Transcript of John’s Interview with John Cleese

September 18, 2007 -

John Heald

Click here to listen to the interview!

Carl Franklin: The following is a podcast by John Heald. It does not express the opinions of Carnival Corporation & PLC or of Carnival Cruise Lines.


Carl Franklin: And we got fun! It’s the John Heald Podcast with John Heald, Senior Cruise Director of Carnival Cruise Lines. Coming up, John interviews John Cleese! Right now, everyone under 40 is thinking, “Who?” What? Are you kidding me? The Ministry of Silly Walks? The Fish-Slapping Dance? Fawlty Towers? Come on, Google it! You’ll learn something. What, I have no idea. Oh okay, here’s John and John.

John Heald: Hello.

John Cleese: Hi, can you hear me?

John Heald: I can hear loud and clear, sir.

John Cleese: Good.

John Heald: Thank you very much for taking your time to come from whatever you’re doing, which I’m sure is far more important than what you’re about to do for the next few minutes. Can you tell us what you’re actually doing on the Queen Mary at the moment?

John Cleese: Oh, I was actually working out when I realized I was five minutes late for our chat, but prior to that I’ve been reading most of the day. I had lunch with one of the lecturers, a fellow who has been to the North Pole and the South Pole on foot and has climbed Everest, but told me couldn’t find his way about the boat. I met him on the first day. He was walking around completely lost and I told him if he is like this on a boat, how did he find the North Pole so easily. There’s not a great deal of signage.

John Heald: So, no signs at the North Pole. Now, you did a little interview with the wonderful Ray Rouse on the stage and in front of all the people. How was that received? How did that go?

John Cleese: Very badly, unfortunately. Most of the people walked out in the first 10 or 15 minutes and there was someone at the back who had a supply of rotten fruits. They kept hitting me instead of Ray, so it was a disaster really. Would you agree, Ray?

Ray Rouse: Yeah, yeah. It was terrible. It was terrible. Terrible.

John Heald: I think the biggest thing to come out of that statement is we just make a note that they have rotten fruit on the Queen Mary.

John Cleese: Oh no! They brought it on. They smuggled it in.

John Heald: Okay. Many of the people who wrote on the blog, obviously, they want to know about a lot of things, I expected the Fawlty Towers and Monty Python references, but loads and loads of people had read your book.

John Cleese: The “Families” book. Good, good! [a self help psychology book written by therapist Robin Skynner and comedian John Cleese]

John Heald: Yes, “Families and How to Survive Them,” and what’s happened now if you look at the newest blog is everybody’s commenting that they were rushing off to buy the book. How long ago did you write that book?

John Cleese: I think it came out at about 1983 and for 10 years, it sold 400 a week without any advertising, so that was just on word of mouth, 10 years. Unfortunately, if you add that up or if you multiply that up mathematically, it doesn’t come out to such a huge sum as the big bestsellers make, but I was very proud of it and it goes on selling. I’ve really met almost no one in the psychiatric business who doesn’t recommend it to their patients. It’s very good. The second book was not as good, although there are one or two marvelous sections in it including interestingly, a section on religion.

John Heald: The people on the blog are all saying that they’re all rushing out and buying it. I have read it myself and just before the interview, I read a few chapters again.

John Cleese: Oh good!

John Heald: I just think it’s absolutely — you know, for me, it gave the information if you have some demons, it was…

John Cleese: It’s useful information for everybody. I just quoted a T-shirt and I’ve quoted a greetings card that somebody sent me about three months ago, which said, “The only normal people are the ones you don’t know very well.” Right? As you get to know people, you begin to realize we’ve all got I believe idiosyncrasies or we’re all a little strange in one way or another. For example, a fellow I know very well absolutely refuses to go into a wet fish shop in sandals. Now, he handles a great deal of life very, very well, but I have no idea what he thinks is going to happen if he goes into a wet fish shop in sandals. So, we’ve all got these little peculiarities and as Robin says it’s all to do with learning lessons and it’s appropriate at each stage to learn a lesson. If we’ve missed out on the lesson for some reason like in the worst possible circumstance if we lose a parent, then we can gain that experience, or rather we can learn that experience for the first time would be a better way of putting it, if we can find a substitute figure and go through the same relationship with them. The only thing is that if you missed out on a stage, you sometimes feel a little bit ashamed that you have quite mastered that thing, so then you start pretending that it’s not really a problem and that, I’m afraid, is where the problem arises. Robin always used to say having a problem isn’t a problem. Once you deny you’ve got a problem, that’s a problem. It’s still absolutely current whereas the life and how to survive it — well, because a lot of stuff in it are partly economics and partly political, but it’s now very out of date, but it’s got a wonderful chapter on humor as well. I think I had mentioned that, I’m afraid.

John Heald: Yeah. I’m very grateful that you did mention it because, as I said, everybody’s buying it. For me, it was so well written in such a way that anyone and everyone could understand it and get something positive from it. So, everybody’s talking about it. Again, the cruise line that I work for and the people who are reading the blog, although they tend to cruise on pretty much all the world’s lines, the demographics are so different. I mean we’ve got a guy who drives a truck full of chickens from Alabama to North Carolina and we’ve got a heart surgeon who just retired and lives in Jersey and who’s a friend of mine. Actually, I think you’re going to be there in October sometime he mentioned in Jersey. You’re doing a lecture or something.

John Cleese: Oh, you are quite right. Yes, I am. I’m doing a fundraiser for what used to be called the Jersey Zoo and must now be called the Jarrell or Durrell Wildlife or something. Anyway, it’s a great conservation organization.

John Heald: So, I saw that you are about to start filming for the new Pink Panther movie. Two quick questions, did you ever meet or work with the late great Mr. Sellers?

John Cleese: Yes. I actually knew him quite well at one stage. Just before “Peyton” started in the late 1960s, Graham Chapman and I wrote three film scripts for him of which one was made called The Magic Christian and I also actually appeared in that movie with him, as did Graham. I was playing a snotty, young employee of Sotheby’s, the art dealers, and I also did believe that they launched a televised Goon Show with all of them, with Milligan and Harry Secombe whom I knew quite well and Sellers. I was playing the part of Wallace Greenslade. So, I had quite a lot of contact with him over a period of time and he was very, very kind to me. I went on holiday once in Cypress and I discovered that Peter was shooting a film called Ghost In The Noonday Sun, which is I’m afraid turned out pretty terribly. I’m not sure they ever actually released it, but anyway he found I was on the island and I went out and said hello, what they were shooting, and the next thing is he invited me to stay in his magnificent villa.

John Heald: Wow.

John Cleese: So, I had a week, of course he was working most of the time, but they were extremely kind to me and that rather unpleasant book about him written by some English journalist — well, they wouldn’t write anything other than an unpleasant book if they’re British journalists — that he wanted me to be in the movie. I refused to be in it because I disliked the book so much. I’m sure he could be extremely difficult and a bit crazy sometimes. As I say, he was unrelentingly kind to me and he was wonderful company because he loves to laugh and of course he was unbelievably funny.

John Heald: How do you think he would take the remake of probably the movie that he was most famous for? Do you think he’d be happy with them?

John Cleese: I don’t know. I saw the first one and it was done completely differently. Steve has got a quite different idea of how to play Clouseau and I think he’s going to be terribly interesting because I’ve been working with Steve a little bit on the script. He’s a good friend and he actually lives in the same little town that I do in California. It’s a sort of snobby part of Santa Barbara called Montecito. Steve has a magnificent house up on the hill with a phenomenal view over the bay. He’s got his astronomical telescopes because he likes looking up at the heavens. We had a couple of little sessions together talking about the script and they’ve already shot about five days in Paris. I think they’re probably just about starting to re-shoot the whole thing beginning tomorrow. No, not re-shoot, but continue shooting tomorrow and then I join them right at the end of the movie in Boston the last couple of weeks of October.

John Heald: And what’s your role, Mr. Cleese? What are you going to be playing?

John Cleese: The character is called Dreyfus.

John Heald: Yes, yes.

John Cleese: Herbert Lom character, Clouseau’s superior, who is driven insane by the fact that he thinks Clouseau is an idiot, but Clouseau of course always finishes up winning the glory of the Medals of Honor.

John Heald: Are you one of those people who when you see these parts, you know you’re going to be talking in a French accent? Does the French accent come naturally to you?

John Cleese: Yes, pretty much so. I’ve been listening very carefully to one of the guys in the restaurant, Alexis, because I like his accent and I’ve been practicing a little bit under bated breath when he is not standing too close, but I never rush into anything. I’ll do various accents during the rehearsal period, which just consist of sitting there, reading the script and thinking about it and reading the lines out loud. I’ve always liked to do that. Tony Hopkins learns every line. He’s got about 200 times – or some extreme – he just goes on and on learning. So after a while it becomes so effortless you don’t have to think of it. So, I think he’s a great actor, just sitting there learning his lines so much, but that’s how he does it.

John Heald: Well, I’m sure the film’s going to be a huge success. I can’t wait to see it. When your name flashes on the screen, you now have 650,000 devoted viewers who are going to be seeing it.

John Cleese: Nice.

John Heald: I think when you’re finished you’ll have some time for relaxation. I mentioned in one of the questions I sent you about some of the great places that you’ve seen. I know you mentioned the Far East. Unfortunately, it isn’t the safest of places to go. But you mentioned Argentina and Chile, so I am going to be sending to somebody to get to you some information about a little 17-day cruise we have around Argentina and Chile next year.

John Cleese: Well, that sounds perfect. That sounds absolutely perfect.

John Heald: It’s good. Just before I ask the last question…

John Cleese: Yes?

John Heald: What makes you laugh? What makes you laugh these days? If you want a good belly laugh, do you turn on the television? Do you read? What makes you…?

John Cleese: There’s not a great deal of comedy that I laugh out loud at anymore, though I did have some really good laughs at a very good English comedy called Death at a Funeral, which I saw about a week ago and it was directed by an old, old friend of mine called Frank Oz. Frank is in The Muppets. He used to be Miss Piggy. He is a very good director. The funniest thing I’ve seen for a very long time. Otherwise, I’ve got to say President Mr. Bush gives me some pretty good laughs. I mean I just love the way that he explains things to you as though you were stupider than he was and that I find just gets me katrak sometimes.

John Heald: Did you see the photo that they put out yesterday? I don’t know if you saw it.

John Cleese: No.

John Heald: He’s just come back from — Americans, not that we are Bush-bashing, we’re just stating facts here. I mean we’ve got our own Bushes just left for…

John Cleese: I thought he still got a 30% approval rate, so 70% of Americans do want to get rid of him.

John Heald: Yes, 70%.

John Cleese: It has to be fair. There are people living in swamps in Alabama…

John Heald: Yeah, we have to be fair.

John Cleese: who think he’s terrific and very, very [unintelligible] Rupert Murdoch and all his employees on FOX Noise.

John Heald: Well, there was a photo that just came out. I just saw it yesterday. It’s hitting all the sites. He has just been in — was it Iraq?

John Cleese: Australia.

John Heald: And one of the generals gave him a pair of binoculars to view the troops and view the sites and everything and he put the binoculars up to his eyes and there’s a wonderful photo of him looking into the distance with the caps still on the binoculars.

John Cleese: Well, that suits him. That’s just the kind of reconnaissance he wanted to do in Iraq. If he actually saw what was going on there, he’d have to change his policy. So, that’s just hilarious. I mean they were all saying how wonderful Petraeus isn’t doing a great job. They forget that about four weeks before the last election, Petraeus wrote a remarkable column in a major newspaper, I think it may have been The Washington Post, saying how well things were going in Iraq. That was two-and-a-half years ago. So, I’m not entirely sure that we should lap up every word that he says about present progress. Maybe he hadn’t been paying attention when he wrote the column. I don’t think that’s the most unbiased view. Maybe that’s how he became a commander in Iraq.

John Heald: It’s good to hear you laugh. I’m sure the content will cause a lot of comments on the blog, which is what we want.

John Cleese: Good.

John Heald: But obviously, you have caused, I don’t know, countless incomparable amounts of people to just laugh until tears run down their faces.

John Cleese: Basically, I have provided meaning to many people’s lives that would have been totally absent.

John Heald: You have.

John Cleese: And in this way, I think I have probably saved many million people – especially the British – from suicide. So, I look at myself as a very, very wonderful person.

John Heald: I was personally contemplating throwing myself off the white cliffs of Dover until I saw you on the television. I mean you look at Fawlty Towers, and I tend to overanalyze everything and it drives my wife crazy, but if you look at the big themes inside Fawlty Towers, it covered everything, didn’t it? I mean death and xenophobia, sexophobia, psychology. I guess the question is, when you were writing that and dealing with all of these big themes, did they just happen or did you say, “This is what I want to cover before I write Fawlty Towers”?

John Cleese: No. I think it’s always a little bit dangerous to plan that kind of thing in advance. I think Tony Booth and I kind of discovered the character rather than created this because it was a strange sort of feeling that the character was there and we just had to sort of — do you remember? I think it was Michelangelo who was asked how you sculpted a rhinoceros and he said something like “you get a big block of marble and you knock away all the bits that don’t look like a rhinoceros.” It felt a bit like that with Basil as though the character was there and we just had to dig around a little bit to find it, but we never intentionally set out to make the sort of points that you’re talking about. At the same, for example, Tony and I were very interested in psychology and psychiatry and we noticed how the English feel it’s absolutely shameful to be depressed, which is so many of them are so depressed so much of the time because if you can actually feel the sadness underneath depression it goes away and if you just refuse to sort of let it in or refuse to experience it then it just stays there. So, we occasionally put that kind of stuff in, but it was because it was already in our minds, not because we had it planned.

John Heald: Obviously, the success, it doesn’t need me to preach about that, but I think it came across as so many different styles of the English traits, I mean the Englishman being proud to be the king of his castle. You got this I guess from this gentleman who was a manager at a hotel where you and the Monty Python team were staying. I remember a comment years and years ago that I read that you described him as “deliciously rude,” which those two words have always stayed with me.

John Cleese: Yes.

John Heald: Could you just give us a quick example of what he did that made him deliciously rude?

John Cleese: Well, he just made every guest feel as though they were a complete nuisance and dragging him away from his job. I always used to say that he really embodied the motto of many British hoteliers, which is “we could run this place properly if it wasn’t for the guests.” That’s what summed it up. So, if he was sitting at the desk staring into the distance and he saw someone coming, he would pretend to be busy just to make them feel bad about interrupting him.

John Heald: Obviously, the Fawlty Towers references could go on and on. I just have one last question with that and then the final question. This one was chosen by the viewers. We did a little charity thing and we have one gentleman called Danny Salmon who is actually from the UK, he donated £1000 to Amnesty International, which I believe is one of the charities that you are…

John Cleese: Oh, terrific. Yes, yes.

John Heald: So, here’s his question and it’s very simple. What’s your own personal favorite episode of Fawlty Towers and why?

John Cleese: Well, there are three or four. Dear me. Well, if I have to choose one, probably the rat.

John Heald: Basil the Rat?

John Cleese: Basil the Rat.

John Heald: Great answer. Finally, before I let you get back to the gym by the ice cream machine, let’s talk about your table. I asked Mr. Cleese if he could choose anybody to sit with at dinner across from him…

John Cleese: Right.

John Heald: Alive or no longer and what a wonderful group of people you’ve chosen. We have Charlie Chaplin, the King of Silent Comedy of course; Carl Gustav Jung, who if I remember my schooldays is a Swiss psychiatrist. Am I correct?

John Cleese: Yes. He was a very, very close friend of Freud, but he broke with Freud because he believed that the spiritual impulse in man was very, very important, which Freud regarded as a delusion. I think he’s come up with a view, things like introvert and extrovert and also the typing, Myers-Briggs typing of personality is based on his ideas about personality. I just think he’s a marvelously interesting man. I saw him interviewed in the 1950s by John Freeman and I just thought he was a great man. There was just something about him.

John Heald: And then sitting next to him on his left would be Richard Feynman. What can you tell us about him? I’m not familiar.

John Cleese: He was a terrific scientist, absolutely brilliant, everything he touched, but he had an absolutely extraordinary ability to communicate. What I love about him was that he just seemed to be curious about everything. If he wasn’t solving atomic physics or talking to students, he’d go off and drum. So, he was just a man full of life and even when he knew he had cancer, he’s still desperately curious about everything that was going on, so just a totally admirable scientist.

John Heald: And then of course on his left, from all the actors in the world, you’ve chosen Cary Grant.

John Cleese: Yes.

John Heald: What was your reason for choosing him?

John Cleese: I don’t know what it is about that man, I really don’t, but every time I see a picture of him, I suppose he sums to me a kind of elegance. I think he was a very intelligent and a very curious man. When I did the Bond movies, Barbara Broccoli told me a lot about him because she used to know him when she was young. I just think he was a marvelous actor and a very decent human being and I would love to have met him and of course, he is down from my part of the country, down there by Bristol.

John Heald: He’s down there by Bristol. I didn’t know where to put this next person, so I put him in between Cary and your lovely wife who we’ll talk about in a moment, so I put Jesus Christ next to Cary Grant and your wife on the table of Simon. I hope that’s all right.

John Cleese: If he’s sitting next to my wife, He won’t be able to get a word in edgeways, but you’ve arranged the tables.

John Heald: Yeah. Obviously, your wife travels a lot with you.

John Cleese: Yes, she certainly…

John Heald: Obviously much less, but as they say behind every great man, there’s a wonderful lady. I know that very much myself.

John Cleese: Absolutely right live in my case because she’s a little bit late coming out of the spa.

John Heald: Ah. Okay. How did you meet her? Do you mind me asking?

John Cleese: No, I don’t mind. She was prescribed for me by my doctor. I went to dinner with him once.

John Heald: She was…

John Cleese: We were both celebrating.

John Heald: Has he got any more?

John Cleese: Any more? Yes, I’m sure! I always used to say to get me girls because he also found me a wonderful assistant once who assisted me all the way through A Fish Called Wanda and finished up running BBC Live Entertainment.

John Heald: Quite a table and a lovely lady to complement it. So, here’s the last question. You’re at dinner. You’ve got Charlie Chaplin, you’ve got Carl Gustav Jung, Richard Feynman, Cary Grant, Jesus Christ, your wife, and your good self. The appetizer is served. The water is poured and Jesus served the wine of course. They all look at you and you have to start the conversation. What do you say?

John Cleese: Oh, I would ask Jesus Christ, I would say, “What’s it all about then?”

John Heald: What’s it all about then?

John Cleese: Yeah.

John Heald: Well, I thank you very much for your time. I know, again, that you’ve got lots of things to do. On behalf of all 650,000 people, all of which I hope will rush out and buy your book and Fawlty Towers and all the things that are associated with your illustrious career, and every time I watch you on television or on a movie you leave me with a little something and…

John Cleese: Well, I am a very wonderful and very warmhearted and immensely talented human being and it is always nice when someone recognizes it because it shows what excellent taste they have. So, may I just congratulate you in my turn on your taste?

John Heald: Thank you. Unfortunately, we’ve just run out of film before you started saying that, but never mind.

Carl Franklin: All right you under 40 people. Now, you know what I’m talking about. John Cleese! Yeah, that guy! Hey, you can read John Heald’s blog at and Heald is spelled H-E-A-L-D. Thanks for listening to the John Heald Podcast. We’ll catch you next time.

Hi, I’m John, and this is my blog. So please don’t mistake my opinions — or those of my dear friends, fans or commenters — for those of Carnival Cruise Line or Carnival Corporation. My apologies in advance for anything I may say that upsets you, but this disclaimer covers Carnival and puts the blame directly on me………….. bugger.