Eric Idle lives and writes on the bright side of life

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.

Eric Idle

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.

Eric Idle

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.

To see my favourite Python sketch, FOUR YORKSHIREMEN, click on the image.
To order a copy of Eric Idle's sortabiography, ALWAYS LOOK ON THE BRIGHT SIDE OF LIFE from Amazon, click on the image.

Disclosure: If you order from this link to Amazon, you will receive Amazon’s best price and I may receive a teeny, tiny commission. Thank you.

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This parrot is definitely not dead

Cleese1John Cleese may not technically be a Baby Boomer (he was born in 1939) but his entire life’s work reflects the Baby Boomer’s credo of challenging the status quo and turning the mirror on our idiosyncrasies. I read his new autobiography, So, Anyway” with a smile on my face the whole time. Not because every line was a joke but because I understood and appreciated his evolution. The book was a joy to read and reminded me very much of David Niven’s The Moon’s a Balloon” written many years ago.

As the only child of an anxious, detached mother and a loving father, Cleese’s early years were marked by delayed maturity caused by spending most of his early life in boys’ schools with hardly any exposure to girls and women. As a result, he was awkward and misguided about how to become involved in and maintain healthy relationships with women. One particularly tender part of the book was his description of losing his virginity while touring New Zealand with a troupe of BBC performers. Unlike today where young people are blasé about their sexual experiences beginning at a shockingly young age, those of us growing up in the fifties and sixties were more circumspect about this big step. He was nearly twenty-five when he was invited by a lovely young woman to experience carnal delights for the first time. When he met the woman again in 2006, he was still awed by how special and memorable he remembered the experience more than fifty years later.

Monty Python's irreverent sketches appealed to Baby Boomers and no one does drag humour better than the Brits.
Monty Python’s irreverent sketches appealed to Baby Boomers and no one does drag humour better than the Brits.

Like many Boomers, John Cleese bumbled along in his early years with no great ambitions to become what he ultimately became, which is one of the great humour writers and performers of our time. As part of the Monty Python troupe and as an individual performer, John Cleese has created some of our most memorable points of reference for contemporary humour. I’ve always been a huge fan of British humour with its brilliant use of irony and reading this book helped explain how it was born and grew in spite of the perceived uptight attitude of British society.

Cleese's early education in boys-only schools had a profound affect on him.
Cleese’s early education in boys-only schools had a profound affect on him.

Cleese dedicates a fair amount of print space in his book to his school years including grammar school, public (high) school and university at Cambridge. These experiences would be of particular interest to teachers who read the book because he was strongly impacted by his teachers, both in terms of their effect on him and the effect the profession had on their individual personalities. He recalls a particularly beloved teacher whom he felt was very poorly served by an egotistical university professor who utterly crushed the spirit of the teacher when he was a young man. Many of his experiences were fodder for later comedy sketches.

As I read the book I found myself thinking that the career path that developed for John Cleese resembled that of most Boomers, that is, there was no grand plan. He had an aptitude for and studied maths and sciences but for various reasons was forced to switch to the study of law when he entered university. Not being particularly ambitious or talented in any obvious way, he simply followed the path of least resistance and life happened. Like so many of us Boomers, he simply wanted to graduate, get a job at a bank and get on with life. There was none of the intense aptitude testing, career counseling and specialized academic channeling typical of today’s young job seekers.

pythonAs I finished the book, I was struck by how much he did not cover and can assume perhaps there’s going to be a sequel at some time. Cleese has been married several times and mentions only his first wife, Connie Booth with whom he co-wrote and starred in Fawlty Towers. He also makes no mention of his lucrative work in the seventies producing and starring in a series of motivational business films such as Meetings, Bloody Meetings or Close the Sale. The book covers his work until the end of his Python years, then jumps ahead to their reunion show in 2014.

So, Anyway was an enjoyable read. There’s plenty of anecdotal material about such British entertainers as David Frost, Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe, Ronnie Barker, Ronnie Corbett and of course his Python co-stars. His has been a life well-lived and I’m so glad he shared it with us. And on that note, here’s one of my favourite Python sketches:


book coverFor further insights into the Boomer perspective on business, fashion, mind and body, book and movie reviews, order my book, BOOMERBROADcast. It makes a great hostess or birthday gift as well as just a fun read.

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