8 Things That Did or Did Not Inspire Mr. John Cleese

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John Cleese’s excellent memoir So, Anyway… discusses the Cleese family, Cleese’s time as a school teacher, getting started in writing for stage and eventually TV and film, his romance with Connie Booth, and the genesis and recent happenings of the Pythons. The book is especially concerned with the character of Cleese’s closest writing partner Graham Chapman, who, like Cleese, was a prankster.

Big Sharp Pointy Teeth

The book opens on baby John Cleese being terrified by a rabbit a-nibblin’ at his fingers: “I was nibbled by a rabbit, but, because I was such a weedy, namby-pamby little pansy, I reacted as though I’d lost a limb.” This scene is to illustrate that Cleese was a wuss, even when he was tiny, but was this scenario also the inspiration for the deadly rabbit in Monty Python and the Holy Grail? Well…not consciously. Believe me, it crossed my mind, as I imagine it crossed the minds of many fans, especially considering someone at the NYU Not Dead Yet audience Q&A session with Mr. Cleese asked the same question. Cleese is a believer in the subconscious influencing you, but he admitted no conscious connection between the incident and the film’s fluffy villain.

You see, in So, Anyway…Cleese writes:

“Believe me, it is quite possible that these things are coincidental. For example, everyone who worked for Sir Charles Forte assumed that Fawlty Towers was a reference to Trust House Forte hotels and restaurants. Had that occurred to you? It didn’t to me. And take Basil’s initials: “BF” for my father’s generation was one of the rudest things well-mannered people could say about a man–it meant “bloody fool.” Again, it never crossed my mind. A final example: it only dawned on me while I started to write this book that two of the most successful appearances have been in shows with circus in the title.”

Basil Street

For a while, Cleese and Connie Booth lived in a flat in Knightsbridge on Basil Street. The obvious conclusion to leap to is that Basil Street influenced Cleese’s decision to name his lead Fawlty Towers character Basil Fawlty, but, again, you’d be wrong. (Though, to be fair, the “Towers” part of “Fawlty Towers” does seem to have come from Devon Towers where Cleese spent ten days.) In his book, Cleese writes:

“Now if you say, ‘Oh come on, you must have been influenced unconsciously by Basil Street–admit it,’ I will reply ‘Well if I was influenced unconsciously, then by definition I wouldn’t know about it, would I? But I don’t think so, and it’s my life we’re talking about, not yours, and if it were yours, I would defer to you, because you know a lot more about it than I do. And perhaps I’m writing this book because ‘book’ beings with a ‘b’ and so does Basil…”

Tony Viney

That isn’t to say Cleese’s ideas came out of thin air. Take his friend Tony Viney, for example. This kind-hearted man was so hapless, it inspired the way in which Manuel in Fawlty Towers tries to help Basil but only makes it worse. For two hilarious Tony Viney anecdotes, one involving a milk delivery gone wrong and one involving a sick rabbit, pick up a copy of John Cleese’s book So, Anyway…

It’s a Hamster!

Cleese owned a pet hamster while at Cambridge. According to Alan Hutchison, when Martin Davies-Jones brought Alan around to Cleese’s residence to introduce him, they first spied Cleese through the window trying to wriggle under his bed. They didn’t know that he’d bought a hamster at the street market. Did this pet inspire a hamster-driven episode of Fawlty Towers titled “Basil the Rat?” Cleese does not specify in his book. Perhaps subconsciously.

Louder!

In his early theatre days, Cleese acted under the direction of Gene Saks in Half a Sixpence–Saks’s third Broadway play. In rehearsal, Saks drove Cleese to the brink of madness, stopping the show every few seconds to say, “Louder, John!” until he was screaming his lines at the top of his lungs. It’s this screaming that satisfied the director, but in retrospect, Cleese couldn’t help but see that he was right. He writes, “What Gene taught me in about sixty seconds was the vital importance of brute energy.” One can’t help but see that lesson carried out in some of Cleese’s more screamy roles, such as Basil Fawlty.

The English

Archie’s monologue in A Fish Called Wanda directly came out of a conversation Cleese had with his American wife Connie Booth. He was trying to explain to her why his friends didn’t ask her any questions about herself when they were having a dinner party. It was for the same reason that Archie tells the American woman Wanda that the English are all dead inside: “…being stifled by this dread of, of doing the wrong thing, of saying to someone, ‘Are you married?’ and hearing, ‘My wife left me this morning,’ or saying, ‘Do you have children?’ and being told they all burned to death on Wednesday. You see, Wanda, we’re all terrified of embarrassment.”

The Parrot Sketch

This anecdote is probably pretty well known by now, but the Monty Python’s Flying Circus Parrot Sketch originally took place in a car dealership, as inspired by an unfortunate car dealing between Michael Palin a man called Mr. Gibbons (no relation to Palin’s wife). When all was said and done, the seedy car salesman seemed cliched, so either Cleese or Chapman suggested moving it to a pet shop, and after brainstorming different animals, Chapman suggested a parrot because no one likes parrots, not even parrot owners.

The Cheese Shop Sketch

Finally, the origin of the Cheese Shop Sketch rests in lots and lots of vomit. After getting seasick on a boat and vomiting all over the camera when he should have been delivering his lines, Cleese couldn’t eat more than his namesake, a bit of cheese. (Yes, it’s true, the family name was Cheese, until his dad changed it to Cleese when he was in the army!) Looking for a place, Chapman pointed out the drug store, and Cleese wondered if they had any cheese. Chapman said, “If they did it would be medicinal cheese,” and from there spurred a conversation that gave birth to what you see today as The Cheese Shop Sketch.

So, Anyway… is available in hardcover and paperback. Read it to find out what prank John Cleese played with Chapman and a bunch of stuffed animals. Read it to find out which swear word he was the first person to say on British TV. Read it to find out which Cleese/Chapman sketch may have inspired Douglas Adams’ use of the number 42. Read it for these and many more reasons, not least because if you buy it from Powells at this link, you’ll be helping fund the continuance of Anglonerd magazine with no extra cost to you. Thank you in advance!

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