We caught up with Terry Jones, Michael Palin and the directors of A LIAR’S AUTOBIOGRAPHY at the London Press Conference.
There is a belief that any of the original Monty Python boys find success in their present ventures through their association with their former glory. In fairness, this is probably true. The sad truth is, since Graham Chapman died in 1989, he has not been the recipient of such reflected glory. It seems that Bill Jones and his fellow directors wanted to correct this and make a documentary about Chapman, but on discovery of the recordings of Chapman reading from his book A Liar’s Autobiography, the film went in a different direction. We caught up with former Pythons Terry Jones and Michael Palin, as well as the directors and producers of A LIAR’S AUTOBIOGRAPHY – THE UNTRUE STORY OF MONTY PYTHON’S GRAHAM CHAPMAN at the London Press Conference.
Bill, as the son of a Python [Terry Jones], you know the Python story, what made you want to focus specifically on Graham Chapman?
Bill Jones: My memories of Graham are quite vague, and my strongest memory is actually going to his memorial. One of the reasons why is because we went to a party and I got quite drunk. I was quite young at the time and it was probably the first time I got drunk…
Michael Palin: Graham would have approved.
BJ: [Laughs] With Graham not being around these last 20-odd years, he has been forgotten about a bit and we just wanted to celebrate his achievements and the things he has done, and just show him off a little bit.
The film paints Graham as a very complex individual; do you think you ever really understood him in the time you knew him?
Terry Jones: I don’t think I did. I think he didn’t understand himself really. I think he was looking for who he was. He found himself as a homosexual, but then David Sherlock says that he would probably have gone straight in the end [laughs]. He found himself as an alcoholic, he styled himself as an alcoholic but then he gave up alcohol just like that. I think he was in search of whoever he was.
Do you think the film sheds any light on that?
TJ: Its only seeing this film that it strikes me that’s what he was doing; trying to find himself.
Michael, doing this film, is this as close to a Python reunion as we are going to get?
MP: We are all reunited in different parts of the world. It’s a bit odd. It’s homage to Gray, he was a remarkable man. I remember before we even did Python, Terry and I had watched At Last The 1948 Show, which John Cleese and Graham Chapman, Tim Brooke-Taylor and a few others did. We were really impressed by Graham’s stillness; the fact that he didn’t seem to act very hard and your eye was drawn to him, he was just sort of there. It was the way that graham was, generally.
TJ: I think so, because the first time I ever saw him was at Wyndham’s Theatre when he was doing Cambridge Circus and we were doing Four Asterisks…
MP: It would be called ‘Fuck’ now.
TJ: I went into the theatre where they were doing a matinee, and I couldn’t take my eyes off Graham because I could see what everyone else was doing – they were being funny, they were acting – but Graham looked like he had walked in off the street and he was just surprised to be there. I think that made him our lead actor, that’s why we cast him as Arthur in the Holy Grail and as Brian in The Life of Brian, because he was our head performer and he was just himself on screen.
MP: And he was bloody good.
Was this always going to be an animated film?
Jeff Simpson: Yeah we decided we had to use animation because Graham was sadly unavailable to take part in his own life story, apart from the tapes that we found. The book that it is based on goes off into fantastic flights of fancy and he takes you down dark alleys and up into space, and it’s got lots of madness, so it’s probably something that we could only do in animation, unless we were filming in space and inside his mind and all those other crazy places that he takes us to. It was always part of the plan to use lots of different styles of animation to reflect, not just the different places that he goes, but also the different tones and the humour. Some of it is quite dark. The bit in Los Angeles at the end is quite cool, but quite detached. We were able to match the styles of the animation to the styles of his writing and the humour. Hopefully!
You found the tapes of Graham reading from the book, when did that happen?
JS: I went up to see David Sherlock – Graham’s partner – hoping to do a documentary about Graham, and hoping that David might have home movies or something that could be materials for documentary. Sadly, he didn’t, but in the course of that conversation he mentioned that Graham had been into Harry Nilsson’s studio in Los Angeles and for two nights, recorded two and a half hours of his autobiography as a kind of early audio book, before those things existed really. David knew of the tapes’ existence, but it took me a little while to track them down and then I pitched it as a documentary with Graham narrating his own life story from beyond the grave with some bits of animation which, thankfully, the BBC turned down…
JS: …And at that point I walked into Bill [Jones] and Ben [Timlett] with some tapes and some bits of animation.
Ben Timlett: We had just done the endlessly exhaustive documentary series on Monty Python called Almost the truth, so we really didn’t want to do a documentary, a talking heads. I don’t think you [Michael Palin] wanted to do any more sitting and talking, like you are now.
JS: But when we said ‘Terry Jones, do you want to play Graham Chapman’s mum?’, it all clicked.
BT: The Eureka moment was when we realised that we could just make it as an animated film and we could bring in the voices and edit [Graham Chapman’s] voice. We were lucky because, when you listen to the book, he does perform – not all the time, but some of the time – but bizzarely he only performs his own lines, so he must have known this was going to happen. He had no interest in doing anybody else’s. That was the moment that we thought ‘Let’s try and get this made, let’s try and get this done’.
Justin, there are so many different types of animation in the movie, how did you keep track of them?
Justin Weyers: A project like this only comes along once in a blue moon, and it was an honour really, with all the animation companies to work on it. We started with 90 companies and met them and interviewed them between us all, and we came down to who really wanted to do it and were really excited about being involved with the creative collaboration on a project that was quite pioneering and really unique. The fact that no one had done stereoscopic before in a film… As far as keeping everyone in control; everyone just really wanted to do it, everyone was so honoured and waned to be a part of it, and to be able to hold up things like the original shoe from The Life of Brian and be around this wonderful memorabilia and tell the story of this person…
BT: No, it was the sandal
JW: The sandal… Sorry [laughs] One man in Oxford did a sequence then a big company in New York did a sequence, so it really is a lovely branch across all the animation companies. It’s a good legacy for animation.
Michael, you once used the phrase ‘unconstructive silliness’ when referring to Monty Python, was Graham Chapman a big part of this?
MP: I think Graham was perhaps sillier than all of us. He didn’t appear to be, he appeared to be very straight and rather serious about things, but I feel that very often Graham would be silent for a long period in writing and then he would say something like ‘Oh, it could be a Norwegian Blue’ and immediately you have got something there that nobody else would have thought of. He did have a way of going to the silliest ideas, and yet he seemed a very serious man. He was very very important to the construction, or deconstruction, and the silliness, certainly, of Python. He appreciated silliness; he loved it, which other members of the team didn’t quite as much. John loved being silly, but there was a point where he stopped being silly and got very serious, especially around 3.27pm. Whereas Graham would be slightly wonderful all the time.
TJ: [impersonating Graham Chapman] Lemon curry!
MP: Lemon curry! Yes, he used to say Lemon curry and Betty Marsden… When we were filming Holy Grail I went to bed early, being the nice one of the group, and heard Graham coming down the corridor going ‘Betty Marsden! Betty Marsden!’. The on the second night he came along going ‘Betty Marsden! I’m on my own tonight! Betty Marsden!’. So on the third morning I said ‘Gray, do you mind, I was trying to get to sleep, can you keep it down?’. So the next night there was silence, no Betty Marsden at all, and I woke up in the morning and there was a little slip of paper shoved under my door and it said Betty Marsden!.
MP: So he was silly.
Terry and Michael, how was it for you hearing the tapes for the first time?
TJ: It was just natural; it felt very natural to have Graham’s presence in the studio when we were recording the voices. It just felt like what it used to be like. It didn’t tug at the heartstrings at all, it was just natural.
MP: It was brilliant that they found it because I think A Liar’s Autobiography is one of the best books about Python, if not the best. Partly because it’s quite short…
MP: But also it’s all lies and yet, within the lies are a lot of truths and it’s a very very funny book. There is a bit where he comes off the plane from the Canadian tour we all did, in Los Angeles, and Graham had drunk an awful lot. When he got to the hotel, he was so pissed, that the first thing he did was ring up and ask them whether he’d checked in or not, and whether he was in a group or not, then he said he wanted to go to his favourite restaurant in LA, please send a limousine to collect me. They said ‘Are you sure?’ and he said ‘Yes I do, thank you very much’ and got quite testy about it. He got into the limousine and the restaurant was just across the road!
MP: So it’s a very funny book, and it was great to hear Graham read it. I thought it did bring him back, and I think it’s brilliantly interwoven into the film. I don’t think the film would really work without the voice of Graham all the way through. It’s rather nice; I had never heard him read the book before I saw the film.
Michael, when you go on your travels around the world, does the popularity of Python around the world surprise you?
MP: Well I am bemused, because we didn’t expect Python to last for more than two or three years when we wrote it. That was the life of a television programme then, and nothing was stored and kept, so I think the very fact that Python still survives… It did so by the skin of it’s teeth.
TJ: Howard Dell, who was our video editor, announced that the BBC were going to wipe the tapes – the first series – in a month’s time. So we smuggled the tapes out of the BBC and recorded them on a Philips VCR. I thought that was going to be the only archive of the shows, but fortunately, it then sold to the US and so we were rescued. Actually, we were very lucky, because we went out the first week that BBC One went into colour. Otherwise, we would have been made in black and white, and I don’t think the shows would have lasted as long.
MP: I was in Croatia filming and talking to people about being part of Yugoslavia before. I remember that we sold Python to Yugoslavia very early on – the first foreign sell was to Pakistan, and apparently it was a total mistake. They thought it was a circus! – but Yugoslavs took it and I met some people in Croatia who said they loved Python because Marshal Tito was actually quite liberal in some ways, and actually allowed people to watch foreign television shows. Python was current there, and it was kind of used as a badge of courage; if you watch Python and talked about Python, you could relate your own discontent with your own government by saying you watched Python. It meant something. They kind of rallied around and laughed at their own authority figures through Python and I thought that was quite interesting.
TJ: It was quite interesting.
MP: Was it? On a scale of 1 – 10, what do you give it, Terry?
TJ: I would give it a five.
MP: Well that was hardly worth getting up for, was it?
Terry and Michael, is Python something you have ever wanted to escape?
TJ: It’s opened doors for me, personally. I have always enjoyed doing Python; I enjoyed it at the time.
MP: I have never felt constrained. It’s great that it survives. We did find a lot of it funny, it’s rather nice to find, 40 years later, that other people find it funny. That’s encouraging. I found working on Python sometimes tricky, but what it taught you was to preserve your independence and your control, that’s something that Terry has always been very strong about – let’s make sure that we hand on to our work as much as possible – it was never that easy, other people wanted to sell out or whatever, but it taught me that it is very very important, if you made something, to do it in your own way and keep control of it as much as possible. In that way, I learned a lot from Python.
JS: Terry mentioned that Python opened doors, and in fact, all of the five surviving Pythons have had a second career as a result of Python, but one of the reasons that we really wanted to make this film was that Graham never really had that. He died aged 49. He never really had that second career, so hopefully we’re giving him some kind of recompense for that.
MP: Even though he doesn’t know…
Bill, what was it like growing up around Python?
BJ: Growing up around Python… I think it was a bit of a Golden Age of being famous really, because you didn’t have so much intrusion by the press and also when I was about school and started understanding about people being famous, it wasn’t on television and you didn’t have access to it so Dad wasn’t actually a famous parent at my school. The famous parent at my school was the teacher from Grange Hill, so he was the famous one because he was on television and a kids programme as well! Everyone knew him!
MP: Where is he now? He’s now Brad Pitt!
What do you think Graham would have said about this film?
TJ: He’d love it, actually. It’s a very exciting film to watch and it’s very dark in places.
MP: I think he would, I think he would have liked the odd structure of it and all the different styles of animation. He’d love that. I think he’d really appreciate it. It might take him back to the days when he drank a lot!
Words: Brogen Hayes