Graduation, Intelligence and Relationships – and How to Survive Them: In Conversation with John Cleese

Graduation is a strange time. Your journey with your chosen subject ends here and, unless you continue with further education, you do not know if you will ever study it again. Ultimately, graduation symbolises the end of student life and socially acceptable immaturity, which is why it is desperately painful that it has to pass by so quickly.

As a Psychology student, myself and the rest of my year group – plus the Department of Health who we shared our 3pm slot with – were delighted to find out that we would be having John Cleese graduating with us (thus making it more memorable than any Snapchat story or group photo would have done). The shockingly tall Python was there to receive an honorary Doctorate in Clinical Psychology. Why? Most of us thought it was simply because much of the faculty are huge fans (Lecturer Ian Fairholm played the famous “She’s a Witch” clip from The Holy Grail in one of our lectures on Paranormal Psychology). In fact, it turns out Mr (or rather, Dr) Cleese is somewhat of a Psychology fanatic. On hearing that I might be able to speak with him about a topic my degree now implies I know something about, I naturally jumped at the chance.

Driven inside by the familiar Bath rain, Cleese and I jauntily waddle over to the Guildhall (his waddle is shingles-related so warrants patience, while mine is a self-inflicted pain for erroneously opting for heels on graduation day). I begin by thanking him – not only for the interview time, but for giving my dad a decent reason to come to my graduation ceremony (at one point he tried to barter off his ticket to my sister). Then I search for answers; why did a comedian, who studied Law at university and has had a hugely successful career in the entertainment industry, have such a connection to Psychology?

Interestingly enough, Cleese has co-authored two Psychology-related books, both with the late Psychiatrist Robin Skynner: Families and How to Survive Them and Life and How to Survive It. It was a partnership that came about through the deterioration of Cleese’s relationship with co-star Connie Booth; if there’s ever a faint silver lining to the breakdown of a relationship this very well may have been one.

“When my first marriage was in trouble, it was strongly suggested that I should have some sort of therapy and I was lucky enough to be in a group that was run by Robin Skynner and his wife, Prue” Cleese explains. “I was kind of traditionally British-style sceptical about the whole thing, but I certainly realised about six weeks in that he simply understood and could predict people’s behaviour better than anyone that I had ever come across.”

Cleese subsequently let go of that scepticism and embraced the family-centred therapy. Later, he crossed paths with Skynner again through helping his son, David with film-related business. The two developed a friendship from then on, with Cleese soon suggesting they take Skynner’s teachings further, away from the restrictions of his therapy sessions.

“I said the stuff that I was learning in your group is valuable to everybody, not just people who are disturbed – why don’t we make a television show about it?” Considering Cleese is also putting himself in the “disturbed” category, I put his use of terminology down to passé generation lingo. Struggling to remember that 80s TV show where John Cleese and a psychiatrist dish out relationship advice? Well that would be because it was sadly never made; the pair propositioned numerous television companies, none of whom even pretended they were interested in the concept.

“One company said “we don’t have a department that makes programmes of this kind”, which was the feeblest of excuses I’ve ever heard.”

The lack of interest by television was disappointing, but Cleese and Skynner did not give up and instead decided to put the material down in writing, starting with Families and How to Survive Them in 1983 and, 10 years later, Life and How to Survive It. The latter manifests as a self-help psychological book, tackling such substantial issues as grief, mid-life crises and relationships.

When questioned if Psychology and the process of understanding people’s behaviour played a big part in his comedic writing (a vain attempt from me at learning some comedy secrets), Cleese responds confidently that the subject barely crossed his mind.

I never thought about it consciously. When Connie and I wrote Basil Fawlty – he was very much a creation of the two of us, people forget that – I think it was instinctive. I think we have an instinctive understanding of emotion. I mean some people do, some people don’t, it’s like any other talent. And I think I was good at that, but I always wanted to learn more about it.”

Through his quest for psychological knowledge, Cleese found something that he describes confidently as “the best book that I have ever read in my life”. Titled The Master and His Emissary and written by Iain McGilchrist, the book centres on the differences between the two brain hemispheres.

“I think what is normally called the left brain, and I’ve got to be very careful about the phrase you see as it’s a generalisation itself, the left brain takes over some things which are mainly to do with controlling things, exploiting things, exploring things, and is very interested in general principles rather than individuals. And I would say, having been at Cambridge 50 years ago, that that side of the brain was what the teaching was all about.”

Speaking of the Educational Psychologist, Howard Gardner, Cleese builds on this idea of separate and specialised brain functions, recognising that someone might be hugely overdeveloped in one area and underdeveloped in another. During his speech at our graduation ceremony, he emphasised the importance of recognising when you know what you’re talking about, and when you know absolutely nothing about something. It was the sort of advice most of us graduates could relate to, sitting in the Abbey reminiscing over the many essays we had stumbled through with the hope of sensible-sounding language helping to drag us to the point of an average 2:1 mark.

“He [Gardner] says there are 8 different intelligences. You can be absolutely 10 out of 10 on some of them and about 0 out of 10 on others. And normally intelligence, in English academia, really only concerns two of the intelligences; the linguistic and the mathematical.” The remaining 6 (musical–rhythmic, visual–spatial, bodily–kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalistic) are admittedly somewhat missing from a Bachelor of Science degree; as a result I fundamentally plan on blaming studying Psychology for any problems I have with navigation or karaoke.

Addressing Cleese’s second book and its interpersonal focus, the conversation develops into a sort of relationship advice-giving session that I can’t say I was expecting to receive that day – from anyone, let alone an extremely posh expert of silly walks with bright white hair. Maybe from my mother.

I think the main thing in relationships is to realise that there’s always going to be difficult periods” – perhaps Cleese moonlights as a secret contributor for Cosmo, I wonder. “All the people who’ve been married for forty years say “oh we’ve had our difficult times”, you know. And you just kind of think, well what do you do – do you give up at the first sort of difficulty because you think you chose wrong? Well eventually you may have enough evidence that you chose wrong.”

Taking a sentimental turn, Cleese turns the topic towards his adoration for his wife, Jennifer Wade. “Normally I think in three cases I did and I now think I’ve chosen right, which is lovely at the age of 70. But I think the most important thing is don’t get too excited, because then the sort of emotional brain kicks in and you can start saying things which are hurtful and which will be remembered, not in a nasty way, but they will be remembered as “that’s what he thinks of me” or “that’s what she thinks of me”. The reason I’m so in love with Jenny is that she has the most wonderful sense of humour, and even when we’re quarrelling, which is quite a lot of the time, we’re laughing. You know? Because we know it doesn’t matter. We know that if the relationship is going to last there’s going to be quarrels and misunderstandings.”

As someone who is perpetually single, I struggle to relate but it sounds sensible and I make a point to commit the advice to memory for when I do meet someone worth conscientiously arguing with. I explain that my parents have a natural flair for holding grudges – something I’m aware may be a genetic talent and have been attempting to resist ever since my awareness of disappointing humans began (although I shan’t ever forgive my sister for convincing me, aged 5, that the Crystal Palace satellite tower was the Eiffel Tower).

One of my wives had a little shed in the garden and she used to keep the grudges down there” he muses. “She used to take them warm milk twice a day, just to be sure that they would be growing, slowly.”

“So they never die.”

“No they just get bigger and bigger. You know there’s a wonderful bit of research on what makes marriages work. There’s a couple who can tell in about 30 seconds whether the people are going to break up or not, and that is – is there contempt? If there’s contempt on either side, it’s never going to work. And that contempt, that “I am completely right and you are completely wrong” – it’s what I was talking about in the Abbey [the advice on recognising when you know nothing]; it’s that attitude [that threatens marriages]. If someone says something you don’t agree with, instead of arguing ask questions to understand better what they’re saying.”

John Cleese received an honorary Doctorate in Clinical Psychology
John Cleese received an honorary Doctorate in Clinical Psychology

When finishing a degree and entering the real world, it is only natural that one might think about how their life might be different, had they chosen to do something else. That won’t necessarily be because of any dissatisfaction, but it is definitely a thought most of us twenty-something year-old graduates have had. I wonder if it’s a thought a 70-something might have.

“Now that you have really thrown yourself more into Psychology, do you think in hindsight you should have studied that at University instead?”

I think I could have done about three things in my life. I think I could have done any kind of serious work with animals.”

“Not just dead parrots?”

“Not just dead parrots, no. They’re the most wonderful things, much better than children.” Both of us agree that many things are better than children (although secretly I feel like I’ve just betrayed the child language lab I once worked in and loved; I mentally apologise to my old boss for the slander).

“Oh, children are the end of your life really. There you are happy with someone and then you have a child and you stop being lovers and become parents for thirty years.” It’s the same speech I have heard from my mother before, although this time it was not followed by an internalised whine (well I didn’t ask to be born!).

“I studied children before they could speak for my dissertation, much better” I offer, attempting to sound partially knowledgeable about something – after all I was still wearing my gown and mortar board at the time.

“Well God gave us speech, unfortunately. It should be something that they ought to have a certificate for at the age of 9 or something. I think I could have also been an Experimental Psychologist, you know, because I couldn’t have worked with patients.” I suggest that Cleese should have gone to Oxford instead of Cambridge, where they specialise in Experimental Psychology, and he begins to reminisce over a professor he used to know at his rival alma mater.

“What I loved about him was that he was a Social Psychologist and he studied Social Psychology all his life, and he was the most socially awkward man I ever met. He was terribly nice but he couldn’t get anything right – he’d always miss a step or put his elbow in the butter, or say something that was slightly clumsy. And I thought, well I know why he’s studying it…”

I think about my own reasoning for studying Psychology. Of course in my personal statement I wrote what any level-headed person would write and gushed about my fascination with human behaviour, but really a part of me was preparing to self-treat for when my family’s – let’s call it eccentric demeanour – was inevitably passed down to me. Perhaps we are drawn to learning about things we need help with.

“And then I think there was something else I could have done… Actually what I love is writing. The only trouble is you get paid about 10% of what you do for acting, but it’s much more difficult than acting. I’ve got enough money, thank god, to be able to write for most of the rest of my life and just perform now and again for cash, but writing you always learn something. You don’t learn anything from acting.”

“Other than how to be other people” I suggest, to which Cleese woke up the Guildhall with the sort of approving laughter I can die happy knowing I inspired. “Well exactly, I love that. Antony Hopkins taught theatre acting – he called it “shouting in the evening.””

Cleese then had to dash back to London and I had to run furiously down Milsom Street to meet the rest of my year group for mandatory mortar-board throwing photos. While leaving student life behind can be terrifying and disappointing, it is important to remember that it does not necessarily have to be the end of everything we have enjoyed or worked for. If John Cleese can be inspired to carry on studying at the age of 76, is there really any excuse for the rest of us to stop learning simply because we’ve hung up our robes?

The author having a bit of a chuckle with Mr. Cleese
The author having a bit of a chuckle with Mr. Cleese

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