Idle Weekend - Idle Thoughts

For our Idle Weekend, Tony Cross looks at the life and times of Eric Idle and what makes his work unique...

The Monty Python team came with two writing pairs and two individuals: Cleese and Chapman, Palin and Jones were the pairs. Terry Gilliam, involved mainly on the linking cartoons, naturally found himself working alone with the occasional television appearance when numbers were required.

And then there was Eric Idle. There’s a tendency to – almost – forget Idle was in Monty Python, perhaps because he was the solo writer. Or perhaps because his post-Python career didn’t involve directing films, being grumpy on a super-human level or carving out a niche in travel documentaries. Idle is the one who pops up in some British films, writes songs and appears in other people's series (at least after Rutland Weekend Television finished in the mid-1970s.) He’s also, in some ways, the most American Python, which is an odd thing to say when Terry Gilliam is sitting in the room being an actual American. But Gilliam lives here in the UK and Idle lives in the US. Gilliam is an auteur. Idle isn’t, which sounds like I’m damning him with faint praise.

Perhaps we should begin at the beginning. Idle was born in the north-east but only because his mother had been evacuated there during World War Two. His father died shortly after the end of the war in an accident and Idle was sent to boarding school. He ended up bored as well as boarding but that didn’t distract him from work (unlike some of us) and he won a place at Cambridge University.

Idle was President of Footlights at Cambridge University in 1965. For the three of you reading this article that don’t know, Footlights is a comedy club from which has emerged a ridiculous number of ridiculously talented people: Idle – who, as President, is best known for being the first to admit women, Peter Cook, Tim Brooke-Taylor, Graeme Garden, Clive James, Hugh Laurie, Sue Perkins etc ad inifinitum. Footlights has an impressive track record.

After Cambridge, Idle started to carve himself a career as a writer and performer, appearing in the series ‘Do Not Adjust Your Set’ with Palin and Jones and had popped up occasionally in ‘At Last The 1948 Show’ with Cleese and Chapman, so he was ideally placed when Monty Python started to come together.

As I said at the start, Idle wrote mainly alone, which meant he had to fight hard to get his contributions into the programme but he wrote some of the most well-remembered sketches in the Python series such as Nudge, Nudge.  You can often spot an Idle sketch as they are often pretty playful with language, for example The Man Who Speaks Only Anagrams, even if that ends with as blunt a punchline as you’ll see in any sketch show. Or, in a slightly different way, the way Mr. Smoke Too Much gradually turns a complaint into a rant so glorious it is almost a poem: an elegy to terrible holidays. This talent for sketch writing also meant that, when Cleese left at the end of Series Three, Idle was more than happy to carry on regardless through the truncated Series Four. I actually find Series Four stands up just as well even without Cleese.

Idle is also a praiseworthy performer. He seems to specialise in doing loose impersonations of real people – Richard Attenborough, David Frost and Alan Whicker. With a fine line in smarm, it makes me think that we missed out on a truly excellent Uriah Heep from him. He also pops up as presenters – male and female – one of my favourites being the presenter of The Finance Programme who gets up on his desk and sings the short but rather brilliant Money Song to which he wrote the lyrics. And he’s often used as the coward, like Sir Robin in The Holy Grail and Private Watkins in The Army Protection Racket, or is seen camping it up alongside Palin. Interestingly the only gay Python, Graham Chapman, was (almost) never cast as camp. In the Hermit Sketch from Full Frontal Nudity Palin and Idle are being fey at each other but, when Chapman appears, he strides past playing it, literally, straight. It’s almost as if Chapman, knowing he was gay, had no intention of fitting into any stereotypes.

Which brings me to what is probably Idle’s major contribution to the Monty Python team and that is music. In all the praise handed out to Python for their sketch writing it sometimes gets forgotten that they were masters of the comic song, not just in the original series but also in their films. Idle is probably responsible for one of the great ‘anthems’ in music in Look on the Bright Side of Life, which makes for a memorable end to The Life of Brian. But there’s also The Galaxy Song and The Penis Song (Not The Noel Coward Song) from The Meaning of Life, which show a considerable ability to be both clever and enormously rude in a surprisingly polite way. Or to be rude in an even more direct way as he was with Sit On My Face, which made its first appearance on the Monty Python Contractual Obligation Album.

It was Idle – so I understand – that worked hard on the Monty Python ‘tat’: the albums and annuals in order to make sure that they were more than just poorly produced cash-ins. And anyone who has ever seen a copy of the Rutland Television Weekly Annual will see precisely how magnificent that approach can be. It was that focus that led eventually to Spamalot, which Terry Jones said wasn’t so much Monty Python but was ‘very much Eric’. Michael Palin has implied that Idle just got tired of them never getting around to writing a Monty Python stage show and decided to just get on and do it himself. It was certainly a financial success, although the other Python’s seem begrudgingly grateful for the windfall it was to provide for them. Palin’s diaries seem to imply that Idle is always the one most interested in how much money they’re going to get for doing things and what they can do to get more.

Spamalot is an odd fusion of Monty Python & The Holy Grail and a satire about Broadway/The West End with a dash of ‘Best of…’ about it. However – for me – it was genuinely funny, superbly made and performed. It might not be ‘Monty Python’ but it is a nice cherry to put on the top of the Python cake, which is a terrible metaphor and I apologise.

I am not sure Idle was ever a fantastic actor in long form. He’s always a little broad for my liking but sketch comedy and the Python films seem to be perfect for him.

Trying to imagine what Monty Python would be like without Eric Idle is like an exercise in counter-factual history. Would the Idle-free Python have been different? I suspect it would have been less musical – but we’d still have had The Lumberjack Song. Python’s albums, annuals and associated ‘tat’ would have been less interesting. Neither would we have had Nudge, Nudge or Look on the Bright Side of Life, which would be sad losses to the collective culture. The truth is, it is impossible to know what would have happened. Without Idle I think there would have been a certain amount of poetry missing as well as music. It is Idle’s ability to play with words in all senses that make his contribution to Python invaluable.

Personally, I think Idle’s best contribution to Python is his writing of The Travel Shop Sketch in which he played Mr. Smoke Too Much. It is a thing of genuine beauty that starts off looking like one kind of sketch and then takes a sharp turn into something far more glorious. Idle is helped by Palin’s supporting performance as Bounder of Adventure but really it is a diamond sharp piece of work. It is in the Eric Idle episode of ‘Personal Best’, which is each individual member's choice of their own favourite Python work (as either writer or performer).

And that video, which can (as of the time of writing) be found on YouTube is the perfect accompaniment to this brief article. Watch it. See what you’d have missed either in performance or writing and ask yourself why Idle doesn’t quite get the kudos of his Python comrades.

Images - IMDb

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