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.