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Sunday 19 May 2019

'It had to be funny - I've no interest in settling scores' - comedian Eric Idle launches his 'sortabiography'

As veteran comedian Eric Idle launches his 'sortabiography', he talks to John Meagher about the Python years, Broadway success and how he fails to see a bright side to Brexit

Comedian Eric Idle launches his 'sortabiography'
Comedian Eric Idle launches his 'sortabiography'
We're all individuals. Eric Idle is proud of the success of his fellow Pythons. Photo: Robyn Von Swank
Technicolour: Eric Idle during the early days of Monty Python
John Meagher

John Meagher

It is a comparison that has been made time and time again. Monty Python, it's said, is to comedy, what The Beatles are to music. If the Fab Four forever changed the pop and rock landscape, it is surely fair to suggest that television comedy would look very different if a bunch of whip-smart and super-funny young men hadn't appeared on the BBC in 1969 with a show that still generates belly laughs.

Eric Idle - along with John Cleese, Michael Palin, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones and the late Graham Chapman - will forever be associated with his years in Python and he is as well placed as any to appraise The Beatles comparison.

"They weren't The Beatles until Ringo came," he tells Review over a sparkling water in a Dublin hotel bar. "When he came, he was the missing jigsaw piece that made it all work. And it's the same with Python - if you took anyone out, the magic went, too.

"It's like a good Liverpool football team," he adds, in reference to the all-conquering Reds of the 1980s. "It's a team that clicks and works, you can't entirely explain it. You need these different kinds of talents to gel and it was the same with us."

Technicolour: Eric Idle during the early days of Monty Python
Technicolour: Eric Idle during the early days of Monty Python

The 75-year-old comedic giant is in Ireland to talk about his memoir, Always Look on the Bright Side of Life. Billed as a "sortabiography", it's a very funny look-back on a quirky and largely happy life. It shares its name with the song Idle wrote for the gloriously irreverent Life of Brian movie in 1979, and is now one of the most popular songs played at funerals.

He loves the idea that the tune soundtracks events and says writing that song is one of the things he's most proud of. "Harry Nilsson recorded it," he says. "but our version didn't become a hit until 1991 - 13-odd years after it first came out. Simon Mayo [the BBC radio presenter] said it became popular on the terraces first - Manchester United fans had started to sing it [in the unsuccessful, pre-Alex Ferguson days] and then he started to play it at the beginning of his show to cheer people up."

The song became a number one in Ireland - a fact that tickles Idle, especially as the Life of Brian was banned on release here over concerns it was blasphemous. It would finally get an Irish release in 1987 - and became one of the most popular films of the year.

Idle was busy making the film this month 40 years ago and says it was enormous fun to work with Cleese, Palin et al following the demise of the TV show, Monty Python's Flying Circus, to give it its full name.

Unsurprisingly, a great chunk of Idle's memoir is taken up with those Python years. Although he says he doesn't watch it any more - with the exception of clips that might be shown on TV chat shows he appears on - he believes the brand of humour has stood up well. "There were so many different talents, and we sort of spurred each other on to do better work. John had the most superb timing as a comedic talent. Gilliam couldn't write a sketch to save his life, but his cartoons" - a key part of the Python experience - "were superb."

The show coincided with the start of colour TV in Britain and Idle believes its importance should not be underestimated. "It really was very important, because if it had been in black and white, it would probably look very dated now, irrespective of how funny it was. People forget what a big deal the colour thing was… but you've got to remember that back then, Spike Milligan had a TV series that was called Oh in Colour."

Idle bristles at the suggestion that Python was an overnight success. He subscribes to the 10,000 hours theory espoused by the Canadian pop cultural writer Malcolm Gladwell about greatness being earned rather than inherited. "We had worked very hard before Monty Python came along," he says. "We'd done the Frost Report and Do Not Adjust Your Set. We were already very experienced when it came to writing professionally and performing.

"I really believe in the 10,000 hours thing. Look at The Beatles - and Gladwell uses them as an example: they honed their craft by playing all-nighters in Hamburg time and time again."

Do Not Adjust Your Set - popular on ITV - had demonstrated their collective worth, but Monty Python's Flying Circus allowed the sextet to push the comedic boat out. "By a serendipitous process, we were given a chance to do whatever we wanted - we literally had carte blanche, but we never got complacent. We were definitely challenging each other to come up with the best possible work."

Idle is proud of the fact that each member went on to enjoy remarkable careers post-Python. Cleese created one of the greatest sitcoms in Fawlty Towers, Gilliam went on to become an arthouse filmmaker of distinction and Palin is now arguably better known for his outstanding travel broadcasting as he is for comedy.

Idle has been no slouch either. After Python, he created the cult Rutland Weekend Television, which led to the parody Beatles group, The Rutles. He starred in several movies - not least Python favourites like The Holy Grail and The Life of Brian - and was also responsible for one of the biggest Broadway hits of the past 20 years, Spamalot - which was adapted from The Holy Grail film. He is especially proud of the latter's success. "Only 18pc [of Broadway musicals] make their money back," he says. "We were into profit pretty early - it has to make its money back before you get any." It was seen by more than two million people and grossed over $175m.

"People would say, 'You were lucky to get all that money', and I thought, 'You know what, when I got that big cheque, I had worked on it for four or five years for nothing'. It's only in success that you benefit from a musical."

Idle decided to pen his memoir before reaching out to a publisher. "It had to be funny, and I like funny books - something like the one that [UK jazz musician] George Melly wrote, Rum, Bum and Concertina," he says. "I read Steve Martin's book, Born Standing Up. He's a friend and I said to him, 'What did you do?' and he said, 'I decided I wouldn't talk badly of people' and I thought that was a very good tip going in. I've no interest in settling old scores. People tend to do that when they write books at an earlier age - at 50, they try to nail people. But at my age, I don't see the point. Most of my friends are dead. A lot of it is remembering really good times with really good people - and not taking the chance of being nasty. And I don't think people like to read that either."

Despite that vow, he cheerfully admits to sticking the boot into the new-age guru Deepak Chopra, whom he met at a party, and to Denis O'Brien, the controversial American business manager of George Harrison (who was one of Idle's closest friends) and producer of The Life of Brian. "Even with him I was relatively mild," he says. "I didn't go as far as I could - he robbed George blind." After Harrison took a lawsuit against him, O'Brien was instructed to pay him £6.7m in damages.

Today, Idle lives in Los Angeles. "I went over there when I was 50," he says. He's glad to be away from a Britain wrestling with Brexit, and he's angry at the "idiotic posturing" of politicians like Boris Johnson. "It's so depressing," he says. "These fools have set the country back so much. It's such a mess."

And while he may have penned an anthem about looking at the bright side, Idle struggles to see a happy ending for a Britain led by Brexiteers. "I'm not very optimistic," he says. "We have to put up with that Trump arsehole, but at least he'll be gone eventually. Brexit won't be reversed any time soon."

'Always Look on the Bright Side of Life' is out now, published by W&N

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