What came of the odd Python out?

Twenty-five years after the Flying Circus took British humour into a ne w orbit, James Rampton meets Carol `cleavage' Cleveland, femme fatale of the act

Who's the seventh Python? It's one of those questions - like who was the fifth Beatle, or the Third Man? - beloved of pub-quiz bores. The answer is Carol Cleveland, also known as the Python Girl.

If your memory still needs jogging, she was the one who spent much of the four series of Monty Python's Flying Circus - 25 years old this year - in a state of semi-undress. Remember the woman being unrobed behind a screen by Eric Idle in the Marriage Guidance Counsellor sketch? Or the woman whose clothes were ripped off by cacti as she was chased across the desert by a man-eating roll-top desk in Scott of the Sahara? That's Carol.

Now a very well-preserved 52 with not a hair or a stroke of make-up out of place, Cleveland lives alone (her marriage ended 10 years ago) in an immaculately tidy terrace house in Brighton. In among the tasteful tribal artefacts and pot plants, there is only one visible sign of the Python days - a picture by Terry Gilliam hanging above the dining-room table. A 50th birthday gift, it depicts Cleveland as an extravagantly-coiffed, voluptuous barrage-balloon supporting a foot-shaped basket containing the ot her six Pythons. The caption reads: "For Carol. How The Circus Kept Flying. Happy Birthday.''

Reclining on a sofa in the world's smartest tracksuit, Cleveland admits that she has been attacked by feminists for going along with the sort of sexism that even Benny Hill might have blushed at. "They did have a go at me on a couple of occasions - though not as often as you might think.

"I remember being surrounded by a group of them waiting outside the stage door when we did the show in New York. Tough, lesbian-type ladies. [Puts on impeccable Noo Yoik accent]. `How can you let them do that to you?' `Do what?' I said. `Treat you like asex object, it's so degrading.' I just looked at them and said, `Hey, don't knock it till you've tried it.' That shut them up.

"I didn't resent it because I was just having a great time ...It wasn't that the other pythons were anti giving me more to do; they were always apologising for not having better material to offer me. But they just weren't good at writing interesting parts for young women.

"I'm sure it's to do with their public school upbringing,'' she continues in her understanding manner, proffering tea and a neatly arranged plate of biscuits. "Young men like that grow up thinking there's only two types of ladies: the young, giggly, sexygirl and the old bag. And they played the old bags. I did eventually play men and nuns and old women, but the public just remembers the bra and suspender-belt.''

At the outset of her career, Cleveland did not seem destined to be known for that winning mixture of lingerie and laughter. After a childhood in California and three years at Rada, she made her name as a leading lady in such ITV 1960s classics as The Saint and The Avengers.

Only when she moved to the BBC did she start to show her "comedic talents''. She worked with major comedy stars of the time, including Roy Hudd, Ronnie Barker, Ronnie Corbett and Charlie Drake. "Somewhere along the line,'' she recalls, "I seemed to be established as a glamour stooge, someone to be the butt of their bawdier jokes ... The Pythons were looking for someone to play the roles they couldn't play themselves. In other words, a real woman - or, as Michael [Palin] so charmingly put it, `real tits'. As I had the nickname at the time of Carol Cleavage - my dear friend from Rada, Lynda La Plante, started that - I obviously fitted the bill.

"After the third episode, the fellers realised that not only did I look the part, but that in order to bring any humour to these stereotyped ladies I'd have to send myself up. Which I was more than happy to do.''

Monty Python went on, of course, to become as big as the Beatles in the States, prefiguring the cliche of the century that comedy is the new rock 'n' roll. They mirrored the Fab Four in playing the Hollywood Bowl, which Cleveland describes as the pinnacle of her career. "We'd lose count of how many curtain calls we'd take. They'd just carry on, screaming and yelling. The girls would throw their knickers and home-baked cookies and flowers on the stage. Unfortunately, no one ever threw a jockstrap at me, which was one of my major disappointments.''

In the immediate aftermath of Python, Cleveland rode on the back of its success, on the stage. "For a while, I was a thriller queen. I was always the wife who got bumped off. I think they were trying to tell me some-thing.'' In recent years, she has continued to appear in the theatre but television work, aside from a few commercials, has dried up.

But Python persists. Like rock 'n' roll, the sketches will never die. They may seem dated but they are kept alive by endless BBC re-runs and groups of anoraks huddled together at parties reciting the Dead Parrot sketch. If they wanted, the Pythons could emulate certain cast members of Star Trek and find full-time employment at cult TV conventions in obscure American universities. Indeed, Cleveland has just returned from six weeks in Los Angeles at a Python 25th Anniversary conference, at which the fans knew far more about the programmes than she did.

The show's continuing popularity is still helping to pay Cleveland's mortgage. "Thank God for the repeats,'' she laughs. "Python has saved the day many a time.''

But in other respects the programme is a millstone. In the eyes of casting directors, it's a case of once a glamour girl, always a glamour girl. "That image just sticks, I can't shake it off ... To tell you the truth, I'm really somewhat pissed-off because I feel at my age, and with my experience, this should be my time.''

This is a familiar problem for actresses of a certain age. Your assets one day are your impediments the next. Cleveland's answer has been to write a one-woman show about her life in glamour. Carol Cleveland Reveals All - premiered at the Brighton Festival in May and projected to go to Edinburgh next year - charts her history from teenage pom-pom girl and beauty queen (Miss Teen Queen, Miss Camay, Miss Californian Navy), to model, Playboy Bunny and actress. It opens with a reworking of "The Lumberjack Song'': "I'm a glamour girl, and I'm OK/ I work all night and I sleep all day.'' In a touch that you might call Pythonesque, the show also features a show-stopping number about Cleveland's hysterectomy, "The Wombless Woman Song'': "I may be missing something down below,/ But, believe me, you'd never know.''

Meanwhile, Cleveland reflects more in sorrow than in anger on her fate as the only Python regular not go on to fame and fortune. She still sees the others occasionally. "John [Cleese] was quoted as saying that he's going to make sure there's a part for all of the Pythons in his follow-up to A Fish Called Wanda. I'm going to take him up on that ... But, apart from my one-woman show, there isn't much else happening at the moment. I did so much, but it does seem difficult to get the foot back in the door.''

Oh, Carol.

Barn owls are among species that could be affected
charity appeal
Sarah Silverman (middle) with sister Reform Rabbi Susan Silverman (right) and sister actress Laura Silverman (left) at Jerusalem's Western Wall for feminist Hanuka candle-lighting ceremony
peopleControversial comedian stages pro-equality Hanukkah lighting during a protest at Jerusalem's Wailing Wall
Arts and Entertainment
The Bach Choir has been crowned the inaugural winner of Sky Arts’ show The Great Culture Quiz
arts + ents140-year-old choir declared winner of Sky Arts' 'The Great Culture Quiz'
After another poor series in Sri Lanka, Alastair Cook claimed all players go through a lean period
cricketEoin Morgan reportedly to take over ODI captaincy
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

    £65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

    Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

    £15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

    Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

    £50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

    The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

    £27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas