Wednesday, 29 June 2011

My interview with John Cleese about Bath, his tour and sausages.

This interview originally appearted in the Bath Chronicle on Thursday, June 16

There are many reasons why people say they love Bath and choose to make their home here.

The architecture, the history, the sense of community and the sheer variety of the city's cultural offering all feature highly when you ask people what brought them here.

For Monty Python legend John Cleese - who is about to embark on a five night stint at the Theatre Royal - many of the factors already mentioned come into play. But so too do sausages. Or at least a particular shop that sells them.

"One of the things I love about Bath is that although it isn't a very big city, it has some wonderful shops, " he enthuses

"You go into a store like Jolly's and you see people who've been doing the job for 30 years and really know their stuff and take care and attention with everything that they do. And then you look at the shop like The Sausage Shop and realise that it's a masterpiece of its kind. There can'tbe better one like it in England and I love it. You also have a jewellers like Mallory's which is such a classy, impressive place but is still very friendly. A shop like that in London would be really snotty but not here in Bath. These places are run and staffed by the Somerset people that I've grown up with and feel at home with and I really love being here as a result," he said.

It is not, of course, only the lure of shopping that has brought the 71-year-old star to the city. He has fallen in love with jeweller Jenny Wade and together they have a home on Royal Crescent. It is near the Royal Crescent hotel - a world famous hotel and one which is a million miles away from the now equally famous Fawlty Towers which bought Mr Cleese such rich comedy pickings in the 1970s.

Cleese says he currently only lives in the city for up to three months of the year for tax reasons. That is because he is currently towards the end of paying nearly $20 million in alimony to his American ex-wife and there are complicated and costly tax implications in altering his current arrangements. It is the reason why he unashamedly calls his one-man show The Alimony Tour as the proceeds will help him to pay off his huge cross-Atlantic debt.

"I do talk about my divorce in the show and the money I need to raise and that is why it was originally called The Alimony Tour. I think there's certain elements of relationships that must remain confidential but there are a lot of things that all people can relate to which is why I am happy to talk about it.

"I still need to pay $4.5 million to my ex-wife and I have to think about that a lot which is a shame because money is not and never has been my main motivation. To be honest if I was asked what is my favourite thing to do it is definitely writing. The only problem is there is not much money in it which is why I have to do all the other things such as touring, doing shows and travelling around. Still I am very busy and at the age of 71 I can't really complain."

Despite the fact that the winter cold is very much a turn off for the actor, he will definitely be in Bath on November 17 to switch on the Christmas lights as exclusively revealed in the Chronicle last week. It was an offer he said he couldn't refuse because despite those wintery shivers he said the Christmas he enjoyed in the city last year was second to none.

"I am delighted to have been asked to switch on the Christmas lights and I know this has become a very big thing for the city. I had the best Christmas I'd ever had in Bath last year thanks to Jenny and her family. They went out of their way to make sure I had a great time - and I did. So I am really looking forward to the switch on and having the chance to meet more local people," he said.

Switching on the lights will be the latest opportunity for Cleese to show his obvious public affection for his new British home. But what else - apart from those sausages of course - is it that appeals to the comedian about Bath?

"I love Bath because it feels familiar and comfortable and the people here are warm, friendly and open. They do take an interest in you which is nice but they are not too intrusive with it.
They're always polite when they recognise you and I feel comfortable with that as opposed to having people come over thrusting their hands at you and demanding a handshake. When that happens 20 times a day - especially if you are in the middle of a conversation - that is very intrusive. In Bath it doesn't seem to be like that - people just seem to be a lot more respectful."

It is because of all these reasons that Cleese is so pleased to end his tour at the Theatre Royal with five consecutive nights from Tuesday June 28 to Saturday July 2. So what can Bath people expect on those nights?

"The show starts off with a couple of minutes about the alimony and then moves into some autobiographical stuff before going through my career. It obviously focuses on the points that people remember most such as Monty Python, Fawlty Towers and A Fish Called Wanda but I also enjoy talking about some of the lesser known things that have happened in my career and the people I have been lucky enough to work with. The audiences have seemed to really enjoy it all so far which is very encouraging."

For a man who has been part of some of great comedy ensembles to be actually performing as a soloist could have been daunting. But over the years he has started to really enjoy the challenge and the fact that he is always warmly received is the best killer of nerves that he knows.

"I have worked in teams a lot so when I first started just doing one man shows it was quite difficult, especially as I wasn't sure how people would react to me. Now I feel far more confident because in a sense the audience has pre-selected themselves. They wouldn't want to come and buy tickets to see me unless they were interested in what I had to do so I always receive a good reaction when I come onto the stage and that sets things off to a fine start."

Although there are plenty more international one-man shows to come Cleese had always planned to finish the tour in Bath and the appeal of the Theatre Royal is not just that he can walk home from the show afterwards but that it is, for him, a perfect venue. Along with his former Python colleagues, Cleese has appeared in some huge shows but given a choice between appearing at a packed stadium or in a small theatre there is no question which one Weston-Super-Mare's most famous export prefers.

"I'm really looking forward to playing at the Theatre Royal because it's the kind of intimate theatre which I really enjoy. I couldn't imagine ever doing a large scale arena with my solo show because I like to have contact with all the audience and some of the best shows on my current tour have been to the smallest capacity venues.

"Eddie Izzard is a friend of mine and he told me how much he loves playing those stadium shows but I can't imagine going out in front of 10,000 people and having the same kind of impact as I hopefully can have in a place such as the Theatre Royal. That is why I'm going to do the official DVD of the tour in Bath because I wanted to record it in a venue that suits the show. I am already looking forward to it."

Tickets for the Theatre Royal show are now available and selling fast but if you aren't lucky enough to catch one of those nights then don't forget Cleese will be on stage in Milsom Street for the Christmas lights switch event on November 17. Oh, and before then you can probably also catch him in The Sausage Shop at some point.

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