The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - The Sun­day Times Mag­a­zine

Fes­ti­val ear­lier this year, is an an­i­mated romp through the author’s chaotic life, voiced by Palin, Jones, Cleese and Gilliam. Even his het­ero­sex­ual ex­pe­ri­ences, dat­ing back to Cam­bridge, had a rack­ety qual­ity. In the film, he re­lates his first en­counter as a vir­gin with a fel­low med­i­cal stu­dent, how he sim­ply asks her if she ‘‘ goes’’, a line later used by Idle in the Nudge Nudge sketch, dis­pens­ing with what he calls ‘‘ the usual pre­am­bles’’.

The film shows the cou­ple en­joy­ing in­ven­tive sex for a year in a va­ri­ety of lo­ca­tions. But then, char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally, Chap­man gets bored, ad­mit­ting he prefers the com­pany of the men in the bar any­way. Later on, in LA, Chap­man has sex with a young woman while oblig­ingly al­low­ing her mother to use the phone in his ho­tel room. She doesn’t seem to mind the fact that Chap- man and her daugh­ter are at it in front of her.

Like Chap­man, the film is a po­tent cock­tail of con­tra­dic­tions. He was a highly in­tel­li­gent doc­tor fully aware of the dangers of al­co­hol, yet nearly drank him­self to death. He was gay, yet en­joyed sex with women. He was charm­ing, gen­er­ous, a hi­lar­i­ous racon­teur, and yet could be­have out­ra­geously in pub­lic.

One of the film’s most chill­ing se­quences refers to a child­hood ex­pe­ri­ence that Chap­man ac­knowl­edged had a pro­found ef­fect on him. It fea­tures an an­i­mated Chap­man as a boy go­ing out for a walk in the park near his home in Le­ices­ter dur­ing the war. It is 1944 and he is just three. A plane flown by a group of Pol­ish air­men has crashed nearby and Chap­man’s fa­ther, a po­lice­man, is the first at the scene.

Chap­man and his mother find the street strewn with body parts. Chap­man later de­scribed the episode as one of his for­ma­tive ex­pe­ri­ences: he wrote that a lung was hang­ing down from a tree; a woman came out of her house car­ry­ing a liver in a bucket (all very Mean­ing of Life). The event was in­deed un­pleas­ant, but it seems he was not so much shocked by it as he was amused.

He came out as gay long be­fore it was fash­ion­able or ad­vis­able to do so — the med­i­cal pro­fes­sion at the time was bru­tally ho­mo­pho­bic. Alan Bai­ley, a doc­tor who was a friend of Chap­man’s from Barts, re­calls: ‘‘ I re­mem­ber when we were in a taxi one night in north Lon­don that he told me he was queer or bent, and that he was liv­ing with a man called Dave, and I’d have to keep it dead se­cret — not to tell the dean. He would have been thrown out.’’

Cleese al­ready knew that Gra­ham was gay. Tellingly, Chap­man wrote at the time: ‘‘ He wasn’t sur­prised, but was still in a state of shock about it all, be­cause it was to­tally, to­tally alien to him — such a thing was un­think­able and this was go­ing to be the ruin of my life.’’

David Sher­lock lived with Chap­man from the 60s un­til he died in 1989. He had a glo­ri­ously camp job — a dresser at the opera in Covent Gar­den — and would find time to nip around the cor­ner to Drury Lane to help Chap­man with key cos­tume changes back­stage. ‘‘ It just took a minute and a half,’’ he says. Chap­man de­scribes David in his book as ‘‘ a debonair young poofabout-town. He has re­mained a close per­sonal friend for the last 14 years, of­fi­cer.’’

A some­time scriptwriter who was one of sev­eral co-au­thors of Chap­man’s mem­oir, Sher­lock has helped put the new film to­gether. ‘‘ I re­mem­ber the first night I met Gra­ham when I was on hol­i­day in Ibiza in 1966. I was go­ing home and I was fairly merry, I sup­pose, and I was call­ing to var­i­ous peo­ple who were leav­ing the camp site go­ing out for the evening.

‘‘ Rather jok­ily I shouted bue­nas noches — or bonne nuit, what­ever I could think of — and sud­denly I heard a ‘ good evening’ be­hind me, and there was Gra­ham. And he said, im­me­di­ately, ‘ Shall we go and have a drink at the bar?’ And we got chat­ting and then he said, ‘ Can I see in­side your tent?’ So I said all right, and we went into the tent and sud­denly he lunged at me. But the tent was only made for one per­son, and with Gra­ham be­ing 6ft 4in [193cm], his feet were stick­ing out of the end.’’

Chap­man and Sher­lock started liv­ing to­gether. Theirs was an open re­la­tion­ship but they had a strong bond that would last un­til the end.

Chap­man, who Sher­lock says was once de­scribed as an ‘‘ arm­chair so­cial­ist’’, had phil­an­thropic ten­den­cies, which made him keen to foster young men with dif­fi­cul­ties whom he had iden­ti­fied as be­ing in need of a home and a fresh start in life. In the 70s, soon af­ter Python ended, Chap­man for­mally adopted John Tomiczek, a young boy from Liver­pool with a com­pli­cated fam­ily back­ground. It was un­heard of at the time for a gay cou­ple to adopt chil­dren, but Chap­man’s train­ing as a doc­tor en­abled him to by­pass the usual ob­sta­cles.

Some of Chap­man’s friends found the ar­range­ments in­volv­ing the boys in need a lit­tle un­ortho­dox: Palin says that when he first met Tomiczek, he wasn’t en­tirely con­vinced Chap­man saw him only as a po­ten­tial foster child.

‘‘ I didn’t know what sort of re­la­tion­ship it was to start with . . . be­cause Gra­ham had lots of young male friends. But then I re­alised this was a re­ally gen­uinely pro­tec­tive re­la­tion­ship.

‘‘ Gra­ham spent a lot of time with him. I think he was try­ing to im­prove his life, I would say so; at least I would give him the ben­e­fit of the doubt,’’ Palin says. Tomiczek lived with Chap­man and Sher­lock for many years. He died of a heart con­di­tion a year af­ter Chap­man’s death.

For most of his life, Chap­man was an al­co­holic. By the fourth Python se­ries the oth­ers, es­pe­cially Cleese, had be­come frus­trated by his de­pen­dency on al­co­hol in or­der to shoot a scene or even leave his house in the morn­ing.

‘‘ It be­came very ir­ri­tat­ing,’’ Jones says, ‘‘ when he was drink­ing, some­times bot­tles of gin, and he couldn’t re­mem­ber his lines. We never re­ally con­sid­ered sack­ing him be­cause we were close mates, but it was John who re­ally bore the brunt of it. Gra­ham would keep get­ting his lines wrong, and on one oc­ca­sion we had to do 24 takes of a sin­gle sketch.’’

Palin re­calls that he would pick him up in the morn­ings for film­ing and he was al­ways late. ‘‘ I used to be out­side his house at 9 o’clock for a 9.30 re­hearsal and he wouldn’t be ready. And I’d sit there and some lit­tle tou­sled head would look out of the win­dow and say in a for­eign ac­cent, ‘ He just com­ing.’

‘‘ It was prob­a­bly some­one he’d met at some Com­mon­wealth In­sti­tute event the night be­fore. I shouldn’t say that, I don’t re­ally know. But it was al­ways dif­fer­ent peo­ple. But then he’d ap­pear and we’d drive off and he’d al­ways be ter­ri­bly apolo­getic. And I re­mem­ber al­ways think­ing, ‘ I just don’t know what kind of toothpaste Gra­ham uses’ — be­cause there was quite a strong smell in the car. Like an id­iot, I never put two and two to­gether. It was not till much, much later, when Gra­ham had given up drink­ing, he told me that he couldn’t start the day with­out a cou­ple of vod­kas.’’

Bernard McKenna, a friend and col­lab­o­ra­tor who ap­peared in Life of Brian, was with Chap­man at his home when Chap­man suf­fered a fit. It was shortly af­ter he had given up al­co­hol — he had gone cold turkey.

‘‘ In the end it be­came too much,’’ McKenna re­calls. ‘‘ He opened up a brandy and the fumes sent him into some sort of fit — he fell over and all the book­shelves came tum­bling down on top of us.’’

McKenna and Chap­man were close friends for many years, writ­ing and drink­ing to­gether, usu­ally at their lo­cal pub in High­gate, the An­gel. Chap­man, who would start with gin and ton­ics as soon as the pub opened, at­tracted a large cir­cle of Python acolytes in­clud­ing the young Dou­glas Adams, author of The Hitch­hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

McKenna says that the ab­sur­dist com­edy that Chap­man brought to Python would of­ten seep into real life. ‘‘ He used to like in­tim­i­dat­ing peo­ple. If the pub was largely empty, he would sit at a stool and stare at the only small group of peo­ple, say­ing to us, ‘ They’ve got our ta­ble.’ ’’ The pub had been Chap­man’s lo­cal for years and he had de­vel­oped a booze-fu­elled droit de seigneur over his ter­ri­tory.

‘‘ On one oc­ca­sion the peo­ple who were sit­ting at his ta­ble just weren’t go­ing to leave. So Gra­ham stood up, unzipped his fly and stuck his knob in a bloke’s gin and tonic.

‘‘ They were taken aback — es­pe­cially when Gra­ham stirred the man’s gin and tonic with it. At that point the land­lord came over and said, ‘ That’s it, you’re barred.’ ’’

On re­flec­tion, this episode said much about Chap­man. It was funny, yes, but woe­fully self­ind­ul­gent, and that streak would stay with him for the rest of his life, long af­ter he’d given up the booze. Palin also re­calls that Chap­man was keen to try out his sense of the ab­surd on un­sus­pect­ing mem­bers of the pub­lic.

‘‘ Gra­ham did like to be out­ra­geous. Nor­mally he’d be quiet, but af­ter a drink he’d say strange, weird things,’’ he says. ‘‘ I re­mem­ber be­ing in a ho­tel with him — we were do­ing some film­ing in the West High­lands. There were Scot­tish farm­ers in there and Gra­ham be­came very ex­er­cised by the fact that they were rather tra­di­tional, dressed in their tweeds. ‘‘ They were all talk­ing about Ed­ward Heath in slightly glow­ing terms. And he went up to them and said, ‘ Do you know he’s a poof?’ And of course, it didn’t mean much to th­ese guys at all. In the end he was forced to say, ‘ I know he’s gay be­cause I’ve slept with him.’ Then he went out and slammed the door.’’

In the end, Chap­man’s drink­ing was prob­a­bly the death knell not just for him but the whole Python part­ner­ship. His re­la­tion­ship with Cleese had bro­ken down. ‘‘ I was very, very fond of him,’’ Cleese says now. ‘‘ But he wasn’t al­ways easy to be with.’’

His ad­ven­tures in LA were an amus­ing dis­trac­tion, but af­ter Life of Brian his ca­reer didn’t re­ally go any­where. ‘‘ I think by then Gra­ham re­ally missed John,’’ Palin says. ‘‘ And I think John missed him a bit. Cer­tainly that re­la­tion­ship, the two writ­ing to­gether, didn’t work in the end. And I think John felt frus­trated that Gra­ham was not do­ing enough — and it was a great shame. John did bril­liantly with Fawlty Tow­ers, but for both of them it was an oddly ben­e­fi­cial re­la­tion­ship, the two of them to­gether.

‘‘ I don’t know whether John wrote 90 per cent or 50 per cent, but they pro­duced some amaz­ing stuff.

‘‘ And once that was bro­ken, that re­la­tion­ship was bro­ken, I think both sides lost quite a lot, and Gra­ham per­haps more than John.’’

Life of Brian; Monty Python and the Holy Grail

From far left, Gra­ham Chap­man, with pipe, and the Monty Python team; Eric Idle and Chap­man in

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