Review: SO, ANYWAY… by John Cleese (Doubleday)

CleeseJ-SoAnywayAn interesting, if surprising biography

Candid and brilliantly funny, this is the story of how a tall, shy youth from Weston-super-Mare went on to become a self-confessed legend. En route, John Cleese describes his nerve-racking first public appearance, at St Peter’s Preparatory School at the age of eight and five-sixths; his endlessly peripatetic home life with parents who seemed incapable of staying in any house for longer than six months; his first experiences in the world of work as a teacher who knew nothing about the subjects he was expected to teach; his hamster-owning days at Cambridge; and his first encounter with the man who would be his writing partner for over two decades, Graham Chapman. And so on to his dizzying ascent via scriptwriting for Peter Sellers, David Frost, Marty Feldman and others to the heights of Monty Python.

Punctuated from time to time with John Cleese’s thoughts on topics as diverse as the nature of comedy, the relative merits of cricket and waterskiing, and the importance of knowing the dates of all the kings and queens of England, this is a masterly performance by a former schoolmaster.

This biography was not at all what I was expecting. For one thing, Monty Python plays a relatively tiny part in the story. Instead of So, Anyway…, this book could easily have been called “The Road to Monty Python”. Despite this, I found it interesting and, after Cleese moved on to his university days, absolutely engaging.

The book doesn’t really require a long review. If you have any interest in the history of British comedy in the few years Cleese covers, then this is a must-read. The first chapter had plenty of laughs, which meant I was quickly pulled in. However, the pacing is very gentle, and I soon became just a little frustrated at what felt like over-long accounts of his school days. (At the same time, some of the events from these years did influence Cleese’s later work, so they are not uninteresting.)

The members of Monty Python make appearances, of course, as Cleese ended up working with each of them at one time or another on his other projects. So, too, does Connie Booth – which makes perfect sense, as they were married. (However, the events covered by the book unfortunately do not go as far as the Fawlty Towers years.) I was also surprised to learn that Cleese spent quite some time working in New York before his career really took off in the UK.

Graham Chapman features far more prominently, of course, as the two went to university together and quickly developed a working/writing partnership – one that they maintained for decades, including during Chapman’s time at medical school. Cleese writes about Graham with great affection throughout: whether discussing their odd working habits, Graham’s occasionally odd outbursts, and especially the pranks they pulled on one another. (Sadly, quotation guidelines/laws prohibit me from quoting my two favourites, as they’re quite long.)

The memoir is filled with interesting and amusing observations about writing comedy and working in/writing for film and TV; life in 1960s Britain and New York; and also great portraits of some of the greats – David Frost, Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe; the British middle class (“The middle-class mind was endlessly creative when imagining potential pitfalls”). Cleese offers plenty of observations on the times, the industry and his colleagues. Always honest, he doesn’t shy away from the less impressive moments, but nor does he linger over any of them.

As I live in Toronto, I thought I would share Cleese’s one comment on the city:

“I found Toronto an immensely likeable city, spacious and gentle and slightly dignified, but in a low-key, friendly way. The only people who didn’t seem to think much of it were its inhabitants, who could hardly wait for you to ask directions, because that gave them the perfect opportunity to apologise for it. What they were apologising for I never understood. I think they felt uninteresting, compared with America. I took the opposite view; I remember reading about the doctrine of American “Exceptionalism” and thinking that what I liked so much about Canadians was that they consider themselves unexceptional. This modest, unthreatening attitude seems to produce a nation that is stable, safe, decent and well respected. It’s just a shame that for seven months of the year it’s so cold that only Canadians would put up with it.”

Do I wish there had been more about the Python years, the superb Life of Brian and Holy Grail? Absolutely. I also wish there had been more coverage of Cleese’s post-Python years – A Fish Called Wanda and Fawlty Towers in particular, but also his other projects like the Bond movies and Fierce Creatures. The final page of the biography, in a chapter mostly about the 2014 reunion performances in London (in which he speaks very highly and affectionately of the surviving Pythons and also the much-missed Chapman), hints that there might be more to come. I for one certainly hope there is.

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