There’s no one that can do comedic rage like John Cleese. Outrage, anger, disgust, are all honed into an elemental force. You see it released in his body first. It can twist and stomp, and his eyebrows swoop and rise gymnastically.
He was brought up to beautifully contain this anger, and indeed any other emotions in the mild seaside town of Weston-Super-Mare and at various public schools. Emotional excess was forbidden. Touching was narcissistic and looked at with disgust. He would not easily express what he felt about anything or anyone except by converting his emotions into jokes.
Cleese is hyper sensitive, sharp. Can wear his skin inside out. He feels intensely. He’s always been on a quest to understand these feelings having propelled himself into hour upon hour upon hour of various forms of therapy. He even married a therapist, but he certainly didn’t find what he was looking for there. In fact his divorce from third wife Alyce Faye Eichelberger, who some people call Malice, is one of the most expensive divorces of all time relative to his wealth.
He is currently doing a two-hour one-man show called The Alimony Tour. His divorce from third wife Alyce Faye Eichelberger settled under California law will cost him $20 million, $13 million upfront and then $1 million a year. The show is touring Scandinavia before it comes to Britain next year. The Scandinavians find him hilarious. Restraint is in their culture.
If at 70 he had wanted to take things easier there is certainly now a financial imperative not to do so. He says that on stage. Off stage though you get the impression he’s rather enjoying it. It’s as if he’s been stripped back down to his real self once again. The show must surely be cathartic.
The first half is mostly about the divorce. It’s dark and hilarious. He talks about what else he might have done with $20 million other than keeping the botox industry alive, and there’s a pap shot of his ex-wife at a cash machine removing a giant wad of money. A small percentage of the audience thought it was unfair to his ex-wife to show her as this one-dimensional grabby creature. He says her divorce lawyer who he says is the spiritual godchild of Blackbeard the pirate and Heather Mills. That gets covert laughter from some people too.
Of course it’s cruel. That’s why it’s funny. It’s almost taboo. He talks about taboo humour illustrated best with a sketch from the Holy Grail called The Dark Knight. It’s where his limbs are amputated one by one and in the end a limbless creature that still thinks he can win the fight. When the film was tested 95 per cent of people said that was the funniest part, and 95 per cent of people said that was the part that should be censored. Cleese seems most comfortable when he’s treading that line.
The second half of the show charts a behind the scenes look at his major creative successes; Python, Fawlty Towers, and A Fish Called Wanda where he was nominated for a writing Oscar and should have won.
It all features the beautiful blackness of his humour that is a direct descendant of his relationship with his mother which was extremely complicated. They seemed to communicate best through black humour. She was extremely neurotic, had phobias about so many conflicting things – claustrophobia, agoraphobia, the dark, the light, escalators, lifts, and many more. She died aged 101 in 2001. He says she managed to go through two world wars, the Cold War, the creation of the State of Israel, the Berlin Wall coming down, and managed to notice none of it.
One day she called him to say she was depressed and wanted to end it all and he says, “OK, I’ll call the little man in Fulham and we’ll fix the funeral.” She laughed. Cruel humour was the only way to move her. That was their bond. Kindness didn’t work. And that seems to explain such a lot about the man that is before me. Even though much of the show is devoted to the divorce from Eichelberger, the woman that haunts me as I was watching it is his mother.
We have met at the bar of his hotel for drinks and wheat free tapas. The room has platinum blonde wood floors and crystal chandeliers. He looks impressively handsome. Clear skin and super-expressive eyes. He’s wearing a pale blue soft thick wool jumper, jeans and bare feet.
He gets right down effortlessly and quickly to talk about his relaitonships with women. He says they’ve all been about his mother. “I think all my wives and girlfriends have had aspects similar to my mother. I don’t think there’s any question about that. It’s probably inevitable.” Inevitable for one who’s read so much Freud, Jung and other therapists, but more of that later.
His current girlfriend is 39-year-old sculpted blonde jewellery designer Jennifer Wade. I watch them together over the weekend I spend in their company and their relationship is unexpectedly sweet. They are sweet with one another and on one another. You catch odd moments where they seem lost in their own world and then rejoin the group chatter. He seems very comfortable with her and I doubt that comfortable is what he has enjoyed in many relationships with women.
She seems to be very nurturing of him, very protective, often expressing concerns for his knee. He recently had a knee transplant operation and some of the moves on stage have set off pain. When he’s in one place he has a yoga instructor and an exercise regime. But when as he’s been on tour it’s been difficult. There has been no yoga instructor and the hotels have had swimming pools the size of a coffee cup. He stretches his leg out, wiggling the long toes. I’m on an armchair on one side of him, Wade on the other wearing skinny jeans and boots.
He met Wade last year, first of all in London and then by chance they were both in San Francisco where he had an apartment and she had a brother. Things moved very fast. He now wears a rose gold ring on his finger. He tells me, “She said how can I take you seriously? So I told her to design me a ring and I would wear it. I’ve never worn a ring before.”
She is also wearing a rose gold ring that he bought her. It’s a thick mesh band with tiny leaves hanging off it. Later on when she’s not there I ask him is he going to get married? “I have no idea,” he says. But then he laughs naughtily. “Jenny is just getting over the final stages of a difficult divorce that was painful for both people and I don’t think she is thinking beyond that now.” Cleese himself doesn’t seem at all reticent.
When I point out that his divorce was also difficult he says, “Well, not emotionally because it was not a relationship that I had been getting a great deal out of for quite a long time. And when I took the courage to say I don’t want to go on with this it was painful for Alyce, which was why it was difficult. But the fact was I wasn’t particularly happy and you reach a certain point in your life where you think am I going to go on not being happy just to keep someone else unruffled? Or am I going to take the risk and push forward? I don’t regret it I’m afraid at all. I don’t regret what happened.”
It’s been written that he was suicidal about the break-up, about the failure of this marriage. So was he really incredibly depressed at first? “I was not suicidal at all. It was a great relief. The trouble is journalists make stuff up and then it keeps being recycled. What is true is that I was very sad about the death of my friend David Hatch. It had nothing to do with the divorce.” Hatch was a life long friend. They met at Cambridge when they were in the Cambridge Footlights together. Sir David Hatch became managing director of BBC Radio and died in 2007.
Cleese is very keen to set the record straight that he was not suicidal about the divorce. He seems to have attracted all kinds of untrue stories that recycle around him. Most recently it was written that he was now pretending to like German culture. “I’ve always been attracted to German culture. I’ve spoken about it many times, and made the point when Basil Fawlty is goose stepping it’s not making fun of the Germans it’s making fun of Basil. In fact I had a dream five years ago in which I said to someone that my only regret in life was that German was not my first language. I realised afterwards that the five books I had been reading were all written in German including Freud, Jung and Schopenhauer.”
I tell him I’ve read another story that he’d spent several thousands on having cosmetic work done. “Oh,” he says helpfully. “That story ran because this poor little girl Barbie, who I had a very brief relationship with that lasted seven or eight days, did an interview with a newspaper. They rang her and pretended to be interested in her career. She started saying a whole lot of stuff…”
What’s interesting and so supremely gentlemanly is that he doesn’t say a bad word about the twentysomething who sold stories on him. He feels she was tricked. He’s not angry but affectionate towards her. And what’s even more accommodating is that he goes on to say “Everyone knows I’ve had several hair transplants. The first one was in 1978 and I have far worse teeth than Martin Amis, horrible teeth. I don’t have a tooth left in my head and I haven’t had one for 25 years. Everything is crowned or bridged. I had the whole thing reconstructed about three years ago.” He tells me how sorry he felt for the dentist who couldn’t fail to notice a tear rolling down his face with the pain.
Was the hair transplant painful? “No, the whole thing lasts an hour and a half and you have hair for the rest of your life. It used to look a bit cabbage patchy, but now it’s all filled in. some people have a great shaped skull. Mine is pointed and I look better in hair.”
I love the fact we can talk so openly and without any kind of embarrassment about teeth and hair and wives and mothers. That’s the one thing years of therapy has not let him get over, his need to be so blissfully accommodating.
He doesn’t seem remotely tired after his two hours on stage, but his knee is hurting from when he acted out how Graham Chapman used to go around on his hands and knees at cocktail parties biting people like a dog. It hurts him every night but he doesn’t cut it out of the show. Chapman was one of the original Pythons, but extremely wild and an alcoholic. He died in 1989.
The next morning he is up early and we talk over non-dairy cappuccinos. It’s cold and bright and I have been thinking more about his relationship with therapy. He’s always been fascinated by it. Perhaps one of the most fascinating therapists of all was Robin Skynner (psychotherapist and bomber pilot) with whom he wrote a seminal book, Families And How To Survive Them. I say seminal because I’ve given it to many people in crisis and it’s helped them understand why they chose the person/life/thing that now was driving them demented. I used to use it as character reference background to all my interviewees. For instance a youngest child, a middle child, an older child, and an only child all come with very different sets of problems and perspectives. He and Skynner wrote the book together. “Robin used to use the phrase we finish up teaching what we most need to learn ourselves.”
Immersing himself in therapy did not stop him from having a similar relationship over and over again with a different person. “I think there’s definitely a tendency to go for the same type of person again and again. I remember reading in John Mortimer’s autobiography that he was constantly in his office with couples who were about to get divorced and they were immediately getting married to somebody who seemed exactly like the one they were divorcing. And that was a lawyer with very little interest perhaps in psychology.
“I saw a therapist in Santa Barbara who told me that if you have a highly neurotic mother, that when you meet someone who most people say woops, back away, this one is neurotic, you think nothing of it after what you’ve been through with your mother. So instead of seeing it as a danger signal you think it’s something you can cope with, and because it’s familiar you are drawn to it. There is a feeling that one is drawn back to the original experience of when you tried to make your mother happy and failed so you will try to find someone else who is a bit like your mum and make them happy. So there’s repetition.”
Another therapist in San Francisco called John Pentland – he ran the Gurdjieff Movements in America, told him ‘We are not united people. We are lots of different people in the same skin and a particular stimulus will bring one of our personalities forward. For instance you’d be different to the Queen to how you are with an ex-lover. And we are all trying to seek unity.’ And I think this underlies a lot of the sacred traditions. A lot of Christ’s teaching is about this. The parables are really about different aspects of ourselves that have to be reconciled if we are to have any unity as human beings.”
We talk enthusiastically about different therapists and therapies. Cleese is a wonderful teacher because his mind is ordered and precise and he’s very non-judgmental, and he always wants to answer questions precisely, enjoying truth and revelation rather than fear of it. Although one suspects that is precisely because at one point in his life he did fear revelation.
And what was he looking for in all the many, many therapists he’s seen? “A number of things. I think affection is incredibly important. It brings out the best in us and it relaxes us.” He doesn’t mean he was looking for affection from the therapists. He was wanting to understand how affection works. These days Cleese seems a very warm affectionate person, but it’s something he’s worked on.
“Yes, but I had to learn it and because at public school if you put your arm around someone you’re immediately thought to be homosexual and beyond redemption. I remember at college there was an American exchange student. He came to Clifton College for a year on exchange and we had a cricket match at the end of term. After we’d finished he came into the changing room to say goodbye and said ‘I don’t know if we’ll ever see each other again’ and he gave me a hug and I remember being very shocked at being hugged by another man. I think touch is very important to human beings.”
Cleese these days is eminently touchable and touching. His mother of course was not so comfortable with it, but his father “was very physically affectionate. He was a kind man.”
I remember reading that his father was such a kind person he was shocked to find that the world was not so kind and the contrast was acute. “I don’t remember saying that but I would say it’s a bit of a shock to realise the world is a much worse place than I ever thought when I was young. Which is why my next show that I’m working on is called Why There Is No Hope and that we are run by power seekers.” He intends it to be a comedy. Once again finding release in all things dark.
He’s also just finished writing a stage version of A Fish Called Wanda with his daughter Camilla. He’s getting round to translating a Feydeau farce for the stage and writing his autobiography and presenting a TV show about history with Matthew D’Ancona.
Wanda may well turn out to be a musical. More interesting than the project itself was working with Camilla. “Once I thought I would be doing it with Camilla it became much more exciting. She’s come up with some great ideas. We are very similar. She was brought up in America because her mother is American.”
He is very close to Camilla now but again had to seek the help of a therapist because she had problems with alcohol addiction and he had to give her a deadline that unless she sought help herself he wouldn’t be able to help her. I don’t think the tough love concept came easily to him and he’s extremely proud of Camilla now he tells me quite a few times.
Camilla is the daughter of his second wife Barbara Trentham, an actress he married in 1981 after splitting from his first wife of ten years, co-writer and co-star of Fawlty Towers, Connie Booth a few years before. He has another daughter, Cynthia, who is also a scriptwriter from his marriage to Booth. From what I’ve heard and read, the daughters did not get on with Eichelberger. And they must be further irritated that she has severely diminished their inheritance.
Talking about his daughters leads back to talking about his mother. “If I took Cynthia down to see my mother in Weston-Super-Mare my mother resented the fact that the child was there because it meant she got less attention from me. I have a history of being rather placatory with women. If you have a mother who is very selfish and you don’t get much attention from her it sends you the message that you’re not worth it. And also that you’re not entitled to look after yourself, so you spend a whole lot of time servicing other people, making sure they don’t get cross.”
I do find it strange that he went into therapy to try and save the marriage with Eichelberger when she seems such an emotional vampire. “It’s because I had become placatory.” He says the word with special contempt.
Has she seen any of the show? “No. She always said that if we broke up we would never speak again and that turned out very well. I never took it seriously at the time but from the day we broke up and I called her to say you know the reputation of this lawyer you have hired…” He pauses just for a second as if he’s remembering the very moment where he knew there was no return. The lawyer had a fierce reputation. “That was the last and only time we spoke.”
He says that he is on good terms with one of her sons who is a vet in Hong Kong and with the other there has been silence. Not so good for a therapist who specialised in family relations. “She was always very much on about the importance of family and now the family has pretty much broken up. You know her boys, my daughters, their sisters…” If he is said about the break-up of family it is the only thing he’s sad about. Perhaps he regrets more that he stayed in the marriage so long. That he stayed placatory. For placatory read shackled, suppressed, diminished and without affection.
“I think I have a confidence now that I didn’t have before. It’s come in the last three or four years and I don’t know why it’s come.”
It seems a few forces have converged. The divorce was so expensive. He had to let a lot of stuff go materialistically and emotionally. He was able to reinvent who he is. There’s a certain freedom in that.
“That’s true. It’s very beneficial to reinvent yourself because you fall into patterns which aren’t relevant any more. There’s a lot of research gone on into ageing saying that you age according to your internal idea of what age means. Age means nothing to me now. I mean it means stuff when my body starts to let me down…”
What he means is he doesn’t feel old, he doesn’t feel trapped, he doesn’t feel that his ideas are tired, and he feels a new person with Wade. He looks after himself more, no wheat, no dairy, lots of vitamin pills, but more importantly “I laugh with Jenny in a way I haven’t since I was ten. It’s the utterly hopeless laughter of the ten-year-old and it’s wonderful to have that back.” He says that savouring the sentence.
What does he think is different about his relationship with Wade to his previous two wives? “It is that I was far too left brain about it all. In the past I was more ticking boxes, not having an immediate being in love thing which I did have with Connie.” Wives number three and four seem to be relationships that should have worked logically but didn’t. With Wade he says there was an instant connection similar to the one he had with his first wife. “Connie and I are great pals and I have enormous affection for her husband John Lahr.”
He talks about Booth both on and off stage with great fondness. There are no left over irritations detectable. They met in 1964 and got married in 1968. They wrote Fawlty Towers together. Everything seemed perfect. What went wrong?
“I think we found it difficult. Neither of us were emotionally mature. There was a great deal of love between us. Breaking up was very very painful. I was depressed about it for two years but I think it was the right decision. It didn’t quite work.”
I wonder was it too much living and working together? Did they argue? “I don’t quite remember. I’m sure we must have been arguing because if things aren’t right you do argue. It wasn’t nasty. We always functioned well together when we were writing together. Even the best relationships go through difficult periods. It’s not the world you read about in the tabloids. People fighting like cats and dogs or blissfully happy. I was very sad for two years and I don’t think I improved my choosing process when I met Barbara. And when I met Alyce I thought it seemed appropriate. But Alyce changed and I’m sure she feels that I changed too. Jenny is different to both of these women. With Barbara we had a fairly turbulent relationship because we married rather quickly and the turbulence followed.”
He never wore a ring with either of them. “Jenny is a jeweller, so I said why don’t you make me a little ring. In Weston-Super-Mare rings and after shave were considered as poofy and narcissistic.”
There are many references to Weston-Super-Mare, he both has a constant need to embrace it and escape it at the same time. He talks about one of the last times he went back there. His mother and Robin Skynner were both gravely ill at the same time and would die within weeks of each other.
“It was the summer of 2000 and I was going to spend a week with Robin who was ill and then a week with my mother, but my mother became seriously ill and I spent the whole two weeks with her. I knew Robin was not long for this planet, so I left my mother. I was only able to have lunch with Robin. Then my mother went into a coma so I went back down. Robin died without me spending proper time with him. My mother always needed my attention.”
He tells this story with great sadness, but not with any anger or bitterness. We talk some more about Skynner and his family systems exercise – a group of people are in a room and they walk round and choose one other person on the basis that they remind them of someone in their family or someone that they’d like to have in their family. They sit down and find that they have a similar emotional history. The theory is you choose partners because you automatically identify with their neurosis even if you don’t see them straight away.
“There were times when I thought I would love to have had a sister because I found my mother’s behaviour so extraordinary. I would love to have said what the hell is this about?” As an only child he had no one to share with. He had to take the full responsibility for himself and share it all with an audience many years later. His mother was 40 and his father 46 when he was born and was constantly reminded by his mother that they had never planned to have children. His mother would tell him that he was a mistake.
“My father was in the war and after that he thought only in terms of getting steady jobs. At school he made me sad if I became enthused about chess or fencing. He never took that spontaneous enthusiasm for something very seriously.” Perhaps that was after being in the First World War he didn’t want to do anything risky again. He must have seen so many people die. “I remember him talking about being in the trenches and the man next to him being shot saying it was just like Private Ryan and the man next to him was crying for his mother. It’s extraordinary Chrissy. I remember thinking, why would he cry for her?” He’s laughing but he means it.
“I was a good boy really.” He had an outlet for really bad behaviour on stage. “Yes, that’s true. I can say almost anything to audiences and get away with it.” This comes as a direct result of what he could and couldn’t get away with with his mother.
The previous night he told about a sketch he did with Chapman. Chapman was the undertaker. “I said to him my mother’s dead and I don’t know what to do. He said, ‘No problem squire. We can burn her, bury her or dump her’ and I said what do you mean dump her and he said ‘put her in the Thames or a skip.’ And I said no, no, let’s do it properly and I pull out a sack that has the body in it and Graham says ‘I think we’ve got an eater’ and I say are you seriously suggesting I eat my mother. Long pause. ‘Not raw. Cooked’. Then I say I’m a bit peckish but I’m not going to eat mum. And he said ‘tell you what. Let’s eat her neck and if you feel guilty afterwards you’ll vomit and then we’ll bury the vomit’.”
I enjoyed the story because it explains so much of Cleese. There are so many metaphors involved in that one sketch. He’s still vomiting up his mother and being nurtured by the laughter. Finally he’s with an un-neurotic woman who is nothing like his mother and he’s really happy and grateful to have escaped her.
He says he’s not doing the tour and working so hard just for money even though he needed to acquire some to pay the hefty divorce demands. “I am not super money conscious. I just want to check that I’m not going to run out. I’ve always been easy come easy go. Before I married Alyce I had one house in London and no mortgage. And after a few years of marriage we had seven properties and I was racing around spending all my earnings servicing properties. I can simplify my life now once I’ve got Alyce’s payment out of the way I can live in a much smaller way.”
He is not planning on returning to Britain full-time. “I don’t want to go through another English winter. It takes years off your life. I get terrible chest infections and the grey skies make me so gloomy. The sunshine picks me up. Rather than California I might try the Caribbean. Balminess is what I seek.” He’s less enamoured with California these days. It’s gloomier these days because there’s a recession going on.
What is his greatest extravagance? “Probably food. Not necessarily incredibly expensive restaurants. A good Indian or a good Chinese will do. I just think food is such an extraordinary pleasure.” What makes him happy? “A day off. Reading a book. And Jenny’s company. I might take a little exercise. Go for a walk with Jenny. I always felt that I had to make everyone else alright before I could get on with my life, and Jenny is like that, almost to a fault. She spends an inordinate amount of time worrying about other people.”
He doesn’t know how it’s happened. It seems not through therapy, more by coincidence, if such a thing exists, that finally he’s got someone who worries about him and he’s very much enjoying it. It seems to make him enjoy everything else more.
Is he nervous of going on stage? “Not any more. Not really. It’s more a question of energy, not so much fear. The audience have bought tickets. They wall want to see me. You get a warm welcome…
“For the first three quarters of my professional life I was much more concerned not to be bad than I was to be good. And I did most of my best work under that feeling.”
In the show he talks about all the good work that he’s done ending when he did Wanda at 50. After that it didn’t really matter. Does he really think that? “The three outstanding things I’ve done in my life were all before 50. It’s a kind of joke, but there was a time when I was racing around doing all the jobs that were offered to me because of my need for high earnings…”
He smiles knowing that his life is simpler and happier and he will only do the work that he enjoys. But best of all he doesn’t hope that he won’t be bad. He knows he’ll be pretty good.