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. – Goodreads
I’m on a bit of a memoir kick lately, so when I was given the opportunity to review John Cleese’s new autobiography, I jumped at the chance. I’m going to assume that most of you know who this legend is, but in case you don’t, he’s a British comic actor and writer, and one of the brilliant minds behind Monty Python. He also co-wrote and starred in Fawlty Towers, a sit-com about a hotel owner who finds himself in the most hilarious and absurd of situations while trying to run the hotel effectively and keep his wife happy.
But Cleese is much more than comic relief. He’s smart, educated, and an excellent writer. The book begins at the very beginning and traces Cleese’s life from early childhood through school, his early involvement in theatre, his time at Cambridge (where he completed a law degree), his decision to pursue writing and performing in comedy skits, and how that led to a full and successful career as a comic genius.
What really struck me about Cleese’s story was just how normal it all seemed. Even when he got into working for the BBC and performing in New York. He talks about his work as just that – a job. No sense of hubris, no self-importance. He found something he enjoyed doing, that he had skill for, and he worked hard at it – often surprised by his own success. He is a polite, civilized, professional who approached every facet of his career with integrity.
The majority of the book deals with the relatively early years of his career – pre-Monty Python. Perhaps he feels that this was the more important era in his career, perhaps writing made him feel nostalgic for his early years in show biz – before celebrity culture became a monster that makes stars into a different species from us everyday folk. One thing I really admire about British actors like Cleese, Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Rowan Atkinson, Helen Mirren etc., is that they have all earned their fame by being outstanding and working hard at their craft. Fame was a by-product. It’s a refreshing perspective after being bombarded with tabloid journalism and story after story about which stars had plastic surgery on a daily basis.
I’m glad I read this book. I knew very little about Cleese before reading it, and he’s definitely someone worth taking the time to get to know. It wasn’t quite as funny as I expected, but it’s certainly not dry. For any fan of British comedy, Cleese or down-to-earth celebrity personas, this is a book worth checking out.
Author: John Cleese
Published By: Doubleday Canada
Released: November 4, 2014
Genre: Memoir, Acting, Humour
Date Read: November 5-23, 2014