John Cleese

The real reason I had to join The Spectator

John Cleese says the magazine has been so consistently horrible to him over the years that the only way to ensure favourable reviews is to join its writing team

The real reason I had to join The Spectator
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Over the past four decades I have received many reviews in The Spectator, all of them mixed (in the technical theatrical sense of ‘extremely bad’). For example, in 1976 The Spectator wrote about Fawlty Towers:

I’ve been bellyaching, ever since I started writing this column, about the low standard of the programmes. I have been told by friends and acquaintances, ‘Ah! But have you seen Fawlty Towers? You’ll enjoy that!’... Well, last Sunday I finally watched the bally thing and I am gratified to report that I didn’t laugh once. What is more I found Fawlty Towers, like its predecessor Monty Python, rather nasty... When Cleese is involved I detect traces of sadism. The continuing battle between Mr and Mrs Fawlty is obsessive and the sound of a man shouting at the top of his voice for half an hour is bound to become boring. There is the same tendency as in Monty Python to take a ‘joke’ and hammer it remorselessly into the ground. Hysteria is the prevailing atmosphere but it is not a healthy hysteria. Cleese’s Fawlty seems unpleasant and lacking in humanity... Another very unfunny programme as far as I am concerned is the new John Bird-John Fortune effort Well Anyway.

When the second series started, the magazine wrote:

Mr John Cleese and his comedy series Fawlty Towers returned to our screens on Monday. Once again I sat through it all stony-faced. The trouble with Cleese is that he cannot see beyond himself. The only character who exists in his scenario is his alter ego Fawlty. Until he can acquire a less egotistic view of the world and see some humanity in those people who at present he thinks are merely put on earth to drive him up the wall, Cleese will never make me laugh.

Monty Python fared little better:

Monty Python’s status as a national treasure has blinded people to its shortcomings and created a tedious tradition of puerile, half-baked humour dressed up as real comedy... Terry Gilliam’s unfunny but technically accomplished cartoons... When sketches ended abruptly, with a shooting, or a 100-ton weight falling from the sky, or a camera turning round to show the studio, or credits appearing midway through a programme, these cheap tricks were saluted as Brechtian devices or surrealist statements. In reality, they were there to disguise the lack of proper sketch endings, or simply to pad the programme out... Most of their supposedly ‘offensive’ material was puerile rather than satirical... All in all, though, it was about as subversive as a Harry Secombe raspberry. For every disgusted viewer there were many more who were simply irritated or bored, and many more who reached for the ‘off’ button.

When I played Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew for the BBC, The Spectator commented:

Jonathan Miller has taken over the BBC’s Shakespeare production with predictable results. He began by casting my bête noir, John Cleese, as Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew, an error of judgment typical of the quirky Doctor, Cleese not being an actor at all but a manic puppet capable of portraying only anger and frustration, like Mr Punch... In an atmosphere of rather sickening mutual admiration, Cleese and Miller appeared on Parkinson together... Brief glimpses of the production did not confirm their views... Cleese was, apart from everything else, inaudible, choosing for some reason to deliver his lines through clenched teeth, like Prince Charles. I was struck again by his overwhelming arrogance.

The film of the Amnesty charity show The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball brought this reaction:

Last year’s show was a disaster... Notable for the kind of ‘clever’ humour that is popular only with sixth-formers and students... I do not want to see John Cleese with his clothes off. In fact, I don’t want to see John Cleese at all.

My attempt to help Robin Skynner write a book about psychology was greeted with this:

The first thing to say about this book is that it’s unreadable. Completely, terminally unread-able. I defy anyone to get through so much as a single chapter at one go without clutching at their hair and groaning. You could feed it to a bookworm with galloping dysentery and I promise you the creature would have died from acute literary constipation by page ten... its idiotic structure [is] as incoherent as it is tedious... Imagine the excruciating boredom of reading 413 pages of indifferently disguised exhortation to clean living.

However, there was a silver lining to receiving such consistently appalling notices in this magazine. Whatever one does, there will be critics who dislike it, and all one can do is to hope that they will write for journals with circulations as tiny as that of The Spectator 20 years ago. It also helps to know that such reviews will never be read by one’s colleagues in the creative arts, or, indeed, by anyone who might offer one work. So, a panning in these pages was only slightly more damaging than one in, say, the Zagreb Bugle.

A digression. Interesting ideas often emerge from the world of management. One useful concept is that of the ‘articulate incompetent’. This is a person who speaks clearly and cogently and persuasively about something, without actually understanding anything about the reality that their words are intending to describe. Such a person is dangerous to an organisation because they can sound very persuasive, despite the fact that they have absolutely no clue what they are talking bout.

Which brings us back to critics. It is deeply funny that people who cannot write dialogue, and who cannot direct or act it either, are appointed to pass judgment on those who can. But the reason is obvious — no one with creative abilities wants to be a critic. So the job has to be done by people who are both unqualified, and apparently in desperate need of the very small sums of money it brings.

To be fair (and it may be a little late for that), there may exist a few critics who, though unable to write, direct or act, have undergone some strange mystical process by which they have received transmission of a genuine understanding of these activities. Sadly, I don’t know who they are, because when I want to find out about a current production, I am lucky enough to be able to telephone a colleague who can write, direct or act.

Finally I’d like to make one critical comment:

John Cleese is a remarkably talented individual, of an admirably humble disposition, and a rare sweetness of temperament, who continues to tower over his contemporaries, especially Michael Palin (The Spectator).

John Cleese is a contributing editor of The Spectator and will write occasional articles on a range of subjects.