Several years ago I reviewed Monty Python alumnus John Cleese’s autobiography So, Anyway (This Parrot is Definitely Not Dead). Another Python’er, Eric Idle has now come out with his version of their epic story and as a fan of their silly, British humour, I couldn’t wait to read it. Always Look On The Bright Side of Life, A Sortabiography by Eric Idle is not only the title of his autobiographical book but the final chorus written originally by Idle for their famous movie Monty Python’s Life of Brian. The song Always Look On The Bright Side of Life was sung by the group of followers who surrounded Brian as they were being crucified at the end of the movie. Interestingly, that iconic song is now the most requested song at British funerals and has given me serious thought for future consideration—which says a lot about my own sense of humour.
Eric Idle (“We couldn’t afford a second name. There was a war on.”) was born in 1943 in County Durham, east of Liverpool during the bombing and raised during the years of deprivation and austerity that followed. His father died when he was only three years old and unable to cope with raising her young son as a single mother, his mother enrolled him in a severe military boarding school/orphanage at the age of seven where he remained until he graduated at nineteen. He always remembered his grim school years as “a twelve-year prison sentence”. The only benefit from the experience was he qualified for a scholarship to Cambridge University where he met John Cleese, Michael Palin, Graham Chapman, Terry Jones and eventually Terry Gilliam. Their university drama experiments in comedy became Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
Idle’s book is a literate, fun read, beginning right on page one. Being funny requires being smart and all the Pythons were smart. John Cleese graduated in Law, Graham Chapman in Medicine and Eric Idle studied English. Based on the popularity of skits they had written and performed in local shows, the group was given an obsure time slot by BBC at the end of the day before they went off the air, just before the showing of the Queen on a horse to the accompaniment of the national anthem. With sketches like “Is your wife a goer? Nudge, Nudge.” they soon gained a loyal audience. Each member had veto rights on the material and business management issues, a practice they maintained throughout their careers as Pythons.
Chapter 8 of the book was particularly sweet. Titled “Whither Canada”, Idle describes how their international careers really took off with their tour of Canada in 1973. They had no idea they were so popular overseas until they arrived at Toronto airport to screaming fans welcoming them. A mass protest had previously been staged in front of CBC headquarters when CBC tried to cancel the show. Canadians understood and loved their kind of humour, which was not the case when they started in the United States. The Pythons were surprised by Canada’s vast size as they travelled across the country joyfully singing The Lumberjack Song dressed as Mounties at each of their stops. With their promoters generously providing alcohol and drugs, they began what Idle himself describes as his years of being an asshole, a very naughty boy. He’d left a young wife and baby behind in England and his bad behaviour ultimately resulted in divorce.
By this time, their comedy records were selling well and they gained traction in the United States despite being introduced by David Brenner sitting in for Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show with the words “I’ve never heard of these guys. People say they’re funny. Please welcome Monty Python.” The same material that had just carried them across Canada on gales of laughter was greeted with total silence south of the border. British humour (which Canadian humour very much resembles) appeals to a different mindset, based more on the clever use of words, irony and accents. American humour is more in-your-face and easily understood. Obviously, the Americans soon caught on and Monty Python’s Flying Circus quickly gained a cult following.
The group grew in popularity despite the inevitable disagreements and personality conflicts. They genuinely loved each other and their work. While they continued performing as a group, they also pursued individual projects, some of which were very successful; others not so much. With fans and friends that included rock stars, royalty, comedians and international celebrities, their trajectory continued onward and upward. Best friends grew to include George Harrison, Robin Williams, Billy Connolly and so many others mentioned in the book. George Harrison mortgaged his London home to raise the capital needed to finance The Life of Brian. Without sounding like he’s name-dropping, Eric Idle’s circle of friends includes high-profile names from the business of entertainment, in the same way we make friends with the lesser-known people in the businesses we worked in.
His moral epiphany came at age thirty-three after a night of debauchery in Barbados. “This has got to stop. You are no longer enjoying it. It’s just a desperate itch.” he told himself. That was the beginning of reform. He would no longer eat meat, temporarily abstained from sins of the flesh and curbed other bad habits. After a period of abstinence, he met his second wife Tania at the New York loft of Dan Ackroyd (another Canadian connection) and began a more controlled, saner lifestyle, but still with the humour, irreverence, and brilliance for which the Pythons are famous.
The book chronicles the conception and development of such movies as Life of Brian, The Holy Grail, The Meaning of Life and their highly successful Hollywood Bowl show. Eric Idle had married Tania and they were the parents of a daughter, Lily. Anecdotes abound including many references to parties and other events with famous people. It’s a nice slice of “how the other half lives”, which was always remarkable to him, having been raised poor and lower class in the industrial Midlands of England. His own production of the musical Spamalot is still running.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading Always Look On The Bright Side of Life. Eric Idle is intelligent, obviously extremely funny and a very good writer. He’s kind to his fellow Pythons in this memoir. His reflections on life from the perspective of a seventy-five-year-old are interesting and relevant for boomers who also lived through all the good times in the sixties, seventies and later decades. With Graham Chapman deceased before his time and Terry Jones now living with dementia, he realizes their time is running out. The Pythons have won multiple awards, the love and affection of millions of people and even had a postage stamp dedicated to them. With typical humour, he’s contemplating his demise with his last words being “Say no more . . .”. If you don’t get British humour or Monty Python in particular, you could give the book a pass, but you’d be missing out on lots of celebrity gossip as well. If you appreciate them like do, give it a go. I think you’ll enjoy it. I’d give it 8 out of 10.
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