(A fitting “sequel” to my post last month about Cleese — and the England he helped create/destroy…)
In a way he is symbolic of what went wrong with his clever, sarcastic generation at Oxbridge, riddled as it was with a strange mixture of self-satisfaction and cultural doubt. It loved to mock, but now finds itself adrift.
To this day, Cleese asserts we are much better advised to let it all hang out. ‘The English of my generation held back and it cost them a lot,’ he claims.
But this isn’t necessarily true in his case, is it?
Tart and topical though his material about ex-wife has been, something nibbles at the back of my mind.
I can’t help remembering reading about Cleese at the time of his marriage to psychotherapist Alyce-Faye.
Were there not gooey interviews when he said how happy he was? Were there not declarations from him that she had taught him so much about psychology?
And if he had only kept up his Anglo-Saxon reserve he might never have been trapped in the marriage. See? He should have remained more like the traditional, emotionally-buttoned Englishman he often mocked.
Monty Python had its surreal moments, but its humour could be self-indulgent and silly. The reluctance of Cleese and co. to act their age may have felt, at the time, like liberation.
Now the drawbacks are plain to see. After surrendering his self-control, Cleese went and stepped on the Alyce-Faye Eichelberger landmine.
It is hard not to like the old boy, if only out of gratitude for all those brilliant moments in Fawlty Towers and The Life Of Brian and other classics. But he’s a rum figure in many ways.
‘England – the cultured England – has gone rapidly downhill,’ he claims. ‘The Press have destroyed what was a perfectly decent culture 30 years ago.’
Of course, many people said exactly the same thing in the Sixties about the Young Turks of The Frost Report.
Cleese talks about the importance of allowing comedians to be insulting. He is all for attacking taboos and for being rude (he boasts about how he said the F-word at the memorial service of his Python colleague, Graham Chapman).
Yet the same Cleese emigrated from rambunctious Britain to California, a society practically paralysed by political correctness.
The same Cleese demands to be treated with respect.
What would the young David Frost and co. have made of John Cleese as he is today? I suspect they would have fondly ragged him rotten.
They would have teased him for being a snowy-domed buffer who, having made and lost millions, now wants to be revered and pitied.
It all seems a very long way from the Ministry of Silly Walks.