Eric Idle OnlineMy Life

I’m Just Wild About Harry

By , August 31, 2013 1:16 am

Fifty years ago today I made my first professional comedy debut at The Edinburgh Festival.  It was August 1963 and I had miraculously received a telegram somewhere in Germany where I was hitch hiking ordering me to report immediately to Cambridge for active service.   That year’s Footlights Comedy Review, called puzzlingly A Clump of Plinths was being taken into the West End by Michael White under the more commercial title Cambridge Circus leaving a hole in the Footlights commitment to the Edinburgh Festival.   The telegram was from Humphrey Barclay, he, myself, Graham Garden and David Wooderson were to replace Cleese, Oddie, Chapman, Brooke-Taylor and co, using their material, on stage in Edinburgh in three weeks.

No problem.   Cambridge during the long vacation is as nice as it ever gets, the sun shone, it was the sixties, idyllic times when the girls skirts were beginning their plunge upwards and their pants downwards.  We lay in punts and drank Pimms and wrestled with bra straps.   Well not quite.  We rehearsed like hell on the tiny stage in the little Footlights club above smelly MacFisheries and suddenly found ourselves in a freezing, cold water flat, six stone stories up somewhere in Edinburgh.

The Cambridge Theater Group never thinks small.  A character called David Missen had conspired a theatrical first for the University players, the Cambridge actors were going to put on a world premiere, of a previously unheard of play by Henry Miller.   Not Arthur Miller the playwright.   Henry Miller the novelist.   It was called I’m Just Wild About Harry and featured quite a lot of rude behavior and a midget.

This World Premiere was to take place in an old chapel.  We had two weeks to turn it into a theater.  Not only that but they were building a revolving stage to accommodate the many changes of scene.  It’s quite difficult to turn a chapel into a theater in two weeks.  Stage, wings, auditorium, all had to be built by Cambridge amateur volunteer set builders.   The flats themselves were enormous and all had to be built of canvas on plywood frames, stretched and painted.   It was all hands on deck.   By night we Cambridge Footlights were to put on our black tie review, funny sketches and songs sung by me and played by Jim Beach (now manager of Queen) on the piano, with a full English Lord on drums.   Since our show was ready to open we were expected to give a hand in the making of this World Premiere, which involved taking small parts in the play itself, but more exhaustingly staying up all night painting scenery and generally helping to turn a House of worship into a Playhouse.

We were young, there were girls sharing this freezing walk up cold water walk up flat, the Beatles were constantly on the radio and whisky was readily available.   So somehow, with several overnighters we managed to construct the stage and the revolve and mount the huge flats, but we had had no time for even a signle a technical rehearsal.

Missen, already a master of PR, contrived a reason to delay this long anticipated world premiere of Henry Millers only play.   The Edinburgh watch committee had objected to certain dirty words and actions they proposed performing on stage,  so Missen announced that we would not go ahead with this censorship without the authors permission.  It wasn’t much but it was good enough to contrive a reasonable reason to delay a day for the Festival Press,  so that we could call Henry Miller in California and tell him his work was being censored and what did he feel about it?  This was all concocted of course.  But suddenly Miller himself was on the phone and Missen was explaining the problem and we all sat around in awe that Henry Miller was actually on the phone.   He really didn’t seem that concerned.   This amateur production of an old play was hardly a big deal for him.  OK, we said, if you really don’t mind slight cuts we will go ahead tomorrow.

The dress rehearsal was a shambles, but the Footlights Revue opened immediately afterwards and we were our usual glittering selves.  We had all the material of Cambridge Circus at our disposal, and many classic sketches and songs.  We killed.   The London critics raved.   Harold Hobson, the big wheel chair bound panjandrum from the Sunday Times said “they attract admiration as effortlessly as the sun attracts the flowers.”  The audience went nuts, we were an enormous hit.   Now for the Actors opening night premiere.

All went well with the first scene.  I was on stage with lots of others doing some comedy business up a ladder, the midget was a professional and knew her lines, the scene passed.  Then came the revolve.   It refused to budge.  No matter how hard we all pushed the stage was jammed.   Eventually after a grinding twenty minutes the second scene slowly hove into view.  The London critics crammed into the first six rows of seats waited patiently holding their pencils poised.  The second scene went rather well.  Now came the time to revolve the stage into the third scene.   Chaos.  A series of stuttering juddering moves, resulted in the huge flats beginning to topple.  They wavered, they tottered, they leaned dangerously and then slowly began to fall like a pack of cards, knocking each other over on to the front six rows of London theater critics, who picked up their pens and dashed for the rear of the hall and safety; all save one, the world famous critic Harold Hobson, who was stuck in his wheel chair as the set collapsed into the seats all around him.  Mercifully he survived.   The play didn’t.   I think we did a token read of the second Act but it was dead.  Off.  Never heard of again.   Jonathan Lynn and John Shrapnel went on in Waiting For Godot the next night.

The Footlights continued to stun.   But I’m Just Wild ABOUT Harry was gone.  And the director of this debacle, one Stephen Frears, who would go on to better and more successful things….




Around The Town in Eighty Days.

By , August 6, 2013 11:58 pm

Chapter One:   The Reform Club.

I had been living in London in agreeable circumstances for some years and was beginning to tire of the sedentary life.  I was becoming listless, moody, what one might call “middle aged.” One night over dinner (a veal cutlet with just a hint of mint) a casual friend observed that with the state of London traffic nowadays you would be lucky to even get around the town in 80 days. This was just the challenge I needed.

Two days later I kissed my wife goodbye and set out on the first stage of my journey: to find the Reform Club.  I knew from extensive research, that all such journeys began with a wager at the Reform club, and a man in the pub bet me I couldn’t even find it.   This, again, was just the challenge I needed.  How difficult could it be?   To simplify matters I took a taxi.

There is no better way to go broke than riding around in a London taxi with a cheerful cabbie giving you the benefit of his prejudices.  I stepped into that cab with as much confidence as Jules Verne himself must have felt stepping into a hansom to take his manuscript to the publishers.   The Cabbie did not let me down.  He was an amusing fellow with lots of cheerful opinions about hanging anybody who disagreed with him, and I soon shut his window and settled down to sleep.   I realised that on this gruelling journey I should need plenty of rest, and that if I was to pass through such places as South London, I would require all the mental and physical strength I could muster.

My wife had confused me by yelling Passport, through the window as I left, but as I mused on her strange lack of knowledge of South London (a passport is not required in this country until I believe you get to Yorkshire) I became more and more convinced that she was referring to Passepartout, the resourceful French servant of the indefatigable Phineas Fogg.

Now it is not such an easy thing to pick up French servants in London.   The French do not take easily to servitude, and on the whole are rude and unhelpful, with the exception of the odd waiter, and the more I thought about it the less I wished to be accompanied on my journey by an odd waiter.   The thought occurred to me that some sultry French poule from a maison de luxe would be an agreeable companion on a long trip, perhaps in a nice starched maids costume, or tight fitting waspie, and so I wasted some time in Soho attempting to find such a person to fit the bill.   In the end it was the bill that squashed the idea.  Most of the young ladies I approached wanted thirty quid an hour.  At their current rate for eighty days that would cost me fifty seven and a half thousand pounds.    No French serving girl could be worth that much.   Let alone girls called Doris and Tracey.  My slender budget would never run to it, and my wife would kill me.   So I reluctantly abandoned the idea of the French maid and continued my quest to find the Reform Club alone.

London is an agreeable place in the Spring, providing you carry an umbrella, and as I strolled through St. James’ Park admiring the guardsmen I realised just how much was going on all around me in this throbbing city. I knew that the Reform Club could not be far away and as I approached one or two civil servants who seemed to be playing in the bushes, to ask directions I soon discovered that servants they might well be but civil never.

When did the Englishman change from the polite gentleman of fiction into the resentful and envious burk of today?  One expects a certain yobbish element in North London at the weekends, but this was a Royal park in broad daylight. My polite enquiries were met by cynically raised eyebrows, two plain “Fuck offs” and a request to furl my umbrella where hitherto only family doctors wearing gloves had feared to tread.

I must confess to being somewhat shaken by this first experience with the natives, and resolved to avoid the bowler hat brigade in future.  What is it about this ridiculous headgear that confers on them the right to hurl abuse at strangers who are not similarly attired in the hat department?  Perhaps it constricts the flow of blood to the brain.

I was musing on this thorny problem when I was struck by a Japanese tourist.  Picking myself up I began to apologise as one does when one is knocked over by a stranger out of the blue.

“No poblem.  Don’t aporogise. No harm done” said the smiling Oriental, taking my picture.

“Where is Abbey Load?


“Abbey Load clossing, home of Beatles”.

My heart skipped a beat.  Abbey Road.  That was very close to my own beautiful home.   Every day it pulsated with Japanese tourists who had come twelve thousand miles so they could photograph each other just like on the Beatles album cover.  Should I give in to my impulses now I was so close to my goal?   The thought of my wife and my own comfy chair was too much to resist.   Tomorrow I could find the Reform Club.   I hailed a cab, and pausing only to shove Mr Yakitori through the door, was soon back amongst the familiar purlieus of St. Johns Wood.