John Cleese’s Early Days on ‘I’m Sorry, I’ll Read That Again’
When John Cleese looks back on his life in the first volume of his memoir, So, Anyway…, he doesn’t say that the happiest time in his life was starring in an immensely popular sit-com with his then-wife. It’s not working on Monty Python’s Flying Circus, or being in a Bond film, or performing comedy on the road in New Zealand or any of that. It was teaching for two years, before going to Cambridge. In a talk with fellow Python Eric Idle he explains that the reason for that is because “it was so wonderfully unstressful.” This would change rather quickly once Cleese went to university where he would become involved with Cambridge’s comedy revue group, where he would meet Graham Chapman. His final show with the group would then go to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, which would then lead to a run at the West End under the name Cambridge Circus, which would then lead to a radio show, then a TV show, and then another one, Monty Python, and finally global superstardom.
Today we look back at Cleese’s first foray onto a national platform. After the success of his show with the Cambridge Footlights, he and the rest of the cast launched the show as a weekly radio sketch program. The show tested the waters initially with a half-hour version of their Cambridge Circus stage show, which aired on December 30, 1963 on the BBC Light Programme (later renamed BBC2). This show, recorded in front of a live audience, shares some DNA with The Goon Show with its mixture of silly and often strange comedy alongside musical performances. In the Cambridge show, the cast performs parodies of then-current rock and roll hits, such as a follow-up song to Elvis’s “Return to Sender” in which the singer describes receiving a letter requesting a blood donation. Along with Tim Brooke-Taylor, Graeme Garden, David Hatch, Jo Kendall, and Bill Oddie, John Cleese can be heard performing throughout the show, serving as a stentorian narrator throughout the proceedings and introducing sketches with newscaster phrases such as, “And now…” or “And first over to the newsroom…” making the connection to Monty Python’s Flying Circus immediately clear.
A few months later, in April of 1964, the Cambridge Circus crew were given their own weekly sketch show and continued the newsreader theme with the title I’m Sorry, I’ll Read That Again. Now original sketches were being produced with the same anarchic feeling as Beyond the Fringe, but beginning to push the goalposts further. Rather than recap a bunch of scenes, here is a best-of reel comprised of clips from the first series of episodes.
You might think that the first major radio show that Cleese wrote and starred in might take up a large portion of his memoirs, especially when one considers that the volume is focused solely on his pre-Python years. Strangely, however, the show initially receives only a couple of passing mentions. That is, until about two-thirds of the way through the book when he explains why he disliked the show.
Cleese has very high standards for comedy, which makes sense, since his work is among the best. As a result, when he’s working with a group, be it the Cambridge Circus crew or the Pythons, he had no problem pushing people to work harder or avoid clammy material which, as he admits in his book, could make him seem “snotty and condescending and puritanical.” Cleese’s theory is that the audience is to blame for the substandard material in I’m Sorry, I’ll Read That Again. “When we Cambridge Circus people did our first few radio shows, they were based on the stage-show script which was of quite a high standard, and the audiences were suitably responsive. By the time I returned from America they had become a football crowd. With their wild applause, thunderous laughter, cheering of catchphrases, groaning at puns, friendly booing and general OTT enthusiasm they had become part of the show— or rather, they had pretty much taken the show over and made it a mini-phenomenon in the radio world.” After appearing on 41 episodes of ISIRTA, John Cleese left the show, just as he would before the final series of Monty Python’s Flying Circus a few years later.
But Cleese’s exit did not mark the end of the show. I’m Sorry, I’ll Read That Again would last until 1973. The show would also spin-off an unscripted panel show in 1972 called I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue, which has run continuously until the present and has been named the second funniest radio show of all time, right behind The Goon Show. Tim-Brooke Taylor and Cleese would reunite along with future Python Graham Chapman and Marty Feldman for At Last the 1948 Show.
All 9 series of ISIRTA can be found on the wonderful Archive.org site right here, should you be interested. It may not always be perfect, as John Cleese will tell you, but it’s still a wonderful look into the building blocks of British sketch comedy.