by Emma Street
A Liar’s Autobiography: The Untrue Story of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman is based on Graham Chapman’s fictionalised autobiography which was first published in 1981. Chapman recorded an audio version of his book and this voice recording is used as the soundtrack to the film along with new voice recordings from John Cleese, Michael Palin, Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam. Eric Idle is the only no-show from the Monty Python team.
Fourteen different animation studios worked on the project, animating separate chunks of the film. “Creatively, the different styles reflect the stages in Graham’s life.” said one of the directors, Jeff Simpson, in an interview “Also, it saves us a lot of time.”
Chapman died at the age of 48 from throat cancer. The other members of Monty Python’s Flying Circus have forged successful careers as directors, Hollywood A-list actors and the like while Chapman never had much chance to establish a career post-Python. What with being dead and all.
Of all his Python roles, Terry Jones is probably most recognised as enormous Mr Creosote from “The Meaning of Life”. He is also instantly recognisable as Mandy, Brian’s mother from The Life of Brian and says the famous line “He’s not the Messiah – he’s a very naughty boy”. This is one of many roles where Jones slips on a housedress, false bosoms and a screechy falsetto in true Pantomime Dame fashion.
Nowadays, Jones’s voice will be most familiar to young audiences as the Narrator of “The Legend of Dick and Dom”
He also wrote and co-produced animated series Blazing Dragons in the 1990s. The title sequence to which is below. One of the Youtube comments asks why it says “Hide the Queen’s vagina” at 00:17 and now I can’t hear it any other way.
Eric Idle’s most famous Python role also comes from Life as Brian as the ‘Always look on the Bright Side of Life’-singing crucifee. Unfortunately what was a once a great pastiche of a cheesy motivational song has become one in its own right. Idle’s performance at the closing ceremony of the Olympics was the final nail in the crucifix.
Idle seems happy to shamelessly cash in on his former successes with a tour called ‘Eric Idle Exploits Monty Python’ and an album called “Eric Idle Sings Monty Python”.
The jolly romp of a rip-off ‘Spamalot’ is at least a crowd pleaser. Unlike Idle’s sequel to 1978’s Beatles pastiche “The Rutles” in 2004 which failed to win any support either with his audience or his former co-star, Neil Innes. The world hadn’t been crying out for a new Rutles movie and certainly not one spliced together from the bits they hadn’t wanted to use 26 years before.
His 1998 film “Burn Hollywood Burn”is regarded as one of the worst films of all time. It had an estimated budget of $10 million and grossed approximately $52,850 and won Idle ‘Worst Picture of the Year’ at the Razzies.
Michael Palin’s biggest success post-Python are his travel documentaries. The first, Around the World in 80 Days aired in 1989. The most recent Brazil with Michael Palin aired last year.
While Palin was filming Full Circle, he stopped off at the Home & Away set to record a cameo. As grumpy headteacher, Mr Fisher haltingly tries to declare his love to Marilyn, Palin interrupts them to ask if there are any sharks in the water.
I love that episode. I was an unashamed Home and Away watcher back then and shared a “Did that just happen?” moment with my housemates when it was broadcast. Stuff like that could catch you unawares in pre-twitter 1990s.
Palin opened each Monty Python episode as the bedraggled figure who stumbles towards the camera and manages to gasp out the word “It’s” before he collapses and the credits roll. He also sang the lumberjack song. He’s OK.
John Cleese is most known from the series as the Minister for Silly Walks and any Python role which called for someone to wear a bowler hat or a uniform.
Cleese hasn’t been short of success post-Python. He and Palin both received BAFTAs for their roles in A Fish Called Wanda. Cleese also starred as beleaguered headmaster Brian Stimpson in Clockwise, a film that I have a tremendous fondness for. It was the first time I remember seeing real-life schools, streets and train stations being depicted on the big screen rather than the usual magical fantasy world of yellow school buses, mail boxes and ‘footballers’ wearing helmets.
There was also some TV series about a grumpy hotel manager or something that got a lot of recognition.
Recently, Cleese has been doing stand up. “I need the money”, he tells the audience. “I am forced to hit the road to rack up a few grand there or a few hundred here. I call it ‘The Alimony Tour’ or ‘Feeding the Beast’”. He then shows a picture that was first published in the Daly Mail of his ex-wife Alyce Faye Eichelberger getting a large chunk of ‘his’ money from a cash point machine.
Classy, John. Classy.
The sixth member of the team, Terry Gilliam has become a well-regarded director since his Python days. His films include Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen and Twelve Monkeys. He managed to finish the elegantly scruffy fairytale The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus despite the film only being half-made at the time of lead actor Heath Ledger‘s death.
As the animator on Python, he worked separately from the rest of the team most of the time although he does perform in some sketches and appears as a member of the Spanish Inquisition.
His surreal animations were a key part of the anarchic look and feel of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. The gap between it and its comedy predecessors were widened with opening credits that featured a man sitting in custard with roses growing from the top of his scalped head, Queen Victoria being dribbled like a basketball, a cardinal hitching up his skirts to wheel after a naked woman on a train and a giant foot coming down from the top of the screen to squash the lot.
Monty Python could have been a tough act to follow for all concerned but it proved instead to be a fertile training ground.
It is a crying shame that we never got to see more of Chapman’s potential realised. The pipe-smoking retired doctor always seemed so much older than his years; it would have been interesting to see his age finally catch up with his persona. He played the lead roles in both Life of Brian and the Holy Grail. The 1983 film Yellowbeard which Chapman both wrote and starred in was – with good reason – not a great commercial or critical success. It would have been worth seeing anything Chapman followed it up with though.
Chapman was openly homosexual at a time when most gay performers were comfortably settled in the closet with their wives. He was known for his drinking. When Douglas Adams worked with Chapman on the series Out of the Trees, he said that he had a room just for drinking gin and that writing sessions would turn into mammoth sessions which would invariably lead to Chapman getting his cock out and putting it on the table. He gave up alcohol in 1977 so any subsequent writing possibly involved less penis/table action.
He was an enormously talented man with a flair for writing and performing. A Liar’s Autobiography doesn’t fill the Chapman-shaped hole in the world but it is an interesting contribution to his legacy.
So to finish, here’s Graham Chapman, Eric dle and Terry Jones in my all time favourite Monty Python sketch.
A Liar’s Autobiography: The Untrue Story of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman opens in selected cinemas on Friday 8th February. If this niche UK animated film isn’t coming to your local multiplex, don’t worry, it’s not long to wait until the DVD and download release on the 18th February.