Weston’s comedy legend
PUBLISHED: 19:38 22 March 2016 | UPDATED: 19:38 22 March 2016
PHOTOS PA Images
John Cleese – what more can you say? Just mention the name and there will be smiles all around you. That says much about the man who has been making people laugh all over the world for more years than he cares to remember.
“I owe much to the fact that I was born in a seaside town where entertainment is so important,” said John. “It is a part of your growing up. The pier, the crazy golf, the donkeys and all the great attractions are not just for the visitors. Us locals have loved them too.
“I certainly did as I grew up in Weston Super Mare where I was born. It was just as the war was breaking out so there was no much fun for the first few years. I think that came during the 1950s when everyone started enjoying themselves again.
“I used to be taken to Knightstone Theatre by my parents. Many of the great names of the day appeared there in variety shows and I especially remember Frankie Howerd and also Reg Varney. I loved the comedy and hearing the audiences laughing but to be honest, I don’t think that I was influenced to try to do the same. I’m not sure even know if I ever had ambitions to go into comedy but I don’t think you could experience shows like that without something rubbing off.”
John claims he was just an ordinary schoolboy but there was no doubt that he did make people laugh from an early age.
“I did the things ordinary schoolboys did when I went to St Peter’s Prep School. I enjoyed football and cricket and I still do. I likedsome subjects and hated others. I veered towards science rather than anything else and when I moved on to Clifton College I knew where I wanted to go. At least that’s what I thought.
“I liked playing practical jokes and did get into trouble a few times. I wasn’t deliberately disobedient, I just liked to create a few laughs. I still didn’t get the message though and saw science as my route to life.” There was a time though when John Cleese might have been totally lost to entertainment and gained by education.
“Yes, I became a teacher for a short time,” he recalled. “That was when I wanted to go to Cambridge but had to wait for two years. My old headmaster at St. Peter’s had a vacancy for a teacher and so I was recruited. I didn’t really know anything other than science but he gave me a crash course in how to keep ahead of the lessons and that was it.”
John enrolled eventually with Downing Colllege, Cambridge and perhaps that was the turning point as he had a number of contemporaries who went on to greater things, among them David Frost, Tim Brooke-Taylor, Billie Oddie and Graham Chapman. The well-known Cambridge Footlights Dramatic Club beckoned and John Cleese answered the call.
“I went in to study science but the Footlights gave me a new interest and some great fun,” he said. “we created a number of reviews and they turned out to be quite popular. I think that our reputation grew and with it the reputations of some of those involved. That’s how I started writing for the BBC. I got £30 a week in those days and that was pretty good money. I was moving up in the world, as I thought, and it had nothing to do with science.”
It is tempting to say that the rest is history but there is so much more to it than that. John Cleese and his Footlights pals kept in touch and their careers grew sometimes side by side and sometimes entwined. A great example of the latter was the legendary That Was The Week That Was.
“David Frost hosted the show and I was one of thw writers who then found himself also performing,” John explained. “The experience from the Footlights proved to be invaluable and the show became amazing popular. I think that was such a major step up for many of course including the brilliant Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett who later went on to the outstanding Two Ronnies. David Frost was excellent of course and also went on to even more success with his other shows.
“As for me, well I continued to write and perform and had the privilege of working with so many really top people who gave you confidence that they would bring your written work to life in the best way possible.
“Of course Monty Python came along and turned us all into internationally famous faces. It was odd to be recognised all over the place as one of the Monty Python team but it was really nice as well and opened the door to other possibilities.”
Those possibilities included Fawlty Towers, A Fish Called Wanda and countless other TV and cinema triumphs.
Weston-Super-Mare never strayed far from his thoughts though.
“You never forget your roots and I have never forgotten Weston-Super-Mare,” said John. “I have joked about it a few times but it was never meant, I have great affection for the place.”
That was never more evident than when he joined the campaign to save threatened Birnbeck Pier
“As well as going to see shows, my Dad and I used to go to Birnbeck Pier pier because there was a big television in the bar and we both loved cricket and could see the England Test matches there. I thoroughly enjoyed those times. We also used to catch the ferry to Barry Fun Fair from the side-pier. So I have great memories of Birnbeck Pier and didn’t want to see it go.”
John Cleese is still working, still touring theatres, making films and, best of all, still making people laugh. He might yet return to our screens once again in a new Basil Fawlty series which will only add to the amazing legend of the man who left Weston-Super-Mare to become a scientist and returned an international comedy hero.
* John’s autobiography - So Anyway - has been very popular on both sides of the Atlantic and is now available in paperback. He is totally frank and honest about his personal life, as well as his work life.
Hopefully there will be another autobiography in the future because the life of John Cleese never seems to have a dull moment.