In the first part of this retrospective we looked at John Cleese's upbringing in the UK seaside town of Weston-super-Mare and his impressive academic career that saw him enter the elitist Cambridge University to study law; although he slipped in to show biz - first with the touring Cambridge Footlights and later working as a script writer for radio and television.

However his big break came when he came together with Co-writers/performers Terry Jones, Graham Chapman, Michael Palin, Eric Idle and Terry Gilliam to form the legendary Monty Python's Flying Circus in 1969.

Imagine the scene - if you will - of six young comedy writers around a table trying to form and agree scripts for a revolutionary and groundbreaking new television series. Like six dogs brought together for the first time, the growling, sniffing and the establishment of working habits took some time to get right.

Despite being roughly the same age and enjoying the same sort of crazy humour, the team were from different parts of the country and had a different outlook on life generally. The Welshman Jones, in particular, sheered at Cleese's snobbery and commercialism - which was to manifest itself in a long line of adverts and voice-overs. Many writers have based an article on Cleese's (supposed) love of money.

Palin remembers Cleese as the most bored of the outfit - often openly yawning and wristwatch glancing at group conferences. Occasionally he would ask for the others opinions in a way that suggested that this was only for show, his mind was already made up. There was even a suggestion that his laughter (at the material of others) was merely theatrical.

However he is not against collaborative writing now or then. "Coming up with something as a team that you would never have achieved alone - that is the real joy of working with others." He told a TV interviewer later.

The script approval system was based around the "black ball" system - which comes from the way English gentlemen's clubs select members - in which if one member did not like it, that was not enough for the sketch to be stopped, but two was enough for it to be shelved there and then. Sketches could be stopped at any time later down the line and it is clear that some material (although not much) was subject to the BBC's famous "blue pencil."

Cleese laid down a rule that the sketches must have "internal logic" (however crazy the people may be there must be thread of logic to them. For example, if one member was dressed up as a fish - the others had to be dressed in the same manner) and would often read bible chapters (which later inspired the Life Of Brian film) and thesauruses for inspiration.

Another technique was for one of the members to spurt out something wild of ridiculous off the top of their heads like "the sex life of a traffic warden" or "how to form a good lynch mob." The idea would go around the room until the idea formed itself in to something (to be worked on later) or be dropped completely.

The show was generally low budget, so outdoor scenes were something of a luxury and the such scenes had to be concluded in a couple of weeks a season. According to Cleese these scenes were always concluded at some dull and out of the way location. The team generally liked sport, so many outdoor sketches involved sport or physical interaction.
(Cleese played both cricket and soccer (although neither very well) and at one point had bowled the former England cricket star Dennis Compton out. To this day he will discus sport at length and hurry away from a party or event in order to watch some "important sporting event" on television.)

Monty Python generally wrote in pairs and to this day who-wrote-what debates still rages. Cleese was the most experienced writer and the more pragmatic of the group, having written extensively for television and radio and was testy about the groups ability to waste time on in-jokes and arguments over single words and phrases.

In his radio days Cleese was noted for being able to knock out material quickly (perhaps in a couple of days) and then take time off to visit friends and enjoy himself. The Pythons become the first project in which he had to work a full five days out of the seven.

(Later he would form a successful video training film company - Video Arts - that would draw upon some the scenes that confronted him and the producers. One film was, pertinently, called "Meetings, Bloody Meetings.")

Looking back over the complete four series (Cleese only took part in three) - when the show was to be released on video - Cleese stated that the shows often looked a bit threadbare and under-rehearsed. While some of the sketches have become classic - such as the "Dead Parrot Sketch" and the "Ministry of Silly Walks (Cleese has without doubt the funniest "silly" walk in the world - although he did not write the "Ministry Sketch") many are dated and lack a proper ending.

Cleese told a TV interviewer that at the time he only knew one thing about the show: "It wouldn't work in the USA..." The fact that it did and brought in countless millions from films, books, videos and serial rights continues to astound him. Certainly many jokes fly over the head of the American viewer that is not steeped in English life.

For example, the "Upper Class Twit Of The Year" sketch was inspired by Chapman's flat in Kensington where braying-car-door-slamming, shotgun carrying "Hooray Henry" characters actually existed. The outside audience can only respond to the silliness.

Cleese height and baring often made him the natural authority figure of the group. He would be the crazy PT instructor, ministry official or legal barrister (which technically he was) and it is notable that he was a more a custard pie thrower than a custard pie taker - in one sketch, built around a fish slapping dance, he hits Palin in to a freezing (and very dirty) canal with a large fish.

There was more than a hint of cruelty in some of his treatment of the fellow Pythons although it only broke down in to real violence once when - as a gag - he stole Graham Chapman's pipe pre-show. Realising this was Chapman's security blanket, he watched with pleasure as he searched in vain for what was safely in his back pocket. Eventually Cleese tired of the game and handed the pipe back to Chapman who repaid him by kneeing him in the groin!

When Cleese walked out after Series Three (the show lasted four) many presumed that this would be the end of Cleese as a Python. However he agreed to come together to make the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail made in 1974. The group had made a film (And Now For Something Completely Different) earlier in which they had recreated some of there best material for the wide-screen. As a record of their work it is valuable, but it left most of the existing fans feeling a little cheated.

The Holly Grail was made for next to nothing and some its gags, such as not riding horses but walking, came from practical reality. Many of Pythons could not ride, and even if taught, horses are notorious for never standing still in the manner required for film. Some of the funding came from the rock group The Pink Floyd who were big fans.

The film saw Cleese play and variety of roles from a mad Frenchman to a "Black Knight" - a model for all his Python films, he never played the same role right through. The low budget was to be a major advantage to the Pythons who worked for a token fee and a share of the profits. The film was soon a big hit in the all-important USA.

The Life Of Brian (1979) came from the days of reading the bible for inspiration and its first title (thought up by Idle) was "Jesus - Lust For Glory." Many ideas were thrown around, including that the film would actually be about Jesus and the prophets - but in the end the film was about someone (Brian) who was mistaken for Jesus. Cleese's role in the writing of the script was minimal although he had originally hoped to be the lead (he was talked out of it), later playing his routine collection of smaller roles.

Cleese later told friends that Jesus himself was not the stuff of good comedy; "he was kindly figure and had none of the things that makes good comedy: Envy, greed, malice, avarice, lust and stupidity." Filming in Tunisia the cast used sets that were left overs from other productions and the crew had to endure hellish hotel conditions. Once again the cast and crew made the film look bigger than the actual budget.

Brian got a lot of free publicity due to critics that took exception to some of its religious imagery and the film was even banned in several places in the UK. Nevertheless it critical and audience success made the group decide to make one last film - that would turn in to The Meaning Of Life.

Glowing with the success of Brian the group tried to bring together a plot that covered all aspects of British life from public schools to the fight for the (British) Empire. The film has all the hallmarks of being under-worked and the film ended up as a series of unconnected sketches - many of the them second rate and some of them cruel and nasty. The only part of the film Cleese likes is a part in which Jones plays a fat man that explodes (literally!) having eaten just one chocolate mint too many.

(This say plenty about Cleese's sense of humour and his lapses in to bad taste and the puerile. As I noted before, some sketches end of the cutting room floor having not got past the BBC - and a broadcast sketch where Cleese talks about eating his granny "and then throwing up in to a grave" are clearly intended to shock rather than amuse.)

The mixed reviews for Meaning Of Life and moderate audiences probably mean that this was the last Python film. Certainly the magic had deserted the troupe who had had, by then, received one too many slaps on the back. The live concerts, in which they played ultra-safe, were nothing more than love-ins, the audience laughing before the punchlines were even delivered.

The truth is that only Cleese as a writer and Gilliam as a director have ever hit the heights - the others, left to their own devices, would have struggled to be anything more than workaday writers or performers. Some of the later-day work of Eric Idle is so poor as to be unwatchable - although he is often handsomely rewarded for it.

The writer that Cleese admires more than any other is Palin, who has the best ability to be spontaneous and likeable on set. The pair worked together on a TV special called "How To Really Annoy People" (very much Python - although it predates it), but the two rarely wrote together - much to Cleese regret.

Certainly writing partner Chapman's frightening drinking abilities (although cured in later life) meant the Chapman/Cleese combo was often, in reality, only Cleese - some claim it was the reason Cleese walked out before the fourth series. Certainly one of the advantages of writing/meeting at Chapman's Kensington apartment (an upmarket London residential area) was that was the only sure-fire way for him to be present - if only physically.

Finding a stable partner (David Sherlock) probably saved Chapman for an even earlier death. He died in 1989 (almost twenty years to the day after the Python's first met in an Indian restaurant in London's Soho district) of spinal cancer.

(C) Peter Hayes 2003

Last updated 3.4.2005