A Minute With: John Cleese on appeal of "Fawlty Towers"

LONDON (Reuters) - It’s been more than 30 years since John Cleese made his television classic “Fawlty Towers” and the British comedian is just as proud of it now as when he helped create the series in the 1970s.

British actor John Cleese performs during dress rehearsals for his new one man show at the Oslo Concert House October 2, 2009. REUTERS/Bjorn Sigurdson/Scanpix

The 69-year-old, also well known for his part in the Monty Python phenomenon and the 1988 movie “A Fish Called Wanda,” has been on tour in Norway with a one-man show.

The BBC is releasing “Fawlty Towers: Remastered (DVD)” later in the month. Cleese talked with Reuters about “Fawlty Towers,” his career and the possibility of working with Michael Palin again.

Q: Why are you in Oslo with a one-man show?

A: “There’s not much work around at the moment. My agent told me last week that it was the worst year for his clients that he could remember in films. You can do television, but unless you want to tie yourself up for five years, which is what the American sitcoms require, you basically can do interesting documentaries for which you don’t get paid.

“Then the speeches that I normally do are drying up because of the economic climate. So short of busking in Covent Garden there is quite seriously a sort of (question): ‘Where is the money going to come from?’ So the answer is I resuscitated the one-man show because I got a very, very generous offer from Norway. I was a little surprised until somebody told me they’d got the best economy in Europe because they are sitting on all that oil. So I’m getting paid twice for a performance what I get for a show in California. Good old Norwegians.”

Q: It sounds odd hearing a big name in entertainment talking about the lack of work.

A: “I don’t think anyone is (getting work). In the old days the movie companies were owned by people who loved movies ... The independents who normally offer people interesting roles apparently don’t have any money at all.

“And it doesn’t make much sense my trying to do comedy in English television because once you’ve done Monty Python and Fawlty Towers almost anything you do people are going to say, ‘Well it’s all right but it’s not as good as.’

Q: The BBC is re-releasing the “Fawlty Towers” collection. Why is its appeal so lasting?

A: “I’m afraid it’s because they are good. When (co-star and ex-wife) Connie (Booth) and I wrote them we took about six weeks to write each episode, which is unheard of. People who care a lot spend 10 days, most people do it in a week. But the fact is, we used to write 135 to 140 pages (per episode) ... There was so much in the shows that people could watch them a lot of times because they would forget the things that are in them ... And secondly, in the character Basil we nailed a certain kind of English lower-middle-class type who people are aware of and who, I think, does exist in quite a lot of people.”

Q: Why did you not make more than two series, given its success at the time?

A: “Someone asked me once ‘Did you enjoy it?’ with reference to the second series, and I said there wasn’t time. It was incredibly stressful trying to learn those 135 pages in five days because you’re not just learning the words and all the actions, you’re learning how to play everything ... That’s a lot of learning and five days is not enough.

“What Connie and I felt is that when we had done the second series, well that’s the best we could do and if we try and do any more people will probably say ‘Well, that was really quite good but it wasn’t as good as the others.’”

Q: Given what you’ve just said, where can your career go?

A: “I’ve got a couple of projects at the moment. I’ve got a very good story which I’ve been working one with my old friend (Lisa Hogan) ... And the other thing I am doing which amuses me immensely is doing the musical version of ‘A Fish Called Wanda’.

Q: There has been talk of you teaming up again with Michael Palin. Is that true?

A: “We’d love to do that but we’re not quite sure what it is. We had dinner ... and we were talking about what fun, but I think one of the problems is with me living in California most of the time and him living in London. I don’t know how we write it ourselves. But if somebody came up with something it would be great fun.”

Editing by Jill Serjeant and Patricia Reaney