The role of St. Peter guarding heaven's gates is a suitably outrageous part for John Cleese, the madcap star of Monty Python's Flying Circus and Fawlty Towers, two of the most popular British comedy series ever to appear on American public TV. In a film called The Unorganised Manager, St. Peter returns an executive to earth to correct his "eleven deadly organizational sins."
The four-part movie may seem like just another Cleese farce, but it has a serious purpose. Its intended audience includes corporate executives, and the biting humor drives home a forceful message: managers cannot do a decent job, or expect their subordinates to do one, if they have not organized their time and set clear priorities and performance standards. The film is one of more than 70 corporate training films produced by Video Arts, a London company that Cleese helped start in 1972. Over the years, Cleese has instructed bosses on everything from running meetings to conducting interviews with prospective employees. His roles have ranged from Queen Elizabeth I, who offered tips on making decisions, to a businessman named Ivan the Terrible, who was too overbearing during interviews.
Thanks largely to the popularity of Cleese's antic performances, more than 20,000 British employers, including Lloyd's of London and Barclays Bank, use Video Arts films. The company, which has annual revenues of nearly $10 million, has distributors in 24 other countries, and its films have been dubbed into 13 languages, from Portuguese to Cantonese. Video Arts opened its first U.S. office, in Chicago, last January. It has 7,000 American clients. Among them: General Motors, 3M and Sheraton hotels. They rent Cleese's films for as much as $180 a week or buy them for about $650 each. Saks Fifth Avenue bought a copy of a popular film called If Looks Could Kill: The Power of Behaviour, which deals with customer relations, for each of its 43 department stores. Hilton International will show Video Arts films to at least 2,000 managers this year. Says Iain Hall, director of Hilton's training program: "The humor works very well. People can laugh and they can learn at the same time."
In one Cleese film, Meetings, Bloody Meetings, he plays a workaholic executive who tells his wife that he must bring work home every night because he spends all day in meetings. "If it wasn't for the sleep we got at meetings," he explains, "we'd never be able to work this late." Viewers then learn why his meetings are never ending: he does not prepare himself well; his staff never knows the agenda; he forgets to invite key people and then fails to record the decisions made during the meeting.