Idle Weekend - Yellowbeard


Barnaby Eaton-Jones thinks that Yellowbeard should be a pirate film to treasure and conducts an exclusive interview with the film's co-writer Bernard McKenna...

Yellowbeard: She couldn't be your mother. No woman ever slept with me and lived.

Why exactly is Yellowbeard so unloved, that's what I often ask myself? I mean, I'm not talking about the quote from the movie above. If you'd killed every woman you'd slept with, you'd be universally unloved. But, as it's one of my favourite comedy films, I don't get the vitirol it seems to generate. There's the horrible fact that Marty Feldman died whilst making it (and, for me, give a career-best performance in it!) and it was Graham Chapman's final film too (he would succumb to lung cancer five years later) but that doesn't make what's happening on screen any less funny. Obviously, humour and, indeed, any artistic endeavour is personal. Not everyone is going to like the same thing. But, on record, there's two of the three Monty Python stars involved who've actively said it was a terrible film (although they thoroughly enjoyed the making of it) and a co-writer who's also said it 'haunts him' (see the interview at the end, for his full views on it).

For me, it's a romp. A loud, bloated, overblown Pirate romp. It's not a parody of the type of swashbuckling Hollywood adventure that would have Errol Flynn or Burt Lancaster front and centre. It's, like Python's historical comedies, a film rooted in accuracy but yet absolutely silly in the extreme.

Graham Chapman's titular character is – like his late sidekick in the film, Marty Feldman's Gilbert – a career-best performance and holds the film together with energy and anger and a big sizzling beard. He's been sentenced to 20 years in prison for... well... tax evasion. And survives his sentence without the treasure he buried being discovered. So, the Royal Navy increase his sentence on the day he's to be released, knowing he will escape and head for the treasure. Which he does. In essence, it's a chase movie. Yellowbeard is chasing his treasure and everyone else is chasing him.

Leading the chase are former bosun, Mr Moon (played by sneering perfection by Peter Boyle), who has turned traitor, and Eric Idle's Commander Clement (who's sniffy attitude goes against his normal cheeky chap persona). There's a myriad of supporting characters, including Madeleine Khan as Betty, who has tattooed Yellowbeard's hidden treasure map on their newborn son's head. Said newborn is, of course, now 20 and played by Martin Hewitt. Originally, Sting lobbied for the role and Martin Hewitt himself has said, tongue in cheek, that he should have had it; due to Sting's fame at the time. But, producers felt the production was getting 'too English' and they cast the American actor instead.

So, everyone comes along for the ride to find the treasure. I haven't even mentioned James Mason, Beryl Reid, Michael Hordern, Peter Bull, Nigel Planer, Spike Milligan, Peter Cook, Cheech & Chong and John Cleese as Blind Pew (who has, for me, the second-best cameo in the film. The first is reserved for David Bowie and I won't spoil it but his good friend Eric Idle brought him on board when it turned out he was holidaying at the same location as they were filming) – all of whom play brilliantly in their respective characters. It is a film full of acting and comic royalty, that automatically takes the script up another level.

So, again, why the level of hatred?

The plot is tight, the characters are well-defined and there are a number of jokes that land incredibly sweetly. Within a comedy, there's always something that doesn't work as well (try to ignore Madeleine Khan's cockney accent, which has clearly been enhanced by taking a Dick Van Dyke masterclass) but the good outweigh the bad and you clearly root for Yellowbeard to find his treasure, even though he's the most unlikely of anti-heroes.

Maybe the torturous process to bring it from script to screen sullied it along the way (it was stuck in development hell for a long while)? Or maybe the unexpected death of Marty Feldman near the end of filming cast a gloom over it? Or maybe the world just wasn't ready for the Pirate movie to make a comback yet? Johnny Depp's Captain Jack, a comedy caricature in a proper Pirate movie, was 20 years away from happening. There seems to be a lot of scope, in the 1980s, for comedians to get their own movies and create something that possibly wouldn't see the light of day normally. But, that way lies invention and individuality. The crazed and crazy Yellowbeard could not have come out of the head of anyone other than Graham Chapman. So used to playing the 'straight' lead, which is ironic in itself as he was a very early advocate for coming out of the closet, Graham Chapman lets rip with a character so big and bold that the movie that supports him has to try and keep up.

The direction is solid, by Mel Damski (in his first foray into feature film), and – if you get the chance to see the accompanying documentary Group Madness, you'll see that it clearly was a joy making it. Maybe that behind-the-scenes sense of frolics on location doesn't translate to the film as much as it should but this is anything but a bad movie comedy. There's a lush musical score and the editing works well, though getting round the loss of one of the main characters towards the end is a shame as you feel there was a few more scenes to fill with Marty Feldman's presence.

But, if you've not seen it or never heard of it, raise the skull and crossbones and commandeer yourself a treasured copy. Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of fun!

(with thanks to Dirk Maggs)

Barnaby Eaton-Jones (BEJ): Hello, Bernard!

Bernard McKenna (BM): Hello, badly named person! Although not as badly named as Dirk Maggs.

BEJ: Famously, Yellowbeard had a troubled and difficult production. When you finally came to writing up your idea for the movie, how many drafts were there from first being complete to the actual shooting script? Were you fine with Peter Cook, for example, having a pass at it or would you have preferred a bit more control?

BM: I finished the first draft of Yellowbeard with Graham in L.A. I wasn’t mad about it because it had taken too long. We finished a first draft on 30th July 1979 (I kept a diary during my stay in L.A.). The Independent producer was Chris Mankiewicz (son of Joseph, who directed All About Eve and Cleopatra) and Chris lived and breathed movies but hadn’t produced on his own, he’d been vice-president at Universal. It was his contacts, Graham being hot property as a Python and my pitching the idea to Warner Bros. that got us commissioned. Chris read the first draft and concluded that it needed a lot of work. Graham and I worked on it haphazardly until November 26th. The haphazard was Graham’s inability to look at structure, only ‘funny bits’. He’d also cancel working days. I’d written with Graham during his heavy drinking days but now he was into coke and dope – not on the grand scale of the boozing but it did affect us. One day he said ‘I’m not going to be around for a few days after tomorrow as I’m shooting a commercial in Australia!'

Yes, it’s funny but as a co-writer it’s very unprofessional and thoughtless. So, off he went.

On 16th January, Chris rang from L.A. saying that Warner Bros. found it too British, too parochial.

In March 1980, I started co-writing a TV Special with/for Peter Cook. Graham and Chris continued to try and get finance and a director for Yellowbeard. Peter Cook was just as bad as Graham had been on the booze, he was also going through marital strife. He lived quite near me in Hampstead and he used to cancel at short notice. I too was going through a divorce. We recorded the Peter Cook Show which I wanted to call Cook for 50 minutes but Michael Grade wanted to call it Peter Cook & Company because my idea sounded like a cookery programme! What? With Peter Cook in it???

Chris Mankiewicz arrived in London to continue the assault on film folk with money and got Handmade Films involved. Meanwhile Graham and I started on another draft in London. Graham doing more adverts and generally being late to work and wanting to finish early. Finished it on 2nd February 1981. On 14th January, Graham and Chris had a deal with Handmade Films. In late January, Graham went to look at locations in Malta. It was thought I’d best not go as the wife I was divorcing was the daughter of the Prime Minister! Handmade wanted another draft but weren’t willing to pay me any extra so I refused. In the meantime they were set to film in UK. On 24th February it was cancelled. Peter Cook and I started writing another special for HBO. Peter fancied writing it in Majorca where he had a house next door to Michael Douglas. I didn’t fancy that idea. We wrote it but HBO found it too British! It was during this period that Graham approached Peter Cook about working on Yellowbeard. Graham even called round to Peter’s one day to discuss it while Peter and I were writing!

Later that year I became Script Editor for all Comedy at LWTV. A proper job with an office and a long contract. I then forgot all about Yellowbeard. Just as my LWTV contract was coming to an end I got an offer to script edit Yellowbeard again and I’d get paid. So, I did. The draft by Peter and Graham was very overlong and needed severe cutting which I did to their satisfaction. While LWTV discussed my contract being renewed I got an offer from the new producer on Yellowbeard, Carter de Haven, to be ‘on board’ for the whole film shoot including Mexico to do rewrites/editing, etc. The chance of being well paid and a couple of months in 4-star hotels in Mexico was an offer I couldn’t refuse. I did do some rewrites but trying to discuss them with Graham and Peter together was difficult.

I took the money and ran. Met a lot of nice people though.

BEJ: John Cleese said that writing with Graham Chapman was a challenge, due to his drinking habits and his flights of surreal fancy, but how did you find writing the movie with him, as he was - by that time - not dependent on drink? Did you think his character changed over time or was he always the individual spirit that he appeared? How did your writing styles dovetail?

BM: John and I discussed working with Graham while we were on set. We compared notes. Yes, the drink and lack of discipline (re: being on time and working full days) was sometimes redeemed by the surreal ideas he came up with. I think he became less funny after giving up the booze. Our styles dovetailed because he needed form and structure and I could supply them. I think Cleese did the same.


BEJ: Did you have a hand in casting or did you write any roles with anyone specific in mind? The huge amount of comic talent that adorns the screen is quite something and, the documentary Group Madness, seems to showcase everyone having a thoroughly good time. What is your main abiding memory, good or bad, of the shoot?

BM: I had no hand in the casting (I usually do) because I became involved again at such a later stage. The shoot was lots of fun. I enjoyed putting out to sea in the Bounty and following in the footsteps of Brando and Trevor Howard and Richard Harris.

One day, while body surfing, I was dragged under by a very powerful wave and it slammed me on to the pebbled shore. I thought I was drowning but managed to crawl up the beach having sustained a couple of broken ribs. You can’t reset them in plaster so I just wore a tight bandage and was told to take it easy. I sat by the hotel pool one day and struck up conversation with an English woman and a 13-year old bored boy called Joe. I was supposed to take gentle exercise and told the woman and Joe that I was going to walk along the shore to watch the pelicans dive for fish, I invited them along. The woman declined as she had things to do but Joe joined me. Along the long beach I stopped at a tiny bar for a painkilling tequila and beer, Joe had a coke and we both had some tortillas with tasty bits. We returned to the hotel and said goodbye. Later that evening I got a phone call in my room that went like this:

Me: Hello?

Voice: Is that Bernard?

Me: Yes.

Voice: Hi, Davey Jones here, I wonder if you’d like to join me for dinner?

We had quite a lot of English crew on the shoot and I tried to figure out which one he was. He had quite a broad London accent.

Me: Sorry? Who did you say you were.

Voice: Davey Jones. (Pause) Bowie, David Bowie.

Me: (Gulp!)

Voice: That was my son Joe you took for a walk. He had a terrific time and spoke highly of you. So, dinner tonight?

Me: (Gulp) Yes, lovely.

So, I joined him in our hotel’s private dining room. He insisted that I sat next to him. We talked about Mexican culture and the artists Diego Rivera and Frida Khalo. Joe would, of course, change his name to Duncan and became a successful director (Moon and Source Code).

BEJ: Did you get starstruck by any of the Yellowbeard cast or were the majority of them friends with you anyway? Is there a comedian or comic actor from the past (or, indeed, now) that you wish you could write with or write for?

BM: I don’t really get starstruck. Of course I knew, Cleese, Idle, Feldman, Nigel Planer. I did enjoy Peter Boyle’s company but not so much Kenneth Mars’, who was always loud and as they say ‘never off’. Boyle used to do a marvellous Brando impersonation.

As for anyone I wanted to write for? Not really. I prefer to think of plots and characters and see who's available. I enjoyed writing for Ronnie Barker and David Jason. I never wrote for The Two Ronnies because I didn't actually like it, especially Ronnie B's obsession with bum and tit jokes.

BEJ: How was it kissing James Mason in Yellowbeard?!!

BM: Kissing James Mason was his idea! We were waiting in a hotel in Acapulco to do a night shoot, I was with James and his wife and he mentioned that he’d like to reprise a scene from a film of his where a woman suddenly kisses him and he says ‘Don’t you EVER do that again!’. I was playing a rather naïve recruit who was so happy to join the ship. He thought it would be funny if I enthused and then kissed him. He also said I’d go on record as the only man to kiss James Mason on screen (he shoots me later in the film). He was a nice man but worried about Cheech & Chong being drug dealers. I pointed out to him that this was their onscreen personas. I liked C & C, they were erudite gentlemen (and they did know where to score the best Acapulco Gold!).

BEJ: A little off-topic to end, sorry, but I used to love Me & My Girl when I was younger (and, being an avid credit watcher, I spotted you as Script Editor as well as occasional writer). Was this an enjoyable series for you and is the role of Script Editor one you prefer to writer, so you can shape scripts to your vision? Would you have preferred to be Script Editor on Yellowbeard, for example or were you happy being one of the main writers?

BM: While I was under contract as LWTV script editor-in-chief, Me & My Girl was one of the scripts offered to the Entertainment dept. I wasn’t mad on it so declined to write it but under contract I had to script edit it. I’d known Richard O’Sullivan since he was cast in one episode of Doctor At Large as the awful Bingham written by me and Graeme Garden. He was only contracted for one episode but was so good we told the producer that we wanted him in every one of our episodes. Eventually we were told not to write SO much for him as he had more lines and was more fun than the lead.

I’d known Tim a bit via Graham Chapman and Graeme Garden. He is lovely. He and Richard were playing in some golf tournament in Portugal where I was living for a while and they came to have lunch. Recently, at the University I work, I was asked by the Head of Film & Media studies if I could get Barry Cryer along to talk about writing and performing comedy. I asked him if he’d like Tim as well! He was over the moon. When I rang them they both said yes immediately. Tim saying ‘For you Bernard, anything!’

Their appearance on stage at Winchester University on 16th March this year went fantastically, it was free to both staff and students. We all got so many compliments, and indeed they are still coming in.

BEJ: So, one last thought on Yellowbeard, Bernard? How would you sum it all up?

BM: You know, in the end I so hated Yellowbeard that I've never seen it! AND....I never will.

BEJ: Bernard McKenna, thank you very much!

Images - IMDb & Luke Garratt 

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