THE GE­NIUS OF MARTY FELD­MAN

As a new play based on Marty Feld­man’s life opens, its Monty Python di­rec­tor re­veals how the late co­me­dian was such an in­spi­ra­tion

The Jewish Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - TERRY JONES

MY RE­MIT for this piece was how I first got to meet and know Marty Feld­man. That’s a very ab­stract ques­tion. When do you first meet or know any­one like Marty? He was part of my lex­i­con from as far back as I can re­mem­ber. He tick­led my funny bone as a writer of tele­vi­sion come­dies, The Army Game and Boot­sie and Snudge, and later, ra­dio’s Round the Horne.

Yes, that was later. Marty, like his es­teemed co-writer and friend Barry Took, didn’t do things by the book. Telly first, then ra­dio. It was a lit­tle like my es­teemed co-writer and friend Michael Palin. We had been chums at Ox­ford, then we were writ­ing and per­form­ing com­edy, and be­ing paid for it! Some­times to­gether, of­ten apart. I was on the pay­roll at the BBC when I got the call from Lord God Almighty. You would know him as David Frost! Frankly, we owe ev­ery­thing to David Frost. His week­end satir­i­cal show, The Frost Re­port, gath­ered in the great and good of com­edy writ­ers, and us!

Marty Feld­man had been put in the un­en­vi­able po­si­tion of script editor. For all of us. Antony Jay, Frank Muir, Bill Od­die, John Cleese, all of us. Mad- ness. Marty did it. Bril­liantly. What’s more, he did it with­out any ego. He was an es­tab­lished writer. Mike and I weren’t es­tab­lished writ­ers. By any means. Still, when we made our way to that first writ­ers’ brain­storm­ing ses­sion, it was Marty who leapt from his seat, shook my hand, and wel­comed me to this ex­clu­sive in­ner sanc­tum. Some­how, he knew how I was feel­ing. Ab­so­lutely ter­ri­fied!

Af­ter that, he ad­vised, sug­gested, en­cour­aged, but never rewrote. He was a bril­liant com­edy writer. Mike and I were do­ing other things while my friends Tim Brooke-Tay­lor, John Junkin as se­cond stooge, Marty started to be­lieve his own press. Fa­tal. Mike Palin and I were still job­bers at the BBC, writ­ing bits for Ken Dodd, Roy Hudd, all the greats, but we were of­fered a few more shillings for Marty’s shows if we would dou­ble as writ­ers and ex­tras. Be­lieve me, it was only a few more shillings.

I didn’t mind. We would play foot­ballers, waiters, any­thing. The script was the thing. And that was my bête noir. We wrote this sketch about a gnome keep­ing an ap­point­ment with a bank manger, in or­der to get a mort­gage to buy a prop­erty. It was all Din­g­ley Dell this, and Fairy Dust that.

On the evening of record­ing, Marty came out in front of the au­di­ence and went off script com­pletely. He just did 10 min­utes of gnome

Marty be­gan to be­lieve his own press and that was to prove fa­tal

jokes. Funny, but not our ma­te­rial. The au­di­ence loved it, laughed a lot and I thought: “Sh*t, I’m done”. Fair play to Marty, af­ter he had got the au­di­ence on his side, he did the sketch as writ­ten, but I cer­tainly felt from that point on that Mike and I were the only peo­ple who could play our sketches prop­erly.

Lit­er­ally, weeks later we were hatching plans for what would be­come Monty Python’s Fly­ing Cir­cus. Af­ter that, ev­ery­thing was so hec­tic. We were do­ing the tele­vi­sion show, and records, and stage shows, and Marty was be­ing what he al­ways was, the fig­ure­head for bril­liant, pio- neer­ing com­edy. I seem to re­mem­ber a sur­prise 40th birth­day party for him, at his home in Hamp­stead, and then we lost touch.

He went to Amer­ica, and did those mar­vel­lous films with Mel Brooks, and di­rected his own films. Look­ing back at the comedic time-line, I see we both tack­led or­gan­ised re­li­gion at the same time. We went bib­li­cal with Monty Python’s Life of Brian, while Marty went con­tem­po­rary with In God We Tru$t. The mes­sage was the same, and we both got se­vere brick­bats from the bi­ble-bash­ers. I still trem­ble at some of the com­ments to this day, but Marty’s film was us­ing the stu­dio dol­lar to ques­tion the deep-rooted reli- gious be­lief across Amer­ica. It’s an ex­tra­or­di­nary ex­po­sure of or­gan­ised re­li­gion, evan­ge­list preach­ers, and pay-to-pray tele­vi­sion.

It was box-of­fice poi­son. Uni­ver­sal Stu­dios can­celled his con­tract. What do you do when you can’t write? As a writer my­self, you crum­ble. If you don’t know Marty’s fi­nal years, I don’t want to spoil the play, but thank­fully at the end, he was with my chums Gra­ham Chapman, John Cleese, Peter Cook, Eric Idle and Spike Mil­li­gan on Gra­ham’s pirate com­edy Yel­low­beard.

When Marty died, it seemed ridicu­lous to me. That’s not to be friv­o­lous. It seemed ridicu­lous. He wasn’t much older than me. Cer- tainly less than 10 years. How could he die so young? Forty-eight. Mad­ness. Gra­ham died in 1989, also at the age of 48. Equally in­sane. Ap­par­ently, Marty’s wife, Lauretta, went to her grave con­vinc­ing her­self that Marty was still in Mex­ico City, film­ing one last scene for Yel­low­beard.

For me, Marty is al­ways with us. As writer, funny man and friend. Hope­fully, with the play, Jeep­ers Creep­ers, old fans and new com­edy lovers will em­brace him and find him as funny as he ever was. And that was very, very funny in­deed.

‘Jeep­ers Creep­ers’, by Robert Ross and di­rected by Terry Jones, is at Le­ices­ter Square Theatre.

For me, Marty is al­ways with us - as a writer, funny man and friend

PHOTO: AP

Funny men: Terry Jones, left, be­gan his ca­reer with Feld­man

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