Fifty years ago today I met John Cleese. That’s odd isn’t it? I suppose most of you can’t even imagine what fifty years looks like. It’s hard for us to imagine time. Only the mirror tells its relentless tale. But yes, half a century ago, in February 1963, John Cleese walked into my life and, although I didn’t know it at the time, my life changed. Not immediately, but irrevocably.
Even odder was that I was performing his material when he first saw me. I had no idea who he was, or that, at 23, he was a senior member of The Footlights, for I was just a 19 year old freshman at Cambridge University and I had been chosen at the start of my second term to be in the Pembroke “Smoker.” A Smoking Concert is a College revue, in this case held annually in the Old Hall, and the only reason that John wasn’t on stage was that though he wined and dined in Pembroke nightly and everyone assumed he was at Pembroke, he wasn’t actually a member of the College. Pembroke had a great comedy tradition and it was not long since the great Peter Cook had reduced everyone to giggling heaps.
So, February 1963. This is even pre- Beatles! They are still getting hammered in Hamburg and we have never heard of them. Indeed we are only into “cool” jazz, Miles Davis, John Coltrane that sort of groove. Imagine, then, a not particularly large room, an ex-19th Century Library, with gabled windows and leaded glass, packed with tables and candles, undergraduates and their dates dressed to the nines, a lot of wine and a great deal of smoke. A small raised platform in one corner was the stage and on it performed the cast, led by Tim Brooke-Taylor and Bill Oddie (later to become The Goodies). There was one very funny girl (Carol), Jonathan Lynn, a pianist and one fresh faced young newcomer: me. One of the sketches was an Old Testament Newsreader played by Bill, called BBC BC.
“Good even. Here beginneth the first verse of the News. It has come to pass that the seven elders of the seven tribes have now been abiding in Sodom for seven days and seven nights. There seems little hope of an early settlement. A spokesman for the Tribes said only a miracle can save us now. The news in brief :Lamentations Four 18-22 and 2 Kings 14 2- 8
And now a look at the weather…
I played the Biblical Weather Forecaster.
“Good even. Well it’s been a pretty rough week in the Holy Land hasn’t it? Anyway let’s just take a quick look at the scroll. We’ve got a plague of locusts moving in here from the NW they’re going to be in the Tyre and Sidon area by about lunchtime tomorrow. Scattered outbreaks of fire and brimstone up here in Tarsus and down here in Hebron oh and possibly some mild thunderbolts force two to three in Gath. Down in the south, well Egypt has had a pretty nasty spell of it recently 17 or 18 days ago it was frogs followed by lice, flies: a murrain on the beasts, and last Tuesday locusts and now moving in from the SSE – boils. Further outlook for Egypt well two or three days of thick darkness lying over the face of the land – And then death of all the first born. Sorry about that Egypt.”
I didn’t know it at the time but that part was written by John Cleese for himself and afterwards in the euphoria a very tall man in a thick tweed suit with dark hair and piercing dark eyes was introduced to me by Humphrey Barclay. He was very kind and complimentary, and indeed encouraging, for both of them urged me to come along and audition for The Footlights at their next Smoker. I had never heard of The Footlights, A University Revue Club founded in 1883, but it seemed like a fun thing to do and a month later Jonathan Lynn and I were voted in by the Committee, after having faced the ordeal of performing live to a packed crowd of comedy buffs on the slightly more glamorous Footlights stage, in the private Footlights Club, above fishy smelling MacFisheries. I remember the sketch played surprisingly well, and one strange detail: in the front row, lounging on a sofa laughing rather drunkenly with some Senior Fellows was Kingsley Amis.
I soon adapted to Footlights Club life. We had our own private bar which opened at ten at night and stayed open as long as we wanted. (Pubs closed at 10.30) Lunches were provided inexpensively on the premises and twice a term there were Smoking Concerts where one could try out new material. I soon learned a very valuable lesson in performing, for one day I picked up a headmaster sketch by John and read it and didn’t find it very amusing. That night he performed it and killed. Brought the place to a standstill. So much is confidence, and how you do it. That was the most valuable thing about The Footlights: learning the art of writer/performing by watching and doing. That year’s Annual Revue, which ran for two weeks during May Week at The Arts Theatre, was the funniest thing I had seen since Beyond The Fringe. It was called A Clump of Plinths, a very Cleese kind of title, and John stood out head and shoulders amongst a great cast. The thing was that, unlike the others, he never ever let on that he was being funny. He was always deadly serious, the deadest of deadpans. I watched in amazement and sheer joy. The show toured the UK and then was picked up by Michael White and put into the West End under the title Cambridge Circus. (How could I possibly imagine Spamalot would open at the same theater 44 years later?) By then the gangly pipe-smoking Graham Chapman had joined the cast and they would take the same show to Broadway, and then run off Broadway for several months.
This gave me my big break, for they were supposed to go to the Edinburgh Festival in mid-August and urgently needed a replacement cast. Humphrey Barclay sent me a telegram which, amazingly, found me hitch-hiking around Germany. I was requested to report immediately to Cambridge for rehearsals. We took that same material to Edinburgh under the title Footlights ’63 and were a smash hit, attracting rave reviews from the top London critics. “They attract admiration as effortlessly as the sun attracts the flowers” (Harold Hobson, Sunday Times.) Amazing how you never forget those first reviews! By then we were living in a cold-water walk-up flat six stories up and girls were beginning to play songs by something called The Beatles…..
At that same Festival we checked out the Oxford Revue (our rivals) and there I first met the lovely, funny, Terry Jones. A year later at the same venue I met the unforgettable Michael Palin. Albeit unknowingly by September 1964 all the future Pythons (save for the wild card American animator) had met and admired each other.
A couple of years later we were all writing professionally for The Frost Report, a very funny live TV show in which John starred. And the rest is history. Well social history. Well comedy history. Which may very well not actually be history at all but which changed the face of my life.
And now we’re still here, and it’s amazing to look back and think about it all. So thank you John, for all the laughs, all the funny material, all the support and great lessons in comedy which you generously gave to all of us who had the pleasure of performing with you.
You were always the funniest, and always the most serious. I am eternally grateful for the trip.