John Cleese said he would tell the BBC “not on your nelly” if it asked him to make a new programme – as he announced he is joining GB News after being told it is a “free speech channel”.
The actor and comedian, 82, created and starred in the classic sitcom Fawlty Towers and was one of the comedy troupe members behind the surreal sketch show Monty Python, both which first aired on the BBC.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme on Monday, he said: “The BBC have not come to me and said, ‘Would you like to have some one-hour shows?’
“And if they did, I would say, ‘Not on your nelly’ because I wouldn’t get five minutes into the first show before I’d been cancelled or censored.”
Today presenter Amol Rajan replied: “Well, we’ve given you five minutes today and I can promise you you haven’t been censored yet.”
Cleese has previously spoken out about cancel culture and criticised a perceived “stifling” effect of political correctness on creativity – saying there is no such thing as a “woke joke”.
Asked about how his new show with GB News came about, he said: “I don’t know much about modern television because I’ve pretty much given up on it. I mean, English television.
“And then I met one or two of the people concerned and had dinner with them and I liked them very much.
“And what they said was, ‘People say it’s the right-wing channel – it’s a free speech channel’.”
According to GB News, Cleese’s new series will air next year and feature him in conversation with “his choice of guests on a wide range of areas that interest him”.
Writer and comedian Andrew Doyle will executive produce the programme and said: “John will have complete creative freedom to have the conversations he wants to have with the people who interest him most.
“Like John himself, it will be far from predictable.”
GB News was set up in June 2021, with former BBC political broadcaster Andrew Neil positioned as chairman and host of a primetime show before he stepped down in the September.
Cleese will join the channel’s on-air talent, including former This Morning host Eamonn Holmes, former Ukip leader Nigel Farage, former Sky anchor Colin Brazier, former ITV News journalist Alastair Stewart, and former Labour MP Gloria De Piero.
Questioned about his thoughts on the limits of free speech, Cleese said: “Somebody once said to me, ‘Everyone’s in favour of free speech, particularly for the ideas that they like’.”
Reflecting on whether free speech should extend to those spreading opinions and misinformation about public health matters, he added: “If there’s a factual response to something like that, then that should be made.
“That’s the job, to put the facts out there and then to have opinions slightly separate and have a proper argument about it, but not to try to avoid a public debate and then try and get yourself through social media.”
Cleese – who rose to fame in the 1970s as a co-founder of the surrealist comedy group Monty Python alongside Graham Chapman, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Sir Michael Palin – has previously criticised the BBC when UKTV, which is BBC-owned, temporarily removed an episode of Fawlty Towers over apparent “racial slurs” and “outdated language”.
On how he feels Monty Python would be received today, he said: “Well, the guy who was in charge of light entertainment about four years ago said he wouldn’t commission it now because it’s six white people, five of whom went to Oxbridge.
“But the point was they made a programme that a lot of people liked.”
He added: “If people enjoy something, then the BBC should be making more of it. And if people don’t enjoy something, they should probably be making less of it. But their job is to produce the best possible programmes.”
While Cleese has previously supported the Liberal Democrats and the Social Democratic Party, he said he does not belong to either party and now finds politics a “confusing mess”.
He added: “After that appalling debate on Brexit, when I thought this country had sunk to the lowest intellectual level I can ever remember, I kind of lost interest.”
The actor continued: “I live in hotel rooms. I’m in hotel rooms ten months of the year, so I’m interested in a lot of political things everywhere, but I don’t think that this country is in a good state at the moment.
“In fact, I think the last three Tory administrations have been progressively more and more disastrous.”