There’s been a lot of silly talk about Python re-unions, and whether a few Pythons doing a few Voice Overs constitute a genuine Monty Python film (duh, of course not) so I thought I’d share what happened the last time there was a real attempt to make a Python Movie. It was in 1997 and I had come up with an idea called The Final Crusade. I liked the idea of a film about a group of grumpy old men being pressured to get back together again for a last quest, as it would allow us to mock ourselves. So I sent them all a draft outline of what such a thing might look like. (See Previous Blog.) Surprisingly there was a very positive response, even from John, so I went down to visit him in Santa Barbara and we had a splendid lunch and then a walk on the beach, and he expressed genuine interest in the idea, enough to encourage everyone to meet up in England. Unfortunately by the time we all got together at a hotel in Buckinghamshire he had changed his mind.
When I got back I wrote about it for PythOnline, and here is what I published then.
Fear and Loathing in Buckinghamshire
What a delight it all was, a twenty-four hour Python re-union at Cliveden, a spectacular Mansion rising above the River Thames in Buckinghamshire, built by George Villiers in the reign of Charles the Second. I don’t think I have laughed so much since… well since the last time Python met, and no one can quite remember when that was, seven, ten years ago?
I hurried in from London by cab. Gilliam was already there having flown overnight from LA where he begins shooting Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas with Johnny Depp in less than seven weeks. Mike arrives by Mercedes, Terry Jones in some kind of battered Audi, and finally John arrives in his Bentley. Everyone hugs and handshakes as they come in. John ignores us and goes off to his room. Ah, the same effusive Python as ever. We all have splendid staterooms. Mine was the former billiard room and is called the Mountbatten Room, named I assume after the legendary “Leggy” Mountbatten, which is highly appropriate as I am still limping following an operation in March. You can just about see the oak-paneled walls from the bed. The ceiling is like a Renaissance palace.
About a mile away, along long and windy corridors hung with portraits of the Astors, we have a Business Conference Room booked for twenty four hours, which comes complete with a black-tied, morning-coated gentleman, who rapidly fills our orders for cappucini and snacks. Gilliam fiddles with the high tech controls and makes the curtains open and close several times, plunging the room into darkness. He then discovers the projecting sketch pad and proceeds to doodle, throwing great outlines on a screen which fills one side of the room. Is there any other major film director so endearingly silly?
The first two hours seem exactly like old times, as Graham is still absent.
“He’s off writing a series for Ronnie Corbett” someone quips.
His lateness was legendary. In fact it seems altogether appropriate that he now really is the late Graham Chapman.
The meeting opens with a shock: John announces that he does not want to do a film. Gilliam, who has flown overnight all the way from LA, raises a weary eyebrow. “Don’t you think you might have mentioned this sooner?”
Cleese remains unflappable. “I’ve only just realized” he says. “I simply hate filming. I am going to retire to a beach and read books.”
Gilliam giggles. The line does seem very familiar from old Python meetings. Later when John informs us he can’t meet in the spring as he will be “filming in New York” several heads snap up. Filming? Aha, so it’s just filming with us he doesn’t want to do. By then though we had wrested several concessions out of him. At Mike’s gentle prodding he conceded that he would be prepared to do three weeks filming. Terry J. thought that might be sufficient. We decided to discuss the idea anyway since two of us had flown across the Atlantic for this meeting. Besides, a simple creative discussion would legitimize this whole thing as a tax write-off.
Ideas began to flow just like the old days. After a short while John began to nod off. His eyes closed. His attitude was clear, this was a day off, nothing was going to come between him and relaxation. We continued to throw ideas around. John slept on regardless. After a short nap he suddenly woke up and looked around bleary eyed.
“The thing is I’m very tired” he said.
We encouraged him to go off and lie down. He accepted the offer gratefully and went to his room. Now the ideas began to flow quite fast.
“We should just make the Do Not Adjust Your Set film” said Jonesy.
It was true, the four of us had been in rooms writing together since the mid-Sixties. It felt comfortable and familiar.
“Let’s get it down” I suggested, grabbing a marker and writing Act One on the fresh paper on the Executive Board. I outlined the first beat in a different color. Now it really was tax deductible. Of course this being Python the first idea immediately went off in the wrong direction and I was forced to start writing before Act One.
“Typical Python” I said.
“That’s right” said Michael “start at the beginning and work backwards!”
All concerns that we might no longer be funny fell away as we carved and chalked and marked and a rough shape grew on the Executive Board. In fact only the return of John from his nap stopped the flow and by then we were well into Act Two. John seemed rather dazed and suddenly wanted to discuss Las Vegas, and so we abandoned the creative and turned to the planning stage again. John was proposing that we spend a month together “leisurely writing some new material for a new show.” Several of us pointed out the unlikelihood of this ever happening, and indeed the simple fact that an audience needs to see familiar Python material. Everyone hates that moment in a concert when the old British group say “and now here’s some new stuff from our latest album…”
“The very point of concerts,” I argue “is their predictability. It’s like Church, it’s important the audience know what is going on. It’s a ritual. They don’t want new material.”
It’s agreed that Jonesy will draw up a list of new old material for consideration. Someone suggests we do the Hollywood Bowl again. Someone else suggests we play a tiny venue like Littlehampton. Gilliam is keen on planning elaborate Vegas type effects. John suggests we come on in wheelchairs with a coffin. Everyone agrees there should be showgirls. It’s getting late by now and John proposes a walk. We’ll meet up later for cocktails and dinner. We haven’t done badly. In four hours we have outlined a movie and proposed a way of going forward towards a Vegas Re-Union Concert. Of course no one is exactly committed to anything at all, but still, it is now genuinely tax deductible, and the laughs have been great.
Dinner is even more hilarious. Fortified by some Crystal Louis Roederer (’89) a tax-deductible gift from our Management Company, a white Macon enjoyed by Jonesy, (itself the recipient of much caustic abuse from John) we leave the Blue Gainsborough Withdrawing room and withdraw into the large ornate gilded Dining Room. John calmly orders two bottles of red, the more expensive of which is roundly condemned by Jonesy, and which indeed is rather uninteresting at over a hundred quid the bottle. The second is a much more spectacular Chateau Eric Cantona, at least I think that’s what it was, several bottles came and went, though I clung gamely to the champagne. (I am a champagne teetotaler I discover.) After much laughter, very tolerable risottos, oysters, salmon, Chateaubriand (Chateau Brian?) and some fine cheeses, John announces he is ready for bed. I think he quite enjoyed himself.
It’s still early once John retires so we decide to have one more bottle of Chateau Cantona in the Snooker room.
“Terry’s v. the rest” yells Michael, and so on Lady Astor’s table where Christine Keeler had once lain naked and brought down a Conservative government we banged our little red balls around.
It soon became evident that while we were all fairly hopeless at snooker, the two Terrys were more hopeless than anyone. Balls shot off the table, leaped spectacularly over other balls, banged into the balks accompanied by shouts and curses, anywhere and everywhere except in the holes provided. After an hour or so things began to sink for me and Mike and I sailed into an unassailable lead of 40 – 3.
“Right” said Jonesy in a masterly Zen way “time to stop thinking” and he instantly slammed in a red. Within a few minutes, and aided by a generous helping of foul shots from me, he rolled up the blue, pink and black in consecutive shots and the Terry’s had won! Unbelievable. Never trust film directors. Mike and I as befits our lowly status as mere actors, were nauseatingly decent about it. This contrasted starkly with the two Terrys’ habit of jumping up and down and screaming abuse at Michael as he attempted to pot. I expect that’s allowed in the rules though. I’m sure the Duke of Buckingham behaved that way, and God knows the lucky fellows who ploughed the lovely Christine Keeler on that table must have made quite a noise…
So to the very big question: will we or won’t we? To be honest I haven’t a fucking clue. I think Mike, Terry J. and I agreed to come up with a first draft screenplay by sometime next year. John proposed another re-union in mid-September when TG finishes his shoot. He is alternately happy to see us and very keen to leave, but he is very endearing in his old age. One thing for sure, we are all still happily bonkers. Lack of money has not spoiled us. Also we are all still funny. Hilarious in fact, though you may have to take my word for it. The banter was incessant, affectionate and deeply personal. It was a great re-union. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. I do hope we can all make another one.
This was published on PythOnline in 1997. Nothing came of the film. The distances were just too great and by this time we hadn’t worked together in 15 years. It certainly wasn’t John’s fault, but with the death of Graham in 1989 John had lost both a friend and a peer. Graham was in many ways the glue that bonded the older 1948 Show pair with the younger and more unruly Do Not Adjust Your Set quartet. Without Graham John had no one of his age or generation to turn to for sympathy or advice. I understand his isolation and lack of enthusiasm now. I would continue to work on PythOnline at Seventh Level where I became Producer of a CD-ROM game based on The Holy Grail which would open my eyes to the potential of adapting this Python material into other forms, a quest that ultimately led to Spamalot.
We would all have a glorious re-union at the Aspen Comedy Festival in 1998 and another very fine and funny re-union in New York in 2009. Despite newspaper reports to the contrary we all still get on very well.