Episode 30: John Cleese Shares His Lifelong Love of Cricket

Cricket authors (and obsessives) Peter Oborne and Richard Heller launched a podcast early in 2020 to help deprived listeners endure a world without cricket. They’re no longer deprived of cricket, but still chat regularly about cricket topics with different guests each week – cricket writers, players, administrators and fans – hoping to keep a good line and length but with occasional wides into other subjects.

Images above: John Cleese photograph by Bruce Baker; Clarence Park in Weston Super-Mare in 1978, photograph credit Stephen Hope, BytheSighscreen

“In that moment I went absolutely rigid with real terror, far worse than facing Jeff Thomson.”

That is John Cleese, sharing with Peter Oborne and Richard Heller on their latest cricket-themed podcast his experience as a performer of the “yips”, that dread loss of control which can blight cricketers on the field. (14 minutes into the podcast)

He shares joyous memories of a lifelong love of cricket, which began watching the postwar Somerset team play at Clarence Park, Weston-super-Mare. A previous guest, Jeffrey Archer, might also have been in the crowd but he cannot remember meeting him there. He does remember the fast bowler and mighty hitter, Arthur Wellard, hitting a six so high in the air that it when it fell it burst through the roof of a tea tent and shattered much crockery beneath. (1-5 minutes into the podcast)


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A bad case of the ‘Yips’

He recalls two other personal favourite Somerset players. Horace Hazell was a very accurate slow left-armer but so portly that he was forced to pause before each delivery to reposition his flannels. 17-18 minutes Bertie Buse was an all-rounder with an eccentric run-up which he tried to imitate as a fledgling bowler, “like an Edwardian butler serving tea on a tray.” 6, 18 minutes Somerset were a happy team to watch, regularly bottom of the County Championship. John remembers his shock of adjustment, even sense of vague disappointment, when they broke the pattern by winning the Gillette Cup in 1979. (50-51 minutes into the podcast)

There were darker moments in Somerset cricket, and he shares movingly the experience of watching two of them. Harold Gimblett was an explosive opening batsman subject to deep depression, which eventually drove him to take his life. John describes seeing him walking back to long-off so sunk in gloom that he was not even aware that the ball had been struck towards him; his belated attempt to catch it resulted only in falling over and injuring himself on some scaffolding on the boundary. (4, 16 minutes into the podcast)

The second was watching Maurice Tremlett get “the yips” at Taunton,  losing the bowling action which had earned him selection for England and delivering endless wides and no-balls.  He recalls the horror of the crowd as they desperately willed him to complete the over. 11-13 minutes John reveals his long fear of a similar experience in his performing career, a fear which especially haunts comedians.  He tells the story of his own “Tremlett moment.” It came during a sketch with Ronnie Corbett on live television for The Frost Report. Mercifully for posterity, John got through the awkward line which had given him sleepless nights, but he remembers Ronnie Corbett’s surprise at his nervous amendment, when he described him as the tallest person he had ever met. (13-16 minutes into the podcast).

Bowling out Denis Compton

John is modest about his prowess as an off-spinner at Clifton College, where he contributed to two victories at Lord’s over their rivals, Tonbridge. Already very tall, he claims that his greatest successes came on the school’s mid-season pitches where his hand appeared over the sightscreen against the background of a red brick building. (Joel Garner, another famous Somerset cricketer, would later enjoy a similar advantage.) 23-27, 29-33 minutes John shares his joy at dismissing Denis Compton in a Clifton match despite an unco-operative wicketkeeper who wanted to see the great man bat. 33-36 minutes John explains why he did not play much after leaving Clifton, but shares the experience of a happy tour of Corfu with the Lords Taverners (renamed the Lords Tavernas) with Ken Barrington, Roy Kinnear and John Price of Middlesex and England. (20-21 minutes into the podcast)

Discussing the influence of cricket on his work, John mentions his deep affection for the cricket-crazed Major in Fawlty Towers, a loving caricature of his father. 40-41 minutes  He examines the treatment of English cricket in Monty Python as a monumentally dull experience narrated by idiotic backward-looking commentators. (54-57 minutes into the podcast) dailymotion.com

He gives vivid portraits of two other actors who loved cricket, seeing a very over-refreshed Trevor Howard (a fellow Cliftonian) watching a match at Lords, 46-47 minutes  and  working with David Niven in “The Statue” in Italy. Niven took him out for dinner with a large party of cast and crew, and kept them all in continuous stitches with a flow of anecdotes. Cruelly, Niven had included an editor so ashamed of his bad teeth that he had to laugh with his lips tightly sealed. (43-46 minutes into the podcast)

John Cleese has been active in Hacked Off and shares his pungent views on the behaviour of media and his declining relationship with it. (60-64 minutes into the podcast)

After being forced to endure many years of baseball, he makes a noble offer to explain cricket to American audiences and the many ways in which it is better. He concedes that it may have to be through T20 (which he calls “cricket for people who don’t like cricket”) but hopes that he can help the United States re-enter cricket’s global civilization. (65-68 minutes into the podcast)

Peter Oborne & Richard Heller

Peter Oborne has been the chief political commentator for the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail, a maker of several documentaries and written and broadcast for many different media. He is the author of a biography of Basil D’Oliveira and of Wounded Tiger, a history of Pakistan cricket, both of which won major awards.

Richard Heller was a long-serving humorous columnist on The Mail on Sunday and more briefly, on The Times. He worked in the movie business in the United States and the UK, including a brief engagement on a motion picture called Cycle Sluts Versus The Zombie Ghouls. He is the author of two cricket-themed novels A Tale of Ten Wickets and The Network. He appeared in two Mastermind finals: in the first his special subject was the life of Sir Gary Sobers.

Oborne & Heller cricketing partnership

Jointly, he and Peter produced White On Green, celebrating the drama of Pakistan cricket, including the true story of the team which lost a first-class match by an innings and 851 runs.

Peter and Richard have played cricket with and against each other for a variety of social sides, including Parliament’s team, the Lords and Commons, and in over twenty countries including India, Pakistan, the United States, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, France, Greece, Australia, Zimbabwe, New Zealand and Morocco.

The Podcast is produced by Bridget Osborne and James Willcocks at The Chiswick Calendar.

Listen to more episodes of Oborne & Heller

See also: Episode 28: Talking with Pakistan Women’s Former Cricket Captain Sana Mir

See also: Episode 29: Jill Rutter on watching cricket with Prime Ministers and others

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