John Cleese is one of our best-loved comedians and the scene above is taken from the work that most defined his career :- Fawlty Towers. Yet this wonderful show almost never got made. It's a fascinating story and it features key events in Cleese's central, defining, mid-life 'Year of Revolution' at 36.
The idea for the show came from a real-life couple, who ran a hotel in Torquay. Cleese and his former wife and co-writer, Connie Booth, actually stayed there in 1971. Cleese saw this as an opportunity to break away from Monty Python, which was a highly-contrived (but hugely popular) ensemble sketch comedy. This was to become an adaptation of French farce, complete with multi-layered characterisations. He wrote an early prototype of Basil Fawlty in an episode of Doctor At Large soon after.
However it was not until 1974, that John Cleese, who was to play Basil, sent the BBC the script for the pilot episode. Cleese stated in an interview :- “The fellow whose job it was to assess the quality of the writing said, ‘This is full of clichéd situations and stereotypical characters, and I cannot see it being anything other than a disaster. You're going to have to get them out of the hotel, John, you can't do the whole thing in the hotel'. Whereas, of course, it's in the hotel that the whole pressure cooker builds up."
Eventually Cleese was given the OK to write the scripts. Bill Cotton, Head of Light Entertainment for BBC said he could see nothing funny in them and told him it would never get made on a commercial channel. Cotton said he only agreed to go to production, because he had some trust in Cleese's track record. Cleese was paid only 6,000 pounds for 43 weeks of exhausting work (one episode alone took four months and 10 drafts). This was not enough to live on, so he supplemented his income by doing ads.
Then it got screened and became an instant hit? No, that was pure wish fulfillment. The first six episodes were screened in Sept./Oct.1975 to a poor critical rating :- “The initial response was kind of puzzled,” says Cleese. “The Daily Mirror’s headline was, ‘Long John Short of Jokes’". The series also failed to attract many viewers, with an audience of only around 2 million. I think we could be agreed, that things weren't going well, and the BBC would have been pointing it's collective finger at Cleese. What, I hear you ask, has all this got to do with 'Life Cycles'?
Well John Cleese was born 27th. Oct. 1939, which meant in the middle of all this disappointing news he turned 36 (the last episode, in fact, screened on 24th. Oct.). This was supposed to be his central, career-defining 'Year of Revolution', but it sure didn't look that way. The first positive thing to happen a little while later, however, was when humourist Alan Coren wrote a glowing appreciation and then there was a slow word of mouth spread, so the BBC decided to give it another try in Feb. 1976. This time it took off with audience figures of 12 million and fans were dying for more by the end. This now began the triumphant reign of John 'Basil Fawlty' Cleese. No longer just part of the Python ensemble, but a stand-alone feature performer of what has been described as the finest sit-com ever written. It was to usher in his 'golden age', no question about it.
Here's a quick question for you. What other leading sit-com comic, whom I have featured in this blog, and in my book, also had the exact same sequence of 'almost never getting the show made and then getting poor initial reviews'? That would be Jerry Seinfeld. His big breakthrough moment also happened in his age 36 'Year of Revolution', when The Seinfeld Show was brought back as a mid-season replacement, after bad reviews and audience responses to its first screening. You should check that out sometime. So 'Life Cycles' evidence is not only widespread, but it's comprehensive in its coverage of details.
However we are not done yet with Mr.Cleese as the post title says 'Revolutions', plural. So if his mid-career identity was as a solo TV performer/writer ushered in with Fawlty, what happened to him 12 years later at his age 48, later mid-life, 'Year of Revolution' (Oct. 1987 to Oct. 1988)? This often marks a direction change and new age in lives I analyse. Well, would you believe, this corresponds exactly with his hugely successful movie A Fish Called Wanda (released in Jun. 1988), which he co-wrote, had a hand in directing and starred in? In other words it was totally his baby and he has unsurprisingly said it is his favorite movie to have performed in.
The movie received an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor (Kevin Klein), as well as nominations for Best Screenplay/Best Director and collected a BAFTA award. It came in at No. 37 on a list of best comedy films ever made. This again defined him as a lead movie actor, just as Fawlty Towers had defined him as a feature sit-com TV star. I have often seen the age 48 'Year of Revolution' usher in an era of reduced success, in different ways, in many other cases I study. It was to happen later on to Cleese, when tried to duplicate his success with a follow-up movie Fierce Creatures in 1997. It was a failure both critically and with audiences. Cleese himself said :- "making this movie was a mistake".
Finally let's go backwards in time to when Cleese was in his age 24, first adult 'Year of Revolution' (Oct. 1963 to Oct. 1964). Would this year come to define his first career identity? Let's check on this shall we? Cleese graduated from Cambridge in Law in 1963 and despite his continued interest in the Cambridge Footlights Revue (where he met his future Python co-writer Graham Chapman), his father still sent him details of management jobs he could apply for.
However, the Cambridge Footlights was renamed Cambridge Circus (cast shown at left) and after success at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, it got picked up to open in London's West End in July, 1973. This is just before he turned 24. Were there to be any additional defining moments for him during his age 24 to come? Not that a West End Show wasn't a badge of success, but could he go further? Well, after a successful run on the West End, the show then toured New Zealand (of all places), about a year later in July 1974, where they recorded a TV special. Then in Sept. the show finally hit the big time, when it transferred to Broadway, and was featured on US TV. They were indeed guests on the famous Ed Sullivan Show in Oct. 1974. I think this should sufficiently make the case for a career-defining year.
He began it as a relative unknown, but enthusiastic and talented, young revue actor, who got a big break and ended up going to Broadway and getting on the Ed Sullivan Show. So, to summarise let me spell the 'Life Cycles' career of John Cleese out for you in letters two feet high.
At 24, Cleese becomes a high-profile comedy revue actor. This leads on to the age of Python (which flowed from this) and is equivalent to his first career identity.
At 36, Cleese becomes successful with Fawlty Towers, regarded as the finest sit-com ever written. This is equivalent to his mid-career identity and highest life achievement
At 48, Cleese becomes successful with the movie A Fish Called Wanda, which gets wide critical and popular acclaim. This is equivalent to his later mid-life career identity.
Incidentally, this post is, by necessity, just a summary of the wide-ranging research I have done on the life of the very interesting John Cleese. If you are a fan (and I know many of you are), and too much Cleese is never enough, then I invite you to read quite a bit more HERE. This is just another 'black and white' 'Life Cycles' case history and I trust I have shown you why this is. Till next month :- "may the cycles always bring you good fortune."
© Copyright 2017 Neil Killion. All rights reserved.
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