Tag Archives: Jonathan Hansler

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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Canned Laughter aims to expose reel laughter at the Cannes Film Festival

(This piece was also published by the Huffington Post and by India’s We Speak News)

Jonathan Hansler will roll with the punches

I first met actor Jonathan Hansler a few years ago at one of the late lamented Fringe Report’s monthly meetings. He was named Best Actor in their final 2011 Awards. I mentioned him in January this year in a blog about the unveiling of a plaque at the site of the old Establishment Club in Soho – he is an indefatigable admirer and promoter of the late Peter Cook.

Jonathan is also half of comedy duo Teakshow. But, as well as the comedy streak running through him there is an entrepreneurial streak.

Three weeks ago he started an organisation which aims to run a comedy movie section – Canned Laughter – parallel to the main Cannes Film Festival next May.

Canned Laughter is intended to be a “focal point for comedy films at Cannes” and to increase Comedy’s profile there and elsewhere. Their ‘Mission Statement’ says:

Comedy is the hardest medium to perform and yet it gets little recognition. In the history of the Oscars, only four comedy films have ever won an award and there is no Best Comedy Oscar. In our opinion, it is a seriously undervalued medium. Canned Laughter aims to open up the possibilities of comedy film-making and to be a place for new film-makers to have their films screened via a competition with an experienced panel of judges… This is a multi-billion global industry yet there is no venue for it at the most celebrated film festival in the world… It is time comedy is recognised for the brilliant art form that it is at the most important film festival in the world. Comedy is all about timing and the time has never been better – changing the world through comedy and making it a brighter place.

“Canned Laughter would give awards?” I asked Jonathan Hansler yesterday at Silver Road Studios in London.

“Yes. We have the idea for something called The Peter Sellers Awards – best comedy film, best actor – our mini-awards at Cannes.”

“Only for English language films?” I asked.

“Well, we welcome international films from all over the world.”

“So some comedy film in Spanish from Guatemala…” I started.

“Yeah,” said Jonathan. “So long as we can understand it – if it’s dubbed or sub-titled or even silent comedy or animation. Every form of comedy including shorts.”

To make Canned Laughter a reality, Jonathan has partnered with a whole group of people and companies, including Silver Road Studios, live promotion company Best Jester Entertainment and Sarah Pemberton of TV/film production company Red Skin Media,

“I came up with the idea,” Jonathan explained to me yesterday, “because I was at Cannes four or five years ago and they had something called the Straight 8, where you had about ten minutes of Super-8 film shot continuously without cutting and they showed these little films at Cannes and all the cock-ups were left in and I was sat in this tent with this very funny guy hosting it and I was falling about with laughter and I thought I have not been to anywhere in Cannes like this.

“Generally at Cannes, you go to parties with a load of people looking terribly serious or talking shit or totally pissed but no laughter, no lightness. It’s like Disneyland with security guards, because it doesn’t promote lightness. It has a sense of snobbery about it, it’s got lots of posh black cars, loads of people in bow ties hanging around with very beautiful women – and that’s all fantastic, but what I find about comedy is it’s a very honest medium. It tells the truth a lot of the time and that’s wonderful to have in a place where, a lot of the time, there’s a lot of bullshit.

“Canned Laughter is about opening up the possibilities of comedy, so people are more aware of the brilliance and genius… How many geniuses are there as actors? There are a few. But, in comedy, there are loads of geniuses. And yet it’s an undervalued medium.”

“So,” I asked, “you want people to submit their films to you.”

“Yes,” said Jonathan.

“And they pay to enter their movie?”

“A nominal fee to be decided,” replied Sarah Pemberton. “It’s a model that already works well at the Cannes Film Festival in the Short Film Corner,. As far as entries are concerned, we could potentially launch Canned Laughter at the London Comedy Film Festival in January.”

“Which isn’t bad,” I said, “considering Canned Laughter started three weeks ago.”

“Well,” said Jonathan, “ I came up with the idea in June, but I had to wait until after the Edinburgh Fringe to get things together so people would be back in London and you have to let things simmer in your head. It came together when we had a meeting here at Silver Road Studios. We had about 65 people which I whittled down to a core team.”

“And you told me about some very impressive patrons,” I said.

“Though we can’t name them yet,” said Jonathan. “There will be a website up in a week or so. This came out of pure love, pure passion. I just think the time is nigh, the time is right and it’s a portable idea because you can take it to any film festival.

Canned Laughter obviously refers to Cannes. But our logo will involve a can of film, so the idea of canned film makes it transferable. There could be spin-offs. For the Sundance Festival, we have the idea of Canned Laughter’s Fundance. But the focal point now is Cannes next May.”

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Comedian Peter Cook… remembered as a drunken lunatic or an Oscar Wilde?

Last night, I was due to have a drink in Soho with Sally Western, only-begetter of the Malcolm Hardee Appreciation Society group on Facebook.

We were going to talk about the bizarre and traumatic saga surrounding the unveiling of a plaque commemorating the Establishment Club, which comedian Peter Cook opened at 18 Greek Street in Soho, on 5th October 1961. It closed in 1964.

By complete coincidence, yesterday was the anniversary of Peter Cook’s death in 1995 and we were joined by actor Jonathan Hansler who played Peter Cook in the stage plays Pete and Me and Goodbye: The Afterlife of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. And we were also joined by Robert Ross, the biographer of Marty Feldman and writer of books on the Carry On films, Benny Hill, Frankie Howerd, The Goodies et al.

As a kid, I used to watch and tape record Peter Cook’s staight-faced comic monologues as E.L.Wisty on ITV’s On The Braden Beat shows. The words fascinated me when I listened back to them. I do not have the recordings now.

Yup. That’s a pity.

I saw him once – Peter Cook .

He was running along Church Row in Hampstead, where he lived in a white-fronted Georgian house with his wife Wendy. It was raining. He nearly collided with me. But didn’t. He had the loose, loping run of a long-legged man. A few years later, as a student, I went inside the house when I did some weeding in the back garden for his by-then ex-wife Wendy.

I am not one of life’s gardeners; I was very thorough but slow. She quite rightly did not invite me back. But she was very, very likeable.

Robert Ross got involved in Sally Western’s Peter Cook plaque saga via the Heritage Foundation and the Dead Comics Society.

“They normally put plaques on dead comedians’ houses,” Robert told me last night, “but it was so cool to do the Establishment Club in Greek Street that they jumped in”.

Sally was the driving force for the plaque and did all the hard behind-the-scenes work on freeholder and leaseholder agreements, sending off letters, setting up a website and arranging anything and everything needed to get the plaque put on the wall at 18 Greek Street – she even contributed to the words used on the plaque. She says actually getting the plaque agreed and put on the building was “a rollercoaster of Hell”.

“At one point, it was going to be an interactive plaque,” she told me last night, “with flashing lights and whirly things on it… It’s so sad that the building’s not being recognised now, because British satire basically started there.”

Jonathan explained: “At that time, the early 1960s, the Lord Chancellor had a ban on rude words and expletive shit in the theatre, but there was no law which prevented you doing it in a late-night club. So Peter thought, Right, I’ll get away with this in a late night club with membership.”

“He sold the memberships before it even opened,” Sally said.

After it opened, London gangsters the Kray Twins arrived at the Establishment Club one day and tried to get protection money out of Peter Cook.

“He went out to meet them,” Jonathan told me last night, “and said in his drawling voice, I think you’re here to intimidate me, aren’t you? Are you going to intimidate me? – and apparently he talked them out of it and sent them away confused. These two gangsters were wandering around saying: Why were we there?…I dunno… Weren’t we supposed to get some money off him?

“Maybe Ronnie took a shine to him,” Sally suggested.

“It’s not given the recognition it deserves,” said Robert. “This is the fucking Establishment Club, for God’s sake! As a nation, we are so obsessed with the Sixties and this is the place that so epitomises that era. Michael Caine, Sean Connery, Terence Stamp – they all went there. Why aren’t people going there now on tours? At least we’ve got a nice little plaque for Peter; that’s a start.”

“It’s a start,” said Jonathan. “It’s not the end. It really is somewhere special that place. As is Peter Cook. In the 100 Best Comedians, voted for by comedians in 2005, he was voted the No 1… I love Morecambe & Wise as much as the next person. I think they’re brilliant. But they are over-played; they’re everywhere. When are they ever going to show any Pete ‘n’ Dud shows? There are still quite a few tapes in existence. Their stuff is timeless because it was always slightly more rebellious. There was always something slightly edgy about those two: much more edgy than any other comics of that period.”

“Peter Cook is the godfather of comedy,” said Robert. “I went to the memorial service for Peter in Hampstead in 1995, at the church in Church Row, and Dudley Moore sang Goodbye for the last time. Mike Palin was there and Terry Jones, Stephen Fry, Eric Idle. Anybody writing comedy in the last sixty years – the Pythons, The Goodies, Vic & Bob, The Young Ones – owe a debt to him.”

“The Goodies weren’t satire,” I suggested.

“But Peter Cook wasn’t always satire,” Robert said. “He was basically just being funny, which is timeless. Yes, he would poke fun at the Prime Minister, Harold McMillan, but if you watch those sketches from Beyond The Fringe or listen to the later shows, they were just being funny. Pete ‘n’ Dud were just being brilliant. And, when you think that Peter Cook, who’s been dead for 17 years today, is still being talked about, still being held up as the litmus paper for the best in British comedy… He always will be.”

“You played Peter Cook on stage,” I said to Jonathan Hansler. “Was there one key thing that made you understand him?”

“I think I kind of understood him anyway,” Jonathan replied. “He was sent to boarding school when he was about nine and his parents lived abroad. I was sent to boarding school when I was nine and my parents lived abroad. And there’s a sense of loneliness you get from that. Dealing with your own mind, spinning stories out and all that kind of stuff. Your imagination becomes your friend because, in those places, there aren’t many actual friends. Everybody in those places is conforming and, if you’re a non-conformist, it’s kind of a different game.

‘The first time I saw him was when he did the Secret Policeman’s Ball sketch with John Cleese – Peter says: Did you know your intestines are four miles long? It’s amazing how they cram it all in. It means none of the food you eat is ever really fresh. And Cleese says: Fancy that! And Peter says: I don’t fancy that at all… And I thought Who’s this lunatic? He’s just brilliant! And, from then on, I was absolutely hooked on the guy.”

“He wrote the one leg routine at the age of 17,” enthused Robert.

“And,” Jonathan added, “a lot of the sketches that Peter performed later were originally written for Kenneth WilliamsOne Over The Eight revue at the Apollo in 1961.”

“The asp routine,” said Robert.

“The shirt shop routine,” said Jonathan.

“Peter was writing that stuff at university,” explained Robert, “and sending it up to the West End… I always say to Sally, The main thing is that we can now walk down Greek Street and see Peter’s plaque. As long as that building’s standing, it’ll be there. And that’s important.”

The plaque was unveiled on 15th February 2009.

“The actual day of the unveiling,” says Robert, “was fantastic. There were too many people to cater for at the club, so we went off to some hotel called the Dorchester. That Sunday lunchtime, me and Sally and Johnny got very drunk in the name of Peter Cook which is what he would have wanted, I think.

“But I get a little bit upset with the fact that he is now seen as a drunken lunatic. He was a fucking genius! I just think he should not be lambasted as this drunk comedian… I met Peter twice in my life and I think the fact he’s now perceived as this person who failed because he was so brilliant at the age of 24… that’s unfair… He wrote as a genius at the age of 24 and he just improved on that for the next 25 years… He was a genius who had achieved everything he could possibly achieve by the age of 25 and he just coasted after that. But why not? He could. And we should celebrate him as the finest comedy brain of the 20th century. He’s up there with Oscar Wilde. He’s up there with the great English wits of any time. Peter Cook deserves to be remembered as that person. I get so upset when they say Oh, he drank his talent away, he wasted it. No he didn’t.”

“If only,” said Jonathan, “If only we could get celebrities – people who’ve got money – to invest in the Establishment Club and put it back where it once was, it’d be the talk of London, it would be THE place.”

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