Shar­ing the ‘Holy’ spirit Monty Python and the Holy Grail

John Cleese will dis­cuss the film, and al­most any­thing else

Sun Sentinel Palm Beach Edition - Showtime - Palm Beach - - SPOT­LIGHT - By Ben Cran­dell

No film com­edy of the past 50 years has left a deeper mark on pop­u­lar cul­ture than “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” the Bri­tish com­edy troupe’s ab­surdly epic spoof of Arthurian knights — and big-screen epics them­selves — pow­ered by the ridicu­lous clop­clop of two halves of a co­conut.

Re­leased in 1975, as the Bri­tish TV se­ries “Monty Python’s Fly­ing Cir­cus” was mak­ing pub­lic-tele­vi­sion stars of Gra­ham Chap­man, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin and Amer­i­can an­i­ma­tor Terry Gil­liam, “Holy Grail” was an un­re­lent­ing stream of eru­dite sub­ver­sion and low­brow clowning that in­tro­duced the Knights Who Say Ni, a blood­thirsty bunny, cow cat­a­pults and snooty French­men anx­ious to “fart in your gen­eral direc­tion.”

If there is a cen­ter holding the mirth and may­hem of “Holy Grail,” it is the quixotic wan­derer Arthur, King of the Bri­tons, played with prig­gish of­fi­cious­ness by Chap­man. This por­trayal is one of Cleese’s fa­vorite things about the film, and is among many subjects likely to be dis­cussed when he takes part in an au­di­ence dis­cus­sion af­ter “Holy Grail” screen­ings on Wed­nes­day at the Kravis Cen­ter in West Palm Beach and Nov. 3 at the Broward Cen­ter in Fort Laud­erdale.

The ap­pear­ances come on a pop­u­lar tour, now 2 years old, that cel­e­brates the 40th an­niver­sary of “Holy Grail,” in Au­gust ranked at No. 15 on a list of best come­dies of all time in a BBC poll of more than 250 crit­ics around the world.

Speak­ing by phone from a train near Lon­don, Cleese says the au­di­ence dis­cus­sions are typ­i­cally free­wheel­ing af­fairs that in their best mo­ments ven­ture far be­yond Monty Python and the film. He can tell you the true air­speed ve­loc­ity of an un­laden swal­low, but don’t feel lim­ited to that.

“It doesn’t mat­ter what peo­ple ask,” he says. “I am per­fectly happy to pro­vide an­swers, be­cause I’m hon­est. I think if you’re hon­est about some­thing, it’s usu­ally in­ter­est­ing.”

Cleese, who turns 78 to­day, says he ap­pre­ci­ates “Holy Grail” in dif­fer­ent ways now, some­thing he’d rather wait to di­vulge when he’s in front of his South Florida au­di­ences. But he re­mains in awe of the per­for­mance by Chap­man, his friend and writing part­ner since they met in the late 1950s at the Univer­sity of Cam­bridge.

“It was an ex­tra­or­di­nary per­for­mance, be­cause he was very much in the grip of al­co­holism at that time and was hav­ing a ter­ri­ble bat­tle with it,” Cleese says.

Chap­man, who claimed to have been drink­ing more than two quarts of gin a day at one point, told in­ter­viewer Dick Cavett in 1981 that wit­ness­ing the fa­tal spi­ral of friend and drink­ing part­ner Keith Moon of the Who per­suaded him to give up al­co­hol. Chap­man died in1989 of spine and throat cancer.

“He’d be ter­ri­bly shaky, and some days he was hav­ing trou­ble with his lines. But he some­how man­aged to turn in a re­ally good per­for­mance, as he did as Brian [in Monty Python’s 1979 satire ‘The Life of Brian’]. That was a very dif­fer­ent per­for­mance, but he was al­ways a very, very good ac­tor,” Cleese says.

Ver­sa­til­ity was crit­i­cal for the mem­bers of Monty Python, whether as­sum­ing a woman’s iden­tity or adopt­ing ac­cents and man­ner­isms to sat­i­rize class dis­tinc­tions in Bri­tain. Cleese says Chap­man was prob­a­bly bet­ter than the ma­te­rial he was work­ing with. Among his fa­vorite Chap­man roles was the bel­liger­ent play­wright who be­rates his son (Eric Idle) for turning his back on a rough life at a type­writer to be­come a coal miner: “You had to go ponc­ing off to Barnsley, you and your coal-min­ing friends!” Chap­man bellows.

“I re­mem­ber think­ing how good it was,” Cleese says. “He was tremen­dously funny when he was play­ing some­body scared or scatty, but he could also come across as very pow­er­ful.”

Cleese was study­ing con­sti­tu­tional law at Cam­bridge when he was in­tro­duced to Chap­man, a med­i­cal stu­dent who cut quite the dash­ing fig­ure on cam­pus.

“When I met him he was ar­che­typal,” Cleese says. “He wore tweed jackets and cor­duroy trousers and he smoked a pipe and he played rugby foot­ball and he was a med­i­cal stu­dent. He did a lot of climb­ing and he wore brogue shoes. I mean, ev­ery­thing about him did not shout ‘gay,’ un­less, of course, he’d been a girl.”

The pol­i­tics of class and re­pres­sion are a rich vein of com­edy gold in “Holy Grail,” but the satire plays no fa­vorites. In one mem­o­rable Where: Kravis Cen­ter for the Per­form­ing Arts, 701 Okee­chobee Blvd., in West Palm Beach. When: 8 p.m. Wed­nes­day Cost: Tick­ets start at $40. Contact: 561-832-7469 or Kravis.org Where: When: Cost: Contact: scene, Arthur, con­fronted by a pair of skep­ti­cal peas­ants, jus­ti­fies his po­si­tion as king by in­vok­ing the leg­end of Ex­cal­ibur and the di­vine prov­i­dence of the Lady of the Lake. Which peas­ant Den­nis, ex­plain­ing that he lives in “an an­ar­cho-syn­di­cal­ist com­mune,” re­jects in a se­ries of re­but­tals.

“Strange women ly­ing in ponds dis­tribut­ing swords is no ba­sis for a sys­tem of gov­ern­ment. Supreme ex­ec­u­tive power de­rives from a man­date from the masses, not from some far­ci­cal aquatic ceremony,” Den­nis says. “You can't ex­pect to wield supreme ex­ec­u­tive power just ’cause some watery tart threw a sword at you!”

Cleese says he and Chap­man were a writing team, but that he took the lead on this scene.

“I was very tick­led at that time about the lan­guage that was used by ex­treme left-wing groups, who al­ways spent more time fight­ing each other than they did fight­ing the right-wing groups. Which is why we had all that Peo­ple’s Front of Judea stuff in ‘The Life of Brian,’” Cleese says. “I cer­tainly wrote it with Gra­ham, but I think I wrote most of that be­cause I was very in­ter­ested in con­sti­tu­tional law. It was one of the few things in my law de­gree that I was very in­ter­ested in. I just wish Mr. Don­ald Trump, or Pres­i­dent Trump, was as in­ter­ested in con­sti­tu­tional law as I am.”

PYTHON PIC­TURES/COUR­TESY

John Cleese and Gra­ham Chap­man in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” Broward Cen­ter for the Per­form­ing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., in Fort Laud­erdale. 8 p.m. Nov. 3. Tick­ets start at $50

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