How John Cleese and other snobby sexists made my life a misery | Miriam Margolyes on the Footlights 'shits' who turned her off comedy

How John Cleese and other snobby sexists made my life a misery

Miriam Margolyes on the Footlights 'shits' who turned her off comedy

They may have been comedy pioneers while still at university, but John Cleese, Bill Oddie and Graham Chapman were ‘total shits’ who made Miriam Margolyes’s life a misery because they didn’t know how to deal with funny women.

In her frank new memoirs, the actress recalls crying alone in her room at the way she was treated by the men in the Footlights revue.

She said the ‘nastiness’ she encountered there turned her off comedy, and she has never forgotten the treatment at their hands, 60 years on.

The Footlights were at the vanguard of comedy at the time, with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore emerging from the 1960 revue to form half of Beyond The Fringe.

Margolyes was a member of the cast of the 1962 revue  which also featured  Cleese, Chapman, Oddie,  Tim Brooke-Taylor, Humphrey Barclay – later a producer and head of comedy at LWT – and Tony Hendra, who went on to play band manager Ian Faith in This Is Spinal Tap).

‘I didn't like the Footlights boys and they really didn't like me. They made that obvious,’ she writes in her autobiography, currently being serialised by the Daily Mail.

‘The only girl in the show, I thought I was as good as they were — and they didn’t. My perception was that they thought I was a jumped-up, pushy, overconfident, fat little Jew. But I was funny, and they didn't like it.’

At the time women were not allowed to be members of the Footlights – Germaine Greer was to be the first two years later – and could only perform as guests.

Margolyes said her contemporaries’ attitudes towards women stemmed from their ‘minor public school’ backgrounds and noted that Monty Python, which Cleese and Chapman would go on to co-create, didn't feature funny women, ‘only the occasional dolly bird. And I certainly wasn't that’.

‘These chaps wanted to sleep with women, not compete with them. I was neither decorative nor bedworthy, and they found me unbearable,’ she wrote.

Margolyes also said there was 'considerable class antagonism. David Frost was looked down on, for example, because he was merely a middle-class lad from Gillingham.'

She said they also ‘resented’ her getting good reviews, adding: ’Cambridge was a competitive place; in Footlights, that became toxic. Someone decided I was not to be spoken to offstage: I would go on, do my bits, then the minute I stood in the wings, I was ignored; silence and cold stares.

‘During the entire run of that 1962 revue [produced by Trevor Nunn], they treated me as if I were invisible and did not speak to me at all. Initially, I had no idea why. I was 19 and it was painful. I used to go back to my room in Newnham College and weep.

‘My dislike of that whole, largely male world of comedy has never left me. I feel awkward, admitting to such bitterness — it seems absurd, I should have got over it. But I haven't. The treatment I received from those Footlights boys was diminishing, pointed and vicious. On reflection, it is they who diminished themselves.

‘I admire the creation of Monty Python and The Goodies and I think they were men of genius, but they were not gentlemen. 

‘John Cleese, Bill Oddie and Graham Chapman were total shits — and they have never apologised. The only one who did was the late Tim Brooke-Taylor.

‘I'd assumed comedy was not for me after the nastiness of Footlights but I have ended up working with many of the non-Cambridge-educated greats of comedy (including Kenneth Williams and Ken Dodd).’

However, she did move back into Oxbridge comedy later, with some memorable performances alongside Rowan Atkinson in Blackadder – which was a totally different experience.

‘I loved every moment of it and I loved the boys,’ she writes. ‘They were a sweet, funny bunch and the atmosphere was totally different from the nail-biting competition of the Footlights. A generation or two later, there was a pleasure in each other's success and a generosity of spirit between the lads that I hadn't seen before.’

Despite her distain for her Footlights contemporaries  she said Terry Scott ‘was the nastiest person I have ever worked with… He was horrid to the chorus girls, tried to grope and kiss them and if they wouldn't play, he rubbished them publicly.’

Barclay's agent said he was not available for comment. Chortle has also approached representatives of Cleese and Oddie.

Tim Brooke-Taylor died last year, aged 79, from complications from Covid, and Hendra – who was also head writer on the first series of Spitting Image –  died earlier this year, also aged 79.

This Much Is True by Miriam Margolyes is published on September 16.


It is also available from Amazon, priced £16.15

Published: 6 Sep 2021

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