John Cleese has followed in the footsteps of Nigel Farage and Eamonn Holmes by becoming the latest addition to the presenter line-up at GB News. The channel was set up in 2021 by ex-BBC political journalist Andrew Neil.
Former Monty Python and Fawlty Towers star Cleese has joined the ‘shock jock’ TV channel after becoming a major voice in the culture wars. He is a staunch critic of what he describes as cancel culture and woke values in the UK media.
But what did he say in an interview with BBC Radio 4’s Today programme - and what was TV host Graham Norton’s response? Here’s what you need to know.
Who is John Cleese?
John Cleese, 82, is an actor and comedian. After attending the University of Cambridge in the early 1960s and becoming a member of its famous Footlights comedic society, Cleese secured roles and writing credits in famous sketch show The Frost Report.
From 1969, he became a member of comedy troupe Monty Python. Over the next 14 years, the Pythons recorded four BBC TV series and three feature films - Monty Python and the Holy Grail, The Life of Brian and The Meaning of Life. They also toured hugely successful theatre and arena shows.
While being a Python, Cleese also co-wrote and starred in 1970s BBC hotel comedy series Fawlty Towers. The show is widely considered to be one of the greatest British comedy series ever produced.
In the 1980s, Cleese focused on becoming a film star. His most notable credits include A Fish Called Wanda, a recurring role as ‘R’ and then ‘Q’ in Pierce Brosnan’s James Bond films, and another recurring role as Nearly Headless Nick in the early Harry Potter films.
The actor and comedian has also become increasingly vocal about politics in recent years. A long-term Liberal Democrat supporter, he moved away from the party after voting for Brexit in 2016.
He describes himself as a critic of the right-wing of politics and an opponent of the “disastrous” Conservative governments of Theresa May, Boris Johnson and Liz Truss. But he has also become a major critic of so-called cancel culture in recent times.
This interest in debates over freedom of speech first surfaced in 2020, when famous Fawlty Towers episode ‘The Germans’ was briefly pulled from BBC-owned streaming platform UKTV over “racial slurs” and “outdated language”. It was subsequently reinstated with a disclaimer.
Reacting to it being taken off air, Cleese said at the time: “If you put nonsense words into the mouth of someone you want to make fun of, you’re not broadcasting their views, you’re making fun of them.”
What happened in John Cleese BBC interview?
In an interview with BBC Radio 4’s flagship news programme Today, John Cleese revealed he had joined GB News and also re-emphasised his previous criticism of what he views as cancel culture.
The actor and comedian will front a series that will see him in conversation with what GB News said would be “his choice of guests on a wide range of areas that interest him”. The show, which will air from 2023, will be produced by current GB News host Andrew Doyle.
Doyle promised the programme would give Cleese “complete creative freedom” and would be “far from predictable”.
Asked by Today programme presenter Amol Rajan how the GB News slot came about, Cleese said: “I don’t know much about modern television because I’ve pretty much given up on it. I mean, English television. And then I met one or two of the people concerned and had dinner with them and I liked them very much.
“And what they said was, ‘People say it’s the right-wing channel – it’s a free speech channel’.”
When asked about whether he believes there is a limit to freedom of expression, the comedian said: “Somebody once said to me, ‘Everyone’s in favour of free speech, particularly for the ideas that they like’.”
Pushed to elaborate on whether free speech should apply to people who spread opinions and misinformation on public health matters, he added: “If there’s a factual response to something like that, then that should be made.
“That’s the job, to put the facts out there and then to have opinions slightly separate and have a proper argument about it, but not to try to avoid a public debate and then try and get yourself through social media.”
Asked whether he would make any more programmes for the BBC, which first aired Monty Python and Fawlty Towers, John Cleese said he would not.
“The BBC have not come to me and said, ‘Would you like to have some one-hour shows?’ And if they did, I would say, ‘Not on your nelly’ because I wouldn’t get five minutes into the first show before I’d been cancelled or censored.”
Amol Rajan pointed out to Cleese that he had been given five minutes on BBC Radio 4 during the interview and hadn’t been censured.
John Cleese also reflected on how he feels Monty Python would be received by an audience from today. He said: “The guy who was in charge of light entertainment about four years ago said he wouldn’t commission it now because it’s six white people, five of whom went to Oxbridge. But the point was they made a programme that a lot of people liked.
“If people enjoy something, then the BBC should be making more of it. And if people don’t enjoy something, they should probably be making less of it. But their job is to produce the best possible programmes.”
How did Graham Norton respond to John Cleese?
Reacting to the former Monty Python star’s stance on free speech, BBC TV presenter Graham Norton told an audience at Cheltenham Literature Festival that Cleese’s attacks on so-called ‘cancel’ culture demonstrated a misunderstanding of the UK’s media landscape.
In comments picked up by The Daily Telegraph on Tuesday (11 October), Norton said: “[Cancel] is the wrong word. I think the word should be ‘accountability’.
“John Cleese has been very public recently about complaining about what you can’t say. It must be very hard to be a man of a certain age who’s been able to say whatever he likes for years, and now suddenly there’s some accountability.”