Magazine article The Spectator

The Pythons' Autobiography

Magazine article The Spectator

The Pythons' Autobiography

Article excerpt

A clump of plinths THE PYTHONS' AUTOBIOGRAPHY by the Pythons Orion, L30, pp. 360, ISBN 0752852930

The joke surely with Monty Python is that these trainee doctors, accountants, solicitors and bank managers, who met at college when they were reading law or medicine, never really stopped being those respectable middle-class things. There's an air of put-on daftness about the Pythons; this is an end-of-term cabaret by the chumps from Management and Personnel. They remind me of those prats in the front row of the last night of the Proms who think it wildly funny to bob up and down in time to Henry Wood's 'Fantasia on British Sea Songs'; or they are the committee of the Goon Show Preservation Society, eating damp sandwiches and ordering half a shandy and doing Eccles voices; or they are the weekend volunteers for a steam railway, turning up for duty in home-knitted woollen pullovers.

John Cleese (whose real name is Jack Cheese) was the son of a punctilious insurance clerk in Weston-super-Mare. Michael Palin's mother was a debutante, presented at Court. Terry Jones was a rugby hero at Guildford Grammar School. Eric Idle boarded near Wolverhampton, swotted at Latin and got to Cambridge on the recommendation of his history master, an exRAF officer. Graham Chapman, whose father was a chief inspector in the Leicester County Constabulary, studied at Emmanuel and Bart's, where he was president of the Students' Union and had tea with the Queen Mother. Chapman smoked a pipe, drank with both hands and was a manic-depressive homosexual. His typical pick-up line would be 'Are you camping here? Can I come and see your tent?' He died of cancer in 1989. For completeness' sake we are told, in this book's epilogue, that Cleese will die in 2028, Jones in 2030, Palin in 2034 (whilst filming a documentary on the Kalahari desert), Gilliam in 2046 (August - it takes the whole month) and Idle in 3039 ('He said he'd outlive the rest of those bastards!').

Chapman's tragic personal decline and fall aside ('I began to see how disconnected he was emotionally', said Cleese rather late in the day), never was a classic, dotty comedy show less anarchic, less revolutionary, than Monty Python. It's as anodyne as Hamble, Jemima, Little Ted, Big Ted and Humpty at Play School. The overlapping, free-flowing format derived from Spike Milligan; the best-loved routines, the Parrot Sketch, the Ministry of Silly Walks, or the Lumberjack Song, wouldn't have been out of place in music hall; and the clever references to Proust or Wittgenstein had been done already by Jonathan Miller and Peter Cook.

How easily, too, it had all come together. After having graduated in the Sixties, the various Pythons, as yet not united as a group, found themselves writing skits and sketches at Associated Rediffusion and Anglia Television for Dick Emery or Lance Percival. David Frost was in constant need of material, as were Ronnie Corbett and Ronnie Barker ('neither of whom I'd ever heard of,' says Cleese). The lads drifted happily round London, contribuing to Marty Feldman programmes and doing voice-overs for commercials with Roy Kinnear. Today's bureaucratic, pressurised, cost-effective career structures - of Commissioning Rounds and Current Scheduling Needs - were nowhere to be found. 'Come along to my office,' Frank Muir, the BBC's Assistant Head of Comedy, would say. 'We couldn't offer you very much, only L20 a week, but you'll come into the BBC, see what's going on, you'll have an office of your own, and get to know television from the inside. …

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