cleese“I made my first public appearance on the stairs up to the school nurse’s room, at St Peter’s Preparatory School, Weston-super-Mare, Somerset, England, on 13 September 1948.”

I have a pretty broad taste when it comes to comedy, enjoying in equal measure the utter surrealism of The Goon Show, the smart, political wit of Yes, Minister, and the observational humour of Peter Kay. (Although not all comedy tickles my fancy – I still don’t understand the popularity of The Mighty Boosh.) Much of this comes from my dad, I think. He was the right age in the sixties and seventies to enjoy all the best sitcoms and as such, pass them down to me, imbuing within me a love as strong as his own for things like Dad’s Army, The Good Life, Blackadder, and The Two Ronnies. (Again, there are gaps in this knowledge – I never understood what he saw in Bottom, and neither of us ever felt much affection for Only Fools and Horses.) Two shows, however, are definite stand out favourites: Fawlty Towers and Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

John Cleese is, of course, one of the driving forces behind both of these behemoths of the comedy landscape and upon news of him releasing his memoirs, I excitedly picked them up and readied myself to dive into his life story.

Born in Weston-super-Mare in 1939, Cleese lived a charmed but somewhat sheltered childhood in the West Country, with a father who adored him and a mother who was always slightly distant. The first half of the book details his education, including his brief stint as a teacher and his time at Cambridge. The second half focuses on his sidestep into show business – he had studied law and criminology at university – and he writes with great humour about a life that seems to have had its hardships, but mostly has been fun, exciting and graced with luck.

It’s a good read, and it’s definitely funny, showing why he is one of the best comedy writers of his generation (if not all time), peppered throughout with sketches and details about his time working with some of the other biggest names in comedy at the time. Aside from the other Pythons, he also worked with Ronnies Barker and Corbett, David Frost, Nicholas Smith, all three of the Goodies, Peter Sellers, and many more. He hasn’t much bad to say about any of them, meaning his few fleeting negative comments about Bill Oddie and Terry Jones stand out like a Norwegian Blue in a white snowscape. The passages about his best friend and former writing partner Graham Chapman are particularly heartening.

I have come away from the book with the feeling that he is overall a very nice man who finds it hard to say no, understands that he is funny, has a great thirst for knowledge – something I particularly admire – and a firm work ethic. He dislikes few people, is self-deprecating but never overly so, and is generally awkwardly British. However, I also came away somewhat disappointed.

Like many people reading this, I mostly went into it to find out more about the workings of his greatest legacies. However, in a book that is 404 pages long, the Monty Python team doesn’t form until page 383. Fawlty Towers is mentioned only a few times and none of his marriages (save to that of Connie Booth) are discussed. It isn’t a bad biography – it’s very enjoyable and interesting, as is the man himself – but it cuts off just at the part we’re all probably gagging to hear about. Maybe this is the point – maybe we’ve all heard so much about his hits that he doesn’t want to retread old ground. I can understand that.

Or are we, then, to expect a sequel, whereby he deals with the events with the Pythons and the creation of Basil Fawlty? One hopes so, but the book ends with a brief discussion of the 2014 revival show, suggesting that there won’t be. It would be a great shame as, while I know people will lap up this book, they would probably love that even more.

So please don’t take this as a bad review. It’s really well written, and Cleese’s humour and sense of fun pervades throughout. I just found myself left hanging.

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