Monty Python Interview
firmly focused on ratings, simply Sex & Violence. A Horse, A Bucket, A Spoon
negotiations. It very nearly was Owl-Stretching Time. But after hours of
furious argument and compromise it became Monty Python's Flying Circus. Comedy
Monty Python is the most successful comedy team these Isles have yet produced,
outstripping such precursors as The Goons and Beyond The Fringe outfits as well
as talented later ensembles like the Not The Nine O'Clock News crew. Python's
as America, Japan and Russia, and disfavour - in the form of censorship - in
almost as many places. They brought a new word, "Pythonic", into the language,
Blackmail, The Dead Parrot, The Australian Philosophy Department and Sam
Bishop. And they even devised a joke so funny it could only be told in German.
The various books, records, films and spin-off series have enabled with six
ndividual Pythons to suffer the torture of the comfy chair whenever they wish.
tower and stick it on top of the gazebo at the bottom of his beautifully
manicured and landscaeped garden; why, he's so rich, even his pond has won
Now, just as the BBC has embarked on a re-run of the second Python series, the
on their individual projects, to team up again as a film development company,
Terry Jones's Erik The Viking, John Cleeses's A Fish Called Wanda and Michael
more are to follow shortly. At the last count, since the birth of Python, the
magazines and two video companies, with plenty more products in the pipeline.
"We had no idea what we were doing when we set out - it was very vague," says
Graham Chapman concurs with this view on the Beeb: "The BBC thought it was
'satire' shows. They were trying to find a successor to That Was The Week That
Was then, and they still are."
The conventionally acknowledged precursor of Python was The Goon Show (although
and Bennett - "when I saw that in 1962 I didn't know you were allowed to be so
funny!"), TV comedy int he '60s being a pretty primitive affair, its pinnacles
being Galton & Simpson's scripts for Hancock's Half Hour and Steptoe & Son, and
Johnny Speight's for Till Death Us Do Part, all of which remained rooted in the
"Funnily enough," Says Michael Palin, "it was radio comedy like The Goons which
telly was not really dealing in an imaginative, surrealist way with images at
all. Spike Milligan was the only person. In his Q series (started 1968) he
the camera back to reveal people carrying trees past a railway carriage
very few others were experimenting with different images on telly, whereas The
Goon Shows, in a strange way, had been about the imagination. That's what's so
Though five of the six Pythons were writer-performers with pedigrees as sketch,
The Frost Report, Doctor In The House, No That's Me Over Here, I'm Sorry I'll
Read That Again, The Illustrated Weekly Hudd, Marty (Feldman), We Have Ways Of
Making You Laugh, Twice A Fortnight, The Late Show, A Series Of Birds, The Ken
Dodd Show, Billy Cotton Bandshow and The Complete And Utter History of Britain
- it was one of animator Terry Gilliam's earlier works, a Do Not Adjust Your
Set animation called Elephants, that provided the structural format of the
"It was just a cyclical piece, totally stream of consciousness," says Gilliam.
"I remember Harold Wilson's head was a hot-air balloon at one point and there
Cupid, it's Indians... the main thing was there was a sign that said Beware Of
The Elephants, and this guy walks past and an elephant falls from the sky and
kills him. It was the idea of this continually changing, transmogrifying
"I was very concerned, at the beginning, about giving soe shape to Python, some
"Spike Milligan had just started his Q shows and I thought what he was doing
middles and ends of the sketches any more - nothing had to pay off, it could
"I was at my parents' home, just walking upstairs, and I remembered Terry
Gilliam's Elephants animation, and I suddenly thought, That's it! We should do
a whole show like that, one that just flows! We could have sketches that
communal script conferences for criticism and/or development.
"It was quite schoolboyish, in the sense that there was a lot of glee around,"
laugh. Python was already just a question of juxtapositions - something that
that up against something else: connections between two completely incongruous
"When things were going right at a Python session, a sort of impetus got going
that was very difficult to stop. What was difficult was writing it all down,
the connections that were made by people sparking one another off. It was a
the wilderness and not coming up with anything at all. But when the ball
extraordinary, both in the prodigiousness and the freshness of the material,
because everyone in Python brought a slightly different way of looking at the
material. Nothing was ever a convention."
"It's weird," says Gilliam, "because it needsa ll of us to make it work. It's
that weren't sharp and precise - they rambled more, and were more conceptual in
"John and Graham wrote together too. John is always thinking, trying to
control things, put things in a different way, and Graham wanders off into
combination is very interesting. Eric is the most chameleonic in the group; he
the most celebrated - that are just fantastic, all the wordplay things. But he
Cleese and Chapman, particularly, is a strange combination for a writing team.
Cleese's hyperrational, step-by-step intellectual approach seems, on the face
of it, far too rigid and pedestrian to gel with Chapman's more quixotic style.
Chapman was capable of flashes of cruelty in his humour, which surfaced in
notorious Dead Parrot and Crunchy Frog ideas), confrontation and/or loud abuse,
as in the Five-Minute Argument sketch. Basically, any sketch involving two
concentration camp, only to find the guards on the point of closing it. Quick
as a flash, Chapman blurted out "But we're Jewish, let us in!", a remark he
transformed material, quite literally, from being something that was
conventionally funny to being something quite extraordinary, that became known
as Pythonic," says Palin. "There were long periods where Graham would sit and
"John and Graham had a lot more reference books than Terry and I, and they
then repeat it endlessly, in all the synonyms. We tried to do abuse but no
one's as good at abuse as John is, except Graham. As a partnership they're
to have six people sitting round at a table furiously criticising each other's
almost total incompatibility between Cleese and Jones, who seem to have
operated on a basis of something like mutual loathing.
"John and Terry, at meetings, would be at opposite sides - John reason and
Terry emotion - and they sort of battle dnad the rest of us would sort of dance
around between them," says Gilliam, while Chapman, in his frank and revealing A
Liar's Autobiography, reports that as early as the meeting which determined the
the high-pitched wheedling noises with which Jones characteristically
ntroduced his suggestions, drove the emotional Welshman to the very brink of
violence. (For the record, Jones' suggestion was A Horse, A Bucket, A Spoon,
the others' preferences are not noted.)
"It's the worst audience in the world," says Idle. "If you get big laughs
there, then the piece is in."
Whilst the direction credit for And Now For Something Completely Different went
to the series director Ian MacNaughton, Holy Grail was directed jointly by the
two Terrys. For Gilliam, it was not a particularly pleasant job trying to
"I hated it. It was particularly bad because I'd been in my little
cartoonist's garret for years and hadn't had to have any skills for dealing
there with all these pressures on and it was quite clear I wasn't explaining
myself very well. I was doubly angered because there were several shots that
trying to get to work, and they didn't want ot bend down in their knee-armour
because it was painful. I actually walked off a couple of times, went off in a
"It was very painful, that film. In the end, the way we did it was that Terry
Jones - who was far better at working with the others - dealt with them, and I
of the time it was all right because we agreed, but when we didn't agree it was
The style of the film was largely determined by economic necessity, says
Gilliam, who showed great initiative in cutting corners such as, for one
landscape shot, using a picture from a calendar with a candle held between
camera and picture to give a hea1t haze.
"We've always cheated; we've always had to," he claims, "and it forces you into
nothing else you can do. The thing that frightens me, as we've worked with
larger and larger budgets, is that it might limit the imagination. Because you
can build a huge city you build a huge city, whereas if you've got a couple of
bricks and a stick and you've got to make the appearance of a city you use
cardboard castles like those in Holy Grail."
All of the Pythons bar Palin - whose forte lies more in performance and writing
- have since tried their hand at direction, with varying degrees of success.
Eric Idle, who directed Robin Williams and Teri Garr in The Frog Prince, thinks
t's a specialist field of its own, outside the usual run of feature
"To successfully direct comedy you have to have some knowledge of it or have
been in it," he says. "I think the fact that Spielberg's only flop is a comedy
(1941) shows that no matter how good a director you are, directing comedy is a
of it - ie showing the joke correctly onscreen at the right time, hiding
because they like the shots, or all the other things which count in normal
cinema but don't apply in comedy."
Despite the success of Holy Grail, the Pythons ran into a little difficulty
financing their next feature, Life Of Brian. (Original title: Jesus Christ -
Lust For Glory). Although EMI's production chiefs had agreed a budget of $4
million, Lord Delfont cancelled the agreement over their heads. Graham
Chapman's drinking buddy Keith Moon then tried to raise the readies, and Eric
up he'd spent hours and hours watching Python shows on the video to help him
through, and he felt the least he could do was try and find some money for the
Life Of Brian was directed solely by Terry Jones, with Terry Gilliam preferring
to confine himself to art direction (although he did direct the little sequence
nvolving the spaceship). Similarly, Gilliam provided the short film The
Crimson Permanent Assurance which opened the subsequent Jones-directed The
Meaning Of Life - which went on to win the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film
"We announced we were going to win when we got there," says Eric Idle, "because
JURY, so it was quite a good joke. Then when we were givent he prize Terry
Jones got up and told them the money was hidden in the third washroom along!"
Like Idle, Terry Jones wasn't as surprised as most about the film's success.
But to this day he feels snubbed by the British press.
"What I was really surprised about was how little coverage it got over here,"
any coverage. The only coverage in the British press was sort of arfronted
that Python had won Second Prize at Cannes - 'What's gone wrong?' - no sort of
celebration or anything.
"Another example is when Life Of Brian came out it was the most successful
British film of that year in terms of the money it made; and when it came to
the round-ups of the year's films, there wasn't a single critic who mentioned
Life Of Brian. I couldn't believe it! It's as though, Oh, we don't count
that. That's not part of the British Film Industry."
By 1973, the group was starting to fray at the edges. A working life of
constant mutual criticism could easily degenerate into bickering, and the
becoming more noticeable. Graham chapman, inparticular, rarely socialised with
the others, being separated by them by dint of both his homosexuality and his
One of very few gay alcoholic mountaineering comedians ever to hang-glide over
live volcanoes in Ecuador with the Dangers Sports Club, Chapman had come out of
the closet early on, while he and Cleese were involved with At Last The 1948
Show. The future Basil Fawlty was quite stunned at the time. As Chapman tells
t in his autobiography: "It was totally, totally alien to him - such a thing
quite a shock, too, to Eric Idle, the only other of the future Pythons to be
acquainted with Chapman at the time: "Obviously he was quite young then, but I
more liberated than I am - not in the same way, but in 750 other ways. Being
the only child of a mother who looks exactly like Mary Whitehouse can't have
Chapman helped to found Gay News in 1969, in the hope that fellow homosexuals
n the less enlightened parts of hte country might take hope and succour in the
knowledge that they weren't alone. On a more personal level, he helped to
confrontational about his sexuality when in the company of bigots. He
confesses to never feeling comfortable in a town until he'd pulled there, and
on the Python tours of the early '70s he'd go off alone after the shows in
Besides, while the constant criticism inside Python made for shows of extremely
nto the format, and the six started to pull away from the centre. Says
Chapman, "We all need to reassure ourselves that we have a separate identity."
The fourth (and final) series of Monty Python, in 1974, was a mere six shows,
Video Arts company to make a series of highly lucrative training films for the
Fawlty Towers would become one of hte most successful sitcoms of all time,
eventually being the BBC's best export of 1977/8, with sales to 45 TV stations
n 17 countries. Though Cleese admits the Basil Fawlty character featurs the
"He was unbelievable. The first day I arrived we were all having dinner - I'd
offered. We were wondering what was going on. Eventually he walks in and
looks at me and says, In our country, we signify that we have finished eating
by placing the knife and fork so; then we will know, and your friends won't
nvented very little in that particular instance."
After a few days at this particular hotel, during which time the manager -
and made it virtually impossible to get a drink from the hotel bar, most of the
of the man's demented authority.
Rutland Weekend Television, which was to produce the spin-off programme All You
Need Is Cash, a documentary - or, if you will, rockumentary - about The Rutles.
Always the pre-eminent wordsmith of the group (he edited the bestselling Python
books), he also wrote a novel, Hello Sailor, and a play, Pass The Butler, which
three productions were at one point running concurrently. More recently he's
added another string to his bow by app0earing in Johnathan Miller's production
of The Mikado.
their penchant for atmosphere and period detail reached its apogee. Jones's
library still bears, alongside the books of children's fairy tales he's
nitial stimulus for such top-hole yarns as Tomkinson's Schooldays, Across The
Andes By Frog, Roger Of The Raj, and The Testing Of Eric Olthwaite: daft genre
n Prince Edward's It's A Royal Knockout. Well, would he?
"Absolutely!" he enthuses. "We're all after knighthoods, aren't we love? A
baronetcy - I fancy being a baron, Baron Gumby, or Baron Vercotti, maybe..."
"Mikey" always was the most likeable Python, the least intimidating persona
both on and offscreen, as well ast he best actor of the group. It's some
testa- ment to his thespian skills that he managed to make such appalling
characters as Arthur Putey and Eric Olthwaite almost sympathetic - well,
"Mike's almost too good an actor for his own good, in a way," says Jones,
"because you can forget him as a person; he sort of becomes the part, whatever
there's a ctu from the Pilate character to the centurion, Nicus Wettus, and
t's Mike as both; cutting from Mike as one Roman to Mike as another Roman, and
you never think about it!
"I couldn't do it. When I was doing Life Of Brian I was doing the Hermit In
The Hole and I was on my own, early in the morning, with no clothes on, sitting
n this hole. I did my first line and the Assistant Director said it sounded
exactly like another character I was playing, Brian's mum. I was doing this
old man, and he sounded exactly the same! The whole film unit was standing
around waiting and I was having to re-think the character!"
Gilliam's and the HandMade hits A Private Function and The Missionary (which he
also wrote), profiting greatly fromt he increased complexity of character
forte lies in acting rather than writing, if asked to choose between the two
Apart from the slim volume of literary criticism Chaucer's Knight, Jones has
focused his energies on film. Besides being sole director of the last two
"There's only four films that have been refused a certificate in Ireland int he
For his part, John Cleese has, since Fawlty Towers, starrred in two films,
others, including Silverado and The Great Muppet Caper, and still found time to
two Secret Policeman's Ball benefits for Amnesty International. At the moment,
Fish Called Wanda, which he'll co-direct with Charles Crichton, veteran
Hill Mob. Plus, of course, taking time out ot do the odd promo slot for the
"John's always been interested in power," says Idle, who clearly isn't, "and
t's a natural followup for him, I think." Certainly, his interest in politics
ncluded appearances in such non-existent biopics as The Young Anthony Barber
and The Bonar Law Story.
Sadly, Cleese's former writing partner Chapman has fared least successfully
cowardly would-be suicide who hires an odd-job man to bump him off, then
changes his mind - was a terrible flop, largely because, he believes, the
financial backers wouldn't countenance having Keith Moon play the part of the
final film, was such a disaster in America that it was never released in
Britain. Though hardly allergic to hard work - in 1970, he co-scripted no
fewer than 37 half-hour TV comedies - it's perhaps true that he, more than the
others, needs the kind of collaborator(s) who can focus his unique, offbeat
comedic inspiration to best effect. At present he's a frequent lecturer at
American colleges and is developing a film project called Ditto.
At the other end of the success scale would be, surprisingly, Terry Gilliam,
of some magnitude, one admired by peers such as Stanley Kubrick and Steven
Spielberg. His early lessons in making do on a Pythonic pittance have stood
features for a fraction of their usual budget. Jabberwocky, which was made in
more successful at re-creating its period than was his (vastly more expensive)
Barry Lyndon, Time Bandits, which, with receipts of $18 million, is the most
though experts int he American film industry reckoned it must have cost three
to four times as much. Likewise, his last film, Brazil, was estimated, on
appearances, to have cost between $25 million and $30 million, when in fact
Gilliam brought it in for a paltry $13 1/2 million, $1/2 million under budget.
Brazil was recieved rapturously everywhere from American to Eastern Bloc
countries like Poland, Bulgaria and Russia, where, at the Leningrad Film
Festival, it was admired as part of something called the New Symbolism ("the
new symbolic cinema that's sweeping the world - you've probably noticed!").
Everywhere, in fact, but Britain, where the savagery of the Stoppard/Gilliam
vision was deemed a tad traumatic for our genteel sensibilities. None of his
films has been an out-and-out comedy (though all have contained funny elemetns)
and Gilliam admits he finds the form rather constricting.
"I really like using comedy as a weapon, as a way of twisting things and
laughs as there are in most comedies, but people don't remember it as a comedy,
they remember it for the other things."
Undeterred by talk of recession in the movie business and the general trend
away from big budgets to small-scale, low-risk pictures, Gilliam's next film,
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, which he's currently working on at
Cinecitta Studios in Rome, is budgeted at a hefty $25 million.
"Munchausen is really closer to Time bandits in feel. It's more of a romp,
except that Death is a character in it as well. It's also about old age and
youth - there's lots of themes in it - but it's much funnier than Brazil. It
Since the Rutland Weekend Television series, Eric Idle's gravitated towards the
laidback lush life as practised by well-off comedians and rock stars, at one
moment ot be found in the South of France, at another dropping in on Mick and
Jerry's pad in Barbados. Mostly though, he's spent a lot of time in recent
years in America, working with comedians like Robin Williams, Chevy Chase and
Steve Martin, and writing a string of (so far) unmade filmscripts: The Rutland
Dallas, And Now This, and most recently The Legendary Syd Gottleib.
Like Chapman, Idle seems to work best within a group, though he sees little
chance of the Pythons getting together again as a team.
"It seems very unlikely, because once you get to a certain stage and have the
freedom to do what you want to do, you don't want to accept the restraints of a
company. we read each others' scripts - because that was the strongest thing
they think, and that's... well, you can throw it out the window, it's usually
useless, worthless. But if you get a read from Mike or Terry or Graham,
they'll give you what they honestly think, and you know where they're coming
from, what their quirks are. You know you're going to get the honest truth,
even if you don't like it."
"Ten years ago nobody would admit it," adds Palin, "but of course we were
the resources of Python again, re-use the professional side of our friendship.
We're a bit less bashful about submitting our scripts and criticising each
other's, because we've all got a certain amount of confidence that we can do
our own things. No-one has done anything solo that has superseded what the
or Holy Grail or Meaning Of Life; people have done different things, but not
So, will their new collaboration go any deeper than just checking on each
other's projects? Will there be another Python film? Unlikely, according to
"The only thing, I think that would bring Python together is... greed, the
need for large sums of cash. It hones the comic sense!"