A VERY NAUGHT
Nobody among the original Pythons was more tortured, confused or complex than Graham Chapman, writes
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
Chapman as depicted in