I’ve been a Monty Python fan since grade 9, and I discovered I’m Sorry, I’ll Read That Again on public radio only a couple of years later. I’ve enjoyed Mr. Cleese’s film work as an adult and even took my teenagers to the theatrical broadcast of the O2 show several years back.
Until I received this as a Christmas present, I didn’t even know he’d written an autobiography. Based on where he leaves off, just at the beginning of the Monty Python period, I wonder if there’s going to be another volume. Or two.
And if you’re looking for a recounting of anecdotes and oddities from the Monty Python years, you’ll have to wait for that next volume. This book is about John Cleese, the early years, from boyhood and school, tracing the path that took him into acting, through stage, theatre, radio, and television. It’s all pre-Python, other than a few mentions here and there of things that eventually developed into Python sketches.
A few of those sketches get reproduced in whole or in part in the course of the narrative, and you can hear things in his voice as you read. (The audio version has the original recordings of some of these.)
This is John Cleese as a person, looking back over his early career, young friendships, first marriage, professional relationships. He spends a little more time on Graham Chapman than you’d expect, dismissing a lot of the controversy surrounding his shock at Graham coming out by just making it part of the natural course of things, and talks about hints of the alcoholism that he feels he really should have picked up at the time. You don’t get a lot about his relationships with the other Pythons, but he and Graham went back some years further. Maybe this will come in future books.
In this book, we get his school years and how he almost became a lawyer, a bit of background about his parents, the Cambridge Footlights, how he came to work for the BBC, his time on stage in America, ISIRTA, At Last the 1948 Show, The Frost Report, and other parts of his early career and life. And all of these things, seen in the cold light of history, seem to drag him inexorably forward into comedy and towards the formation of Monty Python.
If you’re looking for a long string of jokes and funny bits, you’re probably going to be disappointed, because that’s not what this memoir is or is supposed to be. Mr. Cleese is walking us along the path that took him from childhood to Python. If he occasionally tangents or is a bit critical of something or someone, this shouldn’t come as unexpected based on the public persona he’s shown over the decades.
Oh, there are jokes and funny bits, don’t worry, but they’re not the ones you might expect, and they often take you by surprise. The book lives in the interesting bits in between, the parts that show us more than just John Cleese on screen. It’s a wonderful read in the main.
Overall rating: 4 stars. This book is part of the story of John Cleese the human being. As such, it doesn’t focus on just John Cleese, the Python. In fact, it doesn’t really focus there at all. And that’s more than okay. It’s a lot of fun.