Eric Idle OnlineMy Life

Unfinished Business

By , March 15, 2013 11:02 am

Chapter One:  Memoirs of a Fax Hunting Man

What do the following have in common?

The Unforgettable Syd Gottleib. 

A film producer so hated there was advance booking for his funeral.

The Writer’s Cut.

The first novel ever written in colour.

A Victorian Musical.

The First Film Ever Made, a feature film shot in Victorian times, recently discovered behind a wall in an old vault in the basement of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

They are all projects I wrote which never saw the light of day.

Like all writers I have trunks full of things which never were.  Some for good reasons.   Some for bad.  I have learned a lot over the years. I have been lied to, stolen from, cheated, misled, robbed, screwed and betrayed, but this is not a tale of revenge, for I have also received some of the greatest support from some of the finest creative people on the planet.  This is a story of self-exploration not recrimination.

I’m interested in the art of art.

How do some things become wildly popular and others sink into the sand never to be seen?

Two tips:

1: Work Harder.

2: There is no such thing as bad work, only unfinished work.

I’m not a very good writer but I’m not a bad re-writer.   This is a most valuable skill and something I learned in my years as a Hollywood screenwriter, where I was paid a fortune to re-write films that were never made.

Another tip:  Persistence pays.

I discovered early, from the Monty Python film writing experience,  that if you put scripts away and then come back to them a few months later it is much easier to see what is wrong, what is not working, what needs cutting, what needs extending and what might be done to improve them.

For instance, the Monty Python film The Holy Grail in its original draft had only a few medieval scenes with King Arthur, but three or four months later it was obvious that this was what the entire film should be, and we dumped about two thirds of the first draft to create the second.

I always adopt this practice in writing.  Even this simple opening chapter has gone through many drafts and revisions.  Ars Est Celare Artem.   The art is in concealing the artistry.  That’s the motto of The Footlights, a Cambridge University comedy club founded in 1883, where I and many others first learned our trade.

Writing and doing.  It’s still what I love to do.  To go to your chair first thing in the morning with a blank piece of paper and a pencil and find what is lurking in the depths of your unconscious.  It’s fascinating.  I always compare it to fishing.   You never know what you’re going to catch but you must go regularly to the river bank and wait.

Once you’ve caught something there’s a secondary skill set in deciding what exactly it should be.  I have discovered that projects frequently morph into something else.  For instance:

The Road to Mars began life as an original screenplay in 1982, for Robin Williams, Dan Aykroyd and David Bowie, about two comedians on the road in the future and their adventures with a robot dresser (a 4.5 Bowie).   Science Friction I called it, and many years later (1999) it ended up as a novel about a robot, Carlton, trying to understand the nature of comedy, and write a thesis about it.  He discovers the great parallel force to Gravity is…..Levity.

The Rutland Isles started out as a mocumentary about a group of islands that didn’t exist: Revoluçion, Poluçion, Contracepçion, Paranoia, and the British West Rutland Isles: Flagg, Scab, Muck, and Dull.  A series parodying TV travel documentaries and documentarians with their breathy voices:


Coconut palms, white sand beaches, gentle roll of the surf, tropical breezes gently lift the fronds.


He is a very silly man with glasses and unruly hair.


Ever wonder where comedy came from?   Where rock and roll began or who invented the French?   The answer is right here….

He points to a bit of sand.

….in the legendary Rutland Isles.  In the next hour we shall show you the cradle of shopping, the birthplace of dental hygiene, and the home of the multiple orgasm.  We shall take you to a magic land where barter is still a way of life….


A tradesman with a stall has a large female customer.  She is holding a camel.


Norm you got change for a camel?


How much does she owe you?


About half a dog.


I can give you two parakeets and a frog.   Or can you break a goat?


Several man are preening, some women are “shopping.”


…a faraway place where women come to buy husbands, and where the men are down by the sea fishing for compliments…..


Hello do you like my ass?


My legs are nice aren’t they?


How much for the pair of them?


Two donkeys and a rottweiler.



…and we shall show you the cradle of comedy…

A cradle. Parents watch admiringly. A tiny hand comes out of the cradle and gives them the finger.

And so on.

The Rutland Isles began as a TV series before unexpectedly becoming a Hollywood movie,  And Now This,  about a TV News Crew lost and adrift in a mysterious world.  Several drafts and many years later it ended up in 2003 as a CD of songs from the Rutland islands, which sold nearly twelve copies.

The Owl and the Pussycat  was an attempt by me and John Du Prez to write an animated musical for kids, based on the drawings and poems of Edward Lear.  We even got to pitch it to the legendary Stephen Spielberg though he kept going on about Barbara Streisand.  It finally ended up as an Audio Book for Dove, with about ten songs by me and John.  (Still available.)

Shopping we’re always happy when we’re shopping!

We’re always happy when we shop until we drop

In search of bargains we will never stop,!

When God created the Universe

He pulled out all the stops

First He created all mankind

And then She created shops.

The Life of Brian was of course a Monty Python movie, but then in 2005, for five drafts and nine months, it became a Broadway musical, before an unexpected and unanticipated Python veto brought it to a halt.  It ended up as an Oratorio: Not The Messiah (He’s a Very Naughty Boy) that opened in Toronto in 2006 and after many performances including the Sydney Opera House and the Hollywood Bowl, was finally filmed at The Royal Albert Hall in 2009. (On DVD.)

The Remains of the Piano was first a film in the mid-eighties, a Merchant Ivory parody, and then finally became a live Radio Musical play from the Forties called What About Dick? which we filmed last year (2012).

I told you I was persistent.

And persistence pays off.

But not always.  For instance:

The Pirates of Penzance  was a Victorian musical movie, which I began writing in 1978 on a beach in Tunisia.   The original screenplay was printed in Victorian copperplate hand writing with full colour Pre-Raphaelite paintings and Victorian photographs.  It purported to be the first film ever made, only recently discovered in a vault at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.  I not only did location scouts to Penzance and St. Michael’s Mount, and found my Pirate ship, I also shot footage of the British Army in their red coats and busbys marching down the Mall, and The Queen’s troop in Victorian hussars uniform firing off field guns in Hyde Park.

The Meaning of Life was first a Monty Python movie, then eight drafts and many lovely songs for a proposed Broadway musical called Spamma Mia!” and then nothing.

Death The Musical began life as Monty’s Requiem, a Requiem Mass for the soul of Monty Python (deceased), then Monty’s Vespers, a sung version of many of the most famous Python sketches turned into lyrics:

Is your wife a goer?

Know what I mean?

Know what I mean?

Know what I mean?

Your wife does she go eh?

Know what I mean?

Nudge nudge wink wink

Say no more.

It then lost the Python element and became In Memoriam, Albert’s Memorial, Closure (Five drafts)  Sadly Missed, Freddie’s Funeral, Just Passing Thru, Say No More! and finally Death and Shakespeare,  which contained a Shakespearian play in Shakespearian verse about the death of Shakespeare.

And now it’s still nothing….

All these musicals had some wonderful songs by John Du Prez and me, all fully demoed, before ending up orphaned in the graveyard of dead songs.  Some of them are really quite good.  But still they languish like lost maidens in a pond.

So persistence helps but a bad idea is still a bad idea.

The difficulty is you can’t always tell whether the idea itself stinks, whether it’s in the right form, or whether it simply hasn’t been done properly.

A writer’s lot is not a happy one.

So this is the story of orphans, a brief history of uncompleted projects, things that were never made, children who refused to grow up and leave the nest.

It’s been bitter sweet.  But that’s another chapter.

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