"Don't mind him, he's from ... Madagascar!"
The very idea that the irascible Basil Fawlty could have a soft spot for furry animals is a preposterous notion. How could a bumbling, neurotic like Basil fall for the charms of woolly, wide-eyed prosimian? In truth, Fawlty's alter ego, the English comic genius John Cleese, is a completely unabashed lover of lemurs.
Cleese's legions of fans would have had an inkling about his previously well-concealed passion when he starred alongside the altogether charming Rollo the Ring-Tailed Lemur in the 1995 movie, Fierce Creatures.
"What I like about [ring tail lemurs]," Cleese has said, "is that they've got bags of attitude. They remind me of football fans on their way to a match all waving their scarves at one another."
But Cleese's devotion to lemurs goes way beyond a cute snog for the camera. In 1954, at the tender age of twelve, he would regularly play truant and visit the lemurs at nearby Bristol Zoo. In 1997, Cleese helped raise money to support the work of the Madagascar Fauna Group, an international consortium of zoos founded in 1988 to conserve Madagascar's wildlife. And in 1998, he trekked for several days in one of the very few remaining tracts of lowland rainforest in Eastern Madagascar to make a television documentary in support of a conservation program.
"Madagascar," explained Cleese in the documentary, "is one of the few places on earth that Michael Palin hasn't visited, which gives it a certain caché among truly intrepid explorers!"
The effort of filming in the steamy undergrowth was considerable, with Cleese fighting a "dodgy knee", and his quarry - five Black and White Ruffed Lemurs re-introduced to the wild six months earlier - remaining frustratingly elusive. The "little bastards" afforded his crew barely a few seconds glimpse.
At one particularly difficult point he sarcastically threatens to steal documentary footage from David Attenborough and turns to camera and says, "You just stay there on your sofas and your armchairs, make yourself another nice cup of tea... I'll go into the deathtrap! I'll be alright... or if I'm not you'll read about it in the papers. So don't worry!"
Despite his travails in Madagascar, Cleese's commitment to preserving the endangered lemurs continues.
In June 2002, he turned out at his own expense to headline the opening of the brand new Lipman Family Lemur Forest at the San Francisco Zoo - a modern, US$2.9 million, multi-species exhibit housing twenty ring-tailed, white-fronted, black and white ruffed, red ruffed and black lemurs in a spacious, natural environment. Clearly in his element with the animals, Cleese's only stipulation was for "quality time with the animals".
And why does he do all this?
"I adore lemurs," says Cleese simply, "they're extremely gentle, well-mannered, pretty and yet great fun should have married one!"
Report by Roderick Eime
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