Jonathan Hansler on being Basil Fawlty AND Peter Cook and what happened…

Jonathan Hansler spoke to me at Soho Theatre in London

Jonathan Hansler appeared in this blog back in 2012, when a blue plaque was going to be unveiled on the site of Peter Cook’s old Establishment Club in London’s Soho and when Jonathan was going off to the Cannes Film Festival.

This month, he is involved in two separate productions featuring comedy icons – he performs the John Cleese role in Fawlty Towers Live: The Themed Dinner Show throughout the Edinburgh Fringe… and his play about Peter Cook and Dudley MooreGoodbye: The (After) Life of Cook & Moore – plays six dates at Dingwalls in London, starting this Friday.

Pete & Dud, Cook & Moore: show this month

He usually plays Peter Cook but, because of his Edinburgh commitment can’t on this occasion.


JOHN: So you can’t be in the Pete & Dud show in London…

JONATHAN: No. but I’m thrilled because Kev Orkian, who plays Dudley Moore, has taken the reins of producer, which is lovely, because it’s a play I dearly love.

JOHN: You’re getting typed as an interpreter of comedy icons – Peter Cook AND John Cleese.

JONATHAN: How I got interested in the world of entertainment all came from seeing John Cleese and Peter Cook on a park bench doing the ‘interesting facts’ sketch at The Secret Policeman’s Ball in 1979.

I was a little boy and I saw Peter just reeling out this stuff and I thought: That’s what I want to do! Instead of asking for an Action Man that Christmas, I wanted a book of scripts.

JOHN: You co-wrote Goodbye: The (After) Life of Cook & Moore.

JONATHAN: Yes. Some young reviewer wrote: “Fans of Cook and Moore will enjoy hearing the classic lines re-deployed…” Well, we wrote the whole fucking thing. Every bloody line in that is ours.

JOHN: We…?

JONATHAN: Yes. I got stuck on about Page 30. I didn’t know where I was going with it. It didn’t seem to have a structure. Then I re-met Clive Greenwood at a party. He has this incredible knowledge of post-War comedy and he came on board and started to write it with me. He was the more logical one and I was typically like Cook, totally rambling and going off into spirals of imagination.

JOHN: It is set when Pete and Dud are dead.

JONATHAN: Yes. The whole thing is NOT a series of Pete n Dud sketches. Not one. It’s our interpretation of how they are forced to become their characters after they’re dead by a Divine Force that is ‘judging’ them for their Derek & Clive routines. Peter has had to wait seven years for Dudley to turn up and he is running a bar in the afterlife

JOHN: Why did you think: I wanna do a play about two dead comics after they have died?

JONATHAN: My father had died and I no longer had a father figure. Peter became a sort of father figure to me, because I loved his humour so much. I had this idea about all these comics kept in a Prisoner of War camp in heaven in the afterlife. 

Peter and Dudley were the prime focus but other comics are there. I usually play Peter. Kev Orkian plays Dudley – he has been playing the piano since he was 4. And Clive Greenwood plays all the other characters – Tony Hancock, Peter Sellers, Leonard Rossiter, Frankie Howerd, Terry-Thomas… and Lord Reith of the BBC.

I can’t be Peter this time because I’m in Edinburgh doing the Fawlty Towers dinners at the Carlton Hilton on the North Bridge twice daily – 48 shows throughout the Fringe. That ends on 27th August and the last two performances of The (After) Life are on the 30th and 31st August, so I’m going back to London to watch those – and very proudly so.

‘”The only one that does the original scripts.”

Our ‘official’ Fawlty Towers show – sanctioned by John Cleese – is the only one that does the original scripts – so, for the first time in 40 years, people can hear those live.

JOHN: As an actor, you must be frustrated at having to copy someone else’s interpretation so closely?

JONATHAN: No, I’m not, actually. When John Cleese put the Australian show together, he said he didn’t want a carbon copy of himself; so I have a very Cleesian performance, but with my own twist on it.

JOHN: Which is?

JONATHAN: (LAUGHS) I’m not absolutely sure! There’s a lot of improvisation involved, because it’s a dinner show.

JOHN: With the audience sitting as if they are in the Fawlty Towers dining room…?

JONATHAN: Yes. We have to improvise round the tables with my own words and we put the script on top of that.

JOHN: What else do you have in the pipeline?

JONATHAN: One of the biggest things is an initiative I helped set up (with Andrew Eborn) called Canned Laughter. A lot of comedians and people who drink have this false laughter or they play games so we don’t know what lies behind. So I opened up an initiative with Equity with the slogan

IT’S OK NOT TO BE OK

The nervous energy which performers have is anxiety – and that’s where the problems start… Depression and all those things that lurk underneath and I’ve been through them all and, coming out the other side of booze, you start to realise where you have been and what you’ve come to and what you have to do to stop other people going down the same path.

Jonathan’s drinking days are behind him…

JOHN: How long have you been off the booze?

JONATHAN: 5½ years. And off sugars. I used to be: I’ll do every pill in the world! I’ll do every cigarette in the world! I’d do every drug in the world! I’d go to every club in the world!

JOHN: And now you have taken up knitting cardigans?

JONATHAN: (LAUGHS) No! My revolution and my rebellion comes in my writing, I think.

JOHN: You are writing other things?

JONATHAN: I am writing, but I am terrified. I am going to eventually do an hour’s stand-up on anxiety and about my childhood. I don’t give a fuck if people know now. I was abused. That’s why I wear blue chakra round my neck – because I was orally abused twice. at different times, I was in a school which had a paedophile headmaster and…

JOHN: What’s a blue chakra for?

Jonathan’s blue chakra with its healing sodalite stones…

JONATHAN: The blue chakra is the throat chakra, which is about the art of communication. This is a stone called sodalite and it actually gives… whether you believe it or not; a lot of people don’t and that’s fine… but I need something to believe in because of my past so I can’t help but believe in it and I’m happy to believe in it. As mad as it gets, that’s what I have to believe in, because they tried to hang me twice… Once when I was in my prep school and once in my senior school.

JOHN: Who tried to hang you?

JONATHAN: The kids. Y’know. Just brutal kids. Really brutal kids. There is a huge court case going on about my old school and paedophilia. There were boys who had it far worse than me.

There was one guy who forced me orally to do what I had to do. I think he was probably being abused himself. I think the kids who were being abused were picking on other kids who weren’t being abused. It was horrendous. Just horrible, horrible, horrible.

That’s another reason why I’ve done Canned Laughter.

JOHN: Peter Cook drank a lot.

JONATHAN: A director once said to me – after I got sober: “The reason why you can play Peter so well is because you were both on similar paths of self-destruction.”

Peter Cook (left) and Jonathan Hansler: very parallel people

We are very parallel. Very parallel people. That sense of loneliness. I was sent away to a boarding school at 9 years old like Peter. My parents went to the Middle East; his parents were in Gibraltar. He had asthma and, in those days, they didn’t have inhalers, so he was injected with ephedrine which sent you to the ceiling. He must have been floating around on the ceiling every night. No wonder his mind became the mind it did because he was being given these strange drugs to stop his asthma.

JOHN: Presumably talking about what happened to you at school is, to an extent, cathartic.

JONATHAN: I’ve got to a point where I don’t give a shit. I also want to explain why I’ve been maybe so awkward over previous years.

“…the anxiety it takes to play Basil Fawlty…”

Why is it – and it’s a stigma – that people say: “Performers are difficult to work with”? Have they ever asked why? God knows what happened to them earlier in life. And they still have to keep their teeth smiling and their tits up in this industry and bow down and cow down to all these people who… Y’know?… It’s wrong. People should know each other more and understand each other more and, by understanding each other, we grow together and we become real.

JOHN: I know comedians rather than actors but, to an extent, it IS true that all comedians are mad. You wouldn’t want to do it otherwise. There has to be something in you that needs the fulfilment of applause and acceptance.

JONATHAN: People say: “Oh, you’re so lucky to be playing Basil Fawlty…” But do you know the anxiety it takes to play Basil Fawlty?”

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Filed under Acting, Comedy, Mental health, Psychology

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