Nudge, nudge: Eric Idle on 40 years of Monty Python

'Life of Brian' has been resurrected as something completely different: an oratorio for orchestra, 160 choristers and four of the surviving Pythons. It is, Eric Idle tells Andrew Johnson, very silly indeed

On 5 October 1969, the BBC began broadcasting a new comedy sketch series. It was surreal, yes, but then Spike Milligan's recent TV show had been surreal. Its performers , Eric Idle, Michael Palin, John Cleese, Graham Chapman and Terry Jones too, were familiar from various late-1960s shows (The Frost Report, At Last the 1948 Show...). Terry Gilliam's animations, and the show's deranged stream-of-consciousness style were certainly fresh; yet no one believed that Monty Python's Flying Circus would catch the imagination not only of British viewers, but, soon after, audiences the world over, in quite the way it did. Four decades, three-and-a-half TV series and a clutch of films later, the Pythons have established themselves as the first troupe of British comedy.

And, thanks to The Ministry of Silly Walks, a dead parrot, some singing Lumberjacks and many other deathless comedy inventions, the team are firmly woven into Britain's cultural fabric. Which is why Eric Idle has been able fill the Royal Albert Hall later this month with his new Pythonesque entertainment, Not the Messiah (He's a Very Naughty Boy).

Idle has turned the team's controversial 1979 film about religious zealotry, Life of Brian, into a formal oratorio, complete with hundreds of musicians and singers in black tie, to mark the 40th anniversary of Monty Python's first broadcast. Although, as he points out, Python actually ended with the 1983 film The Meaning of Life.

"Forty years? Not really," says Idle. "More like 14 years, 26 years ago. But I have had to wear more silly costumes than most, ' from a Hindu God to a Hell's Granny, and played more women than most, both attractive and otherwise, and played more fauna, the back legs of tiger, a halibut, and even some flora – I once played a carrot."

As it happens, this year marks another relevant Python anniversary: it is 30 years next month since Life of Brian caused Britain's moral guardians to splutter into their sherry. The film, directed by Terry Jones, was a satire on the gullibility of the zealous, expressed when Brian, played by Graham Chapman, is mistaken for the Messiah in 1st-century Nazareth. Misinterpreted by some as a blasphemy against the Christian faith, the film created an uproar and was banned in many parts of the country (in fact, it wasn't until March this year that you could legally watch it on cinema screens in Aberystwyth).

Now comes this new version. "It's the European première of the oratorio," Idle says. "We have done two nights at the Hollywood Bowl, and it's in great shape. Michael Palin is going to introduce it in full drag and Terry Jones will play a Welsh miner. It will be very formal, more like going to see the Proms. But it tells the same story, and there are songs such as, 'What Have the Romans Ever Done For Us?' and we'll do the 'Bright Side of Life', of course."

Idle has teamed up with John du Prez, with whom he co-wrote the musical Spamalot, based on that other Python classic, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Spamalot has been a critical and box-office hit, but Idle acknowledges that Not the Messiah is a financial folly. The title plays on Handel's Messiah, and indeed, Idle is bringing together the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and a 160-strong chorus, as well as the other Pythons (except for John Cleese, who is busy, and of course Graham Chapman, who died in 1989), to tell the story of Brian in spectacular fashion for one night only, this Friday. (There will also be Pipers from the Black Watch regiment because, Idle says, "You can't do a show without pipers.")

"I think it's going to be a unique and very silly evening," he adds. "Who does a comic oratorio? No one puts on a show that can't make any money. It's a wonderfully crazy thing to get people doing."

Looking back at 40 years of the Pythons, Idle is a little lost for specifics. His recollections, he says, are more to do with what happened off the stage rather than on it. "I won't say it hasn't been wonderful," he says. "But what do I actually remember? Er, not a lot," he confesses. "Nowadays, my memories are more random than Proustian, and perhaps because I have been editing a new book, Monty Python Live, my strongest memories are of life on the road, on the six occasions Python went out and toured live.

"For instance the triumphant tour of Canada in 1973 when everything we did was greeted with hysteria, immediately followed by an appearance on The Tonight Show in LA where the very same material was greeted with a stunned, jaw-dropping silence that remains certainly the funniest thing that ever happened to us. We ran outside and fell on the grass laughing hysterically, for nothing is funnier than not being funny."

Other memorable moments include the four Hollywood Bowl performances in 1980 "Where the smell of the famous and their grass wafted gently across a balmy Californian evening". He also recalls being trapped all day in a cinema in New York surrounded by thousands of fans for the opening of The Holy Grail ("We were there to sign coconuts") and "listening to the 1974 Liverpool Cup Final, huddled around a tranny outside a dark cave in Scotland in soggy armour, waiting to be attacked by a Killer Rabbit". On another occasion: "Graham was thrown out of our bourgeois Munich hotel for bringing four chaps down to breakfast. The Hausfrau, blushing sweetly, said there was another hotel just down the street for special interests. It was Oktoberfest and we were filming, but we didn't see Graham again for days."

Idle says that when the Pythons meet up nowadays, the old camaraderie is still there. "We recently had a photo shoot in London and everyone came," he says. "They started to put straitjackets on us and it was like filming Python. We don't meet up very often, it's very hard to get everyone coordinated. We had four hours together, wandering around in our underwear and it was so familiar."

Terry Jones, who directed the original Life of Brian film, believes that this mutual goodwill survives because they are no longer writing together. "I've no idea what Eric wants us to do at the Albert Hall, except he keeps saying there's no need to panic," he says. "I suppose we are all very easy together nowadays – maybe because we're not making anything particularly new together, so the creative tension has gone." He adds: "I'm amazed that Monty Python has had such longevity – who would have thought it when the BBC proposed wiping the first series so they could reuse the tapes?"

The oratorio will be broadcast on Radio 3 on Boxing Day, but it's best to be there in person, Idle says. "Be there or be square. And don't mutter about the prices [up to £140 for a ticket], there's no way this thing can make any money. And one final thing. Isn't it about time Monty Python was recognised? Don't you think it's about time he became Sir Monty Python? How come only real people get awards? All right. Say no more."

'Not the Messiah' is at the Royal Albert Hall on Friday.

Every one a goer: Eric Idle's favourite scenes

The Bruces

In which the team indulge in some flagrant-yet-hilarious national stereotyping as a bunch of beer-swilling Aussies doubling as philosophy professors. "Rule four, I don't want to see any Bruces not drinking."

'Always Look on the Bright Side of Life'

The closing set-piece from Life of Brian features the Pythons' most celebrated tune, regularly voted among the nation's favourite funeral songs. "You come from nothing, you go back to nothing. What have you lost?

Nudge, nudge

Starring Idle as an innuendo-obsessed pub patron, this is an obvious forebear of The Fast Show's "Suits You" salesmen. "Does your wife 'go'? Is she a sport?"

Travel agent

Idle visits Michael Palin's travel agent and proves himself the master of the monologue with an interminable rant about the horrors of the package holiday, vividly conjuring up flabby British tourists moaning about how the locals can't make tea and drinking endless Watney's Red Barrel while singing 'Torremolinos, Torremolinos'.

Jailer's assistant

Terry Gilliam and Idle form a memorably freakish double act as Life of Brian's "deaf and mad" jailer and his stuttering, sadistic assistant ("Crucifixion's too good for 'em"). Idle also plays the Crucixion assistant ("Bloody Romans, no sense of humour.")

Words by Hugh Montgomery

Click here for Terry Jones's five favourite Python scenes .

A very special Sony/IoS competition: Win VIP seats to see 'Not the Messiah'

To commemorate four decades of Python genius, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment is offering readers of the Independent on Sunday the chance to win a VIP private box for a single winner and three guests at the Royal Albert Hall (including waiter service, drinks and canapés) for the one-night only performance of Not the Messiah (He's a Very Naughty Boy) this Friday 23 October. In addition, the winner and three guests will each receive Monty Python's Ridiculously Outrageous 400th Anniversary Box Set, including The Holy Grail, The Life Of Brian, Meaning Of Life, And Now For Something Completely Different and Live At The Hollywood Bowl. Ten runners-up will receive the box set.

This competition is now closed.

Winner:

Christine McKeone, Hampshire.

Runners up:

Jim Griffen, London

Ruth Miller, London

Alan Wright, West Sussex

Catriona Gilchrist, Essex

Glynn Macpherson, Reading

Gill Tattersall, Llandrindod Wells

Stephen Dixon, Northampton

Caroline Davies, Birmingham

Alan Johnson, Angus

Louisa Hall, Surrey

Terms & conditions

This prize is not exchangeable.

Click here for Independent competition rules

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