Last month I was in Mexico City to celebrate what the Producer accidentally called “the one hundred thousandth performance of Spamalot, er sorry the one hundredth performance.” I was there to attend a gala performance to unveil a plaque celebrating this not quite so momentous achievement and to expose myself to the Mexican media where, I was assured, I was a bigger draw than Andrew Lloyd Webber.
The Producers met me in style, in a huge Cadillac SUV, with cream leather reclining massage seats, with a driver, a bodyguard and a translator, and as we drove into town I felt like the Kardashians. Fortunately they were nowhere to be seen.
They checked me into the Hotel Camino Real, a magenta colored hotel, with long wide corridors, virtually identical to the one we stayed in in Ixtapa while filming Yellowbeard in October 1982, almost thirty years ago. I was immediately filled with memories of that extraordinarily talented comedy cast, so many of whom have passed away since then: Graham Chapman, Spike Milligan, Kenneth Mars, Peter Bull, Susannah York, Harry Nilsson, the mighty Peter Cook, the hilarious Peter Boyle, the very funny Madeleine Kahn, Sir Michael Hordern, dubbed by Cook Hordern Monster for his superb display of shouting at the Front Desk, a performance, Peter said, that was even better than his Lear. Then there was the fabulous actor James Mason, and of course the much lamented Marty Feldman who died right here in Mexico City from a heart attack, which became fatal only because it was rush hour and the ambulance could not reach him in time. The traffic was crazy then, and now, thirty years later, it is totally insane. I am offered various estimates on how long it will take to get to the theater tonight, from twenty minutes to two hours, depending on the traffic. The Mexicans themselves use this as the perfect excuse to be late. Indeed the curtain is delayed twenty minutes as only half the audience have taken their seats. People are still walking in five minutes before the Intermission. Now that’s late on an Elizabeth Taylor level.
I’ve always found bad films more fun to be on than good films and god knows Yellowbeard is not something you should try watching by yourself, but The Making of Yellowbeard documentary is rather interesting, as the movie looks like it is going to be very funny.
“Everyone is laughing a lot,” says one of the writers on camera.
“That’s the kiss of death” says Spike Milligan presciently.
And indeed it did die a swift death, but it is worth watching the backstage stuff if only for the great Cook, who was on superb form until he finally succumbed to the Camino Royal mini bar and returned to his first love, alcohol.
Graham, however, was strong and fit and in full alcohol recovery mode, and he remained on splendid form, except for one mad night at a party when he crazily tried to leap in to the back of an open vehicle which David Bowie was driving away at great speed, injuring his leg quite badly, and almost shutting down production. Not a good move on your own movie. Fortunately he was a Doctor. David, who had had a few, showed up next day totally mortified.
Peter, though, was on superb form, bobbing up and down in the hotel pool asking strangely pertinent philosophical cosmic questions :
“We all know the speed of light, but what is the speed of darkness? “
“We know where the light comes from but where does the darkness come from?”
Questions we are still struggling with today.
At this point in his life he had given up drinking and one evening he suggested we needed to find some grass. I agreed to accompany him on this expedition, but where to begin?
“We shall find the nearest bordello” said Peter.
My wife gave me an old fashioned look, but, with his incredible charm, Peter reassured her I should come to no harm. Somewhat skeptically Tania agreed, so off we drove to the local whorehouse. It wasn’t far. A small door in a white-walled street led into a cantina, a square open to the sky with a band and a bar and lovely girls who were happy to dance, or there was a low cabana with discreet rooms if you wished to dance horizontally. There were tables for drinking and strings of coloured lights and when we entered it had the air of a private party where the guests had yet to arrive.
Peter was an instant hit. He ran in shouting loudly in cod Spanish, shook the hand of the barman, seized a beautiful tall girl wearing only a bright red bathing suit and began the most unimaginable shaking jitterbug boogie. The girls went nuts. They danced around him and he boogied with them all, flinging his arms around, his hair wild, occasionally sinking to his knees or exaggeratedly twisting low. One minute it was a slow night in a naughty night club and the next it was a one-man fiesta.
The whole place loved Peter: the band became animated, the barman smilingly shook his cocktails, people flocked in to watch, and every girl in the place was mad to dance with this crazy Englishman, who beamed goodwill and, yes dammit, innocence. It went on for hours with the band going nuts and the girls lining up to fandango with this wild spirit, but we were filming next day and as midnight approached I made my excuses and left. My beautiful young wife was waiting for me at the hotel, hard enough to persuade her we only went to score some grass without staying all night. My last sight was Peter leading a line of ecstatic ladies in a conga line. He waved cheerily, tapped his nose and yelled “No problem, Eric, we’re in…”
In the morning we learned what had happened. Peter had taken the tall girl in the bright red bathing suit back to her room. Once inside Peter asked casually if she had any grass.
“Of course” she said, and reached under the bed and brought out a huge load wrapped in newspaper. Peter asked her how much for it. She cited a derisory amount and the deal was made.
“I have to go now” said Peter.
She broke in to floods of tears. How could he possibly leave? Didn’t he think she was beautiful?
“I only wanted some grass” Peter explained as gently as he could, but she was inconsolable. It wasn’t a matter of money. It was honour. It was Mexico. It was her reputation. Poor Peter tried hard to convince her that honestly she really was beautiful, and normally he would have been torn up with desire for her but actually he had only come for a dance and some grass. He had, he said, to spend a long time reassuring her.
“Been easier to shag her” said Marty, getting to the nub.
Some thirteen years earlier the irrepressible Marty Feldman was on my honeymoon. I know that sounds weird but he and my then wife Lynn and his wife Lauretta were great friends and insisted we fly to Antibes, to lie on matelas (which I thought were French sailors) and order citron pressés (which I thought were French cars.) It was my first visit to the South of France, and incidentally the first week of Python filming, which I was permitted to miss. First things first.
Marty was always very supportive of Monty Python. And an hilarious chap. I once found him and Cleese in a street laughing their heads off. They had found two very attractive young ladies on their knees bent over searching the pavement.
“What are you doing?” they asked.
“We’re looking for a screw” said the lady.
Collapse of hysterical comedians.
So there are many ghosts with me on stage that night, as I unveil a plaque celebrating “one hundred performances” of Monty Python’s Spamalot. And let’s hope I’ll be back after another ninety-nine thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine…