For our Idle Weekend, Barnaby Eaton-Jones looks at Splitting Heirs, including EXCLUSIVE interviews with Eric Idle and director Robert Young...
Butler: Drunk again, sir?
Henry Martin: That's okay, Butler. So are we!
Let's start out with a confession. I think the spectre of Monty Python hangs heavy over this film and unbalances opinions on it. The same thing happens with other individual movies that the troupe made. There seems to be some expectation that, because it's a Python driving it, it's a Python movie. Usually because they also like to cross-pollinate projects and pop up in each other's creative endeavours.
However, what I find fascinating is that – when it is an individual project (as is the case with Splitting Heirs, which was written by and starred Eric Idle) – you can truly see the cog that fitted in the engine that powered Monty Python and you can see what each of these legendary comedians brought to the table.
Splitting Heirs – like John Cleese's A Fish Called Wanda – harks back to the days of the Ealing comedies (a set of films made by Ealing Studios in London that were funny, subversive, a little dark, sometimes surreal, and mostly with a satirical, intelligent undercurrent. Which is also an apt description of Monty Python too!).
It's a great premise, whereby the free-loving, money-spewing, counter-culture, hippy-idolising 14th Duke Of Bournemouth, and his equally zoned-out American wife, leave their newborn baby in an Indian restaurant after a hedonistic meal in the late 1960s; which causes a tabloid scandal and a mix-up with the returned heir to the Bournemouth estate and title being not quite who it should be.
Flash forward thirty-odd years, and the actual 15th Duke-to-be is an adopted chirpy white chap called Tommy (played with that happy, breezy charm that Idle does so well), who's been brought up by the Indian restraunt owners, the Patels, and has taken their surname. Meanwhile, the accidental Duke is an American called Henry Martin (Rick Moranis, playing against type as a more clued-in, brash character than his normal wimpish, nerd persona). When Tommy and Henry are accidentally thrown together, through a business assignment (and Tommy learns of the mix-up with their lives), then assassination is the name of the game. Unfortunately, Tommy isn't particularly good at it and Henry seems to not only have had a silver spoon in his mouth when growing up but also retained the good luck that had him being brought up by a rich unrelated family!
The great thing about Splitting Heirs is that, off that premise, comes a broad comedy that – for some reason – critics took exception too. It's an overlooked gem of a movie, which just tries to entertain you. The reception, on its initial release, was barbed and yet the only crime I can see that Eric Idle has committed is that he tried to make a movie that appealed across the board. There's always been somewhat of an American sensibility to Idle's outlook and he manages to mix both English and American humour really well. The ensemble cast he's assembled are perfect for the roles he's created, with Catherine Zeta Jones virtually purring as the aptly titled Kitty (who's sultry sex-kitten nyphomania means she won't ever stay faithful as Henry's fiancee; especially when she realises where the money lies and digs for gold accordingly) and Barbara Hershey as the 14th Duke's widow (bringing near-incest to the screen in her outrageous chasing of Tommy, who she doesn't realise is her natural son).
However, special mention goes to the unhinged lawyer, Shadgrind; who gets a lot of the best lines and moments. He's very amusingly credited in the opening titles as 'And introducing John Cleese' (as if this is his first movie) and Cleese's ability to bring seediness and unpredictability as an Establishment type is put to full use, as he takes over the assassination duties and has complete ignorance to Tommy's pleas for him to stop when Tommy gets cold feet. The scenes between Idle's Tommy and Cleese's Shadgrind showcase the chemistry they can generate together so well. Of course, a film like this works only if it revolves around a solid central performance, which Eric Idle gives effortlessly.
This is a comedy of manners and mishaps, with a tight plot that perfectly unwinds to a funny finish and some assured direction from veteran Robert Young (who would go on to helm Cleese's Fierce Creatures, which – like Splitting Heirs – is also a good, solid comedy that has been unfairly sidelined).
If you like your farcical mayhem verging on the surreal, then you should rollerskate off and grab a copy on DVD. What Eric Idle has created here is a unique throwback, which is – at times – as broad as the Carry On series of films (with an English saucy seaside postcard tradition) but also as subtle as a satirical Ealing comedy of yesteryear, all wrapped up in that manic '80s sheen of all the best American comedies of that decade.
Like Idle himself, Splitting Heirs is cheeky, funny and sarcastic, with a polished sheen of someone who knows the mechanics of comedy inside out. And we're back to being a cog in the Monty Python engine again!
EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH ERIC IDLE
Barnaby Eaton-Jones (BEJ): Mr Idle, sir! I shall try not to fawn but I am genuinely humbled. Thank you! Long-time fan, part-time idiot, etc.
Eric Idle (EI): No worries. We're all just humans.
BEJ: How did the idea for Splitting Heirs come about? It's such a clever twist to begin the entire film.
EI: I was told a true story by a friend about him being left in a telephone booth in Sloane Square as a baby. The piquancy and Oscar Wilde quality immediately appealed to me. Also one of my favourite films is Kind Hearts and Coronets (a man who discovers he is a long way down the bloodline to inherit an English title, starts to bump off all above him to claim the title). The Indian family is an obvious lift from Steve Martin's The Jerk, which killed me. I wrote the movie in six weeks on the Island of Mustique in David Bowie's house he kindly lent to me.
BEJ: Did you have actors in mind when you wrote the characters?
EI: I think I cast later. Always best to let the characters become themselves. There's a lot of Dickens in Shadgrind, for example, and I may have thought of John Cleese when I wrote it. I knew Barbara Hershey, who was a little jealous of Catherine Zeta Jones and refused to age up!
BEJ: As a great comedy film, it seems underappreciated. Do you think people were expecting a 'Pythonesque' film and weren't prepared for the clever and black-humoured farce that it was?
EI: The British Press behaved like the shits they are. Alexander Walker and Baz Bamibgoye attacked me at Cannes, because the French had chosen it for the Festival. I couldn't believe it, and determined to leave the country which I did. I had raised about 12 million from Hollywood to spend in the UK on the Film Business. Catherine Zeta Jones was so attacked by the Press she cancelled her trip to the Cannes Festival and I had to walk down the stairs alone. One of the loneliest and saddest experiences of my life.
I have never regretted leaving the UK and would never open anything first there. They eat their young. They would have killed Spamalot, for example. So I opened it on Broadway. They also attacked my play Pass The Butler, directed by Johnny Lynn, which was actually quite funny. I was amazed years later to discover that people actually liked the movie, and it was George Harrison's favourite. It's like Rutland TV, it went from being what I thought was a flop to a cult and then a classic!
BEJ: Was there anything from the script you had to cut for time or budget reasons?
EI: I don't think so. It was a very happy shoot, at Longleat etc. The only disappointment was I did a nude scene with Catherine Zeta Jones and I was the one nude!
BEJ: For me, you seem to be the only Python who has bridged that gap between appearing comfortable with British-style humour and American-style humour? What do you think the main difference is between, say, the Python crowd and the Saturday Night Live crowd?
EI: I think my four times hosting SNL in the 70's really taught me a lot. Improv and its value for one. Python was always very tightly scripted. When I finished the first shoot of The Rutles, I deliberately wrote in more scenes for Yanks, Belushi, Gilda, Ackroyd, Bill Murray because I felt it needed some performances.
Python is a show written and entirely acted by its creators/writers. SNL has a traditional staff base, and they never ever re-write, so it never gets any better than the first draft.
BEJ: Eric Idle, thank you very much!
INTERVIEW WITH SPLITTING HEIRS DIRECTOR, ROBERT YOUNG
Barnaby Eaton-Jones (BEJ): Robert, hello! How did the job offer for Splitting Heirs come about? Was it after you had initially been on Fierce Creatures?
Robert Young (RY): No. Fierce Creatures came afterwards. John Cleese always maintained that he appeared in Splitting Heirs to rev up (watching me, I suspect) for Fierce Creatures.
BEJ: Did you have free rein to tinker with the script or was it pretty much set in stone?
RY: Not set in stone. Rather concrete. Rick (Moranis) became rather prima and that made Eric (Idle) clamp down on suggestions. The balance of power is always fascinating in these situations.
BEJ: What was the hardest sequence to shoot?
RY: I can't remember but the shooting was fun and the weather seemed endless summer. Longleat was a great location. Catherine Zeta Jones perfect, nude, in the swimming pool. No clouds.
BEJ: As the writer/star, how easy was it to say 'no' to Eric on certain decisions regarding directing or did you work well with each other?
RY: The only difference I can recall was when a joke made no sense in the context of the story but was funny. Did you laugh? If you did, it went in.
BEJ: You have a real flair for directing comedy (which some directors can make 'flat' and lose the joke). Are you a comedy fan and, if so, what are you favourite comedy films?
RY: I have always loved laughter and to make comedy is a joy but very difficult. Edmund Kean said, as he lay with death hours away, "Dying is easy. Comedy is hard." To work with Cleese and Idle was always a pleasure not to forget the joy of all, Michael Palin. To see them manipulate a line and fine tune it was a lesson in its self. But the most pleasurable comedy to do was Jeeves and Wooster. Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry worked without rancour, which one could not always say about the Pythons.
My favourite comedy is Some Like It Hot. I met Billy Wilder once. A group of us were having a breakfast meeting in the Sunset Marquis garden when we noticed Wilder having a meeting on the next door table. His group left and he sat alone watching us. Eventually he got up and walked to our table. Stood looking down as we all stammered out hello Mr Wilder's. He nodded and then said, "The best thing about movies is talking about them." And then he left.
A note: I loved and still do Laurel & Hardy, yet my daughter, Kate, who has a wonderful sense of humour, does not. Age? Comedy changing? Yet Shakespeare's and most Restoration comedies are still funny. You see, with comedy you cannot paint over the cracks with music and arty shots. It is what it is.
BEJ: And, finally, what are your favourite memories of working on the shoot?
RY: I've already mentioned Catherine Zeta Jones in the pool! She was so beautiful and unassuming and a delight. Having the run of Longleat was fun. Seeing the extraordinary paintings by the present Bath and being shown his father's memorabilia of Hitler. Working with Eric on the script in his attic study.
BEJ: Thank you, Robert Young!
Image - IMDb