Back in 1980, snowed in at the Holiday Inn in Norwalk, Connecticut, I wrote a letter to the Editor of the Spectator. Its TV critic, Richard Ingrams, had come under fire from certain subscribers, as he insisted on watching programmes on an old black-and-white set, and clearly was not enamoured of the medium, showing insufficient respect to some of its transitory ‘stars’. I came to his defence, since I enjoyed his columns, and I asserted that he treated television with the importance it deserved, adding that in only one way was Mr. Ingrams seriously at fault, and that was in his ‘peculiar blindness to the talents of John Cleese.’ The magazine published my letter with the heading ‘A Cleese Fan’.
And a Cleese fan I have stayed. But when I read American reviews of his recent memoir, I wondered whether I should bother to read it. They were not very flattering. One opinion, however (in the Sunday New York Times Book Review) did catch my eye, because it repeated Cleese’s claim that, in order to write good comedy sketches, you had to steal ideas. I wanted to read more, so I encouraged my daughter to purchase a copy of ‘So, Anyway . . .’ (for that is how the book is unimaginatively titled) for my birthday, and have since read it.
It is quite good – uproariously funny in some places ̶ but I can understand why it might not be considered a winner in the USA. Cleese is fascinating in his story of growing up in 1940s and 1950s Britain, and he tells his anecdotes with that kind of ironic self-deprecating, absurdist touch that, I suppose, is very English. I would think his account would engross anyone who grew up at roughly the same time in the same sort of middle-class suburban environment. I can well imagine, however, that it might not go down too well with the good burghers of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (It did receive a positive review in the Times Literary Supplement of December 12, which arrived in Southport, NC only a couple of days ago.)
Cleese is funnier when he is not quoting sketches that he co-wrote with his many comedic partners. Indeed, what he describes as ‘one of the ten best sketches I have written in my entire life’ (p 288) to me seems flat and repetitive. If he had one flaw, it was to hammer on one particular note a little too long, in my humble [since when? Ed.] opinion, and lose the element of surprise. One got the message, and wanted him to move on. His better sketches were when he slowly exaggerated one warped aspect of a subject’s character.
But to return to the ‘stealing’. Perhaps the most famous is the ‘Four Yorkshiremen’ sketch (At Last the 1948 Show, 1967), which is a direct steal from Stephen Leacock’s ‘Self Made Men’ (Literary Lapses, 1910), as was revealed on Nigel Rees’s Quote-Unquote website and newsletter a few years ago. Over the years, I have sporadically made a note of incidents in literature and memoirs that rang a bell for me as a possible source of Cleese sketches or ideas, as expressed in anything from Monty Python to Basil Fawlty. Unfortunately, I didn’t write all these down, but my electronic files show the following:
1) ‘Two-Sheds’ Jackson (Monty Python, Episode 1: ‘Whither Canada?’: Arthur Jackson is a famous composer: his interviewer tries to establish how he gained the nickname ‘Two-Sheds’ Jackson, and shows more interest in the provenance of the sheds than in his interviewee’s musical career.)
* “As Berle noted in his diary, the only dubious information the British had succeeded in digging up was an old newspaper clipping reporting that he had ‘twin bath tubs’ in his house, which had long earned him the absurd nickname Two Bathtubs Berle.” (from Jennet Conant’s The Irregulars, Chapter 8)
2) ‘I’m so sorry I made a mistake’ (Fawlty Towers, The Wedding Party, where Basil responds to Sybil’s suggestion that he retrieve the banished members of the wedding party by telling them he ‘made a mistake’ with ‘Oh brilliant. Is that what made Britain great? “I’m sorry I made a mistake.”’)
* “One day I asked him a question [Keynes] about the British economy and his answer turned out in due course to be wrong. ‘Why’, I asked Maynard, ‘did you tell me ten days ago that we would not go off the gold standard when in fact we now have?’ His answer was characteristic and an example to all, whether savants, politicians, civil servants or ordinary folk. ‘Victor,’ he said. ‘I made a mistake.’” (Lord Rothschild, Meditations of a Broomstick, p 19)
3) ‘The Cat Lives!’ (Fawlty Towers, Basil the Rat, where Basil is slow to realize that, if the cat has not been poisoned, the slice of veal it started to eat is fit for human consumption. ‘Hooray! Hooray! The cat lives! The cat lives! Long live the cat! What are we going to do?”)
* A slice of ham was tested on cat at medical research Council by MI5 (BI (c) before being given to Churchill. (from Elusive Rothschild, by Kenneth Rose, p 74)
4) The Spanish Inquisition, Fang and the ‘Comfy Chair’ (Monty Python, Episode Fifteen: the ‘dear old lady’ who refuses to confess to the heinous sin of heresy, has to face the ultimate torture – ‘the comfy chair’. ‘You will stay in the comfy chair until lunchtime, with only a cup of coffee at eleven . . .”)
* “’Sit on the sofa,’ he [Trent] advised. ‘The chairs are a job lot bought at the sale after the suppression of the Holy Inquisition in Spain.” (from Chapter IX of Trent’s Last Case, by E. C. Bentley)
Were these conscious or unconscious ‘borrowings’ on Cleese’s behalf? I think we should be told, and I should like to know before he ‘joins the choir invisible’ (which I trust will not be for a long while yet). Maybe someone who knows him can ask him. (I tried to contact him via his website once, but it did not encourage email access.)
As a coda, I have also noted some intriguing echoes of ‘the comfy chair’ in the creations of the MacSpaunday (and related) poets, which I recorded in my Commonplace Book back in 2010:
“And now I relapse to sleep, to dream, perhaps and reaction
Where I shall play the gangster or the sheikh,
Kill for the love of killing, make the world my sofa,
Unzip the women and insult the meek.” (from Louis Macneice’s Autumn Journal, III)
“You above all who have come to the far end, victims
Of a run-down machine, who can bear it no longer;
Whether in easy chairs chafing at impotence
Or against hunger, bullies and spies preserving
The nerve for action, the spark of indignation – …”
(from C. Day Lewis’s The Magnetic Mountain, 32)
“Come with us, if you can, and, if not, go to hell
With your comfy chairs, your talk about the police,
Your doll wife, your cowardly life, your newspaper, your interests in the East,
You, there, who are so patriotic, you liar, you beast!” (from Rex Warner’s Hymn)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
My three grand-daughters (aged 3, 1 and 1) were imaginative and tasteful enough to buy me a copy of ‘Great Maps’ for Christmas, a beautiful coffee-table book with ‘Smithsonian’ on the cover, which should have granted it the Golden Seal of Quality. Hence I was dismayed, when turning to page 47, to see that Al-Sharif Al-Idrisi’s remarkable world map of 1154 (now residing in the Bodleian) is described as ‘Entertainment for He Who Longs to Travel the World’. This phrase appears three times on the page: it is not accidental.
Am I the last person on this earth who finds this ugly? For it should be ‘Entertainment for Him Who Longs to Travel the World’. (The pronoun goes with ‘for’, not with ‘who’.) A recent article in the Spectator predicted that the accusative case in the English language would soon disappear, and this is an excellent example of how it will happen. Some phrases take on a life of their own (e.g. ‘She Who Must Be Obeyed’, ‘you and I’) with the result that one reads such abominations as this, and ‘between you and I’. A related ugliness is the inappropriate use of ‘myself’ instead of ‘me’: so many even educated writers and speakers of English have become utterly confused about the distinction between ‘I’ and ‘me’ that they nearly always deploy ‘myself’ instead. In ‘So, Anyway . . .’, John Cleese overall does very well in this respect, using ‘me’ correctly countless time, but even he fails towards the end (p 365), when he writes: ‘like Graham and I’. (Ugh! ’Like’ is a preposition, Cleese! Don’t you remember the lessons from ‘Romanes eunt domus’, in The Life of Brian?)
I have written to the editor of ‘Great Maps’, inquiring how such a gross mistake could have passed the watchful eyes of so many writers and editors. I am not hopeful of a reply.