Interview: Eric Idle
Eric Idle is one of the country’s most loved comedians. Born in South Shields, the comedian, actor, author, singer, and writer first rose to attention in the children’s television comedy series Do Not Adjust Your Set, before going on to be part of the groundbreaking comedy team Monty Python. Since then Idle has starred in countless films, several Monty Python features, played in his own rock band, albeit a spoof one, and had an asteroid, 9620 Ericidle, named in his honour. In 2005 Monty Python’s Spamalot, a musical comedy “lovingly ripped off from” the 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, for which he wrote the music book and lyrics for, first opened in Broadway and has since toured all over the world. This February sees Spamalot reach the North East with six nights at the Sunderland Empire. Brian Beacom caught up with the comedy legend.
BB: You’ve gone back to the Python well several times in the past, now Spamalot has been ‘lovingly ripped off’ from the Holy Grail. Is this a case of brilliant post-modern recycling – or are you being just plain cheeky?
EI: (Laughs) If you’ve got a fantastic well, why not go back to it? Everybody loved the Holy Grail, with the Black Knight losing his arms and the imaginary horses. All musicals are basically adaptations from something else. It’s very rare for people to try and do an original. We had done two original musicals before we stumbled on The Grail – The Back Page which we did on Radio Four, about the three things the English love most: sex, royalty and cricket; and an adaptation of Edward Lear The Quite Remarkable Adventures of the Owl and the Pussycat which was published by Dove Audio.
In the early eighties I actually went to Mel Brooks and asked if we could turn The Producers into a Stage Musical, with him playing Max Bialystock and me playing Bloom and Jonathan Miller directing at The Old Vic. He said no, he was more a movie director these days. Obviously he had second thoughts and I was thrilled to attend the opening night on Broadway when we were already working on Spamalot. I was thrilled the comedy musical was back because I realised it would make it much easier to raise the $10 million it costs to mount.
BB: How hard was it to write Spamalot?
EI: Well, although I had lots of funny bits to kick off with from Holy Grail such as the coconuts for hooves gag, and many great classic routines, I still had to come up with a new storyline, make it one show, and focus on the characters we follow all the way through to the end. I just wrote what I thought would work, and ended up doing 17 drafts and re-writing Act Two three times before we got it right, over a period of four or five years. Of course the main thing was introducing women and emotion. Python has a problem with both. I knew we needed a great Contralto role and so wrote “The Lady of the Lake” as a terrible diva.
BB: You wrote forty songs for Spamalot initially. Was it hard to cut down the number?
EI: We always write lots of songs. Initially we recorded about half a dozen to show the other Pythons what we were proposing to do with the show. Fortunately they all loved “The Song That Goes Like This” which is a very Pythonic type of song: asking “where is the song that goes like this?” and they gave us permission to go ahead. A wise decision on their part I think. Of course then we had to cut some and also write more. It meant we had to drop the likes of ‘The Three Headed-Knight’ and ‘The Spanking Song’ from Castle Anthrax. (laughs) We were so sure that scene would make it to Broadway that we wrote three songs for it but alas no…
BB: Was there a temptation to make Spamalot too ‘Pythonesque’?
EI: No. It wouldn’t have worked commercially. We knew we had to appeal to people who were ignorant of, or even hated Python. We tried an ending where the police ended up on stage and also another ending with the bridge of death, but these were both devices to finish the play, they didn’t provide a satisfactory resolution. We finally found that “The Lady of the Lake” was obviously Guinevere and so must end up with Arthur. That and finding the Grail, which I find hilarious.
BB: Do you have to be a Python fan to like Spamalot?
EI: Not at all. I assumed Python fans would come anyway, but to be successful we had to attract a whole other audience, and this is what happened. In many ways Spamalot introduced new fans to Python. It’s a kind of anti- Broadway musical. It’s a musical that sends up Broadway musicals.
BB: Did you feel a huge risk factor with Spamalot?
EI: Well we sold out for the entire three months of previews in Chicago before we opened, but we did have Mike Nichols, and David Hyde Pierce and Hank Azaria and Tim Curry. (laughs) Then after the word of mouth came out we got this huge advance for Broadway, $24m, so we knew we wouldn’t close on Tuesday. In fact, thanks to a sale to Las Vegas we made our money back in six months. Something of a record. And we also got great notices.
Mike however was very worried that it could have gone either way. I remember on the night of the Tonys when we got eleven nominations, and the first five results came up and we’d won nothing, and he was panicking. He came over and asked me to write something funny to say if they stiffed us, but fortunately just as I was thinking of something particularly witty to say he won one, and I thought ‘We’re safe’. I didn’t think we would win Best Musical of the Year though. That I am still very proud of.
BB: When the show opened there were dissenting voices from some of the Pythons over the final result, with Terry Jones being fairly critical…
EI: Sure, but you have to remember, when material appears on the web it’s in date order, so that if someone says something bad on Day One that’s what people continue to read first. It doesn’t matter if three months later in the Guardian Jonesy was raving about it. What had happened was that when Jonesy first saw the show someone sat him next to his wife whom he was divorcing – and he had to leave with a terrible stomach ache. Also people tend to look for their own bits from the film, many of which weren’t there. And you had to explain to Terry that Zoot wasn’t important to the story, and in a play the plot is everything. So he was disappointed. But they all came to like it in the end. The cheques helped. John and I made them a million each…. The show is really an Idle/Du Prez show – our take on the Holy Grail. Theirs would of course be different. But would it have been as successful? I don’t think so.
BB: Do you read reviews?
EI: No. I don’t read them normally in life. Comedy is an individual taste thing. And even if you get a rave review you don’t learn anything. It’s like advice too late. For me, the audience are the critics. If the curtain goes up and they laugh and have a great time, that’s it.
BB: Your life seems to be almost totally immersed in comedy or comedy music, from the Python songs to the Rutles, or plays such as What About Dick? and now musical theatre. Are all your friends comedians?
EI: I do prefer the company of comedians. A few comics are bitter people, and not at all nice, but on the whole they’re relaxed and funny. I like people who make me laugh. I think Peter Cook used to be the funniest man in the world but then he died and Billy Connolly took over. I love him. Billy lived in LA for about ten years and he’d often ring my bell and come in for a cup of tea. It was great. And he also appeared in my play What About Dick? which I wrote especially for him, playing a Scottish detective. Nobody could understand a word he said. He was fantastic. He’s moved to New York now which is sad but we still email.
I used to stay with Billy at his castle with the likes of Steve Martin, Robin Williams and Eddie Izzard and it was always fantastic fun. There would be times when Prince Charles would ring up and say ‘Can I come to dinner with you?’ And we’d say ‘Oh, all right, if you must.” I guess comedians and musicians are my friends. If you play Beatles songs and make me laugh, that’s fine. Or both.
BB: Was George Harrison a funny guy?
EI: They (The Beatles) were all funny. Even Yoko was funny. When you think about it, you couldn’t marry John Lennon and not have a sense of humour. I was at David Bowie’s wedding and during the Best Man’s speech she was screaming with laughter, thumbs up in the air laughing. And I’d never even met her before.
BB: Has your predilection for comedy emerged from dramatic personal circumstances?
EI: Well, yes. I was in a dreadful boarding school for 12 years in Wolverhampton (his father survived WW2 only to be killed in a hitch-hiking accident on Christmas Eve, 1945. Seven year-old Eric was sent to a charity school for kids who had lost one or both parents, but bullying was rife) and it was a reality check. What I learned was that if people laugh at you they’re not really in charge of you. They just appear to be. It’s a self defence thing. It’s saying to yourself, ‘Something’s not right here. This is wrong.’ And if you challenge that and everybody laughs it’s because you’ve just said a truth. (laughs) Then you get beaten for it.
I guess we’re back to talking about truth in comedy. Institutions are a great breeding ground for laughs. Just look at the comedy which came out of the Armed Forces; Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan, Jimmy Edwards, Stanley Baxter. (muses) What could be more miserable than being stuck in the British Army in Tunisia? People find their escape from Institutions by looking for laughs. Comedy is often very close to danger. During the Falklands War, HMS Sheffield was hit by an Exocet missile and the guys sat on the deck singing ‘Always Look On The Bright Side of Life’. What else are you going to do? Put on The Importance of Being Earnest? I doubt it. A lot of humour comes out of bleakness. It was the same in the Communist world. Again, it’s about truth, saying what’s real. Mike Nichols of course is Jewish and was born under Hitler in Germany. And I just live for my lunches and dinners with Mike. He’s so funny.
BB: Python became an iconic show, with an incredible mix of talent. Did you realise you were part of something great?
EI: No. You see, there were lots of talented people around at the time, such as Marty Feldman, Bill Oddie, Graeme Garden and Tim Brooke Taylor. We all came out of this great creative pool of comedy that was going on.
BB: Is it true that working on Python had its discordant moments, with people vying for position?
EI: It’s fair to say the Pythons were not the most un-egotistical of writers.
BB: But you wrote alone. Did that make you feel outnumbered?
EI: Yes, because I was. (laughs) Heavily and constantly. John wrote with Graham, Mike wrote with Terry, and there was me. Gilliam of course did his animation. (laughs louder) Although now you can see how well I can do without them. If I’d only known I’d never have worked with them in the first place….
But seriously, the Python process worked. It was a writers’ commune I guess. We’d swap each others sketches around until they worked. And since you weren’t always cast in your own sketch it didn’t matter who produced the end result.
BB: So it was a Brill Building for writers, a communal love-in?
EI: Well certainly a moan-in. (Laughs) But we were very professional, writing 10-5 with a lunch break. We were disciplined. We’d all had lots of experience writing sketches, from Frost to Do Not Adjust Your Set. Now we had real toys to play with. And a Scottish director who’d take us off to Glencoe to film at the drop of a hat. In November. But again, the dramatic background was perfect for playing comedy off. It was the same with filming Holy Grail in Glencoe. (Terry) Gilliam’s art direction made it all seem so real.
BB: I guess you have no plans to retire, given the success you’ve enjoyed in recent years?
EI: From performing perhaps, but not from writing. I still love it. I get up at 5am to write, when my head is most clear. After I wrote Spamalot John and I did Not The Messiah (He’s a Very Naughty Boy), out now on DVD. We made that an Oratorio with 240 musicians…
BB: What’s you greatest delight in putting together a show such as Spamalot?
EI: Being in the girls’ dressing room. My wife will say, ‘Where’s Eric?’ And the crew will say, ‘He’s in the girl’s dressing room.’ That’s cos’ I just love hanging out in there. Once, during the Australian tour I knocked on the door and called out ‘Are you naked yet?’ And the giggling call came back ‘Oh, come on in Eric.’ So I walked in, and three of them were stark naked, straight off the beaches, fantastic bodies. So I had to pretend to be Prince Charles and not look at them, staring at their eyes and saying ‘How’s it going, girls?’ I told my wife when I died I want to be buried in the girls dressing room in Melbourne’. She said, ‘You’re gonna be.’
Spamalot is at the Sunderland Empire from tonight until Saturday 5 March 2011. Tickets cost £11.50 – £36 and are available from the Sunderland Empire site here.