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John Cleese on sleep, putting kids to bed, and essential parenting advice.

Everyone knows that stories become exciting or boring depending on who is telling them. Even the most well-written story can become grating and dull in the hands of the wrong person. The opposite is also true - with the right voice and storytelling abilities even a simple bedtime story intended to put the listener to sleep can become a magical adventure. The latter is very much the case for the story “The Mystery of the Lost Sleep”, which is narrated by John Cleese. 
Stella Sleep staff had the opportunity to catch up with Mr Cleese back-stage after the recording of “The Mystery of the Lost Sleep” to get his take on sleep, putting kids to bed, and essential advice for parents.

Many of us grown-ups recognize John Cleese from the numerous, iconic roles he has played, and the films and TV series he has written and produced, over the last 50+ years. A career that is unique not only for it’s brilliance and longevity, but also for that Mr Cleese has the rare quality of being a household name recognized by at least 3 generations - for landmark roles which shaped the cultural narrative of each. For example, my parents, who are in their seventies, can quote lines from Monty Python and Fawlty Towers by heart. In my case, being in my 30s, the cult classic “A Fish Called Wanda” and his roles in two Bond movies made him a strong presence in movie nights during my teens and twenties. For my son, who is 6 years old, Cleese is favourite actor and voice for his role in the Harry Potter franchise (as Nearly-Headless Nick), and three Shrek movies.

Listening to the recording of “The Mystery of the Lost Sleep” by one of the most famous voices of 3+ generations was remarkable. Mr Cleese’s extensive experience with acting for radio was evident, and the team in the studio definitely found themselves yawning despite it being mid-day. However, we quickly regained our wits as we sat down for an interview with Mr Cleese, to find out about his take on sleeping, putting children to bed, and essential advice for parents.

Stella Staff: Have you ever overcome a sleep problem?

John Cleese: I’ve had sleep problems, but they are almost always connected with excessive travel, or with flying, and therefore with jet lag. I mean, they are all similar, those, all related. That’s when I get a problem. I just came back from Las Vegas where I did a speech, and it’s on Los Angeles time. 8 hours difference from London, and as anticipated it took me 8 days before I was totally at ease again. The other thing is different beds. You know, we sleep best when we have routines, I think. We tend to go to bed at about the same time every night, and I think routines are terribly important to us, and we forget that.

Stella Staff: How do you make sure that you consistently get 8 hours of sleep every night?

John Cleese: Yes, I do try to get eight hours. I tend to go to bed a bit early because my wife goes to bed very early because she gets up at some ridiculous hour, like half-past five, to go swim for an hour. So she likes to go to bed early and I have gotten used to that now. So I usually go to bed at about 10, and I play chess with myself rather than computer stuff. Sometimes I do a crossword or a sudoku. I like to do that before I settle down. If I get an annoying email or text just before I go to bed, then that is a bad idea. I think having anything to do with your computer or any of these electronic things before you go to bed, that is a bad idea.

Stella Staff: In your day-to-day experience, if you haven’t had enough sleep, how do you notice it?

John Cleese: I would say that the principle result of not getting enough sleep is physical tiredness, but also mental tiredness. I would have to concentrate much harder if someone was explaining something to me that was a bit difficult. Because you don’t have mental energy. People don’t understand that thinking takes a tremendous amount of energy.

Stella Staff: And then you can imagine for children in school, going in to learn if you’ve been up all night with your computer games.

John Cleese: Absolutely. One of the strange things about this world is that the really important things tend to be forgotten, and a lot of nonsense arises to take their place.

Stella Staff: When your daughter was young, did you have any tips or tricks for putting her to sleep?

John Cleese: I used to tell her stories! Quite hard work, particularly if you’d spent the day trying to write something and then you have to write another one for your daughter. But I used to read to her and I’d very frequently read funny stuff. There was a guy named Arnold Lobel, who had very good books about frogs and toads. Because they were funny, in a very gentle way, I think that was very good because I think laughter and smiling has a lot to do with relaxation.

Stella Sleep: I think that’s true - perhaps having an app that would read your bedtime story would have been an excellent addition to your bedtime routine?

John Cleese: Oh that’s a good idea! Yes! I think one of the things when I used to live in California near Santa Barbara, the sound of the sea - our house was on the beach - and the sound of the sea was very calming. I know you can buy those sounds, and have bird song, or badgers belching, or whatever it is that sends you off. But those very natural sounds that come from nature seem to help us too.

Stella Sleep: Yes, those sounds can be very calming, both for children and for adults.

John Cleese: Yes, for adults just as much. I think adults are just as much in need of a good night’s sleep as children.

We then had a brief discussion on how children and their lack of sleep tends to result in a general lack of sleep for the entire family. Mr Cleese joked that he thinks this is why people should not have babies; or at least not until they have received accurate information on exactly how challenging raising children can be. We agreed on that with kids, mostly you tend to find out about the realities after the fact, and that there is a lack of honest or accurate discourse about the difficulties in bringing up young children. At that point, I vividly recalled the pediatric nurse who informed me that my son, who woke up at least 3 times every night, would absolutely sleep through the night when he turned one. He did not sleep through the night until he was 2,5.

John Cleese: I was a very close friend of a fellow named Robin Skynner, who was a very famous psychiatrist, and his wife used to do co-therapy with him. She ran a group for first-time mothers, and she said they all said the same thing, which is “why didn’t anyone tell us how hard this is?”. The little so-and-so’s change our lives in a way that nothing else does.

Stella Sleep: That’s very interesting, because while you’re required to go get a licence to handle a car, there’s no licence to have a baby. You just bring it home.

John Cleese: You just bring it home, and you have no idea how it works. Most of the time, you stand there watching it, making sure it’s still breathing. I don’t think anyone knows how difficult it is to have children, and it can be very worth it, but you’ve really got to want to have them. It’s not the sort of “next thing to do”, which I think is what it is for a lot of people.

On this topic, we spent some time talking about pieces of advice about parenting that turned out to be very valuable. Mr Cleese recounted a story of a friend who had gone to see a spiritual teacher, to ask if they should have children, and if it’s good to have children. The spiritual teacher had responded “yes, because it makes us less selfish”. Mr Cleese felt that this, to him, was the purpose of “the little so-and-so’s”. Having children makes us less selfish, and makes us start putting other people first. And on that note, Mr Cleese requested to take a copy of the script of “Mystery of the Lost Sleep” home with him, to show his wife and daughter to encourage them to stop using screens at bedtime, which is one of the learning points of the story. 

On our way home, the Stella team spent some time listening to the raw material from the recording of “the Mystery of the Lost Sleep”. Soon, our heads were drooping and we found ourselves yawning widely. A magical sleep story, read by one of the most legenday voices of all time, it has strong soporific effects, even to adults, even in the middle of the day. Try it for yourself in the Stella app!