Thirty years af­ter its cre­ation, John Cleese talks to Michael Bodey about the Pythons’ pin­na­cle

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

IF Life of Brian isn’t the great­est filmed com­edy, it comes a close sec­ond to Billy Wilder’s Some Like it Hot , ( al­though Dr Strangelove has its sup­port­ers). But John Cleese, an ad­mit­tedly in­ter­ested ob­server, is de­lighted Re­view ad­mires the Monty Python team’s film, re­leased in 1979.

‘‘ think it’s hard to beat be­cause it’s mak­ing very good jokes about very im­por­tant things,’’ the film’s co- writer and ac­tor says.

‘‘ You know what the trou­ble is with Some Like it Hot now? The two of them ( Jack Lem­mon and Tony Cur­tis) dressed up as girls seems a lit­tle old- fash­ioned. It’s still just about the best, though, with the best last line writ­ten ( when Joe E. Brown dis­cov­ers that Jack Lem­mon in drag is a man): ‘‘ No­body’s per­fect.’’

In­deed, no film is per­fect. But in the revered life of the Monty Python com­edy col­lec­tive, noth­ing came closer to com­edy per­fec­tion than Life of Brian .

Thirty years af­ter its cre­ation, the film still stands strong as silly com­edy and so­cial com­men­tary. Yes, Lem­mon and Cur­tis dressed as women in Some Like it Hot is a dated con­cept. But some­one be­ing mis­taken for the Mes­siah? Just read the news; the con­cept is as fresh as a vir­gin birth. Four of the sur­viv­ing Monty Python mem­bers, Cleese, Michael Palin, Terry Jones and Terry Gil­liam, re­united re­cently to cel­e­brate the 30th an­niver­sary of the mak­ing of their com­edy about the man born in the stable next door to Je­sus Christ and to add touches to a new DVD pack­age, Life of Brian: The Im­mac­u­late Edi­tion .

Un­for­tu­nately, they were with­out Brian, Gra­ham Chap­man, who died in 1989 of spine and throat can­cer, and Eric Idle, who was hav­ing a tantrum ( about which, more be­low).

Cleese ad­mits the quar­tet had a won­der­ful time to­gether, as you might when cel­e­brat­ing your mas­ter­work. De­spite the troupe’s sem­i­nal work in the sketch television se­ries of the 1970s, Monty Python’s Fly­ing Cir­cus , and in five movies, noth­ing ap­proached the clar­ity and in­flu­ence of their sec­ond fea­ture film.

Cer­tainly, Cleese be­lieves the team didn’t bet­ter it in any of its other work in film, TV, ra­dio or on the stage. ‘‘ It’s a very, very good movie in­deed,’’ he tells Re­view . ‘‘ There are one or two weak mo­ments but peo­ple don’t re­ally no­tice them and it’s ab­so­lutely the best thing we ever did.’’

The Pythons, as writ­ers, per­form­ers and direc­tors, were at the height of their col­lec­tive pow­ers at the time. Even mat­ters that might have caused se­ri­ous prob­lems, such as Gil­liam’s and Jones’s de­sires to di­rect, were smoothed over ami­ably.

‘‘ Jonesy was so well pre­pared, we went at phe­nom­e­nal speeds, we had re­hearsed it, we were all in good form and it just flowed, it was just ex­tra­or­di­nary,’’ Cleese says of the pro­duc­tion. Of course, all of them have moved on to cre­ate some ex­tra­or­di­nary works as in­di­vid­u­als: Cleese’s Fawlty Tow­ers , Palin’s BBC travel doc­u­men­taries and his Rip­ping Yarns se­ries with Jones, Idle’s mu­si­cal Spa­malot and Gil­liam’s cult clas­sic Brazil , a movie that de­fines his frus­trat­ing film ca­reer.

As a team, Cleese and his

col­leagues re- en­er­gised TV sketch com­edy with Monty Python’s Fly­ing Cir­cus in the early ’ 70s, in­flu­enc­ing many of the co­me­di­ans who came af­ter them. But noth­ing they cre­ated was quite as co­her­ent as Life of Brian , some­thing that be­came mad­den­ingly clear to them five years later, Cleese says.

‘‘ It was very lucky be­cause when we tried to get ready for The Mean­ing of Life ( in 1983), we couldn’t do it again. We pro­duced a film with won­der­ful things in it but ( that) was very scrappy and with no real unity. Ac­tu­ally, with Life of Brian , we more or less got the story right, which we didn’t in any­thing else.’’

But Life of Brian was not the only case of the Pythons’ luck.

That well- matched peo­ple such as Chap­man, Cleese and Idle could com­bine with fu­ture Good­ies Tim Brooke- Tay­lor, Graeme Gar­den and Bill Od­die ( and for that mat­ter Ger­maine Greer and Clive James), at one time, at one univer­sity club — the Cam­bridge Foot­lights Re­vue — was a mat­ter of happy chance.

That Chap­man, Cleese and Idle be­gan writ­ing and per­form­ing for TV just when Palin and Jones did is co­in­ci­den­tal. That Bri­tish TV net­work ITV of­fered Palin, Jones, Idle and Gil­liam their own se­ries just as Cleese and Chap­man were of­fered their show by the BBC be­fore they all joined forces was ex­tremely for­tu­itous.

But that the six of them dis­cov­ered they were, to a man, all heav­ily schooled in, but scep­ti­cal of, re­li­gion is down­right mirac­u­lous. If you be­lieve in mir­a­cles, which they don’t.

‘‘ It was an ex­tra­or­di­nary piece of luck that in­stinc­tively we all agreed on what re­li­gion wasn’t,’’ Cleese says of the way Life of Brian was writ­ten.

‘‘ Com­edy very rarely makes pos­i­tive state­ments, it tends to make crit­i­cal state­ments, and I think you will find that if we tried to agree what we thought re­li­gion was, we would have had a lot of prob­lems. But we were to­tally in ac­cord over what it wasn’t.’’

Af­ter the suc­cess of the troupe’s first film, Monty Python and the Holy Grail , Idle had flip­pantly told re­porters ask­ing the stan­dard ques­tion that their sec­ond movie would be called Je­sus Christ: Lust for Glory. The ti­tle took hold as a premise. Ini­tially, what be­came Life of Brian was merely in­tended as a spoof of re­li­gious epics The Ten Com­mand­ments , Spar­ta­cus and oth­ers, while lam­poon­ing Je­sus Christ in the same man­ner Holy Grail had lam­pooned the myth of Arthur. But they quickly re­alised they couldn’t touch Christ be­cause there was noth­ing

funny about him. ‘‘ Es­sen­tially, hu­mour is about rigid­ity and the fail­ure to adapt to cir­cum­stances,’’ Cleese says, cit­ing the writ­ings of French philoso­pher and 1927 No­bel prizewin­ning nov­el­ist Henri Berg­son. When Berg­son, via Cleese, talks of the com­edy in ‘‘ hang­ing on to anger or jeal­ousy or greed when it’s ab­so­lutely in­ap­pro­pri­ate’’, many comic char­ac­ters come to mind — Jackie Glea­son’s Ralph, Se­in­feld ’ s Ge­orge Costanza, Homer Simp­son, Ricky Ger­vais’s David Brent — but none more so than Cleese’s Basil Fawlty.

‘‘ And the point was Christ’s be­hav­iour was of a very en­light­ened per­son,’’ he says. ‘‘ It would be like try­ing to make fun of the Dalai Lama; you couldn’t do it be­cause there’s noth­ing ridicu­lous about him.’’

But there is some­thing ridicu­lous about re­li­gion’s herd men­tal­ity, about our de­sire to be­lieve in some­thing be­yond our com­pre­hen­sion, our de­sire to be­lieve in some­thing that ex­plains ev­ery­thing.

There is some­thing ridicu­lous in re­li­gion’s di­ver­gence from Christ’s teach­ings.

‘‘ Peo­ple use re­li­gion for their own pur­poses, it’s to­tally self- serv­ing most of it,’’ Cleese agrees.

‘‘ It’s noth­ing to do with what the founder of Chris­tian­ity was talk­ing about. But you can’t ex­pect peo­ple at a low level of men­tal health to un­der­stand peo­ple who are op­er­at­ing at a high level. That’s a prin­ci­ple I learned from Robin Skyn­ner ( psy­chol­o­gist and Cleese’s co- au­thor of Fam­i­lies and How to Sur­vive Them).’’

Cleese is hardly an ag­nos­tic; rather, he ad­mits a keen in­ter­est in Chris­tian­ity — ‘‘ al­beit what is nor­mally known as heretic Chris­tian­ity’’ — as a re­sult of his re­search for the film.

As Life of Brian sug­gests, and Cleese be­lieves, con­ven­tional in­ter­pre­ta­tions of Chris­tian­ity are a long way from Je­sus Christ’s teach­ings.

‘‘ I think what Christ was talk­ing about is so much more dif­fi­cult and de­mand­ing than any­thing you find in any or­gan­ised ver­sion of his re­li­gion,’’ he says.

As if to prove the point, the Pythons’ film was greeted with un­in­formed, hys­ter­i­cal and oc­ca­sion­ally de­mented protests from all man­ner of re­li­gious groups on its re­lease in 1979.

Even the head of EMI Films, Bernard Del­font, pulled the plug on the movie’s fi­nance two days be­fore film­ing be­gan af­ter read­ing the script and find­ing it blas­phe­mous and con­temptible.

For­mer Bea­tle Ge­orge Har­ri­son stepped in, cre­at­ing a pro­duc­tion com­pany that would later also pro­duce Be­ing There and With­nail & I , merely be­cause he read the same script and ‘‘ wanted to see the film’’.

The Python team ex­pected a softer world pre­miere away from their home­land, in the US. They were wrong.

‘‘ We were a lit­tle in­no­cent about peo­ple like fun­da­men­tal­ists; af­ter all, there are not too many of those in Bri­tain,’’ Cleese says with a laugh.

‘‘ I don’t think we were very con­cerned about the of­fence we caused be­cause we didn’t think it was of­fen­sive. You don’t want to of­fend peo­ple but at the same time you don’t want to get rid of some of your best jokes just to avoid of­fend­ing peo­ple who are per­haps a lit­tle touch­ier than they need be.’’

He re­calls one ra­dio in­ter­view in which a ‘‘ de­cent man’’ ex­pressed his re­pul­sion at Brian’s cru­ci­fix­ion scene. Cleese asked him what he thought of the fi­nal scene in Spar­ta­cus , be­fore not­ing that the Chris­tian ap­pro­pri­a­tion of a Ro­man method of tor­ture as iconog­ra­phy was a lit­tle strange.

The in­cred­i­ble suc­cess of Mel Gib­son’s The Pas­sion of the Christ in 2004 could only be­muse Cleese then? ‘‘ Well, it raises the ques­tion, do we be­lieve in what Christ said be­cause it strikes a deep chord in us or do we be­lieve in what he said be­cause we feel very sorry for him be­cause he was tor­tured?’’ he asks.

‘‘ I say if Dick Cheney was cru­ci­fied, I would feel sorry for him even­tu­ally, af­ter 48 hours, but it wouldn’t bring me any closer to agree­ing with him po­lit­i­cally. And I think some of the Chris­tians, some of the lesser lights, brow­beat me into ac­cept­ing Christ’s mes­sage be­cause ‘ look at the way he suf­fered for you, you owe it to him’.

‘‘ I say no, I ac­cept his teach­ing be­cause I think it’s a very beau­ti­ful teach­ing and I would ac­cept it even if he hadn’t died on the cross.’’

The de­bate about whether Life of Brian was blas­phemy or heresy re­mains, even among the Python troupe. It’s not blas­phe­mous if you con­sider that Je­sus’ two ap­pear­ances in the film are re­spect­ful; it’s his fol­low­ers who are the fools: ‘‘ I think he said, ‘ Blessed are the cheese­mak­ers.’ ’’ And it’s not hereti­cal if you con­sider those fol­low­ers sep­a­rate from their church, as Cleese does.

Not that the Monty Python team is ar­gu­ing about Life of Brian ’ s con­tent; rather, its fu­ture. Or at least Idle is ar­gu­ing with Palin and Cleese.

The re­cent Syd­ney per­for­mance of Idle’s or­a­to­rio, Not the Mes­siah , af­ter the Melbourne pre­miere of Spa­malot , his stage mu­si­cal adap­ta­tion of Monty Python and the Holy Grail , raised one ques­tion: whither Life of Brian the stage mu­si­cal? Al­ways Look on the Bright Side of Life is not Stephen Sond­heim or Andrew Lloyd Web­ber but it’s as joy­ful a clos­ing num­ber as any they have writ­ten.

‘‘ I’ll tell you the story of that,’’ Cleese says quickly, keen to quell any con­fu­sion. Idle wrote Spa­malot with the bless­ing of the oth­ers, quite in­de­pen­dently, and the Python team gen­uinely rev­elled in its Broad­way and West End suc­cess.

‘‘ I thought it was a tremen­dous romp, won­der­fully good- na­tured and funny,’’ Cleese says. But its suc­cess fur­thered Idle’s plans to cre­ate a Life of Brian stage mu­si­cal.

Cleese told Idle, ‘‘ Hang on, that’s the one that I feel very strongly about be­cause I had a ma­jor part in writ­ing that and it’s my favourite movie. I wouldn’t want you to do that on your own, I would like to be part of that.’’

Other mem­bers, in­clud­ing Palin, felt the same. ‘‘ It mat­ters to me and Holy Grail didn’t,’’ Cleese says.

Idle did not want to work with any­one else but de­cided to write a spoof of Han­del’s Mes­siah with his cousin, con­duc­tor John Du Prez, which has since toured sev­eral coun­tries as a means of in­tro­duc­ing new au­di­ences to classical mu­sic. It has piqued fan in­ter­est in an­other life for Brian, but it will come to noth­ing, Cleese says.

‘‘ I think if Eric came back and said: ‘‘ Can I do a Life of Brian mu­si­cal based on this?’ we would say ‘‘ No, that’s not the agree­ment we made.’’

Nearly three decades on, there will be no res­ur­rec­tion for Brian .

Python and the Holy Grail

Bright side of life: From left, John Cleese; in­set, in his Python days; above, with the crew in Monty

; and in Life of Brian

Gait keeper: Cleese as Her Majesty’s min­is­ter for silly walks in Monty Python’s Fly­ing Cir­cus

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