WEARY, is how best to describe him. Weary and bitter. The British weather has something to do with it but there’s no hiding from the fact that John Cleese’s manner, when we meet at the Theatre Royal, has everything to do with his latest divorce.
As well as a £12m payout to his third wife, the British comedy legend was ordered by a US court to also pay her around £600,000 a year until 2015.
As a result he’s having to head out on the road with a one-man show, suitably titled The Alimony Tour.
“I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t have to pay a million dollars a year,” says the 71-year-old who had always resisted such a tour.
Fans can also thank Alice Faye Eichelberger for the long overdue autobiography, which he promises will be published within a couple of years.
“I’m just about to sign a contract,” he says, before adding that he’d have it done by now if it wasn’t for the third Mrs Cleese.
“When I was married to Alice Faye our standard of living rocketed and I had to spend all my time earning money.”
Both the book and the tour has made Cleese look back on his life, something he’s rarely done, always keen to try new projects. It’s why he never repeated Fawlty Towers, instead putting his energies in to plays, musicals, graphic novels, psychology books, a sat nav voice, video game voiceovers and TV ads.
What attracts him to a project?
“It’s two things,” says Cleese, sat in the theatre’s first floor bar.
“First of all, if I need the money, is it respectable? I don’t want to publicise a company that’s going to cheat people or collapse or has shoddy goods. If it’s not necessarily money that I need, then it’s a question of if it’s going to be fun or interesting. Or both.”
How does he feel about having to reflect on his career in order to write the autobiography?
“I know Michael Caine a little and he said ‘what is so wonderful about doing an autobiography is you start remembering bits of your life that you totally forgot.’”
Cleese doesn’t keep a diary so how will he do it?
“I’ve got a fella who has written two great biographies, of WC Fields and Spencer Tracy. I’ve got him to write my biography from the outside, while I’m writing the autobiography from the inside. We’ll put it together in one book. Which I don’t think has ever been done before.
“It means he can do all the research and I don’t have to bother,” he adds with a smile.
The research for the tour, which comes to Nottingham in May, is already done. In fact, the show is already written, as Cleese has been doing one-man shows since 2005. Just not in the UK. He’s taken it to New Zealand, Scandinavia and a few American cities.
The opening five minutes, about the divorce, includes this line, which I read back to him from a review of one of those show: ‘To comfort me my lawyer told me to imagine how much I would have had to pay if Alyce had contributed anything to the relationship - such as children or a conversation.’
Which makes him guffaw.
“Alyce brought no money to the relationship in terms of assets or income and never really organised anything,” he says.
“She really was a passenger for 15 years and then is given this enormous sum of money by an insane Californian court.
“There’s nothing you can do about it. The only time I ever feel resentful is when I’m packing a case to go and get a flight to do a job I don’t particularly want to do in order to keep her in the style in which she’s become accustomed.”
He’s rolling now...
“There I am doing 25 shows in Norway over a period of six weeks and she’s on a six week cruise of China looking at all the wonders of the Chinese civilisation. I’d rather be doing that frankly,” he laughs.
“But this is OK. This is fun. If you’ve got to earn some money this is a very pleasant way of doing it.
“I’ve already fallen in love with the theatre. It’s so beautiful and intimate. You know it makes a lot of difference to the performance, whether you feel good about the theatre or not.”
He knows little of Nottingham and can recall only one previous visit.
“I came here 20 years ago to appear on the cricket commentary at Trent Bridge when England were playing Pakistan. I was interviewed by Brian Johnston, whom I’d always thought was an amiable old clown but was actually much smarter than I thought and a very good interviewer.
“Pakistan smashed us that day, I remember.”
He knows of the reputation of the Nottingham Playhouse and name checks Richard Eyre and Trevor Griffiths.
“It seems it was one of those places that was almost a nursery for people who finished up with the top directors in London.”
He quizzes me on other names. I look blank.
“You see, you’re too young.”
And a theatre dunce.
He adds: “I’ve hardly been to Nottingham. Work has never brought me here so it will be nice to be here for four nights. I’ll get to know it a bit.”
Casting a glance through the window on to Market Street he adds: “The architecture is already more interesting than most other places.”
Such as a few of the cities he played last year in Norway, Denmark and Sweden.
“It was bloody cold but most of the time I was able to get out and have a good look at the place. I mean, some of them were dumps...”
Much like the town in New Zealand that now has a rubbish tip named after him.
“That was all his fault,” he grins, nodding behind me.
“My assistant Garry, whose been looking after me for 22 years, referred to one town we played as the suicide capital of New Zealand. If you went there to commit suicide you would never change your mind. So half of Palmerston North got upset about it, the other wrote and said you’re absolutely right,” he laughs.
“So they named a garbage tip after me.”
Indeed the Awapuni landfill site just outside Palmerston North is now referred to by some locals as Mt. Cleese.
He is considering moving back to the UK, after living with Eichelberger in California since the mid-nineties.
“I think America is going dangerously crazy,” he says.
“But in the winter months I’ll try and go somewhere warm. I just don’t feel great when it’s grey and cold and wet.”
And he’s done with marriage?
“I think so.”
Certainly to American woman anyway?
“Not American, no,” he smirks.
All three former Mrs Cleese’s are from the US. The first, of course, was Connie Booth, co-writer of Fawlty Towers, who played Polly in the series. They have a daughter Cynthia. He has another daughter, Camilla, with second wife Barbara Trentham.
“The current girlfriend is English,” says Cleese, whose family name was originally Cheese.
“It’s nice to find there are certain frameworks of reference that we share.”
After the show’s opening on divorce he’ll run through his career, from writing for Dick Emery and David Frost, to Monty Python and Fawlty Towers, A Fish Called Wanda and Bond films The World is Not Enough and Die Another Day.
“Life Of Brian was one of the happiest shoots I ever had,” he says of the classic Python film.
“Same as Wanda. A lovely cast getting on well, great script, great shoot, you knew it was going to be good. But sometimes you have something like The Meaning of Life. I never enjoyed making that movie. I never felt it was what we should have been doing. It was just a collection of sketches. Very funny stuff in it but I was never a fan of it and I didn’t enjoy making it.”
He’ll also be clearing up a few common mistruths from many biographies about him, such as being expelled from school for walking painted footprints in the playground.
“Not true,” he says.
“The footprints story was one I was told when I arrived there as a boy. All these apocryphal stories are now told about me.”
So the story that you once attended a yoga class with Raquel Welch must be cobblers as well?
“That’s actually true, I do remember that,” he says fondly.
“But I didn’t actually say hello to her or anything, she was just in the class.”
Who: John Cleese
Where: Theatre Royal
When: May 12-15
Tickets: £20 to £32.50, 0115 989 5555.