T remains one of the most iconic comedy series of our time, spawning films, books, records and tours. Monty Python marks its 50th anniversary this year and is as loved as ever. Coinciding with the milestone date, 75-year-old founding member Eric Idle has written his ‘sortabiography’, Always Look On the Bright Side Of Life, which charts some of his recollections of the series and its spin-offs.
Eric, John Cleese and Graham Chapman worked together at the Cambridge Footlights (Cambridge University’s now famous dramatics club), later meeting their Oxford Revue rivals Terry Jones and Michael Palin at the Edinburgh Festival.
Terry Gilliam, whose animations would form a fittingly bizarre additions to Monty Python episodes, was introduced to the gang after John Cleese met him in New York while on tour with the Footlights Revue.
As the countdown to Monty Python’s big birthday in October begins, we join Eric for something completely different. Did they think Python was going to be something big? ABSOLUTELY not. It was just a little late night show we were all doing, but which we were fortunate enough to have total control of.
We weren’t told what to do or stopped from doing anything. We suddenly had the opportunity to do a show exactly how we wanted to do it. That encouraged us to make it something completely different. Did the show’s late-night slot on BBC allow you more freedom? THERE were fewer executives, who are, of course, the death of comedy. We had worked on light entertainment shows but didn’t feel we belonged in that slot. It was late at night, nobody cared and we were allowed to experiment.
Terry Gilliam made a tremendous difference because he was able to put that Victorian animated framework around it, which gave it a stamp look which other shows didn’t have. The sketches appeared to be connected by this odd surrealistic framework. What was the initial reaction? THERE were lots of complaints but the BBC ignored them. They were trying to open up this late-night slot, and were suddenly finding there were people up that late who liked a comedy show on Sunday night.
Python wasn’t a popular show at first. We really annoyed people. Middle-class ladies would say, ‘Monty Python! We hate you lot!’ It was much more effectively insulting, rude and nastier than this cuddly group it now appears to be. People didn’t like our attitudes. We were mocking. Upper-class twits were mocked. All the things you were supposed to look up to were mocked. Pantomime Princess Margarets were raced around. It wasn’t respectful. The show ran for 45 episodes. Did it help that it was one of the first series shown in colour? PYTHON began right at the start of the digital era, which meant that 50 years later, the show physically still doesn’t look as dated as it would had it been shot in black and white and on film.
Python isn’t just one type of humour, it is a compendium of styles. While the cast remains the same, the WE only did the sketches once. Sometimes we did them on stage. I liked doing Nudge (Nudge, Nudge, Wink Wink) but I also liked to do the travel agent, with the guy who goes on and on about being on holidays, how they are awful, and never stops talking.
When we were on tour, I’d end up on the balcony ranting on and on. At Eric Idle has written a book on his memories from half a century with the Pythons