Its 1986, and Tom Connolly, a directionless, drunk 19-year-old writes to his comic hero suggesting they co-write a film. To his amazement he receives a reply, containing an invitation
As a directionless 19-year-old in 1986, I wrote a drunken letter to my hero John Cleese after watching a South Bank Show special about him. From what I can make out of my scribbled plan for the letter (I still have it), my rambling missive contained the suggestion we co-write a film about an over-the-hill comic (yes, I said that) and a young man going out with his daughter. I suggested a title of Waves. No amount of alcohol or inexperience can excuse this idea. And yet, I got a reply and an invitation to visit in the spring, when he returned from America. In his letter, he declined the offer to co-write with me and was generous about the drivel I had sent him: I always like people who take a bit of a risk when they write to me by drifting outside the guidelines of ordinary communication.
He met me at his office and walked me over to his house. He sat with the trademark long legs slung across the arm of his chair. With a kind, but razor-sharp smile he asked me searching questions about my direction in life. I had never been engaged in this way by anybody. We talked for some hours in his living room. His wife brought in a tray of tea and sat with us for a while. He seemed in no hurry to get rid of me, which amazed me. He was funny. He was tough. He was generous with his time and with his thoughts. He took me seriously and was inspirational.
Later he walked me back to Holland Park tube, upright yet languid, with a smile for those we passed, exuding a level of philosophical engagement with the world around him and inside him that was impressive to me. He said I talked visually, observed life in pictures and that I should consider studying film or working in it. And on that balmy, golden May evening he sat me down on a low brick wall to finish the conversation. He placed his index finger on my forehead (I didnt wash for weeks) and said: Think about studying something you really are interested in. He wrote down the names of two films (I still have the scrap of paper): Un Chien Andalou and LAge dOr. Watch these, he said, and if they fascinate you, consider studying films and books.
He pointed me in the direction of a life I would never have considered. But it was more than that. He gave a shy, sport-obsessed, academically poor country boy with no cosmopolitan culture a glimpse of the idea that anything can happen.
If the funniest, most interesting man in the world can invite you for tea, then anything is possible. My day with JC ended with me wearing a pair of comedy Y-fronts outside my trousers while riding pillion on my girlfriends Puch Maxi moped through the terraced streets of Wincheap in Canterbury, celebrating treasured hours with a serious funny man and the suspicion that life would never be the same again.