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Empire Meets John Cleese
On Planes, trains and lemurs

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When Empire meets John Cleese, in London to promote a voice part in Disney's Planes, he's got two things on his mind: airplanes and lemurs. In fairness, we put the second one there ourselves with our constant probings about everyone's favourite stripy-tailed primate, Cleese's Fierce Creatures co-star and a species he's now lent his name to. The other topic, his hatred of flying, is one of the few things to make Cleese truly fidgety - at least since The Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog disappeared from the scene. Alongside his phobia of flight, there's the small - literally - matter of legroom. "The seats are much too small for somebody who's six foot five," he grumbles, stretching out his six-foot-five frame for emphasis. "It's a form of slow, gentle torture." Like a soft cushion, we don't add.

A pure, unalloyed joy to chat to, Cleese was on expansive form, leapfrogging from his movie regrets to his fellow Pythons and, yes, taking in lemurs along the way. British TV comedy writers should look away now.

Empire Meets John Cleese

Everyone's had one particularly hellish experience on a plane. What's yours?
I've had several thousand. I don't think one stands out any more than the others, but I always think that if only they would listen to the cabin crew who are on the whole rather smart and friendly people, they could run the airlines much better. But it's as though they think that they know the answers. If you ever, if you're running a business and you want to know how the mailroom should operate, go and talk with the people in the mailroom. It's perfectly simple. And there are so many stupidities in the way that they run aircraft nowadays that I just dread every time I get on one. I really do.

Some actors, Harrison Ford, for instance, fly planes themselves. Has that ever appealed to you?
The trouble in show business is when you have a huge success, it raises the bar so high that you can't meet expectations.
Much too difficult and much too dangerous. I love the idea that somebody's spent his life learning how to fly the fucking thing so it gets me there safely, and the thought of having to do it myself is appalling. It'd be like doing brain surgery on yourself. Leave it to the professionals. Also, I'm a typical artistic type: a little daydreamy and away in my own thoughts. I've got a perfectly interesting show going on in my head without needing a great deal of stimulation, so I'm happy.

I saw Michael Palin doing a talk about his travels around India, recently. Do you share his wanderlust?
Well, I think I like being in places and I think Michael likes travelling to them. There's quite a difference. Usually, getting there is not terribly interesting, although there are moments when that's not true. I once took one of the most beautiful train rides from Vancouver up to Banff in Alberta.

That's in the Rockies?
Yeah, and it was stunning. But on the whole, I find most travelling not very interesting and I hate flying so much that, for example, when I had to go from Durban to Joburg about ten days ago, I asked if I could be driven. They were a little surprised and said, 'Well, it'll be five and a half hours', but somebody drove me in the end, and I spent five and a half enjoyabel hours looking at this beautiful South African countryside.

Have you ever made it to Madagascar? Because you've become associated with the lemur.
Yes, I have. Well, I went to Madagascar to make a programme about the lemur. Do you know this?

No, although I've seen Fierce Creatures, obviously.
Man and lemur, that would be next. I should have married a lemur, because they're the most delightful creatures.
Oh yes, right. Well, I was a patron of what used to be Jersey Zoo, now the Durrell Wildlife Park, which is this fantastic conservation zoo, and I met Gerry (Gerald Durrell) once when we were filming a Python in Jersey. His widow Lee asked me if I would go to Madagascar and follow the release of captive-bred lemurs into a particular area of the country, because there weren't enough lemurs there to provide the genes necessary to stop inbreeding. We released six lemurs that had been bred at the Duke University primate department in America, and I went out a few months later to see how they were doing and they have in fact interbred... I was gonna say 'intermarried', because they're such nice creatures, they would marry if they were given the opportunity. You hear a lot about gay marriage, but you never hear about lemur marriage, do you? I think they should be incorporated.

It's possible that DOMA covers lemurs.
Possibly. Anyway, I think people who love each other should be allowed to be enjoined by the law, if they regard that as a safe step.

So the next thing is man and lemur?
Man and lemur, that would be next. I should have married a lemur, because they're the most delightful creatures. Anyway, we discovered that it had worked and that the population of lemurs was now safe, because there was a rich enough gene pool.

Not to be obsessed with lemurs, it's not a lemur podcast especially, but is there a correct way to handle a lemur? Are they tricky creatures?
No, they're the opposite of tricky. They are the sweetest little creatures. You know how if you offer monkeys food, they will grab it, or even kitty cats may nip you a little bit? Lemurs will either take the grape gently from your fingers and pop it in their own mouth, or more likely, they will just take it very gently from your fingers with these teeth that could give you a nasty bite. And you never feel in any sort of danger. They're the sweetest-natured creatures.

Empire Meets John Cleese
John Cleese, a lemur and the cast of Fierce Creature - (L-R) Michael Palin, Kevin Kline and Jamie Lee Curtis.

And you have one named after you?
I do, yes. A lovely guy in Zurich discovered a new lemur and he asked permission and it's called 'Cleese's woolly lemur'. (Avahi cleesei) is the Latin name for it! That will enable me to be remembered for many, many months after my death.

Just to loop back to Michael Palin, is he really as nice as legend suggests?
No, he's a bastard. He's a very cantankerous and mean-spirited creature and I don't know how The Daily Mail has managed to persuade the world that I'm the mean-spirited one.

So he does have a mean streak, then?
He's only mean in one respect and that's that he'll always break me up on stage. He knows that if he and I get on stage, he can say something that will break me up. I remember it happening once when we doing the Parrot Sketch in New York. We were at this moment when he was supposed to give me a new parrot that wasn't dead, but he said, 'Sorry, squire, we're fresh out of parrots'. I replied, 'I get the picture...', and he said, 'I've got a slug.' When he said that, I was supposed to say, 'Does it talk?', and he'd respond, 'Not really', but that night he said, 'Well, it's muttering a bit tonight'. And, of course, this just caught me off-balance. I couldn't proceed for about 30 seconds, I just got a fit of giggles. When we got back to the sketch, I realised I'd completely forgotten where we were in it, so I turned to the audience and asked them what the next line was and about 200 of them shouted it out. It was a wonderful moment.

You must have people come up to you all the time and quoting obscure stuff.
Michael Palin? He's only mean in one respect and that's that he'll always break me up on stage.
They sometimes say things to me and I have no idea what they mean, only that it's a reference to something I've done. But over 50 years, one's done quite a lot of stuff and you don't remember it all.

Is there something from your filmography that you feel is a bit underappreciated. Something you'd love people to discover?
Oh, that's an interesting question. I think Fierce Creatures was better than people thought at the time. The trouble in show business is when you have a huge success, it raises the bar so high that you can't meet expectations. That's why it was smart not to do another series of Fawlty Towers. I could have done it, if I'd wanted to and if Connie had wanted to, and people would have said, 'Oh, it was very good, but it wasn't as good as the first two series'. And what's the point of that, unless you're desperate for money? Why do something that you know is not going to work as well as it did originally?

Quit while you're ahead, essentially?
Yeah, quit while you're ahead. But I made two mistakes on Fierce Creatures. Firstly, I didn't get the script quite right, which was very much my responsibility, but secondly I shouldn't have cast the same people I cast in A Fish Called Wanda. If I had cast completely different actors, well, people would have realised that I was not trying to do A Fish Called Wanda 2, that I was trying to do a completely different kind of a movie. Oddly enough, a family movie. I wanted it to be something that kids and their parents would like and laugh at. Well, you say it wasn't true in A Fish Called Wanda because it was thoroughly cynical and mean-spirited and very funny with it. But this much warmer kind of movie. If people aren't expecting it, they'll judge it for what they were expecting, not for what you actually give them. Of the worst... well, certainly (1983 pirate comedy) Yellowbeard must be one of the worst movies. Have you ever done a poll on the worst movies ever?

I'm sure we have.
I would love you to tell me if Yellowbeard's in there.

Empire Meets John Cleese
'Oh God, that was terrible.' Cleese with Chris Rea in Parting Shots.

I think Parting Shots made the list.
Oh God, that was terrible. Well, I only did that because I was so fond of (Michael) Winner that I couldn't say no. I did it [and] you know how terrible it was, but I just love Winner so much. He was such a funny and warm man, because under all that bluster, if anyone stood up to him, they were immediately his best friend. But, yeah, Parting Shots, that was a terrible one, although I don't think it was quite as hopeless as Yellowbeard. I once watched Yellowbeard on television. After two minutes staring at it, I suddenly thought, 'My God, this is Yellowbeard'. You're not thinking about how dreadful it is, but about how could anyone thought this would be anything other than dreadful. You moved to a new level of appallingness. Then I made one called Isn't She Great? about the life of Jacqueline Susann. That was pretty terrible.

We're big fans of Clockwise. That doesn't get the recognition it deserves.
I think television comedy is pretty bad at the moment. I think that the writers are insufficiently experienced.
No, you're right. But it doesn't it get shown at Christmas on the television, quite often? I loved that movie, but I don't think we got the last five minutes right. Michael Frayn is really my hero, this man of huge kindness and talent and dignity who wrote Copenhagen, one of the best plays I've ever seen in my entire life, and I loved doing Clockwise with him, but I wanted him to come up with a more surprising ending. He told me that he didn't think people really learn from their mistakes, and I remember thinking that while I agree with him, it was kind of a movie convention. You know, the happy ending. We had a rather downbeat ending and I thought that was a mistake. It faded away. It needed a much more creative and startling ending, because you know that he's committed various minor offenses, but you want him to survive. I saw a movie many years ago, I think it had a title like, what's that American word for a private detective?

Gumshoe with Albert Finney. At the end of the movie he just goes out the back garden and there's a hot air balloon, and he gets into the basket and flies away. We should have had an ending like that. But I agree with you, I think it's a super movie.

Empire Meets John Cleese
Cleese as Basil Fawlty with Andrew Sachs' Manuel in the classic BBC sitcom Fawlty Towers

Just as a final question, what makes you laugh these days? Are there any TV shows or films?
Not a lot in the way of humorous entertainment. There's some very, very good stand-up comedians around, but I think television comedy is pretty bad at the moment. I don't blame the performers, I think that the writers are insufficiently experienced. They're not spending as long learning their trade as they used to in the old days. But that may just be an old man speaking. (Laughs)

Your daughter is doing stand-up, isn't she?
Yes, she's very good. I think there's a lot of talent in stand-up. The main weakness at the moment is in television, but it's also true that movie executives have almost no idea what they're doing. In fact, I would say that's an incorrect statement. I would say the executives don't have any idea what they're doing. But they don't have any idea that they have no idea, so they're blundering around. They're trying to control everything without having a clue what's really going on. And that's very sad because if somebody put me in charge of BBC comedy, I could resurrect it in six months. At the moment, the people there are just very poor.

Which stand-ups do you like?
Oh, I had dinner with Eddie Izzard three weeks ago in South Africa, and I'm a huge fan of his. He has a style entirely of his own which I love. I like Michael Mcintyre, too. There are some people who get a bit snotty about him and claim that he's too tame, but you don't just have to be vulgar and sexual to be a comedian. There are other ways of doing it.

Interview by James Dyer and NIck de Semlyen

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