John Cleese is laughing uproariously about his return to radio. It’s been a while since he was last on the airwaves, as one of the stars of the then Home Service’s I’m Sorry, I’ll Read That Again, which began in 1964 – and nothing since. “I’m coming back around, 53 years later!” he says, sounding wildly happy about it. “I often take rather a long time to get round to things, you see.”
So why has the Monty Python’s Flying Circus and Fawlty Towers star come back to radio now? “Let’s just say, I’m not doing it for the money,” he says with a raspy chuckle. “Before anyone accuses me of that, I’m doing it because I’ve always loved radio and for 400 years I’ve been saying it’s the best medium. But it doesn’t pay very well so if you’ve got involved in things like alimony, it’s not the first medium you’ll run to to solve your problems.”
The 77-year-old has been married to his fourth wife, 45-year-old jewel lery designer Jennifer Wade, since 2012, having been previously embroiled in public divorce battles that would make Basil Fawlty spontaneously combust. In 2009 Cleese reached a £12 million settlement in his acrimonious split from third wife Alyce Faye Eichelberger after 16 years of marriage.
“So having got that out the way I’m now back. I met a young fellow [radio producer James Peak] – well, he seems young to me, he’s about 55 – who is very enthusiastic about radio and he said I could come and do silly things and it didn’t matter too much what they were. That’s always a very enticing invitation, so I took him up on it and we made five 15-minute shows together. He’s edited them and apparently the BBC like them.”
In the first episode of John Cleese Presents, which uses extracts from his autobiography So, Anyway, Cleese has a tongue-in-cheek attempt at being a radio DJ. Has he ever been tempted to try it in real life? “About 40 years ago I was asked to do a pilot for a sort of art programme, but it was so awful I never did another one.”
While Cleese is revisiting his past with a radio show, he’s looking to the future with a new sitcom, Edith, co-starring Alison Steadman, which is coming to BBC1 later this year, and with his Twitter activity, following in the footsteps of JK Rowling and Emma Watson by getting into a public spat with Piers Morgan.
“I always thought he was an awful creep,” says Cleese, “so I pretended that I hadn’t seen him in a restaurant but it didn’t work. He then asked me when I was going to be funny again. I just didn’t want to have an encounter with him and since then he’s been after me and I’ve been after him.”
Piers Morgan writes that I didn't recognise him in a restaurant in New York.I did.I just didn't want to speak to someone I truly detest
— John Cleese (@JohnCleese) June 5, 2015
When a Twitter follower accused Cleese of not being subversive any more, he replied, “If you really think I’ve become less subversive you are either extraordinarily unperceptive or completely misinformed”.
It was prolific tweeter Stephen Fry who got Cleese into it. “Stephen said to me, ‘You silly man, don’t you realise that if you have a Twitter following you don’t have to communicate with the public via the newspapers?’ Because in the old days, to get publicity for something you’d done you’d have to get a deal and a newspaper would come and do a profile and they’d vaguely describe what an undesirable, selfish, bad-tempered and bitter old man you were. Now I simply vault over that because if I’m doing something I put it on Twitter and the fans can come along.”
And Cleese certainly has plenty of fans. In a 2001 issue of Radio Times it was reported that George W Bush listened to episodes of Fawlty Towers to cheer himself up when the job got tricky. Would President Trump ever do that? “I don’t think he’d understand it, would he?” he howls. “On the other hand he might sympathise with Basil more than one would think. I was in a restaurant not so long ago and there was a commotion outside. John Kerry, then the US Secretary of State, was just leaving, so I stood to one side. As he came through he saw me and stopped and his entourage all stopped, too. It was like a British comedy and I felt terribly important. I’m also proud that Elvis used to lie in bed with his good lady wife making her do Monty Python sketches he’d learnt. And John Lennon once said he’d rather have been a member of Monty Python than the Beatles. It’s lovely to learn these things.”
Cleese says he and his fellow Python Michael Palin are still friends and little has changed since his Desert Island Discs in 1997, when he asked for a stuffed Palin as his luxury item. “Why didn’t I take the real one?” he asks, aghast. “Oh well, being around Michael is like listening to the radio anyway because he never stops talking. If you had a stuffed one you could have recordings inside and it would be very entertaining.” He starts giggling again when he remembers his 1971 Desert Island Discs, when Roy Plomley was the host. He asked for a papier-maché model of Margaret Thatcher and a baseball bat. “Roy was so appalled he couldn’t speak for 30 seconds.”
However, Cleese says that if he was on the programme today, he probably wouldn’t ask for a papier-maché version of our Prime Minister. “I cannot figure out Theresa May. There’s something about her I like, although I think she’s hand in glove with lots of unscrupulous people, but as a woman I don’t dislike her.”
With Monty Python co-founder Terry Jones and Cleese’s Fawlty Towers co-star Prunella Scales both diagnosed with dementia, I ask Cleese if he counts himself lucky to be in good health in his late 70s. He says that although he had a difficult relationship with his mother, he’s heartened by the fact that she lived until 101. “Her advice for long life was to worry. She was the only person I’d ever met in my life who used to write her worries down so she wouldn’t forget any.”
Worry seems low down on Cleese’s list now that he’s back on the BBC making a comedy in what seems a relaxed state. “I have been very perfectionist with Fawlty Towers and Monty Python, but the thing I like about radio is that it doesn’t cost anything and you can take your time. It’s like a prolonged coffee break.”
John Cleese Presents is on Wednesday 10th May at 9:30am on Radio 4