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.

A 1930 image of the Karl Albrecht Spiritousen and Lebensmittel shop, Essen. The shop was opened by Karl and Theo Albrecht’s mother; the brothers later founded Aldi
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmA cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Arts and Entertainment
Flora Spencer-Longhurst as Lavinia, William Houston as Titus Andronicus and Dyfan Dwyfor as Lucius
theatreThe Shakespeare play that proved too much for more than 100 people
exclusivePunk icon Viv Albertine on Sid Vicious, complacent white men, and why free love led to rape
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Arts and Entertainment
Stir crazy: Noel Fielding in 'Luxury Comedy 2: Tales from Painted Hawaii'
comedyAs ‘Luxury Comedy’ returns, Noel Fielding on why mainstream success scares him and what the future holds for 'The Boosh'
Life and Style
Flow chart: Karl Landsteiner discovered blood types in 1900, yet scientists have still not come up with an explanation for their existence
lifeAll of us have one. Yet even now, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Arts and Entertainment
'Weird Al' Yankovic, or Alfred Matthew, at the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival Screening of
musicHis latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do our experts think he’s missed out?
New Real Madrid signing James Rodríguez with club president Florentino Perez
sportColombian World Cup star completes £63m move to Spain
Hotel Tour d’Auvergne in Paris launches pay-what-you-want
travelIt seems fraught with financial risk, but the policy has its benefits
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe best children's books for this summer
Life and Style
News to me: family events were recorded in the personal columns
techFamily events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped that
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

    Sustainability Manager

    Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Scheme Manager (BREEAM)...

    Graduate Sustainability Professional

    Flexible, depending on experience: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: T...

    Programme Director - Conduct Risk - London

    £850 - £950 per day: Orgtel: Programme Director - Conduct Risk - Banking - £85...

    Project Coordinator/Order Entry, SC Clear

    £100 - £110 per day: Orgtel: Project Coordinator/Order Entry Hampshire

    Day In a Page

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

    A land of the outright bizarre
    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
    Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

    The worst kept secret in cinema

    A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
    Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
    Why do we have blood types?

    Are you my type?

    All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
    Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

    Honesty box hotels

    Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

    Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

    The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it
    For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

    Magna Carta Island goes on sale

    Yours for a cool £4m
    Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn