As far as I was concerned, he hardly needed to go ahead and perform his one-man show at all – for me, it was enough just to actually see the greatest living Englishman in the flesh!
It was 8.07 on Sunday evening in the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre and we were about to see one of the most influential and gifted individuals in the history of comedy…in the flesh.
By now, you will have gathered that I was ery definitely star-struck when the moment came. Master of Ceremonies Tom Dunne (of Newstalk) introduced the night’s star by saying that “more than anyone” this person needed no introduction. We had received the tickets as a (great) Christmas present. Now we had come to see the man who, perhaps more than anyone – and that includes Spike Milligan, Peter Cook, Tommy Cooper and Ronnie Barker – links so many of the greatest moments in the rich history of British comedy in the second half of the 20th century.
The brief introduction ended…and then…the great, great John Cleese walked on to the stage.
While his comedy genius was mostly displayed from the early 1960s through to his acclaimed movie ‘A Fish Called Wanda’ in 1988, Cleese has remained in the public eye to the present day, and is now a quite prolific commentator on current affairs, politics, the media, political correctness (he’s not a fan), and anything else in the world that interests him. He has over five million followers on Twitter, still does the occasional cameo acting roles and is a regular and usually brilliant guest on chat shows.
What we’ve learnt about Cleese since his manic heyday as the biggest star in the legendary Monty Python team and his creation (with Connie Booth) of the immortal Fawlty Towers, is that he is a deeply intelligent and gifted man with strong opinions and wide-ranging interests, interests that extend beyond comic writing and acting.
His ‘world view’ is delivered with trademark humour, as we were to find out on Sunday night. Still, much as I respect how he has diversified – (his business training videos and self-help books are another acclaimed dimension to his career) – for me, with Cleese, it’s all about the comedy!
Just think of his ‘Comedy CV’: He won an Emmy Award for his guesting role on Cheers, starred in That Was The Week That Was and The Frost Report, and changed television comedy with the rest of the Monty Python team. On top of the weekly episodes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus came a series of full-length films, including the acclaimed ‘Life of Brian.’
And then there was Fawlty Towers…
Now John Cleese stands before us, all six foot four of him (he’s now a healthy looking 77-year-old) and he begins his 40-minute speech, the title of which is ‘Why There Is No Hope.’
It’s Cleese’s frequently hilarious and always insightful assessment of the modern world. He is fascinated by the human mind and human behaviour. Cleese contends that only 10-15 per cent of people actually know what they are doing in their place of work, and some of his examples of the “stupid people” he has encountered had the audience in stitches. There are references to Donald Trump, British politics, politically incorrect jokes about the French, Greeks and Italians, and fierce criticism of a regular Cleese target, The Daily Mail. The speech was extremely interesting and funny, with Cleese every now and again shaking his head and concluding ‘That’s why there is no hope!”
What was fascinating to see, in person, was Cleese’s marvellous comic timing. His sarcastic asides are delivered at just the right moment, for superb comic effect. At times it was like we were in the lobby of Fawlty Towers in the late 1970s and Basil was making those memorable put-downs of guests under his breath.
Part two of the show featured a questions and answers session, with Tom Dunne interviewing Cleese about his childhood, his early career, and of course his legendary role as Basil in Fawlty Towers.
Cleese told some great anecdotes and even when he tried to make serious points about how BBC bosses in the 1960s and ‘70s (they initially dismissed Fawlty Towers and said nothing would come of it) Cleese was hilarious.
I would have liked a bit more (three or four hours!) chat about the making of Fawlty Towers and its classic characters and plot-lines, but Basil (sorry, John) kept moving the discussion on to something else, I guess because he’s a bit tired of talking about the classic sit-com. After all, the last of the twelve episodes of Fawlty Towers was made 38 years ago, in 1979.
When it was over, Cleese received a spontaneous (as opposed to forced) standing ovation. As he left the stage, he did something that was vintage Cleese…loping towards the podium to recover his speaking notes, hiding them inside his jacket as if he was stealing something, while throwing a ‘Don’t tell anyone’ sideways glance at the audience.
I watched him leave the stage, and I thought of all the inaccessible superstars of comedy, most gone to their reward now, people ranging from Laurel & Hardy to Peter Sellers, to Groucho Marx, Tommy Cooper, Spike Milligan, Eric Morecambe and Les Dawson.
And I felt renewed joy at having seen one of the all-time greats ‘in the flesh’ – the great, great John Cleese, whose ‘Fawlty Towers’ is, in my view, without question the greatest television comedy of them all.
He had been amongst us, in the flesh, and now he was gone – and no, he didn’t mention the war.
* If you aren’t already a fan, watch out for regular repeats of Fawlty Towers and Monty Python on Gold and various other television channels.