Eric Idle on Monty Python's Not the Messiah
(Sorry, this article is over a month old, but I figured you'd want to see it anyway.)
Eric Idle on Monty Python's Not The Messiah
Forty years ago a bunch of bright young writers got together at the BBC and changed the face of TV comedy. Here Eric Idle rambles on about Coleridge and his brilliant new show, Not The Messiah, before describing those heady days when Monty Python took the world by storm.
Published: 12:24PM BST 22 Sep 2009
Life has a very simple plot/ First you’re here/And then you’re not.
I was working on a lyric when the mail thing dinged and distracted me. Fortunately the Person from Porlock now has his own website, and can interrupt almost anyone anywhere in the world writing in metre. Oh sure my poem is not exactly *Khubla Khan* but it’s a start.
And by the way, for those of you following the obscure Coleridge references, don’t you think that the Person from Porlock must have been his dealer? Why else would he stop and answer the door? “Oh hello Mr. C. I got some really nice opium this week – some reds, and a hemp enema.” “Thank God you came man, I was waffling on about caverns measureless to man, desperate for something.”
Anyway, *my* interrupter was a PR Person from Porlock. *I promised what?* I’d write a piece for The Telegraph. By when? Oh hell. On what? *A History of the Pythons* *from my personal view?* Oh God, no. Say it ain’t so. Can’t I write about Coleridge? What can I say about Python that hasn’t been said, read or written about ad infinitum? Sure we weren’t as funny as Coleridge, but we didn’t have half the laudanum he took .
Writing about Python is self-serving and vain, I said, and there are bad things about it as well; but these PR people are agents of the devil and she would not be shaken off. I have to cough up some tendentious memories of the Old Cleese Snake Gang or they won’t print what we really want, which is to seduce you into coming to see Not The Messiah, (He’s a Very Naughty Boy) at the Royal Albert Hall on October 23, where I am appearing with my Spamalot co-creator John Du Prez, who will be conducting 260 musicians (the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the BBC Chorus, and pipers from the Royal Scots Guards), as well as Michael Palin in full drag, Terry Jones as a Welsh miner, Terry Gilliam as a Mexican and Carol Cleveland and Neil Innes, in a full choral re-telling of The Life of Brian in oratorio form: a kind of cross between The Nine Lessons and Carols, Messiah and The Last Night of The Proms. And yes there are sheep, and candles and angels and snow and even Bob Dylan and what? I really have to say something about Monty Python now?
All right. Let me say simply that if you are going to roll around in pig s--- in drag on top of the Yorkshire moors, or gallop around Scotland on imaginary horses in soggy woolen armour, or intend to be crucified for three days in Tunisia, then these are the finest bunch of chaps you could ever wish to roll, ride or be crucified with.
The irrepressible Palin, the ebullient Jones, the mercurial Gilliam, the aloof Cleese, the implacable Doctor Chapman puffing placidly on his pipe: this was a gang to be in all right. And it was a gang, not just a Gang Show, and when we were in angry mood storming around Television Centre looking for a confrontation with management, fully grown BBC executives would hide.
There were only supposed to be thirteen shows. The group fell together almost accidentally in early 1969 when the Children’s show Do Not Adjust Your Set rammed into the remnants of a Marty-free At Last It’s The 1948 Show, scooping up the pieces into a bizarre and unlikely team, which found it could communicate easily and criticize freely, and largely without rancour, and while we had no idea what we wanted to do with this new show the BBC had so casually granted us, we did know exactly what we didn’t want: a typical Light Entertainment Show, with singers and Punch lines and an ebullient host greeting us with the words “And Now For Something Completely Different.”
So yes, we did want to shock, to challenge, to epater les bourgeois, to make the viewer sit up and wonder if this was even the right channel. No producers, no voice of reason suggesting something might be tasteless. Tasteless was the idea. Indeed one of Python’s greatest strengths over the years has been to provoke revealing outbursts from sacred cowboys. (The Bishop of Southwalk, Malcolm Muggeridge, Mary Whitehouse, wives of US Senators ) It’s hard to remember there was a time when we were almost universally hated by large sections of society. Now that we are the cuddly old farts of comedy I rather miss the hatred.
Laughter is what I remember most. I don’t think I ever laughed so much in my life. It was a writers' commune. For the first and last time in Showbiz history the Writers were in charge. All material had to be auditioned out loud. If we didn’t laugh we sold it to other comedians. The Pythons wrote in pairs and Cleese would always read out Chapman/Cleese and Palin would always read out Jones/Palin. I was on my own. But it left me free to edit and assess. I have always thought of myself as the Python wicket keeper.
I could tell when the ball was turning and when we could get a quick leg side stumping and when to change the bowler. It was portmanteaux comedy — a trunk full of different styles of comedy material glued together by Gilliam, whose cut-out art provided a reassuringly cheap-looking kind of spurious continuity, forming a Victorian Theater frame of images around these disparate sketches giving the illusion of some kind of theme which we would then pretentiously overstate: “Man’s Inhumanity to Man in the Twentieth Century” or “Whither Canada?”
Cleese, who always gave the impression of being somehow above the proceedings, would unleash devastating readings of his sketches destroying us, killing us, and occasionally we too would make him laugh, and his huge frame would lie full length on the floor roaring out loud and rolling around in merriment. The Doctor would chuckle. Gilliam would greet new material with a broad grin, Jonesy could go off into unexpected hysterics and Michael laughed freely and sometimes uncontrollably: once when Cleese nailed him with the Cheese Shop we thought some kind of medical intervention might be needed, and indeed a fresh bottle of Sancerre, prescribed by our own doctor, had to be applied before he calmed down. Graham of course, from St. Bart’s hospital, was studying to be a fully qualified alcoholic. Typically, none of us noticed.
It is an odd thing to do comedy and we were an odd bunch. And it was not undergraduate humour, we are all graduates thank you very much. Perhaps our best achievement was managing to stay together long enough to segue from TV comedy into movies. All in all we managed fourteen years and that while we turned from young men into husbands and fathers. And do we still get on? Yes. We do. So there.
Of course we bicker and bitch and gossip and moan about each other, but you just try attacking one of the others and see what you get.
People ask what it was like, but so absurd and improbable is the story of Python’s success and so implausible its ability to survive and spread round the world, that it is beyond the reach of any metaphor. Perhaps only Coleridge could have found the right words to explain the unlikely survival of this most unlikely show. And then he’d probably say something Shlegel had said anyway.
Eric Idle has just finished editing “Monty Python Live!” which tells in their own words the backstage story of Python on the road, and which is published in the UK by Simon & Schuster on Oct 1. There are still a few seats left for Not The Messiah, a very special evening celebrating the Monty Python Ruby Jubilee at the Albert Hall (020 7589 8212) on Oct 23