Some years ago I was writing a script with John Cleese in Los Angeles and we went for dinner at a buzzy brasserie called Chaya. When the waiter brought our steaks he also brought a $200 bottle of St Francis Cabernet Sauvignon. We hadn’t ordered it; the waiter said it was a gift from some anonymous diners. John suggested to the waiter that they come by our table as they were leaving the restaurant.
It turned out to be Keanu Reeves and a couple of chums. They joined us for a drink and then the most remarkable thing happened: they started to re-enact scenes from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, from the knights who say ‘Ni’ changing their name to ‘the knights who say Ekki-Ekki-Ekki-Ekk-PTANG. Zoom-Boing. Z’nourrwringmm’, to Keanu doing a perfect rendering of John’s French soldier: ‘I fart in your general direction. Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries.’
In another part of the city that same night, Eric Idle was putting together a one-off performance for the Getty Museum using Python material. It was so successful that he took it on tour — twice: ‘Eric Idle Exploits Monty Python’ and ‘The Greedy Bastard Tour’. There is an exponential American appetite for Python in general and The Holy Grail in particular. Hence Eric’s musical adaptation of the film, Spamalot, which has played to sell-out audiences on Broadway for the past 18 months and looks set to do the same in London when it opens on 16 October.
American students first got to know about Monty Python through records which were smuggled into the country by their English cousins like samizdat artefacts. Then in 1975 PBS broadcast the TV programmes and the Holy Grail film hit the campuses. The cult status in which the troupe is still held is borne out by the fact that there are more than 32,000 largely home-made Python videos on YouTube. Indeed it was an American, Joel Furr, who named the repeated sending of unwanted emails ‘Spam’ — making it today a recognised international term. It came from the 1970 sketch set in a café which served Spam with everything, causing a horde of Viking diners to break into a chorus of ‘Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam’.
Vikings loomed large in Python largely because, as Oxford undergraduates, Terry Jones had read mediaeval English and Michael Palin history. The legend of King Arthur was a natural for a movie. The first script was actually set in both the Middle Ages and the present day with a man called Arthur King finding the Holy Grail on the ‘ant counter’ at Harrods. But that was abandoned and the only post-modern element to remain is the Scottish police arresting the Knights of the Round Table for murdering their TV historian narrator. Simon Schama and Niall Ferguson beware!
Naturally the dinosaurs of the British film industry, EMI and Rank, wouldn’t back the movie — they preferred On the Buses — but it would have proved a shrewd move since the return to investors over 30 years has so far been 6,000 per cent — with more gushing in from multiple Spamalots. Next year it will become a fixture in Las Vegas in the custom-built ‘Spamalot Experience and Grail Theatre’. Pop groups were the main investors in the movie, so today people like Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin and David Gilmour of Pink Floyd are stacking it away.
Terry Jones had gone on a recce to Scotland and settled on various castles to film but, just before shooting started, the Department for the Environment for Scotland changed its puritan mind, deeming the project ‘inconsistent with the dignity of the fabric of the buildings’. Few people knew that fabrics could have dignity and Michael Palin pointed out that, of course, ‘disembowelling and pouring boiling oil on people must have been consistent with it’.
The beneficiary was the non-departmental Doune Castle near Dunblane which played all the castles in the film and is now a point of pilgrimage for Grail devotees from all over the world. Tens of thousands of them over three decades. They jump off the transatlantic jet at Glasgow, some clad in chain mail, and dash to Doune to re-enact scenes from the movie. The castle manager has a gift shop stacked with Grail memorabilia and two hollowed half-coconuts, should anyone wish to go for a ride. Many do. Some bring their own stuffed sheep with them to throw from the battlements but, bizarrely, the most performed sketch is the stoning scene from Life of Brian — ‘All I said to my wife was that that halibut was good enough for Jehovah.’
It was on that film that I first encountered the Pythons. I frequently went on holiday with John Cleese and he suggested I come out to Tunisia in the summer of 1978. ‘Why not make a documentary for our tenth anniversary so the BBC can pay for it?’ I did, and it is on the DVD.
I certainly felt I was party to an exclusive club. Undergraduate humour still prevailed and there was much intergroup teasing. Eric was the victim when I first arrived. He was about to do his haggling scene with the gourd. Knowing he was a vegetarian, Terry Gilliam dressed his stall with real carcasses of cows, putrid in the midday African sun.
Gilliam, in turn, was chided by Cleese for his less-than-Cambridge command of the English language. They were once flying over the Great Lakes and Terry said to him, ‘Look, John, a whole bunch of water.’ Cleese is a verbal man and Gilliam a visual one. During Holy Grail John as Sir Lancelot the Brave was crawling through some mud with Terry directing. ‘Can we just do it one more time?’ said the American. ‘Why?’ snapped John. ‘Because the sun is setting and the rays will reflect off your helmet.’ Cleese rose to his full six foot five with the words: ‘Oh, f*** off.’
Terry Jones is very much the head boy he once was. He likes running things. Back in Scotland for The Meaning of Life, black students from Glasgow had been recruited to help the Pythons film The Battle of Rorke’s Drift. On the morning of the shoot the students went on strike because they said the scene was racist. Terry pointed out that the 4,000 Zulus at Rorke’s Drift had been, er, black. He shot it the following day with white students in black make-up.
Terry once said that if anyone actually was Monty Python, it would be Graham Chapman. I agree. Whether playing King Arthur or Brian he had that abstract, disorientated look which made one feel he wasn’t quite certain if he was in reality or a dream.
He’s dead now, but on Monday night he will be looking down to make sure that Tim Curry as the Spamalot King Arthur can correctly carve up the Black Knight like a Sunday roast.