John Cleese: ‘Why don’t you Irish spell your names properly?’

The comedian and actor on his pet hates and staying with the real Basil Fawlty

Yes, John Cleese is as tall as we think, and he still has that gait as he strides on stage to Always Look on the Bright Side of Life. He obliges with occasional oral explosions and outrageous comments, as we require. As he leaves, he snatches his notes from the podium, intentionally all Fawlty-like.

He’s casual, wearing a navy polo short and jacket, and, delightfully, (I’m almost sure) no socks under what look like navy moccasin slippers.

For all that he reckons electronic media is destroying civilised life, the night before he was tweeting away, giving out about Trump, but this evening , as the closing act of the Pendulum summit, he’s here to discuss creativity, in a talk titled “Innovation, Creativity and the Right Attitude to Making Mistakes”.

He rambles through his life of comedy and of Brian, with a good stir of psychology, and now what sounds like a peripatetic life of corporate training all over the place. Along the way he ventures to the Carribbean, and Miami, and talks about hotels, including the best one ever, Fawlty Towers, which he reveals was based on a real hotel he stayed in in Torquay, where a Donald Sinclair (“the most gloriously rude man ever. His rudeness was utterly gratuitous”) was the proprietor and inspiration for the character of Basil Fawlty.


What are your three pet hates asks host Sile Seoige. As it happens, two of them are hotel-related: 1. Pedal bins (how they hide them in hotel rooms, and how they then slide away from you when you use them) – he would “send anyone involved in their manufacture to prison”. 2. Darryl – “no one should be allowed to be called Darryl” (the reason for his antipathy is unclear, but Seoige seems wary of insulting any Darryls in the audience and moves him on). 3. “The fact that no one in hotels understands what’s being said to them.”

Yes, this does make him sound a bit like a xenophobic curmudgeon but he’s amusing describing a trail of staff coming into a hotel room on asides, when all he wants is to stretch out his tall body.

He discusses “lovely Dublin”, and how the Irish are “slightly mad”, telling a story about the driver picking him up at the airport, to whom he remarked, “I hear you have an alcohol problem” (sigh), and without missing a beat, the driver responds “No, but I spill a little bit when I’m driving”, which impresses Cleese with its easy wit.

“There’s something playful about the Irish which is terribly attractive, I think that’s why they produce so many great artists,” he continues. Which fits perfectly with his theme for the evening.

“Play is the wellspring of creativity,” he says, and he talks about McKinnon’s research in the US in the 1960s and 70s, comparing architects who were more and less creative, finding that the differences between the two groups were: First, an ability to play, and to become totally absorbed in something “like a child removing the limbs from an insect”, with no sense of time; and second, that they took a long time to make a decision, “which is the opposite of what people think is a good decision maker”.

“The important thing about a decision,” he says, “is when does it have to be made – and why take a decision before then? People make decisions because they don’t like uncertainty. The more creative architects tolerated uncertainty well.”

Cleese touches on neural pathways, and how habitual behaviour is useful sometimes – driving a car or walking to the front door, without having to think about it - but we have to escape from it.

He advises allowing the space for creativity to surface, describing the creative process, the role of failure in creativity, and learning from mistakes.

There he is onstage, sockless, speaking to hundreds of business leaders in the enormous hall about unhurried thinking and allowing the unconscious to come to the fore and allow creativity. He suggests escaping, without interruption, to allow for some creative space, and “all this crap starts buzzing through your mind the moment you get still” until the agitation settles, and the unconscious can surface in that space.

He offers a glimpse of the openness to creativity and playfulness in writing the first Python sketch with Graham Chapman, with Cleese calling out words from a thesaurus. Cucumber. Hmmm. Togetherness. Hmmm. Plummet. I like it. What would plummet? A sheep would plumet. Why? A sheep would plummet if he tried to fly. Maybe he’s trying to escape. He’d heard of mint sauce.

Which led to the flying sheep sketch in Monty Python.

At a later stage you can apply logical thinking to ideas, he tells the business leaders, but not too soon. “Ideas are like newborn babies. They are very easy to strangle.”

He has a thing about names, and asks Seoige about her surname. “It’s impossible to pronounce. Why don’t you Irish spell your names properly?” She’s Julie Joyce, she tells him, if it makes it easier. Speaking to the woman with a 17-month-old at home (“you know you can get a good price for them”), he has a wee rant about children (though he shouldn’t “in a Catholic country”), who are “responsible for most of the misery in the world”.

Cleese feels strongly that “the world is being destroyed by technology. Obesity, self-harm, drug-taking. We are not living natural lives. It’s very serious.”

“Technology,” he says, “was mostly invented by people who are not particularly good at human relationships. That’s why they are fascinated by computers.”

He then has a minor explosion about the “dreadful era of political correctness and fear of offending people” which is “taking all the fun” out of life.

“We like a bit of mischief. This insanity is like being at a nice party, and a maiden aunt comes in and we all have to stop having fun until she f**ks off.”

As he talks about political correctness, Cleese spits in derision. Some of the audience clap.