A Fish Called Wanda has been riding high in the American box-office charts all Summer and has just broken the magical figure of $50 million gross. Having covered its production costs six times over. it may well be the biggest British hit Since (.‘hariots ofFire and its star and co-writer John (‘leese was certainly in an affable mood when he attended its British premiere at this year's Edinburgh Film Festival.
Developed by (‘leese and v eteran British director ('harles Crichton. the film evokes memories of (‘richton‘s classic The Lavender Hill Mob in its story of an elaborate robbery. a flight to South America and a character change in a meek man who (figuratively) inherits Heaven on earth. llowever. Wanda is not an arthritic reflection of 1950s Ealing comedies. but a breezy. cartoonish contemporary lark complete with expletives. gay joks and some very amoral attitudes. Indeed. it might almost seem an act ofvengeance for Ealing‘s gentiliiy.
‘I don‘t think the Ealing image was gentle.‘ (‘leese says. ‘Those guys were operating in a very safe. uptight. stuffy period when to hear someone interview the (‘hancellor of the Exchequer sounded a bit like having the head boy at the school interview the headmaster. We talk about their gentility. but how many people die in Kind Hearts And Coronets‘.” There are nine. and six in The Lady/tiller. There was widespread carnage in a lot of these movies. but it was all done with such gentility that people kind of forgot about the wickedness — and I‘m quite sure they would have been as wicked as we were. and as foul-mouthed as the American characters in Wanda are. ifthey had been able to get away with it.‘
Cleese is not a man enthralled by the filmmaking process and Wanda only owes its existence to his specific desire to collaborate with Crichton. Without that incentive he may never have stepped in front of the camera. a prospect equally likely if he had not been able to control every step of its creation and promotion.
‘1 funded everything on Wanda up to a point where we approached MGM. which cost about £ 100.000. When we went to them we were in this wonderful position. as we always were with Python. of being able to go to them with a complete package that they could see had been carefully worked out so they couldn‘t start suggesting changes. I explained the story to them and we had only just driven away when they called us on the car phone and said they wanted to do it.‘
Cleese describes the process of finding the money for Wanda as a ‘doddle’ but emphasises that this can all be ascribed to years of work and the commitment of stars Jamie Lee Curtis and Kevin Kline.
‘You never really know when it is going to work. all you can really do is try to create the circumstances which are most favourable for the film to succeed. The script went through thirteen drafts and prior to that Charlie and I had spent two and a half years off and on getting the story
‘l‘m beginning to think that literal-mindedness is-the system curse ofthe world.‘ John Cleese talks about comedy and his new film to The List.
right. During the eighteen month writing period. I had worked with Jamie and Kevin on their parts and then we got to rehearsal and everybody started coming up with new stuff. so I took the script away and changed it again before shooting. By the time we reached that stage we couldn‘t see anything wrong with it and we all went on the floor thinking it would work. The ridiculous thing about film is how seldom that happens.’ One of the elements that has contributed to the film‘s transatlantic appeal has been some barbed comments on the state ofAnglo-American relations. (‘leese is something ofan expert on the subject having twice chosen American spouses.
‘What‘s really funny about people is the gap between what they really are and what they are pretending to be. The English are always pretending to be much calmer and much more in control than they ever are. so that gap is permanently wide and thus they are permanently good sport for comedy. [can‘t quite remember when I decided that Wanda should be American but after the experience of Clockwise which didn't work anywhere except
Sweden because it was so English. the idea of having two Americans and introducing a lot of culture clash material struck me as great and was something I‘d thought about writing on before.‘
Whilst Wanda may present Cleese in a more romantic and mellow light. his character of Archie Leach is named in tribute to Cary Grant. the tenor of much ofthe humour remains recognisably vicious. Does he consider cruelty to be the basis of all good humour?
‘1 rather like that line of Nietzsche’s which Kevin quotes that says all higher civilisation is based on cruelty. There is a well established tradition of fairly cruel humour in film and I think that comedy which doesn‘t have that streak is essentially mediocre. sage and uninteresting. When Tom is run over by Jerry on a Steamroller. you laugh but you don‘t think God. that poor cat must have suffered dreadfully. Intelligent people can see the difference between what happens on screen and what happens in real life. Literal-minded people cannot and I‘m beginning to think that literal mindedness is the supreme curse of the world.‘
The satisfying success of Wanda has inspired (‘leese into taking a lengthy break from the entertainment scene and. apart from one day on Terry Jones' film Erik. the Viking in Malta. he has no plans to work for at least eighteen months when he may begin to outline a Hitchcock-style suspense comedy that would reunite him with Kline and Jamie Lee.
Comedy is a serious and exhausting business that. he contests. grows harder with the passage of time.
‘As you get older. you realise that it is an absolute miracle that anything works at all in this world. Instead of seeing it. as you do when you are young. as a place which is basically rational with small areas of insanity. you see it quite the other way around. The whole place is a complete madhouse. Billy (‘onnolly says it gets harder to make jokes as you get older because life gets much funnier than any material you can
dream up and I find this is happening to me all the time.‘ A Fish ( 'alled Wanda opens across Scotland on October I 4. See Film Listings for Review and Venues.
The List 14 — 27 October 1988 9