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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 24 January 2021

Why you won't see John Cleese on Netflix: Comedian reveals streaming giant failed to reply to ideas

The 'Fawlty Towers' star, who will perform at Dubai Opera this week, also opens up about why there are few laughs to be found when it comes to Brexit

John Cleese will perform at Dubai Opera this week. Pawan Singh / The National
John Cleese will perform at Dubai Opera this week. Pawan Singh / The National

It is a question John Cleese is asked countless times by fans in the UK.

Why can’t they see what is arguably his greatest comedic creation, the television series Fawlty Towers, on the small screen in his native England?

His answer remains the same: ask the BBC.

Speaking to The National before two shows at Dubai Opera on Tuesday and Wednesday, December 15 and 16, the comedian, actor and writer expresses his frustration that the critically acclaimed series, which follows the manic adventures of hotelier Basil Fawlty and his kooky employees, isn't often repeated on terrestrial TV by the public broadcaster.

“The BBC hadn't put it out for 20 years on terrestrial television,” he says, although the broadcaster did air the episode Communication Problems after the death of star Andrew Sachs, who played hapless waiter Manuel, in 2016. “So if you've got these idiots in charge, then you're subject to them because they're the people who say if it goes out or not.”

The same thing goes for his non-appearance on Netflix, despite his repeated attempts.

Cleese reveals he sent the streaming a giant a number of concepts, all to no avail.

“I went to Netflix with six good ideas and they can’t be bothered to even reply to my agent. I mean, what do people like me do?”

Work and pleasure

Well, you keep working, of course, and have some fun along the way.

This was the idea behind Cleese’s return to the UAE. He flew into Dubai a fortnight ago with no real plan for his trip, other than winging it.

Needing some sunshine not afforded in a chilly and anxious UK on the verge of another lockdown, Cleese came to the UAE with the promise of performance opportunities.

His associates were true to their word, with Cleese set to appear at Dubai Opera for the first time.

Those attending shouldn't pay too much attention to the show's marketing campaign, however.

Cleese rubbishes the show's ageist title, Monty Python's John Cleese – Alive! (Just), and its promise that he will examine "the dysfunctional world we live in".

It's clear he didn't receive that memo.

“It’s the marketing people who make up all that stuff,” Cleese says with a sigh. “It’s terribly funny what these people want, which is really just a catchy title when ‘an evening with John Cleese’ is perfectly enough. I could have called the show Seven Ways to Skin an Ocelot, and they would have agreed.”

When it comes to material, Cleese says the show will be full of anecdotes taken from his six-decade career, including his time with the comedic troupe Monty Python, how he created the influential Fawlty Towers (1975-1979) and the 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

It’s the safe option, he admits, considering the pandemic kept him away from the stage for most of this year.

“I mean, one of the nice things about talking about Monty Python and the Holy Grail is people aren't going to contradict me,” he says. “They're not going to say ‘no, you've got that wrong.’ Politicians have a slightly harder time than I do."

Finding humour in blunder

But surely, considering the world we currently live in, there is plenty of “dysfunction” for Cleese to latch on to with acerbic glee.

For instance, by the time he steps foot on the Dubai Opera stage, we may know if the torturous negotiations between the UK and the EU finally yielded a deal or a hard Brexit.

As someone who publicly supporting Brexit, albeit a soft one, he says finding the funny side in the heated topic is a challenge. Besides, he has taken a philosophical view regarding the whole matter.

“It is too complicated a subject, really, to make jokes about,” he says. “There are very interesting arguments for both sides, but the problem is people often make up their mind up about things they don't actually know anything about.

“There was a wonderful physicist called Richard Feynman, and Richard once said that he’d rather be in a state of doubt about everything than pretend that he knows things for sure, which he knows perfectly well, he can't know for sure."

There is more comedic promise, he says, in talking about the unfolding pandemic. Strip away the tragic human toll, and some of the frazzled reactions from the public and politicians is ripe for the funny treatment.

While he won’t name names, he does recognise smidgens of Basil Fawlty in the current UK leadership.

“The nature of comedy is about people's foibles, failures and [what happens when] we don't hit the mark. If you try to write a comedy about somebody who is kind and wise and generous, it wouldn't be funny,” he says.

“It's people like Basil Fawlty who are funny. People who are dripping faults all over the place.”

How political correctness is choking comedy

Whether the current generation of audiences find it funny is another question.

While Cleese acknowledges some of his pugnacious humour may not be to everyone’s liking, he cites an increase in political correctness for not only robbing people of the joys of comedy, but in creating less well-rounded individuals.

“Political correctness started out with a good idea which is, ‘let's not be horrible to people'. I think we can mostly agree with that,” he says.

“But you then get to the point where you can't make a joke about somebody because their life's going to be destroyed and they'll have to go into a nursing home, and the (UK's publicly funded National Health Service) NHS will have to pay. I mean, it's ridiculously out of proportion.”

Cleese says the corroding effect of political correctness has also upended what he views as family norms.

“Some of my friends are getting in quite heated arguments with their children because they tell them, ‘well, you must not say that. You must have say this,’” he says.

“A lot of good social interaction is about people teasing each other, if it's done with affection. It's what happens in families – people tease each other and there's laughter about the teasing. And that's all right. If teasing gets nasty, then just say 'no nasty teasing'."

For the love of comedy

While you may or may not agree with some of his views, there is no doubting the love and passion Cleese still has for his craft.

His robust defence of comedy comes not only from what it gave him –lucrative TV and film success and hero status by generations of British comics – but for the creative pleasure of penning a good joke.

And that craft requires a lot of graft.

Despite the improvisation and slapstick nature of his work, Cleese says his best material begins with a notepad and pen. He has distilled some of these lessons in the book Creativity: A Short and Cheerful Guide.

Released in September, the work lives up to its title as it offers 112 pages of affectionate advice to help creatives keep plugging away at their project.

The fact the book was polished off during the pandemic shows that Cleese used his own advice to keep busy when work opportunities dried up.

It also shows why he is not waiting for Netflix to call. He always has something work on.

“It’s something I learnt from my early days with Monty Python. We had good days and very unproductive days but we still managed an average of 15 to 18 minutes of funny sketch material every week,” he says.

“That meant we had to sit there five days a week, even when weren’t firing on all cylinders. You just have to keep going.”

John Cleese performs at Dubai Opera on Tuesday and Wednesday, December 15 and 16. Show starts at 8pm. Tickets start from Dh195 from dubaiopera.com

Updated: December 14, 2020 10:41 AM

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