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The uncomfortable truth about John Cleese

I have a theory: John Cleese is actually Basil Fawlty. Brawny, batty Basil Fawlty. I don’t know when he transformed into his most beloved creation, or if it was always a part of his alter ego, aching to jump out at the first opportunity. He’s always been a bit cranky – the other Pythons have considered them unnecessarily difficult, and prone to bursts of egomania unbefitting of an alternative comedian – but recently he’s veered into the bylines of racial hatred, buoyed by a sense of dispensation that’s obnoxiously English at its worst. In some ways, he’s behaving worse than Morrissey, because the former Smiths singer has some redeeming features, whether it’s celebrating a united Ireland or advocating the virtues of vegetarianism in a way that’s unvarnished and hard-hitting.

Morrissey’s 2014 World Peace Is None Of Your Business restored some of the singer’s artistic cachet, tying together some of the unused melodies stockpiled in his drawers under a turbo-charged desire to change the politics of the world. None of this excuses his public support of For Britain, or his cruel depiction of Mike Joyce in his stiflingly written memoir, but Morrissey has shown artistic merit in recent times, making it easy to defend his art instead of the artist.

If Cleese has written anything of note since the 1990s, he’s kept it from the public, and his last feature, Fierce Creatures, stands as the writings of a middle-aged man aching to claw back some level of fame. Since then, he’s appeared in a series of badly-written features, offering a selection of puffy impersonations of Basil Fawlty in a desperate effort to maintain a level of popularity.

Unlike Michael Palin, Cleese seems determined to maintain a celebrity that is neither earned nor wanted, and for reasons related to his fading limelight, Cleese has affected a more aggressive persona in his newfound position as the “Grandfather of British Comedy”. Between anecdotes about Goons Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers, Cleese started making caustic remarks about what he saw as a disappearing England. “I’m not sure what’s going on in Britain,” he declared in 2011. “Let me say this, I don’t know what’s going on in London because London is no longer an English city and that’s how they got the Olympics. ”

Cleese always valued the essence of stability in forming a nation’s values, but his comments seemed hypocritical, when he spent so much time writing about America, or working with American actors (his best performances stemmed from duels with Connie Booth and Kevin Kline, giving him the chance to perfect his portrait of an ingrained Englishman, searching for freedom beyond the Irish sea.)

Cleese gets credit for representing the obsolescent, obtuse British ex-pat in familiar terrain, but Cleese made a concerted effort to distance himself from his creations in Life of Brian and A Fish Called Wanda in interviews, suggesting they were emblems of an environment that was flitting from plausible to painful. But it was growing harder to separate Cleese from his work when he came out with such inflammatory comments, which reared their ugly head during the Brexit referendum.

“I don’t want to be run by a bunch of European bureaucrats because they always look after themselves first,” cried the former Python, leading Terry Gilliam – the only member of the comedy troupe born outside of Britain – to lambast his former colleague in public. At times, Cleese seemed determined to rile his critics up, writing strongly typed tweets that were determined to upset some of his more liberal fans who were following his page in the hope of getting a silly gag, gesture or walk (although given his advanced age , I think we can let Cleese off with the last one.)

Sometimes, Cleese was only expressing an opinion, but other times, it was entirely his own doing. For some strange reason, he seemed determined to make derisory comments about the Celtic nations that helped build England he held so dear in his heart. Scotland, he felt, was a nation of “half-educated tenement” people running the English presses, and Ireland, he tweeted, were a nation of people who were unable to “spell” their names properly. They were cruel comments designed to put down the neighbors that had helped put his country on the map, and suddenly some of the jokes made in the 1970s – the bumbling Irish builder in Fawlty Towersor Cleese’s incessant mocking of Terry Jones’ Welsh background in interviews – were now the words of a seemingly committed xenophobe and not the edgy genius that the comedy world had established him as.

There’s no greater indication of Cleese’s lack of compassion for minorities than his outrage towards the BBC who decided to remove one scene from Fawlty Towers, given some of the (unprintable) epithets uttered by the characters. “I would have hoped that someone at the BBC would understand that there are two ways of making fun of human behavior,” wrote the Monty Python actor. “One is to attack it directly. The other is to have someone who is patently a figure of fun, speak up on behalf of that behavior. ”

This suggests that Cleese wishes to return to a Britain where he could make fun of other people, bolstered by the British taxpayers’ unending support. If you were cynical you might say he wishes he could return to the 1970s, safe in the arms of Basil Fawlty. Because, maybe, he might actually be Basil Fawlty?

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