The comedian says the real target of his 1970s German rant was our imperial hangover. Now he's working to ensure British attitudes to our Second World War enemies reflect what's happened in the 61 years since 1945. He tells Yojana Sharma why
For years John Cleese's "Don't mention the war" scene from the 1970s hit Fawlty Towers acted as shorthand for British xenophobia towards Germany. In the famous episode, a German guest staying at the chronically mismanaged hotel finally entreats the thickskinned Basil Fawlty: "Would you please stop talking about the war all the time."
"Me?" says Basil. "But you started it."
"We didn't start anything."
"Yes, you did. You invaded Poland."
Basil later adds insult to injury by goosestepping around the reception area.
"I was really making fun of Basil Fawlty because it was clear from the age of the German guests that none of them could have had any kind of responsibility for what happened in the war," explains Cleese. "So there was dear old Basil stuck painfully in the past, but a lot of people simply misunderstood the joke and took it in the literal sense."
His target, he says, was against a certain type of Briton. "I've always felt the British had this tendency to live in the past because that was the last time we were really a great power. People did not want to look ahead, they wanted to go on and on about World War Two."
The sketch was not misunderstood at first. It was the tabloid press he says, who hijacked it for their "knee-jerk German-baiting", which continues today.
"I don't think it was so difficult in the past to be quite friendly within two to three decades with people we had wars with," he says. "There is an absolutely extraordinary prejudice against the Germans. I don't share it, even though I can vaguely remember the bombs in World War Two. My father fought in World War One and had nothing against the Germans whatsoever."
Cleese is backing an essay competition, aptly titled "Don't mention the War", being run by the German Academic Exchange Service for young people to write about positive experiences of Germany.
"Prejudices go so deep, but at least we're trying something and it will help a few smart young people to overcome the prejudices," says Cleese. He is a keen Germanophile and spends more holiday time in Germany than anywhere else.
"I have a liking for the culture and the language, going quite far back,"
he says. His working links with the country date back to the 1970s when the now legendary German impressario Alfred Biolek invited the Monty Python troupe to Munich to do two German specials.
"The first Monty Python show we actually did in German," Cleese recalls.
"We wrote it in English and our German friends translated it and we learned it off parrot fashion. They were fairly typical Python shows but adapted to the locations we could find in and around Munich."
The original Monty Python's Fliegender Zikus included Monty Python's Guide to Albrecht Duerer, and the Lumberjack Song with the Austrian Border Police (adapted in a later English Python show).
"The second show we did not do in German because, although they could understand Michael Palin and me, the others' accents weren't as good. So it was dubbed. That meant spending a couple of months in Germany."
"I like the Germans. When I work there I find that the Germans are courteous, friendly, well-organised and very, very friendly towards the British," he says.
The second show included the famous Greeks vs Germans philosophers'
football match - the German manager is Martin Luther - which achieved cult status in Germany. "The Germans are far more aware of the Monty Python and Fawlty Towers humour than the Spanish, Italians and French. Most of the comedy of British comedians, not just mine, travels far better in Northern Europe than it does in Southern Europe. Maybe our sense of humour is more similar."
Cleese is a voracious reader, and has devoured German writers such as Hermann Hesse and Thomas Mann in translation. "I think the German contribution to literature and philosophy is extraordinary, to music and science is enormous. What puzzles me is that people are so surprised when I say this."
Cleese will be back in Germany in May walking around Berlin with Biolek for a German television programme about the World Cup. He has been brushing up on his German using an old school textbook.
And he intends to spend some time relaxing there afterwards."I hope people will go to Germany on holiday instead of automatically going to France, whom, I would remind people, we fought quite contentedly for 1,000 years - it is the French who are our natural historical enemies," he says mischievously.
The German Academic Exchange Service's website contains useful links on learning German: http:london.daad.de
A CAREER IN COMEDY
Birthplace Weston-Super-Mare, Somerset (Oct 27 1939) School Clifton College, Bristol
University Law Degree, Downing College, Cambridge. Joined Cambridge Footlights Revue
Comedy career Writer for BBC Radio
1963 Satirical sketches, BBC TV Frost Report
1969-74 Monty Python's Flying Circus (writer and actor)
1970-73 Rector, St Andrews' University
1975 Monty Python and the Holy Grail
1975-79 Co-wrote and starred in Fawlty Towers with then wife Connie Booth
1979 Life of Brian
1988 Wrote and starred in A Fish Called Wanda, largest grossing British film ever (Screenplay nominated for an Oscar)
1996 Declined CBE
1999 Acted in the James Bond film The World is Not Enough as Q's assistant, whom Bond called R
2002 Promoted to Q in Die Another Day
2006 Andrew White Professor-at-large at Cornell University, awarded to "outstanding intellectuals"; acting in Harry Potter films as Nearly Headless Nick