Eric Idle has no time for false modesty. ‘Mothers always tell their children to stop showing off, but I think you should show off, if you have any talent,’ insists the Monty Python legend. ‘Please, show off! Entertain me! I mean, why not? You wouldn’t want Morecambe and Wise being very modest, standing at the back not telling any jokes, would you?’
The 75-year-old has been standing at the front being brilliantly immodest for more than half a century now. As he explains in his terrific new memoir, Always Look on the Bright Side of Life, he is what in LA they call a ‘hyphenate’: ‘I write, sing, act, perform, direct, produce and generally show off in all sorts of desperate ways’.
Like many comedians, Idle had a difficult childhood, and used clowning as a form of defence (‘A form of revenge,’ he clarifies, with a wicked laugh, when Weekend joins him for afternoon tea in Bath). He was just two when his father was killed returning home to County Durham from the war: having survived four perilous years as a rear gunner in a Wellington bomber, he was crushed to death by a lorry load of steel just outside Darlington.
While his mother ‘disappeared into depression’, Idle was sent to live with his grandmother, and later to a ‘grim, terrifying’ RAF boarding school where, surrounded by the other sons of dead servicemen, he learned to sharpen his subversive comedy skills.
He was bright enough to earn a place at Cambridge, joining the Footlights and meeting future Python cohorts John Cleese and Graham Chapman. (As a lower middle-class boy on a council scholarship, it still rankles when he’s lumped in with the posh private school set, most recently when Shane Allen, the BBC’s comedy commissioner, described the Pythons as ‘six Oxbridge white blokes’.)
From modest, cult beginnings with a late night BBC sketch show, Monty Python – Idle, Cleese and Chapman plus Oxford grads Michael Palin and Terry Jones and American animator Terry Gilliam – grew into the world’s most celebrated and enduring comedy supergroup.
Their success propelled Idle into a rarefied world of A-list celebrities, lending his memoir an insanely starry cast (many sadly now departed). A not atypical anecdote finds him throwing an all-night party for Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher – at which all the Rolling Stones turned up – that led to them recording scenes in The Empire Strikes Back still roaring drunk. David Bowie, Paul Simon, Keith Moon and Mick Jagger all play supporting roles, and Idle counted George Harrison and Robin Williams among his closest inner circle. ‘Heroes become friends,’ he writes. ‘Once you’re in the circus, you’re all in the circus.’
‘They came to find me,’ he tells Weekend. ‘They were Python fans, and we were the only comedy group that was around of their generation. You bump into people if you do this job. It’s not a particularly big deal that they happen to be famous names.’
Was he the most rock and roll Python?
‘Well, it coincided with a period of my life when I wasn’t married,’ he says (though in the book he’s candid about the fact he didn’t exactly let his first marriage, to the Australian actress Lyn Ashley, cramp his style either). ‘Also I can play guitar. Not everybody’s played with the Stones and The Beatles. So that’s been a nice thing for me,’ he adds, with some understatement.
Eventually, this lifestyle took its toll and, ‘tired of fame, and sick of being recognised as Monty Python’, in the early the 80s Idle took a long sabbatical, hiding away with his wife Tania in a ‘glorified cowshed’ in Provence. ‘Fame can bring a sad misunderstanding about the nature of life,’ he writes in the book. Meaning what, exactly?
‘Well, George was always saying to me, “It doesn’t matter if you’re in The Beatles and you’ve earned all the money and become the most famous person in the world – you’re still going to die”. That’s the bottom line.’
With typically bracing honesty, Idle doesn’t really go in for ‘without the fans we’d be nothing’ type platitudes (‘I think that’s bollocks’), and makes no bones about his aversion to selfies and autographs, claiming he often signs ‘Go f*** yourself – Michael Palin’ in a bid to ruin his fellow Python’s nice guy reputation.
‘I think you have to be nice to people – you have to accommodate them as human beings,’ he explains. ‘But you have to break that thing where they think you’re something special. And you don’t have to spend your entire life signing things and having your photograph taken. That’s really boring, and a waste of life. I think you’re allowed to avoid it nicely, decently.’
In 1994, Idle quit Britain for LA, claiming he felt underappreciated at home. ‘In England, they put you in a niche and say you can’t go any further, whereas Americans aren’t like that. It’s so big you can do anything. So it opened all sorts of doors that I didn’t know were there.’ Chief among them being Spamalot, the Tony Award-winning musical stage comedy he adapted from the 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which has so far grossed more than $175 million around the world.
He’s also embraced the American way of life by spending the past 23 years in therapy. ‘In England, therapy is considered some kind of moral weakness,’ he says. ‘But actually, it’s the most sensible thing you can do. You learn about being a human being, and why you feel like this. Someone explained it wonderfully to me as being like a manual that teaches how you how the engine runs. I know the English hate it, which is why they’re so f***ed up.’
Five years ago, a producer on The Holy Grail sued the Pythons for a share of the profits from Spamalot, leaving them nursing a six-figure legal bill. Their response was a series of sell-out reunion shows that, however unromantic their original motive, allowed the gang (minus the late Graham Chapman) to bid the world a final, collective farewell.
‘It was a perfect end, and it was just in time because Jonesey was just on the edge, remembering and not remembering anything [in 2015, Terry Jones was diagnosed with dementia]. It was a long time since we’d appeared on stage together – the last was the Hollywood Bowl in 1980. So I thought it was a timely, gracious, rather brilliant end. And we paid our lawyers.’
The shows ended with the Pythons singing – what else? – Always Looks On the Bright Side of Life. Written in barely more than an hour for the climax of their 1979 film The Life of Brian, the song has become Idle’s signature anthem, one he’s performed everywhere from Graham Chapman’s funeral to the closing ceremony of the 2012 Olympics.
It also lends its name to his ‘sortabiography, a series of hilarious dispatches from 50 years on the comedy frontline that takes in such unlikely tales as how he came to appear naked in Playboy, the time he was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Female Performer on Broadway, and his unprintable response when Prince Charles offered him a job as his court jester.
‘I thought it was about time,’ he explains. ‘Everybody else has done their books. I think Cleese has got two volumes to go, but I don’t think he’ll live that long,’ he laughs. ‘No, he will. He’ll live to over a hundred, his mother did.’
Towards the end of the book, Idle turns to contemplating the nature of his relationship with his fellow Pythons – with whom he’s had his differences over the years – asking: ‘Were we friends, comrades, co-workers, teammates, gang members, rivals, brothers, brothers-in-law, or brothers-in-arms?’
Has he come to any conclusions?
‘I think it’s all of the above,’ he says. ‘I find it interesting that we still sort of get on, we all like each other.’
Do you love them?
‘Mmm… yeah. I think so. I think brothers is the closest. But it isn’t just brothers, so I don’t know. I think I raised the question, but I don’t think I answered it.’
Idle says he’d recommend anyone, celebrated showbiz hyphenate or not, writing down their life story. ‘It’s interesting when you look back, because you’re not really in touch with your earliest selves. Who was that kid, that person at school, that person at Cambridge? It’s hard to think that these were all versions of you. But they were, and I think looking back at it is a very healthy thing to do, if you’re honest with yourself.
‘I just wanted to make mine funny,’ he adds. ‘I like funny memoirs. I think laughter is an appropriate way of examining yourself. There are moments when it isn’t all laughter, but it’s a healthy test, it’s a healthy filter to put your life through.’
Idle met his wife Tania Kosevich at a party in Dan Aykroyd’s apartment in 1977. ‘I fell in love with her at first sight and told her I would never leave her,’ he writes. ‘I never have.’
Elvis was a huge Python fan, with a fondness for performing Idle’s ‘nudge nudge, wink wink’ sketch.
George Harrison re-mortgaged his house to pay the $4.5m budget of Monty Python’s Life of Brian, after EMI pulled out, branding the film ‘obscene and sacrilegious’. When asked why, Harrison replied: ‘Because I wanted to see the movie.’ ‘It’s still the most anyone has ever paid for a cinema ticket,’ says Idle.
Always Look on the Bright Side of Life is now the most requested song at British funerals. ‘I love that about the English – still laughing at the end,’ says Idle. And no, he tells Weekend, he won’t be having it at his own. ‘I’ve asked for Sit on My Face instead.’
Published in Waitrose Weekend, November 8, 2018
(c) Waitrose Weekend