Did Graham Chapman win? In one of the gazillion documentaries about Monty Python, Eric Idle (I believe) talks about the ever-shifting hierarchy within the beloved comedy team. Who is currently top of the heap, who is languishing in the doldrums? Who wants to get the boys back together for one last (money-spinning) hurrah and who grumpily resists because they’re currently doing very well, thank you very much. They’ve all taken turns at the top and the bottom.
Graham Chapman – in life – never seemed to hold onto the position of King Python. He had a shot, ironically, when he played Arthur, King of the Britons and subsequently Brian and the Pythons realised they had an assured leading man for their movies. But even then, he mainly had all the straight lines and, though he was the main face in two of the most successful comedies of all time, it was regarded (quite rightly) as very much a team effort. I’ve always found it odd that Hollywood didn’t start hurling roles at him after playing the lead in two stonking worldwide hits. Or perhaps they did and GC was too desiccated to deal with it. Away from the group, his life was a well-chronicled shambles.
Python wouldn’t have been Python without him, His handbrake turn interjections (alongside Terry Gilliam’s cartoons) provided the show’s unnerving edge.
The complete confusion that accompanied being Graham Chapman has been recreated in the remarkable adaptation of his book ‘A Liar’s Autobiography’. Using 17 different animation techniques from 14 different animation studios (and in 3D!) all of his foibles are quite lovingly rendered. The boozing, the sex and the many, many lies. I can’t think of a film like it. Not quite a documentary, certainly not a BBC Four style Biopic. Narrated by the man himself (for an audio version of his book recorded just before his death) it features all the Pythons (except Idle. Is he the current grumpy/rich Python?) It presents the version of his life that Chapman would have wanted to be released. Not necessarily the truth, but an entertaining take on the truth. Lashings of bad taste emerging from practically every orifice.
I can remember reading ‘A Liar’s Autobiography’ as a young man and it had quite an effect on me. I was a Monty Python obsessive (still am) and had engulfed Roger Wilmut’s ‘From Fringe to Flying Circus’ and was ready for more. I think my local library had filed Chapman’s book in some really odd section. Possibly Fiction, possibly Gay Interest. When I eventually found it, I could not believe how filthy it was. Dangerously filthy. Can’t really leave it lying around at home, filthy. The film reflects this filthiness. There’s quite a lot of cartoon sperm and general naughtiness. I’m sure the great man would have giddily approved.
Chapman loved fun and hated anything that stood in the way of fun – work, sobriety, conventional societal norms – anything. It was this desire to experience and enjoy everything possible that turned him into a radical. He was out and proud and appearing on television (often pissed) to blithely discuss it. On a particularly drunken appearance of George Melly’s chat show in 1972, he seems genuinely perplexed that anyone should care in the slightest that he was gay. Incredibly brave for the time. But he was a complete contradiction too. As one of the film’s director’s pointed out as a recent screening, he was out of the closet, but a secret alcoholic. Most famous figures in the 1970’s would probably have done that the other way around.
Chapman was a true original and, on occasion it appears, a true pain in the arse. It feels as if two-thirds of Michael Palin’s diary entries involve him grumpily driving up Highgate Hill and waiting outside Chapman’s flat as he eventually arrives, incredibly late, and with a mysterious Argentine gentleman waving from the window. He sounds infuriating to work with. Vague, pissed, unpunctual and uninterested in conventional structure, his skill was to provide wild left turns in sketches and scripts. The reason a Viking suddenly pops up in a Python sketch and says ‘lemon curry?’ is down to Graham Chapman’s wicked mind.
But Python wouldn’t have been Python without him, His handbrake turn interjections (alongside Terry Gilliam’s cartoons) provided the show’s unnerving edge. No one could screech the word ‘Burma!’ like him. Although he was the one on-screen battling against the forces of silliness, it was Chapman who brought the silly. His post Python career was a lot of false starts and outright disasters. His wiped, then recently discovered, sketch show with Douglas Adams (Out of the Trees), a similar dead-end project with Ringo Starr and Yellowbeard, which John Cleese considers one of the worst films ever made. All came and went without notice as the Wandas and Brazils took the world by storm. He gave up the booze, moved to Hollywood, befriended Keith Moon, moved back and popped up occasionally. And despite the slapdash style of his existence, he was obviously incredibly loved by those around him.
Chapman loved fun and hated anything that stood in the way of fun – work, sobriety, conventional societal norms – anything.
And then he had the particularly good taste to die. Bad for all of us of course, but remarkably healthy for his legacy. As the film exhibits, despite his many misfires (an accusation that can be levelled by all the Pythons) his reputation has been steadily on the rise. He’s evolved from being merely ‘the dead one’ to ‘not the one whose career now consists of turning up for Python tribute events’. So I ask again: did Graham Chapman win? By default? While Chapman never had a blockbuster hit away from the group, he hasn’t tarnished his own history either. It says something that the eulogy at Chapman’s funeral was one of the best things Cleese has done in recent years. As the film about him shows, though he spent his life engaged in various forms of bad behaviour, he’s the Python who can now do no wrong.
A Liar's Autobiography will be released in the UK by Trinity early 2013.
Click here for more Music stories.
Click here to follow Sabotage Times on Twitter
Click here to follow Sabotage Times on Facebook