It’s been 20 years since John Cleese wrote and starred in the classic 1988 film comedy A Fish Called Wanda. But his competitive instinct appears to have been aroused by Spamalot, Eric Idle’s “loving rip-off” of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, because now Cleese and his daughter Camilla have begun adapting Wanda for the stage as a full-fledged Broadway musical. As part of his preparation for this work, and as a benefit for UCSB’s Arts & Lectures, Cleese will take to the stage at Campbell Hall on Monday, February 9, to introduce a screening of A Fish Called Wanda and take questions afterward. This is the latest in a series of visits Cleese has made to UCSB throughout the years, turning Campbell Hall into an impromptu living room in which to workshop material, discuss the creative process, and commune with his many passionate fans. I caught up with Cleese last week by telephone.
So much of your work-and especially A Fish Called Wanda-calls attention to the differences between Americans and the British. Do you feel that difference has changed in the years since the film was made? Certainly English culture has become more Americanized, but I don’t think America has moved at all, or at least not toward Englishness. The shift began during the reign of Margaret Thatcher. Prior to her arrival on the national stage, most British people were uncomfortable with the idea of pursuing wealth for its own sake, and with conspicuous consumption. As a nation, we were for a long time embarrassed by money. It was considered vulgar to stockpile and flaunt it for its own sake. One accepted a decent salary-if one was lucky enough to earn one-as a consequence of practicing a profession, art, or craft. But to set out to get rich-that just wasn’t done. Or it was, but no one could admit it. Arriving in the United States to work for the first time in 1964, I was shocked at this sense that having a lot of money, no matter what the source, conveyed on one a sense of moral superiority.
Are there things about Wanda that you will want to change because they have dated? Oh, yes. Cell phones alone represent an enormous change when you are dealing with this kind of plotline. At this point, we are planning to leave it set in the time in which it was originally written, the late 1980s. We-Camilla and I-are also a bit dubious about retaining the ending at the airport. Also, it seems as though it should be a bit raunchier for the stage.
The film represented a departure from the Python standards as far as cursing is concerned. Have you experienced much censorship in your career? You are right about the language. Wanda was not intended to be a family film, although the next one, the sequel, was. One of the things I relished about writing Wanda was being able to use words like “fucking.” When I think back to the constraints with the BBC it is extraordinary. I remember once when we were taping the “Spanish Inquisition” sketch and there’s a moment when we are too late and the door slams shut, and [Michael] Palin turns to me and says, “Oh, bugger.” We never thought that would get on. I actually went to the fellow who was responsible for censoring things and asked him how he could have let that one go. He said that it was so funny that he thought that it couldn’t possibly bother anyone.
Your character in Wanda is named Archie Leach after the given name of the great Hollywood star Cary Grant. Was that intended? Yes, although it has attracted more attention than I anticipated. It was meant as more of a private joke. Grant was born very nearby to my childhood home, and of course everyone there knew him as Archie Leach and worshipped him for what he had been able to achieve as an artist. He was really extraordinary, and a profound influence on me insofar as I admire great acting. He did it all so well-comedy, drama.
Are there things about the Broadway musical as a set of theatrical conventions that you don’t like? First of all, I don’t know what I’m doing, which I think helps a lot. But there’s no question that it will be a difficult process, involving three or four years of work. The original screenplay went through 13 drafts. Scripts are a very unforgiving genre because every scene must move things forward. As for the conventions of Broadway, Camilla and I agree that the songs in musicals generally go on far too long. The standard musical number is written to a musician’s length. We want to keep them short, more like a joke. And there won’t be any traditional Broadway dancing-lots of movement, but not a chorus line.
An Evening with John Cleese, including a screening of A Fish Called Wanda, takes place on Monday, February 9, at 7:30 p.m. in UCSB’s Campbell Hall. Call 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.ucsb.edu.