Interview: The Pythons talk about their film tribute to Graham Chapman

From left,  Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Graham Chapman, John Cleese and Michael Palin. Picture: PA
From left, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Graham Chapman, John Cleese and Michael Palin. Picture: PA
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Reuniting most of the surviving Pythons for a film tribute to the late Graham Chapman, the last thing the directors wanted was yet another talking-heads documentary, they tell Alistair Harkness

When Monty Python star Graham Chapman died of throat cancer in 1989, aged 48, his fellow Pythons took it upon themselves to inject some silliness into his memorial service. John Cleese, riffing on the “Parrot Sketch” (which he’d co-written with Chapman), bade him a fond farewell, then promptly dismissed such sentimentality as nonsense.

A Liar's Autobiography

A Liar's Autobiography

“Good riddance to him, the freeloading bastard, I hope he fries,” he said in his eulogy, explaining – amid howls of laughter – that Chapman would never have forgiven him had he wasted such a prime opportunity to shock and offend an audience.

It’s an impulse that was certainly at the heart of much of this pipe-smoking doctor turned writer, satirist, comedian, actor and all-round bon vivant’s work. It’s also an impulse reflected in the new film A Liar’s Autobiography: The Untrue Story of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman – a fully animated adaptation of Chapman’s own similarly titled 1986 book.

Co-directed by Bill Jones (son of Python star Terry Jones), Ben Timlett and Jeff Simpson, it deploys a disparate array of animation styles (created by 14 different studios) to propel audiences on a weird, somewhat psychedelic journey full of wilful nonsense, wild flights of fancy, Freudian imagery and strange digressions into some of the darker aspects of Chapman’s life.

As such, it will likely wrong-foot those expecting another trawl through the origins of Monty Python, yet it’s very much in keeping with the unusual nature of its Chapman-penned source material, which counts Douglas Adams among its “non-existent co-authors”, and blends together fabulist reminiscences and fragments of memoir into a lively literary cocktail comprised of prose, scripted dialogue and illustrations. In short, it’s probably the only way the book could have been adapted.

“That’s what we felt,” says Timlett, sitting alongside Simpson and Jones in their central London production office.

“The book is full of Graham’s flights of fancy,” says Jones. “He’s talking about one thing and then he goes off on a tangent and starts talking about something else. That just set my imagination off – particularly the idea that you can delineate these changes by changing the style of animation. It also muddles it up and creates this anarchic feel.”

Though it’s natural to assume that Jones – his dad being who he is – might have some personal memories of Chapman to draw on, that wasn’t really the case. “He died when I was about 11 or 12 so my memories are few and hazy. My clearest childhood memory was actually of his memorial because afterwards they had a big party for the 20th anniversary of Python and it was the first time I got drunk.”

In fact, the film didn’t start with Jones at all, but with Simpson, who’d just made a BBC documentary about Monty Python contemporary Marty Feldman and wanted to make one about Chapman next. After spending 18 months tracking down thought-to-be lost audio recordings of Chapman reading his autobiography, however, he couldn’t get the BBC interested in a documentary, so took the material to Jones and Timlett.

Simpson says: “At that point I had a little taster tape of Graham with a little animation over it that I wanted to use to illustrate the narrated sections.”

“And I said, ‘Oh, I like the animation,’” says Timlett

There was also another reason for turning it into fully animated feature (as opposed to a documentary with some animation). Jones and Timlett had just made the six-part Almost The Truth series to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Consequently, they were keenly aware of two things:

“The Pythons were sick of talking in sit-down interviews…” says Timlett.

“…And we were sick of filming it,” finishes Jones.

The Eureka moment came when they realised that the two-and-a-half-hour audio recording featured Chapman performing the book, not just reading it.

Timlett says: “When we realised that, we realised we’d be able to cut in the other Pythons doing other voices.”

The film, then, features all of the Pythons bar Eric Idle – who was “too busy” – playing various characters in Chapman’s life. The biggest treat for Jones was casting his dad and Michael Palin as Chapman’s mother and father. “The reason we did that is that Dad and Mike have been best friends since college. They meet up every week and go for a drink, so you just get this sense of togetherness from them.”

Was there any trepidation about directing his dad who, lest we forget, was also the director of Life of Brian and The Holy Grail?

He ponders the question. “One time I did say, ‘Dad! Let me just have my say and you can get your take in afterwards.” He laughs. “He is my dad, so I can’t just tell him to shut the f*** up!”

Elsewhere, the film affords John Cleese the opportunity to play his and Chapman’s old That Was the Week That Was/The Frost Report cohort David Frost. Terry Gilliam, meanwhile, puts in various vocal cameos, although interestingly his distinctive Python animations are rarely referenced.

“The brief was not to ape Terry Gilliam,” explains Simpson. “We wanted this film to have its own visual identity and also showcase new animators.”

“It also emphasises it’s not a Monty Python film,” adds Timlet. “It’s an interpretation of Graham’s imaginings and his story.”

Simpson: “You’re seeing behind the scenes. Python was going on but you’re actually seeing what was going on in his private life.”

Largely that consisted of Chapman wrestling to varying degrees with his sexual identity and his alcoholism. It’s the latter that Chapman was the most secretive about and the film illustrates this by moving his vivid accounts of drying out from the beginning of the book to the second half of the film. “As it does in real life, alcoholism sneaks up on you,” reasons Simpson. “The people he was working with didn’t realise he was an alcoholic, so we wanted the film to offer the same experience.”

“We also wanted it to be a bit of a shock,” adds Jones. “The animation builds up to it and then it’s like, ‘Hang on mate, this isn’t all fun and sex.’”

Changing the structure of the book and darkening the tone of the animation as the film progresses also underscores that Chapman wasn’t tortured by his sexuality. At one point in the film, he cheerfully admits to conducting a test of his sexual preferences and discovers that the ratio of men to women that he found attractive was “something like seven to three”. That being said, he did keep people at a distance.

“He definitely comes across as someone who was struggling to find out who he was,” says Timlett. “The other Pythons say they didn’t really know him and neither did his partner, David Sherlock. In fact, David said to me that he thought [were Graham alive today] he’d be straight by now!”

“Yeah,” chuckles Jones. “David said he thought Graham would be a bit appalled at how mainstream being gay had become so he’d probably have fought against it.” You mean he’d have gone 7:3 in the other direction? Jones roars with laughter. “Yes!”

That seems as fitting an illustration of Chapman’s approach to life as anything else. As John Cleese put it so succinctly at the memorial: “Anything for him but mindless good taste.”

• Liar’s Autobiography: The Untrue Story of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman is in cinemas from 8 February.