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