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John Cleese: oration

Read Dr Richard Joiner's oration on John Cleese for the honorary degree of Doctor of Clinical Psychology in June 2016.


John Cleese
John Cleese

John Cleese is a well known actor, comedian, writer, film producer and, as he says on his website, a very tall man. He was born in Weston-Super-Mare in 1939. He was a student and teacher at Clifton College in Bristol, before studying law at Cambridge, where he graduated with an upper second class honours degree.

He first achieved success at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and as a scriptwriter and performer on The Frost Report. He is probably most famous for writing and performing in the sketch show Monty Python’s Flying Circus and the four Monty Python films: And Now for Something Completely Different, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Monty Python’s Life of Brian and The Meaning of Life. Although, arguably, he is equally famous for co-writing and starring in the sitcom Fawlty Towers, which regrettably only ran for two series and twelve episodes.

He has also a long and very distinguished film career. He wrote and co-starred in A Fish Called Wanda and Fierce Creatures and has starred in over70 films, including Clockwise, two James Bond films, two Harry Potter films and three Shrek films. He has been nominated for an Oscar, a Golden Globe, won one Emmy award, nominated for a further three; won two Bafta awards and nominated for a further four. He has also had an asteroid, a lemur and a rubbish dump named after him.

John Cleese has always had an interest in politics. He co-founded The Secret Policeman’s Ball, which is a series of comedy shows put on to raise funds for the human rights organisation Amnesty International. He has also been a long-time supporter of the Liberal Democrats and has recorded several party political broadcasts for them. He supported Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy. He even volunteered his services as a speech writer. He criticised Republican Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin, saying that “Michael Palin is no longer the funniest Palin”. Paddy Ashdown nominated him for a life peerage for his political services, but he declined because he realised this involved being in England during the winter, which was far too high a price to pay.

What is less known is that John Cleese has always had a strong interest in psychology and has co-authored two books with Robin Skynner on relationships. The first Families and How to Survive Them is a description and analysis of how and why we fall in love; how we develop from babies to adults; how during this development we sometimes become “stuck” in childlike behaviour, and how all these things are influenced by previous generations of our families. The aim was to make accessible the psychological aspects of family behaviour and functioning. To explore what makes some families work and others fail, and how families can progress towards greater health and happiness. The second book Life and How To Survive It is written in a question and answer form, with John Cleese asking questions about relationships, and Robin Skynner answering them. The aim this time was to answer questions both psychologically and sociologically about why the world is the way it is and how this affects individuals. The book takes the reader on a journey into hidden consciousness and tries to explain why and how relationships do or do not work.

Finally John Cleese was Professor-at-Large at Cornell University from 1999 to 2006 and continues to be Visiting Professor at the same university. Chancellor, I present to you John Cleese who is eminently worthy to receive the Degree of Doctor of Clinical Psychology, honoris causa.

Dr Richard Joiner Orator

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