JOHN CLEESE COMMENTS ON STATE OF TODAY'S TELEVISION PROGRAMMING
by Hans ten Cate
Saturday, 22 June 2002

John Cleese, interviewed in Showcase of Excellence, at the Banff Television Festival

Source: Banff2002.com

John Cleese was at the 23rd annual Banff Television Festival in Canada recently to accept a lifetime achievement award in comedy. Given the nature of the six-day festival, Cleese was invited to take part in a number of discussions and interviews on the subject of television programming.

One common theme was how television executives in both North American and the United Kingdom have dropped their gut instincts for by-the-numbers based decision making.

At a Showcase of Excellence session, Cleese was particularly critical of current British television programming. “I do not know how you preserve good standards. I think it is dead and buried in England.”

“I know four or five program makers in England who will not bother to work in English television because the standards have dropped so much and they do not want to produce what they think is crap.” [1] The obvious downside is that British programming isn't what it used to be. “This is not the golden era of British television ... It's terribly disappointing because it used to be the least bad television in the world!” [2] English TV just isn't as good as it was 10 years ago, Cleese said. [1]



If I walked in to pitch Monty Python to the BBC today, I don't think we'd get beyond a meeting. Python would have been cancelled after the second show by these people -- if it ever made it.


John Cleese on today's risk-averse television executives

It's not necessarily the writers, directors, or the actors who are to blame, explained Cleese. Some shows aren't given a fair shake by the management, no matter what their upside potential. “If I walked in to pitch Monty Python to the BBC today, I don't think we'd get beyond a meeting,”' Cleese said frankly. “Python would have been cancelled after the second show by these people -- if it ever made it. The same with Fawlty Towers, which did not get good press in the first three weeks.” [3]

Not that the original Python exploits weren't without production struggles. Producers of Monty Python and the Holy Grail wanted to remove the classic scene where the Black Knight has all his limbs lopped off while refusing to let King Arthur pass. [4]

“When you get on the edge of bad taste you will delight a large number of people,” Cleese said. But producers today have a terrible fear of losing a few viewers. “It never occurs (to them) that they might win a few back.” [5]

“Nobody [in Britain] seems to have any gut feeling for what makes exciting television anymore, it's all management by numbers,” said Cleese. [3] “The problem now is executives are under so much more pressure, they want to vet the idea.”

“The truth is the idea is absolutely secondary to the quality of the people who are going to deliver it. If I was an executive, I would start with the talent. I'd get them in a room and say, 'What do you want to do?' and start that way instead of trying to control it ... The only way back to real quality is to trust in the people who can deliver the programs,” John Cleese said, gaining a huge round of applause from festival delegates, many of them producers and writers. [1,3]

Cleese sees American television as the best in recent years and cites Seinfeld, Frasier, Sex and the City and HBO's Six Feet Under (“I think it's extraordinary” [2]) and The Sopranos as among the best that have ever been produced.

Source: Banff2002.com

Equally low, however, is Cleese's opinion on reality series like Survivor - watching them “borders on bad manners.” [6] “It's awful to watch when people are being humiliated. Call me old-fashioned, but we are getting back to the arena, aren't we?” [2] Cleese pointed out: “you don't need writers, you don't need actors, you don't need a set -- you just put them on a desert island and let them kill each other!” [1]

Cleese has had his ups-and-downs with American television executives as well. His sitcom Wednesday 9:30 (8:30) Central was cancelled this spring after just two weeks (see John Cleese Reacts to ABC Cancellation of "Wednesday 9:30" Sitcom and John Has Last Laugh On Critics Who Axed His Show). Moreover, a comedy project he tried to pitch fell through during the writing. “ABC said they didn't like it after six, eight months. But I was paid very well out of it. In America, they pay you well, but treat you badly.” [2]

Not that Cleese need worry. He assured reporter Rob Salem that another American series was already in the works. “(American TV) is infinitely better organized,” he allowed, “because there's so much more money.” [7]

Even in the UK, there is hope said Cleese. “It all goes in phases. Their turn will come around again.” [6]



If you play a very successful character, you are inevitably identified with it for almost ever... Mind you, if I came in a tutu and played Mary Queen of Scots in a high-pitched Scottish accent, the British press would find a way to somehow invoke Fawlty Towers.


John Cleese on his all-too-memorable role of Basil Fawlty

It just means that executives will have to stop relying on figures to make production choices. Case in point: there have been three failed American attempts to clone the show, and an even more recent translated remake for German television (with Cleese consulting). “It was absolutely wonderful,” Cleese insisted, “and it got good viewing figures. But still the network chickened on it.” [7]

But success has its downside as well, especially with hits like Fawlty Towers. “I was told when I first did Fawlty Towers, and it is true, that if you play a very successful character, you are inevitably identified with it for almost ever,” Cleese said in an interview. “It is a strange thing. They just assume that that's who you are.” His recent portrayal of a ruthless network mogul in Wednesday 9:30 was almost immediately dismissed in Britain as being overtly "Fawlty-esque."

“Mind you,” Cleese laughed, “if I came in a tutu and played Mary Queen of Scots in a high-pitched Scottish accent, the British press would find a way to somehow invoke Fawlty Towers.” [7]


Sources:

  • [1] Robert Remington, "John Cleese declares British TV comedy dead as a parrot: Former Python believes series would never be made today," in the National Post (Toronto), June 11, 2002, p. AL3
  • [2] Kevin Williamson, "Cleese Finds Meaning in Life," in the Calgary Sun, June 11, 2002
  • [3] "Cleese big cheese at Banff TV fest," in the Kitchener-Waterloo Record, June 12, 2002, p. C7
  • [4] Judy Monchuk, "Comic Genius John Cleese a Big Cheese at Banff Television Festival," The Canadian Press (CP), June 10, 2002
  • [5] Banff Bulletin, Issue Six, June 11, 2002, p. 9
  • [6] Gayle MacDonald, "The seriously funny life of John Cleese The Minister of Silly Walks wanted his humour to change the world. It didn't but he's okay with that," The Globe and Mail (Toronto), June 13, 2002, p. R1
  • [7] Rob Salem, "No Faulting Cleese - Honour in Banff, Comedy Classics Revived on TV," in the Toronto Star, June 10, 2002, p. E02