No­body among the orig­i­nal Pythons was more tor­tured, con­fused or com­plex than Gra­ham Chap­man, writes

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

IT was a shocker. Yet the eu­logy that marked the pass­ing of Gra­ham Chap­man — founder Python, comic ge­nius, boozer on an in­dus­trial scale, sex­ual gour­mand — was a per­fect fit. It was edgy, funny and dark. And there was a lot of dark­ness about Gra­ham Chap­man.

At the me­mo­rial ser­vice in the Great Hall of Barts Hos­pi­tal in Lon­don, where Chap­man had trained as a doc­tor, his writ­ing part­ner John Cleese told the au­di­ence: ‘‘ I guess we’re all think­ing how sad it is that a man of such tal­ent, such ca­pa­bil­ity and kind­ness, of such in­tel­li­gence, should now be so sud­denly spir­ited away at the age of only 48. Well, I feel that I should say, ‘ Non­sense. Good rid­dance to him, the freeload­ing bas­tard! I hope he fries.’ ’’ He added that Chap­man would not for­give him if he threw away the op­por­tu­nity to shock you on his be­half. ‘‘ Any­thing for him but mind­less good taste.’’

This, af­ter all, was the man who wrote the Python sketch in which Michael Palin re­ports a lost wallet to a po­lice­man and then calmly propo­si­tions him: ‘‘ Do you want to come back to my place?’’ The scene came straight out of Chap­man’s ex­pe­ri­ence, who picked up two young po­lice­men and took them back to his flat in Hamp­stead. No mind­less good taste there.

The Pythons have not worked to­gether prop­erly since just be­fore Chap­man’s death, from can­cer, in 1989. Eric Idle would later say he ex­pected to see a re­union ‘‘ just as soon as Gra­ham Chap­man comes back from the dead . . . We’re talk­ing to his agent about terms.’’

Chap­man was a Python linch­pin from the be­gin­ning, writ­ing many of the key sketches with Cleese, star­ring in Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Life of Brian, and spe­cial­is­ing in play­ing au­thor­ity fig­ures: army of­fi­cers, po­lice­men, civil ser­vants and busi­ness ex­ec­u­tives. He per­fected one of the most en­dur­ing Monty Python’s Fly­ing Cir­cus reg­u­lars, the pompous Colonel, who would call a halt to sur­real sketches for be­ing ‘‘ far too silly’’.

Palin was a close friend and neigh­bour of Chap­man in north Lon­don for many years. He and Cleese — with whom Chap­man had a pro­duc­tive but dif­fi­cult re­la­tion­ship — were with Chap­man when he died. Along with three of the other sur­viv­ing Pythons, Palin has con­trib­uted to a new an­i­mated film based on Chap­man’s chaotic mem­oir, A Liar’s Au­to­bi­og­ra­phy. It is prob­a­bly the near­est we will come to see­ing all six Pythons work on a pro­ject to­gether again.

Idle has cho­sen not to take part, but Chap­man does make an ap­pear­ance, with a freshly dis­cov­ered read­ing from his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy that is in­cluded in the film.

His con­tri­bu­tions are dead­pan and frank. ‘‘ A trip to New Zealand and Amer­ica made me a lit­tle more broad-minded about my­self ... I gave up medicine and be­came a rag­ing poof. But no minc­ing, a butch one with a pipe.’’ (Palin re­calls a mo­ment from the Pythons’ Cana­dian tour when their waiter came up to in­tro­duce him­self. ‘‘ He said, ‘ I’m Randy.’ And Gra­ham sim­ply said, ‘ Jolly good . . .’ ’’

Palin was clearly fond of Chap­man, but there is an odd shy­ness and dif­fi­dence when I talk to him about his old friend. ‘‘ There was a quite undis­ci­plined and some­times un­pleas­antly ag­gres­sive side to Gra­ham, usu­ally when he’d had a drink or two — he’d sort of pick on peo­ple a bit. He’d abuse them for what­ever rea­son — it could be any one of the Pythons ... I think he once ac­cused me of be­ing nor­mal.’’

Chap­man al­ways ap­peared to be the straight­est Python. He even played the ro­man­tic lead in the highly suc­cess­ful Life of Brian, a role that made him rich, to the ex­tent that he was the first Python to be­come a tax ex­ile.

‘‘ Gra­ham could play se­ri­ous char­ac­ters like a bank man­ager and then sub­vert them from un­derneath,’’ Palin says. ‘‘ You put a mous­tache on him and a peaked hat and he looked like a gen­eral. So he could get away with all th­ese au­thor­ity char­ac­ters while hav­ing this ex­tra­or­di­nary sense of the ec­cen­tric, which was re­ally weird, in a way. And also he was the only ho­mo­sex­ual mem­ber of the group, which did a lot for our street cred at the time.’’

Palin’s prin­ci­pal writ­ing part­ner in Python was Terry Jones, the group’s to­ken in­tel­lec­tual and poly­math: li­bret­tist, com­poser and ar­guably the least at­trac­tive of the Pep­per­pots, a bunch of cross-dressers who be­came a Python sta­ple.

I went to see Jones at his home in High­gate, north Lon­don, where he lives with his Swedish girl­friend, Anna Soder­strom, and their three­year-old daugh­ter, Siri. His son Bill, from his mar­riage to Ali­son Telfer, was in­stru­men­tal in bring­ing the Pythons to­gether again.

‘‘ We were all very sur­prised that Gra­ham was gay,’’ re­calls Jones. ‘‘ We just didn’t have a clue. It was around the time of The Frost Re­port in the 1960s and Gra­ham had just come back from Ibiza. That’s when he de­cided he was gay. We didn’t re­ally know any­one else who was gay the time. Ev­ery­body was in the closet.’’ Be­neath the silli­ness, the manic voices, the cross-dress­ing and the mad­cap an­i­ma­tion of Terry Gilliam that stitched to­gether sketches, the Python land­scape could at times be bleak. Palin says al­though the group worked as a co­he­sive unit, they were re­ally two mar­ried cou­ples: ‘‘ There was John and Gra­ham, Terry and me, and Eric was on his own — a widow.’’

Carol Cleve­land worked with the Pythons on all their tele­vi­sion se­ries and most of the films. ‘‘ From the be­gin­ning I knew Gra­ham well, but I was prob­a­bly clos­est to John. He liked women with big tits,’’ she says.

‘‘ Gra­ham was def­i­nitely com­pli­cated. That comes through in the film; there are bleak mo­ments when it delves into his drink­ing and his com­ing out. When we were mak­ing Python, I cer­tainly saw some of the clashes. Terry Jones was once throw­ing chairs across the room in some Welsh sort of fury, be­cause he is very ex­citable. And there would be a few chairs thrown at John — some­times I thought John could be a bit of a bully; I think he quite en­joyed get­ting Terry worked up.’’

It was against this dys­func­tional back­drop that Chap­man found him­self work­ing with Cleese. It was a com­pli­cated re­la­tion­ship, not least be­cause no­body among the orig­i­nal Pythons was more tor­tured, more con­fused, more com­plex than Chap­man.

He had grown up as the son of a po­lice­man in Le­ices­ter and trained as a doc­tor at Barts and Cam­bridge. Of all the Pythons, he had the most out­ra­geous and dis­so­lute pri­vate life. He had a huge ap­petite for sex, drink and, later, when he moved to Los An­ge­les as a tax ex­ile, drugs.

Prob­a­bly all of this con­trib­uted to his early demise. That he was just 48 prompted a se­ries of news­pa­per ar­ti­cles sug­gest­ing he’d died of AIDS. This was un­true — it was from a vir­u­lent can­cer that started in his throat and quickly spread to his spinal col­umn.

A Liar’s Au­to­bi­og­ra­phy: The Un­true Story of Monty Python’s Gra­ham Chap­man, di­rected by Bill Jones (son of Terry), Jeff Simpson and Ben Tim­lett, screened at Syd­ney’s Mardi Gras Film


A Liar’s Au­to­bi­og­ra­phy

Chap­man as de­picted in

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