A director who hadn't made a film in almost 25 years. A male romantic lead the wrong side of 40. A female romantic lead, famous for her 'perfect' body, who refused to do any nudity. They really couldn't give tickets away.
But the few who did turn up for preview screenings of A Fish Called Wanda weren't surprised when it went on to become one of the most successful comedies of all time. Not only that, it set up a template for future British comedy exports - Richard Curtis was certainly taking notes - and garnered the principals a basketful of award nominations, an Oscar for Kevin Kline's murderous moron and a BAFTA for Michael Palin's stuttering assassin.
The original idea was to produce a modern twist on the Ealing comedies from the 1940s and '50s, so beloved of Cleese and on which Charlie Crichton had worked (in fact, Cleese actively courted Crichton as director on ...Wanda). The script went through 13 drafts as Crichton and Cleese met three times a month for two-and-a-half years to polish it. The final story involved a diamond heist, with the boss (Tom Georgeson) stitched up by his gang and awaiting trial, with Cleese as his lawyer and the gang trying to outwit each other so they wouldn't have to share the loot.
The script is peppered with in-jokes. Cleese's character is called Archie Leach, Cary Grant's real name, as both actors share the dubious honour of being born in Weston-super-Mare. However, even though much of the humour thrives on the culture clash of Yank braggart Otto bumbling around in stiff-assed Britain, American co-producer Michael Shamberg vetted the script for anything 'too British', so jokes such as the one confusing the secret service MI5 with a motorway was nixed.
The film was shot quickly - in four weeks. Crichton's economic direction (and his training as an editor for 14 years before he became a director) meant not a day was wasted. It also gave the film a gloriously fast pace, with no flashy tricks to get in the way of the physical comedy or dialogue.
Wanda zips along and the gags - including the now famous Cleese striptease - haven't dated. The leads have never been as well cast again, as Fierce Creatures made all too obvious.