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I knew Cleese shouldn't have married that grim girl

Michael Winner explains why he took his pal John Cleese on a 'divorcey-moon' to cheer him up after the end of his marriage Published 6 July 2008
News Review
781st article





I went on the honeymoon of my friend John Cleese, so it was fitting that I should be on the divorcey-moon. The honeymoon was in St Lucia; to celebrate the end of his not-so-good marriage, we decided to tour Switzerland.

Not long before, John had called me from his home in Santa Barbara, California, and said, "I think it's going to be a very civilised divorce."

"No way, John," I said. "Get into the real world."

I remembered his wife, Alyce Faye Eichelberger - whom he'd rescued from a council flat - saying to me during a previous marriage-wobble, "I'm going to take John for all I can. He won't know what's hit him." He does now.

There's no doubt that John is hurting, but has put on a witty public face. When Alyce failed to turn up to a judicial hearing, her lawyer said to the judge, "My client is undergoing a medical procedure." John observed, "I think that means a pedicure."

Their financial dispute will almost certainly drag on well into next year. Alyce could end up with Pounds 12m, an apartment in New York and a Pounds 2m mews house near me in Holland Park, west London. Until the divorce is settled, she's on Pounds 900,000-a-year maintenance, plus use of a beach house in Santa Barbara and other properties. Not bad for a 15-year marriage that did not produce any children.

The only child involved in the marriage was John's daughter Camilla - aged 8 at the start, and now 24. She's writing a stage musical of A Fish Called Wanda with John and they have a major musical producer waiting for it.

When Alyce learnt that Camilla was to stop living with her mother in Chicago and relocate to be with John in Santa Barbara, she said to me, "I was hoping to go into the sunset alone with John."

A major problem in the marriage seemed to be Alyce's jealousy of Camilla. It was almost as if John had to make a choice. As our mutual friend Sir Michael Caine observed, "Blood is thicker than water."

In her divorce testimony, Alyce claimed that she was entitled to her extravagant demands because Cleese was a "world-renowned celebrity" and she was used to "being entertained by royalty and dignitaries in castles". She also claimed John travelled on private jets.

"I take private jets," I said to John. "I never realised you did too."

"I took two private jets in 14 years," he replied. He didn't recall being entertained in a castle, either. As for the rest of Alyce's claims, John sent the divorce papers to his Monty Python colleagues with a note saying, "Do you think this would make a TV series - Lives of the Seriously Demented?"

"Why didn't you have a prenuptial settlement?" I asked John.

"I was naive," he replied.

When I asked what he would do differently if he could live his life again, John responded, "I wouldn't have married Alyce Faye Eichelberger and I wouldn't have made Fierce Creatures [the film that followed A Fish Called Wanda]." He also said, "This divorce will cost me millions, but it's worth it."

I myself never married. I saw a neon alimony sign flashing above the girls' heads. Not that of my fiancee Geraldine, of course. Above her head is only a halo. She even managed a smile when I told her, "It took me 70 years to get engaged - don't hold your breath for the wedding."

What do Mr C and I have in common? We both studied law at Downing College, Cambridge. We're both mildly insane.

In spite of John's knowledge of law he was surprised when, after years of no serious bidders, he accepted an offer for his Santa Barbara ranch and Alyce, through her lawyer, said, "We defer to your judgment."

"What does that mean?" John asked. His lawyer explained Alyce was reserving the right to take him to court later to sue him for not getting a better price. John was outraged.

I first met John in Barbados in 1985. Before our first dinner, he shaved off his beard and moustache, leaving just enough above the lip to make him look extraordinarily like Hitler. One day, we walked barefoot in the sea, from my hotel to his. The sun was shining, birds were singing, flowers were flowering. He had a new young daughter, Camilla. Everything was rosy.

"You know, Michael, there must be more to life than this," he said.

I told that story one day to Bjorn Ulvaeus, a member of the pop group Abba, when we were both staying at the hotel Splendido in Portofino, because he looked so gloomy. It was the only time I ever saw him laugh.

I once asked John when he realised that his marriage to his second wife, a tall Los Angeles newscaster called Barbara Trentham, was going downhill. "I bought 10 stickers reading: 'I visited the Harrow Leisure Centre' and stuck them all over my Bentley. Barbara peeled them off one by one. That's when I realised the marriage was over," he told me.

Some time later, I was walking down the road where I live, and turned left into Kensington High Street. There was my old friend John, with a woman. As I walked on with my girlfriend, I said, "That's funny, John never introduced me to the person he was with."

It was Alyce. She and John were on their first date, having been introduced by the society doctor John Gayner at a dinner party. He thought they'd hit it off. Don't go into marriage brokering, Dr Gayner. It ain't your speciality.

At John's request, I later found him a house to rent in Barbados owned by the parents of Jemma and Jodie Kidd. For many years, he stayed there at Christmas and new year; it was also where he married Alyce one Christmas. From there, he set off for his honeymoon with Alyce, me, and my then girlfriend, the actress Jenny Seagrove.

We spent a lot of time in St Lucia with my friend Colin Tennant, aka Lord Glenconner. When I told him two days ago that John's marriage to Alyce had collapsed, he said: "I'm not surprised. She was rather grim."

John and I started our buddy-buddy divorcey-moon in Lugano. Our dinner at the hotel Villa Principe Leopoldo was moderate, the service odd. When I complained, John observed, "You're a very good influence on me because you behave so badly."

The shrimps came from South Africa - "jet-lagged shrimps," observed John. Waiters kept trying to take our plates away before we'd finished. John said, "They're frightened the food's going to go bad in front of you and you'll sue."

I didn't like the table position; John hated the breakfast coffee. I also objected to plastic butter containers with foil you had to peel off. "You have to remember, Michael," John explained , "that the staff are too busy to unwrap it."

John, a great exercise man - as opposed to me, who finds lying down tiring - said of the hotel's gym: "It was a dump - I could show you better places in Weston-Super-Mare [John's birthplace]."

When we came out of dinner, he got into the lift. "Your room's on this floor," I said. John shouted sarcastically from the lift, "I'll see you later," as if telling me I was wrong. "Look, John," I yelled, "a sign here says Rooms A-M. Yours is G." "We're becoming like Laurel and Hardy - except more abusive," remarked John, as he exited from the lift.

The next day, John was humping suitcases into a white Range Rover. "I must have offended the porter," he muttered. He'd texted Camilla: "I'm going to really impress you at last. The car I've hired is the one Paris Hilton always uses." She texted back: "Blow it up."

Next week: Our heroes continue their tour. Geraldine joins in and a lovely blonde arrives for John. Gossip columnists, salivate



Michael's missives

Intriguing montage at Villeneuve-sur-Yonne last week. The legendary and still dazzling Leslie Caron saddled by two cheap schitzus.
Ian Lineker, Worcestershire

What a dreadful trauma for the beguiling Leslie Caron to find herself sitting next to you at the National theatre! Like a true lady she treated you as an equal, which has probably given you even more delusions of inadequacy.
Dennis Pallis, Kent

You with Gigi! You're not exactly the suave, unforgettable Maurice Chevalier, so please don't break into singing Thank Heaven for Little Girls.
Don Roberts, Cheshire

I was sorry not to see Geraldine's name in the Queen's honours list for "services to the elderly".
Lawrence Swerdlow, Cheshire

I was dismayed to read of Michael's frustration with Zenith Funds. I suggest his Pounds 29m is withdrawn forthwith and reinvested in the North East Pigeon Racing Syndicate, which guarantees safe and consistent returns.
David Lowe, Sunderland

Our wedding anniversary meal at Brasserie Blanc in Milton Keynes was terrible. My husband had to leave his steak and the Flaming Arctic Roll turned out to be a damp squib. Raymond Blanc is opening a string of affordable brasseries. People like me flock to share in his reputed magic. We are being sadly let down.
Joanna Smith, Northants

Send letters to Winner's Dinners, The Sunday Times, 1 Pennington Street, London E98 1ST or e-mail michael.winner@sunday-times.co.uk