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Python's creator posts love letter to the lemur


CTV is busy creating a new show for the fall called Celebrity Pets, where stars such as Pamela Anderson Lee will ramble on about how they chose their cute puppy dogs and what they think of animal limousine services.

But if the network's executives really want to know how to produce an entertaining animal show while keeping their credibility, they should look at tonight's offering on CTV's sister station Discovery.

On the first episode of the nightly five-part series In the Wild (Discovery, 9 p.m.), starring celebrity hosts and the wild animals they love, the great John Cleese admits to a passion for lemurs. The eccentric hour of devotion that follows is unlike any nature series -- or celebrity show -- on television.

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Several decades away from the inspired madness of Monty Python and Fawlty Towers, the lurching Cleese is a gentler but still unpredictable order of primate. Confronted with the big-eared, wide-eyed, mild-mannered lemur, he can only sigh and say, "I should have married one."

This intense love, which seems to be some form of compensation for the misanthropy he's displayed on TV over the decades, began years ago during a Monty Python scene filmed at Gerald Durrell's Jersey Zoo in the Channel Islands. What the Python troupe was doing on a zoo outing we're never told (though Durrell's delightful memoirs about his animal-filled childhood must have been part of the attraction). But Cleese came out of that brief experience totally besotted by the long-tailed, monkey-like lemurs.

In recent years, he has funded programs aimed at saving wild lemurs, who don't seem to have the genetic material necessary to win the Darwinian struggle in their natural habitat of Madagascar. For this episode of In the Wild, he sponsored the release of some genetically superior black-and-white ruffed lemurs who were bred in North Carolina and then shipped on a 20-hour flight to the island rainforest -- "without even a video," Cleese notes sympathetically.

After giving his creatures a five-month head start, Cleese went to Madagascar himself to see how the experiment was going. The hard-science part of the show pretty well ends here, around the time the ex-Python revives his upper-class twit imitations to show the effects of inbreeding on Madagascar's shrinking colony of lemurs.

A fair amount of information about the lemur's plight manages to find its way into Cleese's narration all the same, but he's clearly uncomfortable with the thought that he might be venturing into earnest science-documentary territory. Doing his best David Attenborough imitation, he starts off well enough -- "The word lemur means ghost, and that's just what these creatures are, ghosts of our past, ancient primates that roamed the world's forests back in the mists of time . . ." And then, hearing the BBC nonsense that's coming out, he cuts himself off: "I love sentences like that, but I'll try to stop because I know it's irritating."

Sentences like that, on the other hand, are what make this so-called celebrity show so intimate and charming. It's pure Cleese, the instant contradiction of the journalistic cliché, and it's perfectly matched to the innocence of the fragile animals who don't deserve over-the-top triteness.

Having apparently floated away from the evolution battles of mainland Africa to the predator-free peacefulness of easy-going Madagascar, lemurs were left alone to develop in their own strange ways.

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"So they could sit back, relax and evolve," Cleese tells us, perched languidly on his own floating tree branch, "not perhaps upwards so much as sideways, producing many different species of lemurs: nocturnal ones, diurnal ones, big ones, small ones, tree hoppers, ground dwellers, solitary ones, social ones, some with a marked interest in phenomenology, others devoted collectors of Gary Glitter records."

It's the calm, crazed voice of Monty Python, and it still sounds bracing. Rather than be scientifically detached and observe his pet creatures from afar, Cleese prefers to get up close and silly. Which is one of the benefits of being a celebrity host -- you, and not the tamer zoologists, call the shots. At one point, he imitates the lemurs' Buddha-like sunbathing posture perfectly, sitting side by side with them in the rainforest tanning studio.

Encountering an oddly evolved species that can only walk by upright hopping, he changes into an Edwardian dinner jacket and prances about the rainforest like one of the 10 lords-a-leaping. Trekking extra-gingerly through a jungle full of what he calls "the leftovers from Jurassic Park," he explains that "I worry about treading on something that hasn't yet been discovered."

The lemurs lucked out. Every endangered species should have such a celebrity.


Nations Cup. Prime-time golf returns to CBC with this two-day competition between woman golfers from Canada and the United States. ( CBC, 7 p.m.) Dewey Time. Saxophonist Dewey Redman looks back on a life in jazz, with all the highs and lows that go with the gig. His lilting spritual meditations sound almost as dreamy and melodic as his music. ( Vision, Tues., 9 p.m.) Talk Shows Open Mike with Mike Bullard. Carl Reiner, Sook-Yin Lee, Cowboy Junkies (repeat). ( Comedy Network at 10 p.m., CTV at 12:05 a.m.) David Letterman. Tom Arnold, Brian Wilson. ( CBS at 11:35 p.m.) Jay Leno. Angie Harmon, Elton John (repeat). ( NBC at 11:35 p.m.) Bill Maher. Drew Carey, Bill O'Reilly, Jeri Ryan, John Taylor (repeat). ( ABC at 12:05 a.m.) Craig Kilborn. Jim Gaffigan.( Global, CBS at 12:35 a.m.) Conan O'Brien. Dave Foley, Garth Brooks (repeat). ( NBC at 12:35 a.m.)

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