on the beach at Christmas although you would have thought that I had been cured. The one thing I remember about Christmas was that my father used to take me out in a boat about 10 miles offshore on Christmas Day, and I used to have to swim back. Extraordinary. It was a ritual. Mind you, that wasn’t the hard part. The difficult bit was getting out of the sack!
“I have used that story a few times but it always gets a laugh. I actually had a good relationship with my parents and they always did their best to make Christmas as special as possible. I had a good childhood really.
“Living in a seaside resort means that you can go as often as you like to the pier, the waxworks exhibition and the donkeys on the beach. I am not sure that the donkeys were as pleased to see me as I was to see them. I wasn’t the best of riders and I was always a bit too tall but I’ve never minded making an ass of myself.”
A few years ago John was asked to switch on the Christmas lights in Bath and has vivid memories of the event.
“That was a Christmas to remember,” he recalls. “I was living in Bath at the time, what a lovely city that is. Bath is my favourite city in the whole world, it is the most beautiful city I have ever been in, let alone lived in. I love the people of Bath. Everyone is so nice to you in the shops, some of the shop assistants have been working in the same shop for 30 years and the service is really personal, with that particular Somerset sense of humour.
“I love the local humour. Even at the peak of Christmas shopping, people still smile and have a laugh. You don’t see that in many places. Christmas always seems to be such a stressful time for everyone and then one pull of a cracker, a quick listen to the Queen’s Speech and it’s all over before you can say ‘Merry...’.
“In previous years Bath had Nicolas Cage and the Duchess of Cornwall to switch on the Christmas lights. I was really pleased when I was then asked. It was hard to follow either of those two but I did my best. It was a cold night and definitely an evening for coat, scarf and hat but the people made it warm. The place was packed and it was a real thrill to hear everyone cheer when the lights went on.
“Technology always scares me, whether it is a new phone or thousands of lightbulbs all working at the same time, so I was relieved when it all worked. I found it an ‘illuminating’ experience.”
John might be a perfect guest but he confesses that he might also find it a struggle.
“I have always said that walking on to a film set for the first time is a bit like going to someone else’s Christmas dinner,” he explains. “By the time you arrive everyone has got to know each other and is relaxed.
“You come in as an outsider and you feel a bit uncomfortable. I always worry about not living up to expectations. I suppose if all else fails I can put on a party hat and do funny walks around the dining room making sure I don’t give granny a kick at the same time.”
There was a Christmas which John found quite inspirational.
“It wasn’t for any spiritual reason but I had Christmas lunch with Michael Caine and he was telling me about his autobiography. He was saying how much he had enjoyed writing it and did it himself rather than have someone write it for him.
“I was taking it all in as he spoke. ‘You’ll find yourself reclaiming parts of your life that you thought you had forgotten’, Michael explained. It struck me that it must be a wonderful experience. I began to think how interesting it would be to go back to times that you don’t remember very well and actually start thinking about them.
“You remember this and you remember that, and then you begin to start remembering quite tiny moments, some of them with no real significance but a memory all the same. I thought it would be really good to have that experience and that Christmas lunch with Michael inspired me to do the same.”
Possibly the worst part of Christmas is the shopping, something that John rarely enjoys at this time of the year.
He explains: “I don’t mind going into shops really but somehow there is so much tension about that people seem to go out of character and start barging about and forgetting their manners. I don’t like that very much I must confess. I don’t know if the stress is over spending, getting the right present or being totally tired of the whole thing but people are different at Christmas.
“I like buying presents and I especially like buying cuddly toys even if I haven’t anyone to buy them for. They always look like they deserve a nice home.”
John has appeared in Christmas specials on TV, festive adverts, recorded his own much-acclaimed version of T’was The Night Before Christmas and, of course, he has switched on the Christmas lights. You cannot do all that and not like Christmas a bit, can you?
“No, not really,” agrees John. “It is a nice time and it would be even better but for the shopping. I wish everyone a happy Christmas shopping and there are still some copies of my autobiography – So, Anyway – if you want to make at least one person happy this Christmas.”