Video: John Cleese in Leeds INTERVIEW

HE'S quite possibly one of the world's most revered comedians and John Cleese is now back on the road with a one-man show.

Arts Editor Rod McPhee caught up with him at The Grand as he sussed out the theatre ahead of his June performances of The Alimony Tour in Leeds

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There's the strangest of laughs echoing through the corridors of The Grand.

Strange, as in peculiar, but also strangely familiar.

Only when you see that lofty figure and hear that clipped voice are you certain it's John Cleese. He's surveying the dress circle and the auditorium ahead of three shows in Leeds this summer.

"It looks great, has that lovely contained feel." he smiles. "I like to have a sense of familiarity with a theatre before I perform there – I don't like walking straight off the bus and onto the stage."

Although most of us know him, primarily, as an ex-Monty Python member, Fawlty Towers writer/actor and something of an international movie star (namely A Fish Called Wanda and two Bond flicks) he's more than familiar with Leeds from the days when he started out on the stand up circuit.

"I've been here masses of times." he says. "One of the first things I used to do was come up here to do Joker's Wild with Barry Cryer (a famous son of Leeds).

"I came up with the likes of Arthur Askey who were all HUGE comedians and stars of the big 1950s' radio shows. Through that I got to know Les Dawson and I used to come to Leeds to perform in his show Says Les.

"In fact I came up here much more than anywhere else – I don't even remember working in Manchester, for example."

Cleese is a man remarkably at ease with himself. He appears very gentle despite expecting him to be rather prickly.

This is perhaps attributable to the fact that many, particularly in the media, find it hard to distinguish him from his alter ego, Basil Fawlty.

"If I ever have a heart attack..." he says, almost rolling his

eyes."...the headlines will read 'BASIL FAWLTY HAS A HEART ATTACK'"

Cleese is highly articulate, razor sharp and naturally funny – at 71, with a legendary career behind him, he has zero to prove.

He also knows that when people come to see him on his impending UK tour, which has already taken him onto the continent, he's hardly going to bomb.

"At my age I know the audiences come to see me because they like me." he laughs. "They don't say: 'I can't stand John Cleese, let's buy a couple of tickets.'

"But when you're young and you go out there you really don't know if an audience will like you or not, which is why most comedians use this apocalyptic language.

"They say 'I killed them tonight' or 'I died a death' because the humiliation for a comedian of failing is a major psychological blow.

"Luckily I don't have that and I don't really get nervous any more. I used to, but I'm fortunate that I can actually feel the love coming from audiences, which is wonderful."

But what do they expect when they come to see his Alimony Tour?

"That's a very good question." he ponders. "I'm not sure. I know when I do TV interviews, for example, they'll always run the cliched examples, you know, the goose-stepping, the parrot sketch, all of that.

"All of which I find quite boring, to be honest, and I don't want to bore people in the show. People who know me will already be very familiar with all that stuff.

"So I choose to do and show interesting things on stage. For example, I use a clip of the fire drill episode of Fawlty Towers which not everyone will necessarily recall, but I think it's one of the cleverest bits of writing Connie Booth and I ever did. I also do the fish-

slapping dance, just because it is still so funny."

It's obvious that Cleese tires of talking about the same old jokes and sketches continually.

"Most of the London-based journalists are completely cliched." he says. "They can't have their own thoughts – I think they're forbidden to in their contracts."

It's also obvious that Cleese is relaxed enough to be markedly frank. He admits that, on top of enjoying the tour, it's also helping to fund the 12m post-divorce payout to his third wife, Alyce Eichelberger.

He says: "I would never have guessed five years ago that the best way for me to pay off my alimony would be to do a one-man show, but it's much more predictable.

"TV is either being destroyed by reality shows or the money you get paid is very small compared with what it was ten years ago, unless you want to commit yourself to a sitcom for five years.

"The main sources of my income used to be film, television and business speeches. But not so much anymore.

"But doing this tour is also great because it's real. If I have a funny idea and I want to make into a movie it takes two years before I can find out if the audience thinks it's funny – two years!

"There's writing, re-writing, casting, rehearsing, shooting, re-shooting. but with touring you go out there and if you're funny you see them laughing.

"People think filming is glamorous but movies are endlessly repetitive and TV can be good, but it can also be terrifying because they've stopped rehearsing now."

These days he admits he likes to take things a little easier and do so with more security. He uses a teleprompter during this one man show in case he has "a few senior moments".

He also seems certain of a good response in the north, which is just as well since 22 of the 31 dates on his UK tour are in the north of England and Scotland.

"I think the humour is very different in different places," he says. "It's funny because Americans talk about the British sense of


"Which could mean anything from Monty Python to Benny Hill, but they're not the same thing at all. In the US the response is really different in Kansas compared to New York.

"It's different between the US and the UK, and in different parts of the UK.

"What I like is if I do a Q&A in California, for instance, and someone gets up in the audience they're much too ingratiating.

"They'll say: "Oh Mr Cleese, I think you're just wonderful and I love everything you ever do!" whereas in Yorkshire they just wouldn't do that, and I like that."

l June 2, 3 and 4, Leeds Grand Theatre, New Briggate, Leeds, 7.30pm, 21 to 33.50, Tel. 0844 8482705


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