John Cleese is famous the world over for his part in Monty Python’s Flying Circus and for co-creating and starring in Fawlty Towers, which is testament to his comedic genius.
But he’s also been involved in less well-known ventures that haven’t gone down anything like as well as those two stupendous achievements, and some of those projects have been written out of most accounts of his career.
One such is The Strange Case of the End of Civilisation As We Know It. This was a one-off ITV programme, 55 minutes in length, broadcast on New Year’s Day, 1977, a Sunday evening if I recall correctly. It appeared midway between the two Fawlty Towers series and, like the first of these on first transmission, was not well received.
Unlike Fawlty Towers, it was never reconsidered, and disappeared without trace. It was never re-broadcast, and didn’t appear on DVD for thirty years, in a cheap format transferred directly from an imperfect video copy. Currently, it’s only available on an equally cheap three disc set, The John Cleese Comedy Collection, together with the excellent and poignant Romance with a Double Bass, and a pre-Python series of skits under the heading How to Irritate People.
I watched it on broadcast, laughed myself silly, and was surprised at the negative reaction. In lieu of the likelihood of seeing the film again, I bought the cheap paperback script book, which I read a dozen times, trying to fill in the voices as best as I could recollect.
Strange Case was co-written by Cleese in collaboration with Jack Hobbs and Joseph McGrath, from an idea by the latter two. It stars Cleese as Arthur Sherlock Holmes, grandson of the original, Arthur Lowe as Dr Watson, the partly-bionic (nose and legs) grandson of the original and Cleese’s then wife Connie Booth as Mrs Hudson, granddaughter of someone, but not necessarily that original.
The programme also features a handful of well-known actors in Ron Moody, Joss Ackland and Denholm Elliott, plus Stratford Johns as the Commissioner of Police, in supporting roles.
Watching Strange Case again, years on, the critics were absolutely right.
Which is not to say that the programme isn’t without its merits. Cleese’s performance is enjoyable, and Booth’s transformation at the end into the villain, dressed in leather jacket, impossibly tight black hot-pants, black tights and knee-length boots makes you weep for the horrible picture quality: my God, the woman is gorgeous! But the absolute star is Lowe, as the bumbling Watson, all little gruff gasps of ‘Good Lord,’ and ‘Amazing’.
From the outside, Lowe’s casting seems unusual: he is a much older comedy actor, indelibly associated with a far different comedic tradition, but his seriousness incarnates the part of an improbably dumb sidekick, he beautifully judges the downplaying of the innate pompousness of his ‘natural’ character, and the highlight is a scene in which he plays two identical Dr Watson’s: seriously, you would not think it possible to repeat the words ‘Good Lord’ so many times with so many different inflections.
The rest of the programme is very different to speak of. The plot, such as it is, is perfunctory, and in its detail and its performance is firmly rooted in its time. It begins with Dr Gropinger (i.e., Henry Kissinger), in the midst of his famous shuttleboat diplomacy, having his diary stolen from him so that he lands at an Arab airport where, having no idea which country he’s in, he greets the audience with cries of ‘Shalom!’ and ‘Mussel tov!’, provoking them into shooting him dead.
There follows a scene in which a bumbling President gets into endless confusion over what his CIA agents are trying to tell him whilst knocking things over, i.e., it’s the famously uncoordinated and misspeaking Gerald Ford (though I was astonished to discover an on-line review in which the Americans involved are completely unaware – and openly disbelieving – of Ford’s contemporaneous reputation). Apparently, the last descendent of Professor Moriarty (hi, Connie!) intends to destroy civilisation as we know it in five days time.
One Agent goes on to a meeting in London of the Police of Five Continents. At this time, Cleese still hasn’t appeared onscreen, and the script takes a discomfiting turn into national stereotyping and cheap racism. The Chinese delegate is played by Burt Kwouk of course, he being the only Chinese-appearing actor based in England (or so you’d think: incidentally, he was born in Warrington), whilst the African delegate is simply a hideous embarrassment: thankfully, the ‘bonzer cobber’ Australian is shot by a sniper pretty quickly. Horrific.
At last Holmes is brought in, courtesy of a visit by Stratford Johns, better known for his long running role as Chief Inspector Barlow (Z-Cars, Softly Softly). There are some genuinely funny moments in this sequence, most notably when the Commissioner is stabbed in the back: Watson pulls out the knife to make him feel more comfortable, only for Mrs Hudson to admonish him because this now allows the haemorrhaging to start: Watson tries to put the knife back exactly as he found it only to push it in too far and kill the Commissioner.
Holmes, re-entering the room, diagnoses the events brilliantly, to Watson’s perpetual astonishment. ‘How did you know that?’ he asks: ‘I was watching you!’ shrieks the frustrated Holmes.
We shall pass by the delivery of the Commissioner’s body, wrapped in brown paper to avoid payment on the bus, involving as it does another racist performance by Derek Griffiths as a West Indian Bus Conductor (1977: sigh), and switch to another meeting of the Delegates, this time with Holmes.
This is marginally better than the first scene, being less racist, and it does reach the heights of modest farce as the security windows keep going up and down, allowing the sniper to kill everyone but Holmes and the English delegate (seriously: the tea lady gets it). Holmes then produces his big idea: to hold a Detectives Convention. The concentration of so many adversaries will be so tempting that Moriarty won’t be able to resist attacking.
Unfortunately, this only results in a parade of unfunny mild parodies of the TV cops of the mid-Seventies that will be meaningless to anybody born later than 1965. The cops are bumped off by the fake Watson whilst the real Watson is helped to solve the Times crossword by Holmes (a neat little scene where all the answers are puns on ‘Elementary’).
Then Watson meets Watson and the fake is exposed as Mrs Hudson, or rather Francine Moriarty, out to destroy the entire Holmes line (destroying civilisation as we know it is just family tradition). Francine shoots down Watson before pumping something like two dozen bullets into Holmes (the vast majority of which seem to be aimed into Cleese’s groin, leading to unavoidable speculation over the extent to which art imitates life, given that he and Booth were soon to divorce, amicably at any rate).
But Holmes shrugs these off. He’s known Mrs Hudson was Francine since 1964 and so he told Watson to replace the bullets with blanks last night. Holmes continues in his triumphalist vein until an apologetic Watson finally manages to interrupt him long enough to admit that he forgot. Collapse of Holmes.
Francine strides off to end civilisation as we know it. Holmes throws one last dice, setting Watson into action, only for the over-eager partly-Bionic man (this is so 1977) to leap too high, hit his head on the ceiling and collapse unconscious. A final stirring readover from the announcer questioning whether Moriarty can succeed is answered by a brief, squeaking yes, and the screen goes back: it’s all over.
No, Strange Case does rather deserve to be forgotten. It’s awkward and inadequately plotted, too much wedded to its time, an implausible spoof whose highlights come mostly from the performances of its three stars, who are fighting an uphill battle against stiff material. The story credits suggest to me that this was a script derived entirely from Hobbs and McGrath that was in search of a star to lend it credibility: Cleese’s name as third scripter suggests that he probably added better jokes to his sequences, and it’s very noticeable that there are very few laughs when Cleese, Lowe and Booth are offscreen.
It’s slow, cheaply made, with an abrupt ending that tries to borrow off the Python habit of ending sketches that didn’t have a real ending, which might work after six minutes but flops after fifty-five.
And it’s biggest flaw of all is it’s crippling slowness. At least with the script book, I could inject some much needed pace – and energy – into scenes that lack motion and conviction. What I saw in it, I cannot now recall, and unless you’re a Cleese completist, I wouldn’t recommend hunting it out, other than for Arthur Lowe’s brilliant performance, oh, and Connie Booth’s legs.