Cleese on ageing and divorce

Most comedians would be happy if they created one worldwide cult smash, a show that is never off the air and attracts a fanatical following who can repeat chunks of dialogue.

John Cleese belongs to that tiny club of performers who has had a hand in more than one of these much-loved international classics.

Monty Python nerds - everyone knows at least one - quote Cleese's parts in the comedy troupe's surreal BBC sketch show, Monty Python's Flying Circus, broadcast from 1969 to 1974.

There is the Cheese Shop sketch ("I delight in all manifestations of the Terpsichorean muse") or his lines in The Dead Parrot sketch ("Piiii-ning for the fjords?").

Cleese then went on to help create the show that members of the British Film Institute in a poll in 2000 voted the best British television series of all time - the sitcom Fawlty Towers (1975, returning in 1979), which he co-wrote with then-wife Connie Booth and also starred in as the short-fused hotelier Basil Fawlty.

He also created memorable parts in movies, with other members of the Python troupe (Monty Python And The Holy Grail, 1975; Life Of Brian, 1979) and without, in comedies such as A Fish Called Wanda (1988), the Shrek animated franchise, and appearances in the Harry Potter (as Nearly Headless Nick) and James Bond films (as Q).

The 74-year-old will be in Singapore to perform An Evening With John Cleese, a stand-up show on May 4 and 5 at the University Cultural Centre, National University of Singapore.

It will be his first time performing in South-east Asia, but he is no stranger to Singapore. In the 1970s, the Monty Python and Fawlty Towers shows created a demand for him in Australia.

"I used to come to Singapore a lot in the 1970s because in those days, I used to take the Concorde from London. I used to stop somewhere in the Middle East, then come to Singapore. I would usually have a couple of days in Singapore before I went on to Sydney. Then the Australian economy went under in the early 1980s and the offers to make commercials dried up," he tells Life! on the telephone from Sydney.

"There is no pattern to it," he says, when asked what he likes to do when he breaks his journey here "because there is no pattern to my life. Nothing is routine".

"The last time I was there, I suspect I was there for something like four days. It was so hugely different from when I was coming over in the 1970s and 1980s that I thought I should take a look around," he says, in a stream uninterrupted by the usual ums and ahs that afflict normal persons.

His verdict? "What I saw, last time I was there for four days, I was struck by how pretty most of it was," he says.

His last stopover in Singapore was two years ago, but he has a more personal connection to the island. His brother-in-law had worked in Singapore, so his wife of two years, jewellery designer Jennifer Wade, 42, "has happy memories of coming here to visit him, she's always liked it".

Cleese plans to stay a week to do two shows and also give talks to business groups. He is also in demand as a motivational speaker, having gained traction in that area through his appearances in a series of wry corporate training videos on topics such as holding meetings and customer service, through a production company he co-founded, Video Arts.

His main reason for going to Australia during this period, he says, is because he finds the atmosphere conducive to writing.

"I will be spending a few days in Melbourne to do shows, but my main reason for being here is to sit in Sydney in this beautiful hotel room at Four Seasons with a wonderful view of the harbour and the bridge and the Opera House and write my autobiography," he says.

"I go to the point where I left America at the end of 1965, about three months after Singapore broke away from Malaysia..." he says, and then, without missing a beat, he segues into, as the Monty Python catchphrase goes, something completely different -

"...although when I checked the history recently I was told they were expelled from Malaysia. What's the normal story?" he asks suddenly.

This writer is reminded of the intimidatingly tall (1.83m), stern, black-clad preparatory schoolteacher roles he had been associated with in the BBC sketches and in the film Monty Python's The Meaning Of Life (1983). And just like a nervous schoolboy, my mind is suddenly a blank, and something is muttered about political and economic differences being the cause of the expulsion.

Cleese, a graduate of Downing College, Cambridge (in law, with upper second-class honours) seems satisfied with the answer.

Even if he is not, he hides his disappointment and carries on speaking about his life in 1965 when he became a writer for journalist and media personality David Frost, on his show The Frost Report.

Frost, who died recently, was a "very kind man, a good friend and he was enormously helpful to me early on in my career and that was the reason I got onto British television at the beginning of 1966", says Cleese.

The long-awaited Monty Python reunion stage show, announced last year, has had its running order of sketches firmed up, he says. The performances will be held in the middle of this year at London's O2 Arena and there are at the moment no plans to take the shows overseas, as troupe member Michael Palin (known for his travel books and television shows) is tied up elsewhere.

So far, the only concession to the fact that the Python members are now four decades older than when they first danced and sang the sketches is that there will not be the famed Ministry Of Silly Walks sketch, which had featured Cleese in a side-splitting physical bit as a bowler-hatted civil servant with an outrageously silly walk that features spastic kicks and swimming motions.

"My knee collapsed during a movie in 1985. Since then, I've had knee replacement and hip replacement surgery. Though I can get around, I can't change direction and certain movements, like the kick and the breaststroke, are not good if you have an artificial knee," he says.

For the stand-up shows in Singapore, he says he will talk about his life and career. The details will include growing up in Weston-super-Mare, a "funny little seaside town" which was bombed by the Germans during World War II and "and no one's been able to figure out why they'd bothered".

Helped by film clips, he will speak about sitcom Fawlty Towers as well as heist film A Fish Called Wanda, which also starred Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Kline and Palin.

"I might, in Singapore, add a little bit of time for question and answer because I am very curious to know what the audiences are going to be like, as I've not had any experience there."

Cleese has said in previous interviews that his 2008 divorce from third wife, American psychotherapist Alyce Faye Eichelberger, in which she was awarded a generous settlement of £12.2 million, was a key reason for his return to the stage.

They were married for 16 years, with no children, while he has two daughters from his first two marriages.

Cleese tells Life! that the financially painful break-up is mentioned in his performance.

"I refer to it for 20 seconds at the very start. But it is true. I wouldn't be out there flogging myself quite this hard if I didn't need the money. But at the same time, as I always make clear, if you have to earn money, this is a very pleasant way of doing it."


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