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John Cleese interview: ‘I don’t think any of us want to go on working together’

Ahead of the Monty Python reunion, the tallest and oldest member talks ‘Life of Brian’ bliss, ‘Meaning of Life’ disagreements and why the current BBC makes him sad

John Cleese in 'Monty Python's Meaning of Life'
 



Your alimony has been widely reported over the years. Is the reunion really just about the money?
‘Well, the Daily Mail immediately tried to spoil everything, as it does, by saying we were only doing it for the money. Of course it’d be very interesting to know whether there are any Daily Mail journalists who are working for free. Most people work because they have to, but some of us are lucky to do things that we rather enjoy. So we’re certainly doing it for the money, but we’re also doing it because we think it’s going to be a fun experience. At 74 I welcome these experiences.’

Which part of the show are you most looking forward to?
‘I think taking the bow at the end will be the best bit! Then we can go have a drink. [Laughs]’

Your former writing partner, Graham Chapman, died in 1989. What do you think he’d have made of the reunion?
‘I think he’d be delighted to have the money, because Graham was always chronically short! I think he’d have loved the attention. Some of us could do without a great deal of attention but Graham was one of the ones who would have loved to be there on an occasion like this.’

Terry Gilliam said recently that he finds it ‘depressing’ that you’re getting back together.
‘I think Terry finds a lot of life depressing. He’s been engaged in a life-long struggle with reality, and I think he’s losing.’

What have been your highlights from Python over the years?
‘Shooting “Life of Brian” was one of the most satisfactory because it was one of those rare occasions where everything seemed to work. We were filming in Tunisia, there was sunlight and it was a comfortable film to shoot. Terry Jones did a terrific job directing it, Terry Gilliam did a terrific job visually in art directing and the whole thing came together in a very satisfactory way. “The Holy Grail” was just a struggle. There was so little money to make it and the conditions that we made it under were pretty bad. We were cold and damp 80 percent of the time and there was even a limited supply of umbrellas! That knitted string chainmail would get damp by 9am, we’d stay in it until 6pm and then race back to the hotel as fast as we could to try to get some of the hot water. It was a little bit of a survival course.’

The BBC gave you a lot of freedom when you made ‘Flying Circus’. Do you think the show could have been made today?
‘Definitely not. What has happened since my time is that a very simple process, which worked wonderfully well at the BBC, has been lost. In those days the departmental heads were very trusting of their producers. What happens now is you have a new species, a “commissioning editor”, who, as far as I can make out, haven’t actually written comedy, or directed it, and yet they seem to think that they understand comedy. This would be fine if they did understand it, but comedy is very difficult. Just look around – there’s an awful amount of crap. These decisions are being taken by people who don’t understand comedy but don’t realise that they don’t understand it. One of the things that makes me saddest about the way the country has gone since I was young is the BBC. I look back at what was really a magnificent institution that, for economic reasons, has been thinned down and become something very different.’

You’ve said that the Pythons ‘don’t agree about anything’ and that you’re ‘always fighting’. Have there been many disagreements between you?
‘There is always disagreement – we’re very different personality types – but it’s friendly disagreement. We’re like a bunch of brothers: there’s a certain amount of competitiveness, it’s good-natured and we get on well, but we don’t rush off to have dinner with each other.’

The final show at the O2 is being dubbed ‘The Last Night of the Pythons’. Is this really the end?
‘Yes, that really is going to be the last performance. All the Pythons now do such jolly different things. We were always a bit different but we very much diverged since our last big project in ’82 – “Meaning of Life” – and I think that this is a perfect way to round the relationship off in a satisfactory way. I don’t think that any of us, deep down, would find it very comfortable doing any more shows.’

Will it be an emotional finale?
‘I don’t know if I shall feel particularly emotional about it but I probably will. We will all get a bit emotional, probably, but I don’t think any of us want to go on working together. If we were starting from scratch, trying to put a new show together, I think it would’ve been very difficult. One of the reasons I didn’t really want to do anything with the Python group after “Meaning of Life” is that I simply got fed up with being outvoted. Python always operated on votes: it didn’t have to be absolutely unanimous but if a lot of people felt something was good it went in. I disagreed with the choice material on “Meaning of Life” and I thought to myself: I don’t want to be outvoted anymore, I want to make my own mistakes rather than other people’s.’

Did you not think ‘Meaning of Life’ was up to scratch, then?
‘There were certain bits that I didn’t think were strong at all. The World War I thing with the clocks and the trenches – I thought that was a very second-rate bit of material. But there are many things I think are terrific: the fat man was wonderful, the liver donor sketch at the start.’

Michael Palin recently said that he thought a lot of Python was ‘crap’. Do you feel the same way?
‘I wouldn’t say a lot of it, no. Comedy is much more difficult than certain things. Take journalism: journalism is not terribly difficult. You never say “Oh God, that journalist he had a purple patch of five years”. When you’re doing something very difficult, some of the time you’re going to succeed and some of the time you’re going to fail. The nice thing is, historically speaking, we tend to forget what didn’t work and remember the things that did.’

Monty Python Live (Mostly) – One Down, Five to Go’ is at the O2 Arena, Jul 1-5, 15, 16, 18-20.

Tickets available through montypythonlive.com and 08448 560202

The Last Night of the Pythons’ will be broadcast live to cinemas on Jul 20. ‘Monty Python Sings (Again)’ is released on Jun 30.

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