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The Independent

Voices: The sad truth is, John Cleese just isn’t funny any more

By David Lister,


“Don’t mention the war!” And please, please don’t mention reviving the brilliant sitcom that gave birth to that phrase.

But reviving the show has been mentioned by its creator, John Cleese . More than mentioned. He announced yesterday that he is bringing back Fawlty Towers . He will be writing it with his daughter, Camilla, a comedian, who will also star in the revival. The executive producer will be Rob Reiner of Spinal Tap fame.

How my heart sank when I learned of this. Not because I disliked Fawlty Towers , but the opposite – because I loved it and continue to love it. I saw it when it came out in the 1970s. I have watched all 12 episodes many, many times since, and I still watch it. It’s the perfect programme to relax to, even now, and amazingly it still has me in fits of laughter even after repeated viewings.

Who can tire of the beautifully constructed plots, the pure farce, the situations that the paranoid, social-climbing Basil found himself in – trying to hide the corpse of a guest who died in the night, trying to hide a pet rat from a hotel inspector, assuming a psychiatrist guest was interested in his sex-life, falling out with an American guest who demanded orange juice “from an orange, not from a bottle”? One could go on and on.

One of the reasons that it touched perfection is because Cleese and his original co-writer, his then wife Connie Booth, ignored public cries for more and stopped while they were ahead, limiting it to two seasons. That was a masterstroke. So many other much-loved comedies didn’t know when to say goodbye. Remember the brilliant first season of Absolutely Fabulous and the self-indulgent mess it became by the time of its fifth series?

Bringing Fawlty Towers back after all this time is a bad idea, a “rotter” to use one of Basil’s words from the very first episode when he was trying to speak like an aristocrat. Firstly, it will not have his original and unsung co-writer. Secondly and crucially, Fawlty Towers was never just about Basil. It was about his interaction with the other protagonists: his long-suffering wife Sybil played by Prunella Scales, the sensible and enigmatic Polly played by Booth, the accident-prone Manuel, a memorable creation from Andrew Sachs, even the perfectly formed cast of minor characters, the permanent hotel residents like the reactionary “Major” and the timid old ladies.

If 83-year old Cleese is now thinking that Fawlty Towers can be just about Basil and not about the vital interaction with the others, then he is suffering from the vanity of an old man with a selective memory.

And that inevitably leads to the other, key problem with the concept of a revival – John Cleese himself. For, in recent years Cleese, shortly to join GB News, has become something of a toxic and divisive figure ; a curmudgeon. His tweets and other public pronouncements are always negative about the world around him, just as his self-styled “alimony tour” a decade ago was negative about one of his ex-wives, showing a film clip of her “helping herself to my money” from a cash machine.

A man in a time-warp, he didn’t appear to have noticed that times had changed since the 1970s, and it was misogynistic to refer to joint income as “his” money. Even after divorce, his ex was entitled to call whatever she was awarded hers. In those same shows he referred to that ex, Alyce Faye Eichelberger, as “a cross between Bluebeard and Heather Mills”, a line that would probably have been rejected for Fawlty Towers .

He also showed himself blithely out of touch with modern Britain when, from his Caribbean home, he appeared to denounce multi-culturalism, saying in 2019 that, “London is not an English city any more.” After criticism, he gave a qualified but not very successful apology, saying, “I suspect I should apologise for my affection for the Englishness of my upbringing, but in some ways I found it calmer, more polite, more humorous, less tabloid, and less money-oriented than the one that is replacing it.”

He has ironically enough, become rather like his most famous creation, but without the ability to make us roar with laughter. I consider Cleese to be one of the most gifted comic writers and comic actors of the 20th century. Monty Python and Fawlty Towers attest to that, as does his earlier work on David Frost’s show and a few subsequent works like the hugely funny 1988 film, A Fish Called Wanda . But can you name anything he has done in the last 30 years to remotely compare with those strokes of brilliance?

Whisper it, but it is possible that John Cleese is simply nowhere near as funny as he was . And should a man who is nowhere near as funny as he was be trusted to revive a revered show?

But the biggest reason for leaving it untouched was given in an interview four years ago with The Independent. An interview by one John Cleese.

He said: “If I ever tried to do a Fawlty Towers -type sitcom again, everyone would say, ‘Well, it’s got its moments, but it’s not as good as Fawlty Towers ’, so there’s not much point in doing that. You have to do different things.”

Too right, John. Stick to that sentiment. Of course, it’s nice to do a project with your daughter and potentially fun to do a sitcom about a misanthrope trying to navigate today’s world, which I understand is the intention of the revival. But find another title, another character, another name. Don’t mess with our memories. And don’t mess with your own legacy, as the creator and star of the most perfect sitcom ever written. And on a personal level... lighten up.

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