Tuesday, 2 September, 2014

 
Published May 09, 2014
Arts
The full Monty
An Evening with John Cleese at the NUS Cultural Centre proved to be a nostalgic joy ride with the Monty Python star and world-class comic, writes GEOFFREY EU
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Fawlty past: Cleese reminisced about his life and 50-plus years at the forefront of British comedy, aided by faded photographs, movie and television clips. - PHOTO: ALOYSIUS LIM/LA COMEDY LIVE

BT 20140509 GECLEESE9A 1078752

The quips flowed easily early on as Cleese mined his life story for laughs, starting with his original family name (Cheese) and some tidbits about growing up in the sleepy seaside town of Weston-super-Mare.

THERE'S nothing like a bitter - and costly - divorce to drive a man back to work. It was a nasty fate that befell British comedian John Cleese when he split from his third wife a few years ago. In 2011, he embarked on a one-man show - aptly dubbed The Alimony Tour - to help pay the bills and three years on, he's still making the rounds in order to replenish his retirement fund and provide a nest-egg for his children.

On the plus side, however, the divorce - along with a lifetime of comic memories - provided ample material which the writer, actor and tall person (as described on his website) put to good use in front of a packed house during An Evening with John Cleese at the NUS Cultural Centre last Sunday night.

The show, the first of a two-night run in Singapore and presented in the form of a monologue on his life and career, went down favourably with the audience, many of them die-hard Monty Python and Fawlty Towers fans. With deadpan humour and in typical self-deprecating fashion Cleese, 74, strolled down memory lane, reminiscing about his life and 50-plus years at the forefront of British comedy, aided by faded photographs and decades-old movie and television clips. Family, friends, fellow Pythons and at least one former wife (Connie Booth) featured prominently during the evening.

The quips flowed easily early on as Cleese mined his life story for laughs, starting with his original family name (Cheese) and some tidbits about growing up in the sleepy seaside town of Weston-super-Mare. It was bombed by the Germans during World War II, his father said, "to prove they had a sense of humour".

He described his mother as a world-class worrier, Marty Feldman lookalike and a source of constant frustration - thanks to the countless hours he spent listening to her assorted complaints on the telephone. Lanky and shy at school, he set out to make his classmates laugh as a response to being bullied, eventually parlaying a talent for inspired pranks, silly behaviour and funny observations about human nature into a famous career.

In the 1960s, Cleese was lucky enough to meet and team up with people of similar comic sensibilities, including many leading lights who collectively transformed the previously bland and inoffensive British comedy scene into something more edgy. Their brand of humor was dark, impudent, usually beyond the boundaries of good taste and nothing - sex, death and religion included - was off limits.

Deftly manipulating the audience like putty in his hands, Cleese provided interesting insight into his thought processes and working relationships with colleagues, in particular long-time writing partner and fellow Python member Graham Chapman, with whom he created many classic sketches during the Flying Circus years on TV and four monumentally irreverent Monty Python movies. He also screened a funny and touching clip of his eulogy at Chapman's funeral in 1989, in which he paid tribute in true Python style by mouthing expletives and blithely insulting his deceased friend.

Cleese became an even bigger star with Fawlty Towers (comprising two series of six episodes each in 1975 and 1979), which was written with ex-wife number one Connie Booth and frequently voted one of the best shows in British television history. He explained what made the show tick: the obsessive attention to detail in the scripts, the crisp, cracking pace, and the fact that his character Basil Fawlty was based on a hotel owner he encountered in Torquay who said to Cleese, "We could run this place properly if it wasn't for the guests." Life is frequently funnier than art.

It was familiar territory for many in the audience but they expected as much - and Cleese happily obliged. Over the years and a variety of roles in more than 60 feature films and documentaries his extremely silly side has been frequently on display but during the show he focused on just a couple of scenes to illustrate his special interest in black humour: in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the Black Knight (Cleese) refuses to admit defeat even after he's been separated from all his limbs; and in A Fish Called Wanda, a hitman with a terrible stutter (played by Michael Palin) has a really tough time when called upon to reveal some vital information.

Cleese could probably have gone on for twice as long but then again, he's now married for a fourth time and probably thought it prudent to keep some material up his sleeve - just in case.