Renowned British comedian John Cleese is highly opinionated on all sorts of topics, including contempt for Sarah Palin and the George W. Bush-loving American South. But only when he issues (mild) commentary about multiculturalism changing London does the brilliant co-creator of Monty Python’s Flying Circus and Fawlty Towers abruptly morph into a controversy-ginning grumpy old racist.
New York Times reporter Palko Karasz saw fit to cover the “controversy” in hostile fashion in Friday’s edition: “Cleese’s Take On London: It’s No Longer English City.” Cleese's paean to England never had a chance under Karasz's sneer of disapproval:
Many Londoners are proud to be part of a city that is both very English and exceptionally multicultural. So when the comedian and Monty Python star John Cleese questioned the city’s Englishness in a Twitter post, London’s defenders rose up on social media.
“Some years ago I opined that London was not really an English city any more,” he wrote on Twitter on Wednesday, adding that “virtually all” his friends from abroad had confirmed his observation.
The 79-year-old Mr. Cleese left Britain for the Caribbean island of Nevis last year, a decision he said was based on a general disappointment with Britain -- specifically the “lying and triviality” of British newspapers and the “depressing” standard of debate around Brexit. (Mr. Cleese voted to leave the European Union in the 2016 referendum.) “I note also that London was the UK city that voted most strongly to remain in the E.U.,” he added in his tweet.
Those who found the tweet disturbing included Mayor Sadiq Khan of London, who became the city’s first Muslim mayor in 2016 and has been a fierce defender of London’s multiculturalism.
Karasz reveled in the liberal pile-on against the veteran comedian (the paper often finds hard news in liberal Twitter mockery from the United Kingdom) (click "expand"):
In addition to being one of the creators of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” Mr. Cleese played the eminently English innkeeper Basil Fawlty in the BBC sitcom “Fawlty Towers,” first broadcast in 1975.
“These comments make John Cleese sound like he’s in character as Basil Fawlty,” Mr. Khan wrote.
Others posted variations on that theme, including a screenshot of Mr. Cleese in the role of Mr. Fawlty punching the Spanish-born waiter Manuel in the lobby of his hotel. Others suggested that his comments were racially motivated.
Some users on Twitter said they were sad about Mr. Cleese’s comments. “I know he’s grown old and grumpy etc. etc. but he was a great hero of mine,” wrote Andrew Scott, a writer and playwright based in London who posts under the name Otto English.
Wednesday night, Mr. Cleese rejected accusations that his remarks were racist, saying that Nevis, his new home, had “excellent race relations, a very well educated population, no sign of political correctness.” His comments found sympathy among supporters of the populist Brexit party, including Lee Hurst, a comedian who accused the “Twitter hate mob” for going after Mr. Cleese.
The thread of the piece was that Cleese erred mightily with his mild tweet and should apologize, though to whom exactly was unclear:
Responding to his critics on Twitter, Mr. Cleese stopped short of an apology. “I suspect I should apologize for my affection for the Englishness of my upbringing,” he wrote Wednesday night. “But in some ways I found it calmer, more polite, more humorous, less tabloid, and less money oriented than the one that is replacing it.”
Karasz has shown his thin-skinned approach to criticism of London and its liberal mayor Sadiq Khan, in particular in previous huffy responses.