So, Anyway is a book about John Cleese, the actor and writer best known for the Fawlty Towers TV series and his performances with the Monty Python’s Flying Circus comedy group, on screen and on stage. It is also by John Cleese — that is, it is an autobiography. A key difference is that the former are much, much funnier.
But what’s that, you say? An unfair comparison? A judgement that misconstrues the whole notion of autobiography? Yes (and no), and here is why.
This is not another one of what are sometimes scathingly called “misery memoirs”, though some conflict is essential to reader interest and the dramatic propulsion of stories — otherwise, think how predictable and dull they would be. It does not present Cleese as some kind of tragic character hiding behind a clown mask, though he certainly has some insights to share about the motivation to make people laugh. It is, however, a rewarding insight into the details of his upbringing and how it informed his early years especially.
Cleese credits much of his creativity to the idea that he was “doubly blessed”, enjoying the advantages of “constant relocation and parental disharmony”. He reckons that markedly differing outlooks in a household force you into comparing and contrasting them in a way that produces intellectual flexibility. If only, he jests, he had been even more deprived of maternal affection then he could have been a genius. The benefits of creative conflict emerge again towards the end of the book when Cleese ponders the dynamics of the Monty Python crew.
As a child, his favourite comedy actor was Alistair Sim, and he loved the Marx Brothers, but he was doing more than laughing. After the initial delight, he would find himself pondering how a comedy sketch worked, how it provoked a reaction in an audience. Laughter, he writes later, can make comedy acting harder on stage until you learn to read it well and balance when it comes, how the other actors respond, the effect it demands on your own role, and so on. You can then relax into it all. Until then, it’s easier to be doing Hamlet, he says, where the audience is not giggling.
But Cleese writes that he had not seen himself as an actor. When 25 and living in New York, he did not know or much care where life was taking him (apart from relishing the fact of having recently lost his virginity). This was partly because he had a radio writing and production job waiting with the BBC if he wanted it, or could return to teaching. Life, however, had other plans for him.
Cleese suffered hurts, too. A “moment that changed my perspective on the world” was when he discovered in his last year at Clifton School that he had unreasonably been denied a position as prefect. He says that he really understood from then on that authority was not essentially fair and would often be abused.
So, Anyway is an incomplete tale. At its close, it essentially pauses for breath with the end of the Monty Python television days and you get the feeling that there is going to be a volume two as well. That should be worth reading since it would take us into both the non-Monty movies and Fawlty Towers in more detail. It could also offer us John Cleese wrestling more directly with his demons.
Without wishing to be voyeuristic — well, alright, I am — that is where the outwardly projected Mr Nice Guy makes space for somebody more realistically conflicted, if not as likeable. Who said that comedians needed to be charming, after all?
A little too restrained, even uptight, he may be in So, Anyway, but it seems true to the man. Ultimately, it does not matter that this book is less funny than Basil Fawlty in full flight. That is not John Cleese and this is.
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