John Cleese, untamed: the folly of Fierce Creatures

Curtis, who was missing her children, fought with Cleese openly on set; the producer Michael Shamberg’s driver head-butted other set drivers, and most of the supporting cast, which included Ronnie Corbett and Play School actor Derek Griffiths, vied with one another to steal scenes. However, by the time that Palin finished filming in August 1995, he felt that he had done his job to the best of his abilities, and Cleese was able to tell him in October that he was “very happy”, not least with his co-star’s “super” performance. 

Palin had more mixed feelings when he saw the finished film himself in November 1995. Acknowledging that there was “no shortage of laughter”, and that “there were good moments, well received, right up to the end”, he also complained that the film “began to sag as the plot became more convoluted and just about everything to do with Kevin’s character failed – especially exposing himself to the tiger.” Although everyone seemed “visibly relieved”, Palin noted: “That it took four months of my life [to film] is, on the other hand, barely believable from the amount of time on screen.” 

He might have expected that his work was finished, but, to his chagrin, Cleese contacted him in early 1996, to inform him that American test screenings had gone poorly and that the film’s beginning and ending needed to be reshot. Palin called this “quite startling, though John makes it all sound business-like and rather unremarkable.” The death of Kline’s character Vince, killed by a rhinoceros, had been particularly unpopular, and a fortnight of reshoots were scheduled. 

Unfortunately, Palin was already committed to filming a new series of a travel programme, Full Circle with Michael Palin, and Kline and Curtis were unavailable until late summer. A wholescale rewrite of the script was undertaken by Cleese and Johnstone, but Palin was informed that one of the central problems was: “no-one liked the keepers, that’s the problem.” As he despairingly noted: “If the opening scenes with Jamie and Kevin didn’t work and 20 minutes of the ending didn’t work and they didn’t like the keepers, what is left?” 

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