Read an Excerpt
HALFWAY TO HOLLYWOOD (Chapter 1)1980
As a new decade began I was enmeshed in two new projects. One was collaborating on the screenplay of a children’s fantasy dreamt up by Terry Gilliam, and the other a proper serious documentary, on railways, for the BBC. Both of these were off my normal patch, which was exciting in a way but a little less predictable than I’d have liked. The bedrock of the family was being quietly and unsensationally strengthened; Helen and I had been married nearly fourteen years. Tom was eleven and Will was nine and Rachel coming up to five. Which meant a lot more responsibilities than the same time ten years earlier. And I still had no regular job. I was an intuitively stable character living in a state of almost permanent flux. Quite a balancing act.
Keeping a diary had, after tentative beginnings in 1969 and 1970, become an ingrained habit, and a discipline too. Like the running I’d recently taken up, it was something consistent, a necessary complement to the mercurial world of work. Something to keep me grounded.
I continued to write up the diary most mornings, aware as ever how selective I had to be and how little time I ever had for honing and shaping. But I kept the story going. Just about.
Unless otherwise indicated, the entries are written in my house in Oak Village in North London.
Sunday, January 6th
With the social and gastronomic excesses of Christmas and New Year over, life this weekend has returned, after many weeks, to something approaching calm. I find I can easily cope with eight hours’ sleep a night. I find I enjoy having time to sort my books out or take the children out or sit in front of the fire. I feel my body and my mind adjusting to a new pace and a new rhythm. I’ve hardly used the car in the last week. I haven’t been into town, or shopping, or having business meetings. And I feel the benefits of this pause, this time to take stock of the present instead of endless worryings over the future or the past.
I’ve become a little self-sufficient, too. Though Gilliam is a regular visitor – like a mother hen having to keep returning to the nest to make sure the eggs are still all right – I’m responsible for the writing pace at the moment. I know that just over the horizon is the full swirl of a dozen different projects, meetings, responsibilities, considerations and demands, but for now the sea is calm.
Monday, January 7th
Denis [O’Brien] was back from the States today. According to TG he has no backers for the film [Time Bandits], but intends to go ahead and do it himself – just to ‘spite them all’. I think this leaves me feeling as uncomfortable as it does Terry. But I read him some of the opening scenes, which cheer him up.
Pat Casey1 rings to know my availability. She has a movie part which was written for Dudley Moore. He’s now charging one and a half million dollars a picture and wants to do some serious acting, so Pat is asking me if I would be interested in the part. I have to turn it down as I’m occupied this year.
Wednesday, January 9th
At Redwood [Studios] at four. Eric, moderately well laid-back, occasionally strumming guitar. Trevor Jones2 bustling. André3 looking tired, but working faithfully. Graham [Chapman], who is getting £5,000 a month from Python as co-producer of this album [Monty Python’s Contractual Obligation], sits contentedly, with John [Tomiczek] in attendance. He seems, as usual, not quite in tune with what’s going on around him. I record the Headmaster’s speech and that’s about all.
Up to the Crown at Seven Dials for a drink with Terry Gilliam and Roger Pratt.4 This is more like the real world for me. I can believe in the three of us and the place and the people around us far more than I can in what’s going on at Redwood. Clearly TG feels the same. He’s a bit confused by Denis’s attitude to his film – on the one hand he is supportive and confident in TG – the next he’s suggesting stars and names with almost frantic indiscrimination.
Thursday, January 10th
Rachel’s first day at Gospel Oak School. It’s a rather glum, hard, cold day with weather from the east. I don’t see Rachel leave as I’m at the Mornington Foot Clinic. Mr Owen natters and reminisces as he slices at my foot – removing not only the corn but valuable minutes of screenwriting!
Home by ten. Rachel seems to have taken to school without any traumas. In fact Helen seems to have been affected more by the experience.
Unplug the phone and get down to the knotty problems of making an adventure serious and funny. Jim Franklin1 rings to offer me a part in the Goodies and Pat Casey to try and induce me yet again to take a Dudley Moore cast-off.
Friday, January 11th
Up and running early this morning. The temperature is just on freezing and the grass on top of Parliament Hill is covered with frost. Feel immensely refreshed and thoroughly awoken.
Arrive at T Gilliam’s just after 10.30.
Progress is steady but not spectacular, though TG is very amused by the Robin Hood sequence.
To Denis O’B’s for a meeting at two. Denis looks weary. He was up working on ‘structures’ for TG’s film until 2.30 yesterday morning. But he seems to be as bright and tenaciously thorough about all my affairs as he ever was.
Home by six. Feel encouraged after our meeting. Denis has talked of an India project – and self-financing of it, rather like TG’s film – but basically my encouragement stems from the knowledge that with Denis we are in a different league. For the first time we are being offered the prospect of quite considerable financial rewards. Denis clearly identifies money with power – although in our case our ‘power’, in terms of reputation, was established and created without vast rewards. Now Denis wants the rewards for us and through us for himself.
At the moment he seems to have admirable goals, but I have this nagging feeling that our ‘freedom’ to do whatever we want may be threatened if Denis is able to build up this juggernaut of Python earning power and influence. A few of the most interesting projects may be rolled flat.
Monday, January 14th
To Anne’s [James] for a Python meeting with Denis. JC, fresh returned from Barbados, stands there shivering. Anne, as thoughtful as ever, has provided some lunch. Meeting is basically to discuss Denis’s two offers for the next [Monty Python] movie – from Warners and Paramount. Warners want a screenplay before going ahead, Paramount just a treatment. Denis is asking for 6.4 million dollars.
Time is of the essence, as Paramount, who are offering a better financial deal, do require the movie for summer 1981 release. This, I feel, puts pressures on the group which we would rather not have – and thankfully no-one feels any different. But JC suggests that we go along with Paramount at the moment and just see if, after the seven-week March/April writing period, we have enough to give them a treatment – ‘In which case we could all go ahead and make a lot of money very quickly.’
Though we all feel the Paramount deal for the next movie is the one to pursue, Denis is proposing to try and place Grail, now released from Cinema 5, with Warners, so they can do a Life of Brian/Holy Grail re-release in the US next summer. There is no great enthusiasm for selling the Bavaria film as a Python Olympic Special to the US networks in summer of this year. Eric reckons there will be no Olympics anyway. Certainly the Russian invasion of Afghanistan has shaken things up.
TG comes round and we talk over Denis and the movie. But I’m feeling very unsettled about my role in it at the moment. The script is clogged and I’ve lost a day’s writing today. There seems suddenly so much to do and I refuse to give up my railway project [contributing to the BBC’s Great Railway Journeys], despite reportedly ‘generous’ financial inducements from Denis to prolong my work on the TG movie.
André arrives very late, bringing a quite beautiful tape of Trevor Jones’s arrangement for ‘Decomposing Composers’. How the hell I’ll sing it, I don’t know.
Thursday, January 17th
Go with Tom and Helen to a ‘parents’ view’ at Acland Burghley Comprehensive, one of the three local schools which Tom will have to be selected for, and where he will be well ensconced by this time next year.
A modern school, presenting a forbidding aspect, cloaked as it is in heavy grey concrete. The doors and passageways give the immediate impression of a hard, unpretty, pragmatist mind at work. But the library/reading room, where about 20 of us parents assemble, is warm and bright, the shelves are well-filled. I noticed Soviet Weekly alongside The Economist.
We were shown into a biology room and given glowing prospects of the future of this school. However I couldn’t help noticing a large piece of paper on the front of a cupboard low on the ground near our feet, which bore the simple legend ‘Whoever reads this is a cunt’.
Friday, January 18th
The world seems to have started 1980 so badly that I have on occasions this past week questioned the wisdom of working myself to a standstill when all the elements for the start of another global war crowd the newspapers for headline space. Ultimatums are flying around and ultimatums, to me, are synonymous with the outbreak of World War II.
It may in a few years sound rather laughable that Jimmy Carter threatened Russia that he will pull America out of the Olympics if the Russians haven’t withdrawn their forces from Afghanistan by mid-February, but combined as this pronouncement is with the volatility of unsettled Iran and the much more threatening stances being taken up in preparation for President Tito’s imminent death in Yugoslavia, the potential flashpoints seem sure to light something.
But it all ultimately is unreal and either you panic and sell everything you’ve got to buy gold, or you just sit down and have breakfast, presuming it won’t be the last one. And of course it isn’t.
Saturday, January 19th
Denis O’B rings. His proposal for my work on the T Gilliam film is that I be made a partner, along with Terry G, in the production company, so I will be able to share with TG the depreciation on capital which will be worth £60,000 in tax advantages. Don’t ask me why, but this is clearly a generous move on the part of George [Harrison] and Denis O’B, who are the providers of the money.
And I can go ahead with the railway documentary – ‘If you really want to,’ says Denis, unhappily, knowing that there’s precious little he can do to squeeze more than £2,400 out of the BBC for what’s ostensibly 12 weeks’ work!
In the afternoon a two and a half hour visit to Haverstock School. A lived-in, scuffed and battered collection of buildings. Impressed by the straightforwardness of the teachers. Impressed by the lack of waffle about tradition, Latin and prayers and the emphasis on the future and helping all the children of whatever ability equally.
An impossible ideal, some may say, but at least these teachers are confronting the most basic problems of an educational system with great energy and cheeriness. I was encouraged.
Monday, January 21st
The world situation seems to have cooled down, though I see in my Times that Paul McCartney is still in jail in Japan after being caught at the airport with naughty substances. How silly. Eric reckons it’s a put-up job – part of John Lennon’s price, which he’s exacting from Paul for being rude to Yoko.
At five I brave the skyscraper-induced blasts of icy wind that whip round the Euston Tower and find myself in Capital Radio, being asked questions on, and reading extracts from, Decline and Fall. I find I’m never as lucid when the tape’s rolling as I am over a glass of wine at home an hour later and in the course of an hour I get tongue-tied and fail to say even what I meant to say – let alone whether that was worth saying or not. I’m in august company – Denis Norden and Melvyn Bragg are the other two pundits on this particular book. JC has already said his piece about Twelfth Night (from which Shakespeare didn’t emerge very favourably) and TJ is soon to do The Spire by William Golding.
Wednesday, January 23rd
The fine weather’s back again. Tito’s recovering and the steel strike is still faced with government intransigence. I have either pulled, twisted or bruised some muscle below and to the right of my kneecap, so I rest from running today, despite ideal, dry, cool, bright conditions out there.
Work on with TG script. The end is in sight, but is this writing to order – 6lbs assorted jokes, half a hundredweight of nutty characters and 20 yards of filler dialogue – really going to stand up? I’m encouraged when I think of the general level of movie dialogue – but this movie has to be judged by exceptional, not general level.
Write myself to a standstill by four and drive into the West End to see Apocalypse Now. Impressive – there is no other word for it – and the action sequences of the war are rivetingly watchable.
But the last half-hour – the meat, one feels, of Coppola/Milius’ message – is a huge con. The action slows, the dialogue and performance become heavy with significance, sluggish with style.
Thursday, January 24th
Stop work at one. A couple of phone calls, then drive down to Neal’s Yard for the Grand Unveiling Ceremony of the 14/15 Neal’s Yard sign [designed by Terry G]. On one side red lurid lips and teeth bear the legend ‘Neal’s Yd. Abattoir’ (to correct the present unwholesome imbalance in favour of the wholefooders who have proliferated all over the yard) and on the other side ‘The British Film Industry Ltd’.
When I arrive it is made clear to me that a few choice words will have to be spoken and yours truly is the man to speak them. So we troop down into the yard and there, on this perfect sunny day, I bewilder all those queuing for non-meat lunches at the bakery by giving a few loud, but brief words, then smashing a champagne bottle against the building. ‘God bless her and all who work in her.’ It breaks the second time.
Friday, January 25th
To Terry Gilliam’s at 10.15 for session on the film. TG likes the Ogre and the Old Ladies scene, but I think feels that the Evil Genius is too much on one level of cod hysteria. I agree, but we still have time to go over the characters again and invest them with a few more quirks.
We go to lunch at the Pizza Express and talk over the more serious problem of the ‘content’ of the script – the attitude to the characters, to Kevin’s adventures – the message which gives the depth to a superficial story of chase and adventure. Really I feel the depth is there anyway, it’s a question of how obvious to make it.
Leave for Dr Kieser’s1 surgery, where I have a cut and cover job on one of my front upper teeth – so my dental surgery is in its third decade. At one moment, as he works on the gum and bone, it begins to hurt. ‘Is that pressure or pain you’re feeling?’ asks Kieser urgently. God…how on earth do I tell?
Friday, February 1st
A rush for the tape. Began reassembling and rewriting the section from the Spider Women to the end at ten. Lunch at the desk.
TG arrives about 7.30 and I stumble to the ‘End’ by eight. He will get all this mass of stuck-up, crossed-out, type-and-longhand-jumbled sheets to Alison [Davies, at the office] this weekend. All should be returned by Sunday a.m., so I can then read through and learn the awful truth about this amazingly speedy piece of writing.
I go to bed at midnight with the satisfaction of having completed my self-set task of a TG script in the month of January. It would be marvellous if the script were of a high standard, worked and immeasurably increased the confidence of all working on the project. Or was the rush just at the expense of quality, an exercise in the lowest form of writing to a deadline?
I shall see. For now, I’m just very happy with a job (almost) done.
Saturday, February 2nd
In the afternoon the sky clouded and heavy rain set in. Took William, Rachel and the Mini down to the Natural History Museum, whilst Tom P and his friend Tom Owen went ‘tracking’ on the Heath. Rachel is doing dinosaurs at school and met one or two of her friends there. The central area was very full, but as soon as we ventured into the further recesses of the building there was plenty of space amongst endless glassily-staring models and half-dissected bodies.
Willy went off on his own to, among other things, the human biology section. He is very keen on biology, having just begun talking about it at school. To her great credit, his teacher started straight in with human reproduction, etc, rather than frogs or bees. So Willy now knows all the practical details of procreation, whereas Tom, who affects to know, still calls sexual intercourse ‘sexual interchange’.
Sunday, February 3rd
Read papers in the morning. Polls taken in January indicate that more people are expecting World War III to break out now than at any time since Korea. Probably a meaningless statistic, but it makes Python’s next film subject gruesomely relevant. Actually the sabre-rattling of the Americans over Afghanistan has died down a little, but they still frighten me more than the Russians.
Terry G brings round the script of the movie, fresh from Alison the typist, and after supper I begin to read. I finish late – it’s nearly one. My first reaction is that it’s paced wrongly – the individual scenes are in some cases too long themselves, or appear too long when placed next to another, fairly static scene. I missed being gripped by the story, too.
Lay in bed remembering points and scribbling down. Tomorrow I’ve given a day to Terry G that should be spent on railway research, so that we can talk right through the screenplay.
Monday, February 4th
Up to Terry’s. The heavens open and it pours for the rest of the day. Against this gloomy background we slog through. TG liked the script more than I did, I think, and is greatly pleased that Irene Lamb, the casting director, for whom TG has much respect, also likes what she has seen so far and feels there will be little problem in getting good actors interested.
It’s clear that there is one more day of writing needed to flesh out the end, especially the hastily-written character of the bureaucratic Supreme Being. So I’ll have to restructure the week accordingly. Everything else will have to be squeezed.
Still have no title for the TG epic other than ‘The Film That Dares Not Speak Its Name’.
Tuesday, February 5th
Talk over scripts for the new Python film with TJ. We read through and apportion who would he responsible for what.
TJ and I have a game of squash, then a pint of Brakspear’s at the Nag’s Head in Hampstead. TJ, though bemoaning the fact that he hasn’t written anything new for months, is suddenly, and healthily, I think, full of ideas and projects of his own – including the possibility of making a film of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy with Douglas Adams.
Terry goes off to meet Douglas. I drive to a rather swish and un-Pythonlike function at Les Ambassadeurs Club. We are invited here by Warner Brothers Chairman Frank Wells – the man who, TG tells me later, did more than anyone else to try and block the Life of Brian deal. He was tall, fit, with those peculiar American spectacles that make a man’s face look slightly effeminate; mid-forties, or early fifties, with a firm handshake.
Spread out in the scarlet-panelled, sumptuously-carpeted lower room at the Ambassadeurs was a host of men in grey. An impeccably-manicured host too – hardly a hair put of place on any of them. These were the agents and studio heads and accountants – the businessmen of showbiz.
A cameraman was in attendance, which always indicates that the gathering is a little more than just a thank you from Warners. I was photographed with Eric and with Frank Wells and Jarvis Astaire.1 I was pleased to see Sandy [Lieberson] and his missus, because Sandy was at least not wearing a grey suit and Birgit was one of the only women there.
Gilliam is wonderfully scruffy, I’m pleased to say.
Leave at 8.15. Avoid getting run over by the sea of chauffeur-driven Rolls Royces and Jags and Mercedes littering Hamilton Place.
Wednesday, February 6th
Work through the last few scenes of the TG film until after lunch, then drive to Denis O’B’s. Try to be absolutely clear with him that what I want for Redwood is to keep Bob1 and André. Denis worries that Bob is ‘driving a wedge’ between myself and André. Really he is accusing Bob of all the things that Bob is accusing Denis of doing. Denis will not hear a good word said for Bob – but I’ve made my decision. I’m not prepared to lose André and if Bob goes, André, goes. So Denis talks business and I talk people and that’s that.
Drive back in a rain-sodden rush-hour to Abraxas [sports club in Belsize Park gardens]. Am soundly beaten by Richard [Guedalla, my neighbour] at squash. Makes me very depressed. But recover over a bottle of champagne, which I open to mark my last day on, or delivery of, the TG film script. Read TG the new Supreme Being scenes, which he likes.
Tom arrives back from another disco. Not just ‘slow dancing’ this time, but girls sitting on boys’ laps. Reminds me of Eric’s wonderful song for the Contractual Obligation album, ‘Sit On My Face and Tell Me that you Love Me’.
Monday, February 18th
Springlike weather, with daytime temperatures around 50°F, now into its second week. I cycle up to Terry G’s in sunshine. From 9.30 till lunchtime we work through the script – still tentatively, but not very enthusiastically, called ‘The Time Bandits’. Fortunately we both agree on the major area for cuts and every little rewrite helps. TG is very unhappy about the vast amounts of money the crew are demanding – inflated by commercials. It doesn’t help the ‘British’ film industry at all.
Down to Redwood Studios, where Eric, TJ and myself record ‘Shopping Sketch’ and ‘All Things Dull and Ugly’, plus one or two other snippets for the album.
From Redwood round to Anne J’s to take in some more Python scripts from last autumn’s writing session to be typed up in preparation for Wednesday’s meeting. What is rapidly becoming apparent about Brian is that Denis’s forecast of earnings from it in 1980 was drastically over-optimistic. The £250,000 figure he mentioned in November now looks likely to be nearer £40,000.
Although the distributor’s gross in the US was over nine million dollars, over four million was spent on publicity and advertising – and this was where Warners were weakest. Their posters and their slogans were constantly changed and we never approved any of them – now they present a bill for this fiasco which is equal to the entire production budget of the film. It is a scandal, but there seems to be nothing Denis can do. They won’t even supply him with figures.
The upshot is that not only will there be not a penny profit from America from a movie which was one of the top 40 grossers of the year in the US, but the earnings will hardly cover half the production cost. So the chance of making any more money – beyond our £72,000 fee for writing and acting – depends on the rest of the world. Fortunately the UK is looking very strong, Australia is holding up well and France and Germany remain to be seen.
Wednesday, February, 20th
Python enters the 80’s! Pick up Eric on the way to JC’s. Arrive at 10.30. Everyone there and chortling over the latest and looniest batch of selected press cuttings about Brian. It’s noted that Swansea has banned the film totally. Four hundred people in Watford are petitioning because the local council have recommended the film be an ‘X’.
Coffees are poured and we settle round JC’s ex-prison table, which now seems to be Python’s favourite writing venue. Our ages are checked around the table. I’m still the youngest. No-one wants to spend time on business, we all want to write and make each other laugh, but business has to be done, so it’s decided that we will make a clean sweep of it today. So Anne stays with us and Denis is summoned at three.
The disillusion with Hollywood and all things to do with Warners and Brian lead us into thinking how nice it would be to do a small-budget film just for the fun of it – keeping our own control and making money in the way Grail, with its modest budget, did, and Brian, with its Hollywood campaign, didn’t. Denis is anxious to set up all sorts of production and syndication deals in the US, and he’s talked to CBS about two Python TV specials, for which we would be paid 700,000 dollars each.
No-one wants to do specials for the US, but there is still the German material. Suddenly it all gels. We will use the German material, plus some old sketches, plus anything we wrote in October/November and reshoot as a quick, cheap movie. The mood of the group is unanimous. Fuck Hollywood. Fuck CBS. Let’s do something we enjoy in the way we want to do it – and so economically that no-one gets their fingers burned if a Hollywood major does turn it down.
DO’B seems unable to respond at our level and talks business jargon for a while. I like Denis, and I think he likes us, but he is only in the early stages of finding out what everyone who’s ever dealt with Python has eventually found out – that there is no logic or consistency or even realism behind much of our behaviour. No patterns can be imposed on the group from outside. Or at least they can, but they never stick; they crack up and the internal resolutions of Python are the only ones that last.
From international film business to the waiting room of the Mornington Foot Clinic. Mr Owen uses a ‘coagulator’ on my corn today. I have to have injections around my little toe, which are rather painful, then a sharp, electrified needle burns up the capillaries. All this counterpointed by Mr Owen’s extraordinary views about the evils of the world and socialism in particular. I’m getting worried – I think that he is a character I’ve invented.
Monday, February 25th
Spent much of the weekend, unsuccessfully, trying to finish Smiley’s People. Also trying to find time to organise the house, spend time with the children and other worthy hopes doomed to failure!
Rachel pottered around me with her Junior Doctor’s Kit, taking my blood, giving me blood, thrusting toy thermometers in my mouth, whilst I tried, hopelessly, to assimilate the mass of opinions, facts, thoughts, figures and ramblings which make up the insidiously attractive substitute for experience that is the Sunday papers.
Collected Eric from Carlton Hill and we drove on to JC’s. A talk through material. Eric and John have searched the archives, Terry J has been away, GC doesn’t appear to have done much, but I saved my bacon by writing an extension to ‘Penis Apology’,1 which produced an outstandingly good reaction. Near hysteria. I think Python is definitely working out all the repressions of childhood – and loving it!
Lunch with the French translator of Holy Grail and Brian at the Trattoo. A wonderful-looking Frenchman with a very special face which could not belong to any other nation. White hair, eyes droopy with a sort of permanent look of apology, a long, curved nose which never goes far from his face at any point. A lovely, squashed, humorous, used feel to the face like a Gauloise butt in an ashtray.
Home by six. Have promised TG that I will read the new, shorter version of ‘Time Bandits/The Film That Dares Not Speak Its Name’, so I spend most of the evening on that. Poor Terry is being given a hard ride by the doubters and the pessimists. On reading I feel that the movie, which is, after all, an act of faith in TG, is, on balance, do-able by May. But only just!
Tuesday, February 26th
The weather has sharpened a little, but most of February has now gone, with no weather that wouldn’t have graced an average April. In short, no winter at all here. But I don’t feel any benefits. Wake up feeling like a piece of chewed rag. I have a sore throat, a mild coolness of the blood and a general enervation. There are so many loose ends to be tied up. I feel old for a few minutes.
Some work after breakfast, then round to Eric’s. That’s very cheering – mainly because all of us are happy to be together at the moment and the tapes that André’s prepared of the sketches and songs for the LP assembled by Eric, with a certain amount of gentle bullying over the last two months, are a great boost.
To lunch at a nearby French, where Eric chides Graham for not being totally opposed to nuclear power. Eric deals only in certainties. His views, like his lifestyle at any one time, are very positive.
The talk veers to desultory discussion of bizarre sexual exploits. GC caps all, as he puffs at his pipe and declares that he once had an Indian in an aeroplane. JC is quite skittish too and suggests that perhaps the Pythons should set each other a sexual task. I agree to try and seduce the Queen!
I have a brief script chat with T Gilliam (cheering him up, I hope). Then I drive both of us round to a rendezvous with J Cleese, who was given TG’s script and wants to, or ‘is prepared to’, talk to us about it. John is looking after Cynthia at the moment, on his own as far as I can tell, since Connie’s in New York for 11 days.
Cynthia answers the door. With her long blonde hair, tastefully ribboned back, and her neat school uniform she looks, at nine years old, like an Estée Lauder model. Very New York, somehow. She chats confidently and behaves quite like a young lady 10 or 15 years older than she is, but she’s humorous with it, which keeps her on this side of precociousness.
She comes out to eat with us. No room at the Japanese, so we go on to Mama San – a clean, smart, soulless Chinese in Holland Park Avenue. Cynthia won’t really let John get a word in, but after half an hour she settles to sleep beside an unoccupied table and the three of us talk about the script.
JC speaks with a slight, elder statesman of comedy air, as if he really does know how, why and when comedy will work, and we feel a little like naughty boys being told what’s good for us. But this is rather unfair to John. I think he went out of the way to try not to sound too paternal, and he did give us some sound, unselfish advice, much of which will help in the rewrites. But I couldn’t accept his final judgement – that we should postpone the movie on the basis that one day it could be a marvellous film, but if we rush it and go on the present script, it will be just a good-natured mess,
Mind you, JC had a piece of gossip that rather undermined his chances of ‘stopping’ the movie. He’d heard that Sean Connery was interested and Denis O’B has flown to California to see him!
Friday, February 29th
To Gospel Oak School to see Ron Lendon [the headmaster] about Tom’s future.
Ron’s report is glowing. Tom, it seems, is regarded very highly indeed. He is in Verbal Reasoning Group 1 – which is the comprehensive system’s acknowledgement that abilities have to be tested at some point. There is less chance of him going to William Ellis [school in Highgate Road] if he’s Group 1 – the idea is to spread them around the local schools. But Lendon, whose manner is chatty, informal, direct and quite unpatronising, feels that William Ellis is the best place for Tom. His closest friends – Lendon makes much reference to ‘peer’ groups – will be going there, he’s keen on music and Lendon admits that he thinks the academic standards are higher at William E.
An interesting sign of the times is that Tom is one of only three boys amongst 15 in his class who does not come from a broken home.
So we come out greatly heartened and I feel once again the great relief that our children – all of them – will have started out at a school as caring and sympathetic as Gospel Oak.
Work on Python material for a couple of hours, then meet TJ at the Pizza Express in Hampstead. TJ has written something which he cheerfully acknowledges as the ultimate in bad taste – it’s all about people throwing up – very childish, but rather well controlled, dare I say – it had me in as prolonged and hysterical a bout of laughter as I can remember.
Saturday, March 1st
Always feel that March is the end of the winter, but this year there has been no winter to speak of and this mild, orderly March morning is only different from much of January and February because the sun isn’t shining.
Have to go and talk over script details with TG. The advantage of living within walking distance of your collaborator. Stroll up with my script over the Heath. Up to Terry’s mighty attic. Listen to a couple of tracks of the new Elvis Costello.
The good news is that Ian Holm wants to be our Napoleon and loves the script. No further news from Denis who is, much to TG’s irritation, still star-searching in Hollywood.
Walk back at 8.15, past South End Green where Life of Brian is in ‘5th Fantastic Week’ at the Classic.
Sunday, March 2nd
A most relaxed and happy day. Sun shone – a very springlike Sunday. I cleared my desk prior to beginning the railway script.
Found lots of excuses to talk, drink coffee and generally indulge in what’s called a writer’s ‘negative capability’, but eventually was ready to start. Notes assembled, clean sheet of foolscap in the typewriter (I still use a typewriter for the serious stuff!). Then a strange tension gripped me – a tightening of the stomach, a light sweating of the palms just as if I were about to go on stage.
Do all writers, or any writers, suffer this ‘typewriter fright’, or is it just because I’m a writer/actor and I know that anything I put down now I will have to enact at some future time? Anyway, it’s a very difficult task to start the documentary. To actually set this huge and daunting mass of facts and accumulated knowledge in motion.
Monday, March 3rd
Woken by bright sunshine. Rachel unhappy about school. I take her. She tries to be very brave, but bolts back towards the house when we get to the end of Oak Village, and I have to carry her most of the rest of the way. When we arrive at the school, her class are already sitting quietly, waiting for the register.
On the way back up Oak Village, an old lady leans out of her window. She looks distraught. Her gas supply has failed, and she’s had no tea or heating. She’s asked the gas people to come round, but she’s concerned that they’re not here. This all takes my mind off Rachel’s predicament as I go home, phone up the gas, and Helen goes round to see her and make her tea and fill her hot water bottle.
Set to writing Python stuff. Rachel arrives back from school, a lot happier than when she went, but she did cry – ‘Only one big tear,’ she told me.
Tuesday, March 4th
Another sparkling day. Clear blue skies and a brisk chill giving an edge of freshness to the air. Write more Python material – it’s flowing easily and I’m enjoying the chance to write some fairly direct satirical stuff again. Jury vetting was on the list today. And the courts generally.
From two until half past three, TJ and I read. TJ has a good idea for the RAF Pipe-Smokers – extending into wives. I’ve written huge amounts, as usual, but this time it seems to stand up – and almost nil failure rate over the last two days, which is encouraging. See what the others think on Thursday.
TG has been hearing from Denis O’B in Los Angeles.
Denis, who had sent me a telegram saying the script was ‘sensational’, is voicing doubts over the quality of writing – especially in the ‘Napoleon’ and ‘Robin Hood’ scenes. He even suggested to TG that they could ‘get some writers in’. He still hurls out casting suggestions which bear all the hallmarks of a man more desperate about a bank loan than about anything to do with quality of script or trust of the writers – Burt Reynolds for the Evil Genius, Art Carney for the Ogre. All the qualities these actors have are blinded for me by Denis’s heavy-handed Hollywood approach. It’s killing T Gilliam and may kill the film.
I go to bed trying to put it all out of my mind. But a nagging corner can’t be forgotten – I did write the script in a month. Denis is right – it could be better. Am I just now beginning to get some inklings that I really made a wrong decision to get involved in this project at all? Wrong not because I couldn’t do it, but because I couldn’t do my best.
I know I’m funnier writing unrestricted Python material. I know I could contribute more as a writer if it had been a ‘Ripping Yarn’ sort of story. But it wasn’t. Will it ever be what everyone wants it to be? Or just a jumble of different ideas and preconceptions? Is it comedy or adventure? Why should it have to be either?
Because that’s how Hollywood wants it to be, and Denis wants Hollywood.
Wednesday, March 5th
No brooding today. Up at eight. Buy The Times and read of Mugabe’s victory in Rhodesia. The Brits have been patting themselves on the back for organising such an orderly election – in best British fashion – so they can hardly grumble at a Marxist getting 62% of the vote. It seems one of the most hopeful transitions from white to black power. But it’s taken a guerrilla war to make the point and that must give great heart to guerrilla movements in other countries.
Thursday, March 6th
Rain, most of the day. To Eric’s for a Python read-through. Neil [Innes] is staying there. He looks cheery and already his new life in the Suffolk countryside seems to have made him physically different. As though the land has moulded our ex-Lewisham lad. He’s rounder. His hair, arranged in a neat coronal around his bald pate, is much fuller and frizzier than I remember before. He looks…He looks rather like a Hulme Beaman1 creation.
Terry J looks tired and harassed and throughout the day there are odd phone calls for him which give one the feeling that his life is a box which is far too full. John C is grumbling about his health again – doing a perfect imitation of the Ogre in Time Bandits which he didn’t like!
Eric is being very friendly, warm and accommodating. Terry Gilliam isn’t there (which provokes some rumblings of discontent from Eric, who, I think, being unaligned to either of the main writing groups, feels that TG’s absence deprives him of an ally). GC is as avuncular and benign as ever. And arrives easily last. Eric is trying to get GC to stop smoking his pipe so much. He’s the only Python who still smokes.
JC reads out an outrageously funny schoolmaster sex demonstration sketch. Our stuff doesn’t go quite as well as expected this morning. Eric has a chilling ending for the film, when the outbreak of nuclear war is announced. He’s been reading about the dangers of, and plans in the event of, nuclear war happening.
We talk for a while on this subject, which is so macabre and disturbing because the weapons for our destruction exist – they’re pointing at us now – and our response is to build more.
Friday, March 7th
Tried to write a startlingly new and original, brilliantly funny and thought-provoking piece for Python. Did this by staring out of the window, playing with paper clips and shutting my eyes for long periods.
Monday, March 10th
Pressing on. Endless days of writing. They seem to have been going on forever and are stretching on forever. Not that I mind that much. I quite enjoy not having to drive across London, not having to go down rain-spattered motorways to locations, not having to make meetings and business lunches, not going out to dinners or buying clothes.
Yes, I’m afraid this monastic existence suits me rather well. I shall keep it up this week, hoping for a breakthrough on Python and a completion of the railway script – then I shall take Concorde to New York at the expense of NBC and ‘party’ for 24 hours.
Work on Python until it’s dark outside, then break and work on the railways until midnight. Impossible. I’m beginning to sink under a mass of names, lines, distances, facts, details, anecdotes, diversions, sidings…
Tuesday, March 11th
Denis O’B rings – he’s returned from the States and positively glowing with enthusiasm for the TG/MP movie. He has Sean Connery absolutely ‘mentally committed’ (which means he hasn’t enough money for him) and George H, who at first was not at all sure why Denis O’B was putting his money into it, has now re-read the script twice, feels it has great potential and is trying to hustle Jack Nicholson into letting us have his name on the credits!
Paramount have agreed a distribution deal with Denis in the US and are seeing it as a new Wizard of Oz! However, they are very keen to get the hottest name in Hollywood – Gilda Radner – onto the credits too. Denis, who knows nothing of Gilda, has promptly turned several circles and is now homing in on Gilda as the Ogre’s Wife instead of Ruth Gordon. ‘Apparently she does a really good old lady on Saturday Night Live.’
I have to puncture Denis’s epic enthusiasm here. She may do a great old lady, but Ruth Gordon is a great old lady, and would easily be my choice (if we need names) for the part.
Wednesday, March 12th
Schizophrenic weather. Today almost continuous rain – yesterday bright sunshine.
To Eric’s for a Python meeting.
Over lunch we discuss the general balance of material, which seems to fall into School, War/Army and North-West Frontier. Lists are made in the p.m. and a putative running order worked out. This is the stage when there is much talk of ‘What is the film about?’ and how we can relate the various themes – whether we should start conventionally or with an apology for what’s to be seen. Quite good progress.
Thursday, March 13th
Revision of the railway script proceeds rather slowly. I think one reason is that I have become so steeped in the material over the last three or four weeks that I’ve lost a lot of the initial enthusiasm. Also concerned about how funny to make the start. In short, I don’t think I’ve found the right tone yet.
Run off my uncertainties at lunchtime. Back to a phone call from Denis. He has just received a mortal blow to his pride from Edna Jones at BBC Contracts. Denis, international financier and deal-maker extraordinary, cannot get the BBC to budge from a max of £2,400 plus £1,800 once and for all foreign sales on the railway programme. Denis, who believes in the success ethic even more than the work ethic, says he’s contemplating throwing himself off his balcony!
Saturday, March 15th: London and New York
A dull morning, but no rain, fog or snow to threaten departure. With only a couple of light bags, a book – Moviola by Garson Kanin – and a Time Bandits script for Ruth Gordon (Garson Kanin’s wife!), drive the Mini to Heathrow and park it, as I’m only away for one night.
Board the 11.15 Concorde, a few minutes late – some problem with the earlier flight. But we’re airborne, with thunderous noise, by twelve, and there are no more problems. I’m VIP listed and this means it’s impossible to quietly stew in a mixture of champagne, relief and a good book without being hauled out to sign an autograph for the crew and visit the flight deck.
The pilot and co-pilot seem more anxious to ask me about Python than to tell me about Concorde, but I do ascertain that they use five tons of fuel every hour and that the fastest Atlantic crossing so far has been two hours 56 minutes.
Well, they catch up half an hour and I’m at Kennedy and through customs and into bright sunshine and crisp snow cover just after 10.30 NY time.
Arrive at NBC at four. Rehearse the moves cold. See Lorne,1 the cast, Belushi, who is back to do a special appearance. Of 1941 he says ‘I was bad, the film was bad’, but he’s very pleased with the state of the Blues Brothers – his soon to be released picture with Aykroyd.
As usual Belushi’s presence does not please everybody. He’s very rude about the present state of ‘SNL’ – and seems disgruntled that he’s come back to do so little. Both points are understandable. The material on this 100th show reflects age rather than quality and Belushi isn’t given much funny stuff. He’s smarting because he’s been cut out of ‘Update’ to accommodate one of the ‘star guests’, Ralph Nader.
After an hour of reacquainting myself with everybody and rehearsing in a darkened set, a dull, persistent headache has set in. So I take an hour off before the dress rehearsal, go back to the Berkshire Place and lie down. Don’t sleep, but at least I’m not working or talking.
Shower and leave the hotel at seven, US time – which means it’s midnight UK time. I have somehow to try and pace myself to perform live in front of the watching millions at what will be, for me, about 5.30 in the morning at the end of a very crowded day.
When 11.30 finally arrived and the signature tune blared out I knew that I would be alright as the adrenaline started working to clear my befuddled system of the combined effects of too much food, alcohol and fatigue.
The sketch went better than ever and I got a gratifying round of recognition applause when the audience saw me for the first time. I also over-acted happily and shamelessly. John Cleese would have been proud of the way I killed the tarantula.
Thursday, March 20th
Spring starts either today or tomorrow, I’m never sure. The rain’s stopped, but there was a frost last night. It’s cold, clear and clean.
At a quarter to ten Helen, Tom and I drive up in the Mini to William Ellis School for our interview with Mr Perry [the headmaster]. Talk to one of the senior boys – wearing a gown. Will they still keep gowns in the comprehensive era? He was very well-spoken and presentable and surprised me by saying, quite undefensively, that he wanted to become an accountant.
Into Mr Perry’s bland but unintimidating study. Tom is asked most of the questions. What he likes about Gospel Oak – Tom, seriously, ‘Well, it’s very spacious, but quite small.’ His hobbies, interests, friends, preferences (Tom declared for science). Tom answered quite unprecociously and at greater length than I expected. Mr Perry said that it was almost an accepted fact that children from Gospel Oak were more articulate than the norm.
Drive over to EuroAtlantic for a meeting with Denis and T Gilliam. Main subject is whether or not we think J Cleese is right for the Evil Genius. Apparently Denis took the bull by the horns and met the disgruntled Cleese, who’s not so far forgiven Denis for promising us a quarter of a million pounds each for Brian.
Denis has so successfully charmed JC with soft words and capital allowance schemes, that JC can now see the advantage of being in TG’s movie after all – as a partner. Denis is keen, but both TG and I are unconvinced. Other names hang in the air. Connery still isn’t fixed. Ruth Gordon neither. Denis is disappointed that John cannot be easily fitted in.
Watch the BAFTA awards at 9.30 with a glimmer of hope, but little more than that. The Light Entertainment Award is the first. Bruce Forsyth comes on to present it and does an annoyingly unnecessary and lengthy preamble, whilst Anna Ford, Edward Fox and Princess Anne watch lugubriously.
My first pleasure is to hear the laughter in the hall as they show the shooting scene from ‘Roger of the Raj’, but I can’t believe it when Forsyth announces ‘The winner is…the winners are: Alan Bell and Jim Franklin for…Ripping Yarns.’ I just leap up and give a few lusty yells. Its like Wednesday scoring twice against Everton in the ’66 Cup Final.
The boys come downstairs and stare at me.
Monday, March 24th
TG and I drive down to the King’s Road in pouring rain to dine with executives from Paramount and Denis O’B at the Casserole Restaurant.
There were three Paramount people. A young, bright little man, with a combative heckling approach which settled down as one got to know him. He was called Jeffrey Katzenberg, was 29 years old and admitted that he was paid a lot because it was a very high-risk job – the turnover of Hollywood execs is spectacularly fast. His bluffer, less devious, funnier friend was also younger than TG or I and was called David.
They joked heavily as we arrived. Probably to cover their embarrassment at the fact that an hour earlier Paramount HQ had telexed Denis O’B to say that if he stalls on the next Python deal (which he has) then they will stall on the Time Bandits. So Paramount in LA are playing Denis’s game.
But these two were at pains to deny any close association with their colleagues. These two were interested purely in talent and were keen to know more about the Time Bandits. They particularly wanted to be reassured about the dwarves (I mean, just how odd would they look?).
Wednesday, March 26th
At my desk at 9.30 to confront the formidable task of rewriting two scenes for the Time Bandits before leaving for the Python promotion in Paris at 3.30. But the muse is helpful and by one I have rewritten the ‘Future’ and, even more satisfactorily, I hope, the ‘Titanic’ scene.
Leave for the airport at a quarter past three. Onto an airbus for Paris. Packed solid – must be two or three hundred people. Read my book on the Greeks by H D F Kitto. Most inspirational. In the air only briefly, but on the plane for over an hour.
Python Sacré Graal is in its 71st week of its third reissue in Paris! So clearly there is a cult here, and it’s based on only one movie.
A rather dreadful evening at a Sofitel in the 15th Arrondissement. Up to a bleak room on the 16th floor of this French Holiday Inn, where we ate. No-one knew why we were here, or who all the guests were, but it turned out to be some sort of special viewing for Avis, who are renting us the cars for the three days.
Python spirit was high, despite this debacle, though, and much enjoyment was derived from trying to find how many things on the table we could assemble around John before he noticed. Huge numbers of plates, glasses, bread baskets and even an ornamental bowl of flowers were discreetly manoeuvred in front of him, but he never noticed.
Thursdays, March 27th: Paris
Interviews – for Le Figaro, La Revue de Cinéma and finally a cartoonist called Gottlib, who has a Gumby fascination and gets me to enunciate clearly and slowly the exact words for ‘Gumby Flower Arranging’ into a small tape recorder. The more seriously I try to oblige, the more ridiculous the situation becomes. Eric doesn’t help by constantly cracking up and, when I finally make it through to the moment of flower arranging the doors of the room open to reveal an enormous bunch of flowers being carried through. The interviews draw to a close by seven. Terry J and I go off to eat at La Coupole. I have ears and tail – and TJ is most impressed. We talk, for the first time, about the Time Bandits script, which TJ has half-read. He wasn’t impressed with it until the Greek scene!
Saturday, March 29th: Paris and London
Woken from a very deep sleep in the Hotel Lotti by the soft clinking of a breakfast tray. It’s half past seven. Pull myself out of bed and wander across to meet the breakfast, wearing only my underpants, when I’m suddenly aware of the nervous, twitching, apologetic presence of the Very Naughty Valet in my room.
Terry had warned me that there was a man who very lasciviously enquired whether he wanted his shoes cleaned, and here he was, in my room, having caught me with literally everything, apart from my pants, down! He wasn’t at all phased by my appearance, but came on in and started to arrange my chair for breakfast in a most epicene manner.
Finally I fled to the bathroom and made loud and hopefully quite unromantic sounds of ablution until I knew he’d gone. Then I crept out again and got to grips with two fried eggs, coffee out of a swimming pool cup and croissants which were pale imitations of Patisserie Valerie’s.
The door I never heard open. But I was aware of the presence of the lustful valet even before he said ‘I have something for you, sir…’. With virgin-like caution I extended my hand to his and he dropped two small bars of soap into it as if they were ripe grapes.
Sunday, March 30th
No work – for the first time in many weeks. The weather back in London is crisp, with high white clouds and breaks of sunshine – and the city looks a lot less grey than Paris.
William and I go for a lunch picnic in St James’s Park and walk up the traffic-free Mall. Gentle Sunday strolling in the heart of the city. We eat our lunch on the deckchairs, then improvise a quick game of cricket. Afterwards we drive on to the London Dungeon – William is doing the plague at school, so this can be called an educational visit.
This evening Helen – who has bought a £150 dress for the occasion! – and I dine out at Leith’s with Denis and Inge [Denis’s wife], Terry G, Maggie, George H and Sean Connery – our latest casting coup for Time Bandits. Connery is as he seems on screen – big, physically powerful, humorous, relaxed and very attentive to women. He talks with the unaffected ease of a man who is used to having an audience. His main love is clearly golf, but he has some good and sensible suggestions to make on his part as King Agamemnon.
Thursday, April 3rd
Arrive at JC’s by ten.
Some progress, but nothing sweeps the gathering off its feet. JC reaches a peak of frustration. ‘Nine weeks of writing,’ he practically sobs in anguish, ‘and we haven’t got a film.’
But we make lists and from the best elements – mainly ‘Kashmir’ – I suggest that we play six members of a family – a sort of Python saga, set in the Ripping Yarns period of 1900–1930. The idea of telling the story of a family seems to appeal and quite suddenly unblocks the sticky cul-de-sac we appeared to have written ourselves into. It suits me, a Yarns film with all the team in it – something I’ve often been attracted to.
So, quite unexpectedly, the day turns around. At the eleventh hour we have a style, a subject and a framework for the new film.
Ride back with Eric, who becomes very angry when I tell him that John Cleese is doing something in the TG film. He feels this is a plot on Denis’s part to make TG’s into a new Python film. Eric seems to be able to take Ripping Yarns and Fawlty Towers, but Gilliam’s extra-Python work he has no tolerance for, feeling that it just copies Python and isn’t original.
A half-hour phone call with a researcher from the Dick Cavett Show, who’s doing a pre-interview interview. He says he thought my remark about showbiz being ‘a branch of American patriotism’ was brilliant, but I can never remember saying it.
Friday, April 4th: Good Friday
The sheer pleasure of having a morning to myself – even though I have to spend it reading the Time Bandits latest revised script – is incredibly healing to my creaking system. Clear the desk, write the diary, pull down the blinds against the strong sunlight, brew up strong coffee, and settle down to reading.
To my relief, the Time Bandits, as of April 4th, is not in bad shape at all, and most of last week’s rapid rewrites, though in many cases the result of writer’s cowardice, do seem to improve the shape and pace of the story. So by the time I’ve completed a thorough read-through I’m feeling very positive.
Up to T Gilliam’s to discuss with him. Find him in a house of illness. Amy puffy with mumps, Maggie, newly pregnant, looking very tired, and TG crumpled and dressing-gowned. His temperature returned to 101 last night and he was thrown into a sweating turmoil after a phone call from Denis O’B in Los Angeles. TG thinks he has ‘brain fever’.
We talk through for four hours. And by the end I’m exhausted by the effort of keeping concentration and a sense of proportion and not succumbing to Gilliam’s periodic moments of eyeball-widening realisation…‘We only have seven weeks…’ ‘I haven’t even…’, etc, etc.
Look forward with glorious anticipation of relief relaxation to my two days off in Southwold this weekend with Rachel.
Sunday, April 6th: Easter, Southwold
Slept a welcome eight hours. Woken by chirpy Rachel at eight and up and eating croissants on Easter morning by 8.30.
Brian appears to have had some effect on Granny – she confessed that she didn’t go to church on Good Friday…‘Thinking of you and your film, I just couldn’t.’ Has it shaken her faith constructively or destructively? She did say she couldn’t take Pontius Pilate seriously any more!
Tuesday, April 8th
Drive over to Eric’s for a Python meeting about the next album, which we have to deliver under the terms of our Arista/Charisma contract.
Eric suggests we call the album ‘Monty Python’s Legal Obligation Album’ and I suggest that we have it introduced by some legal man explaining why we have to deliver it and the penalties if we don’t. This replaces the tentative ‘Scratch and Sniff’ title.
So we are all going back to our notebooks to cull material and have it typed up, and we reassemble on my 37th birthday to record.
Thursday, April 17th
Gilliam has had positive chats with Jonathan Pryce to play the Evil Genius. Pryce is apparently tremendous in Hamlet at the Royal Court and if we get him I think it will add to the extraordinarily confusing richness of the cast.
Bike up to Belsize Park then spend an hour sorting out mounds of unanswered fan mail (well, about 40 letters!) to give to the Python office to dispose of. This is quite a milestone as up till now I’ve always replied myself – even short, scruffy notes – but such is the amount of work behind and before me that I really can’t manage the time any more.
Tuesday, April 22nd
A fine drizzle as I cycle round to Mr Owen the Feet at a quarter to nine. Start of Rachel’s second term at Gospel Oak today and she doesn’t show any sign of nerves.
Mr Owen talks for 40 minutes and cuts away at my corn for five. ‘I would have been a professional violinist if it hadn’t been for the war…’. A cat wanders through the surgery.
Thursday, April 24th
Jonathan Pryce cannot do Time Bandits – he’s holding out for a part in the new Steven Spielberg – so we discuss alternatives. David Warner top of the list. Denis O’B still wreaking awful havoc with TG’s peace of mind. Airily suggesting we try to get Sellers to play the Supreme Being. TG sounds tired and heavily pressured.
Friday, April 25th
Train to Manchester. Although I spend most of the journey bent over my books, I can’t help overhearing that there has been some sort of US raid on Iran during the night. About one man in the whole restaurant car seems to have heard the early morning news – and says that the Americans launched an Entebbe-style commando attack in Iran which ended with two US aircraft smashing into each other in the dark and killing eight men.
It really does sound like a most perilous affair and makes me aware of that where-I-was-when-I-heard-the-news sort of feeling – here I am speeding towards Manchester on the day the war broke out!
Arrive at twenty to twelve. Met by Roger Laughton, Ken Stephinson’s boss at BBC Features.1 He’s a chattery, eloquent, rather macho head of department, who went to Birkdale School, supports Sheffield Wednesday and also went briefly to the same Crusader class2 as myself! ‘Then why weren’t we best friends?’ he asked, jokingly but quite significantly.
He drives me out of Manchester to Ken’s quite extraordinary converted station cottage at Saddleworth. Extraordinary, not just because expresses thunder past not ten feet from his windows, but because the stretch of railway line is magnificent – coming from the south over Saddleworth Viaduct then curving in an impressive long bend to disappear then reappear in the shadow of massive slabs of moorland.
Marjorie cooks us a very tasty, delicate meal, which we eat in the Ladies’ Waiting Room, whilst listening solemnly to President Carter’s live message to the US people at one o’clock our time, seven o’clock a.m. their time – describing, quite straightforwardly, his own personal responsibility for the immense cock-up.
Monday, April 28th
At Park Square West to meet Ron Devillier,1 who is on his way back to the US after a TV sales fair in France. Ron is anxious to market the Python TV shows in the US and, in view of his pioneering work in awakening the US to MPFC [Monty Python’s Flying Circus], we listen to him with interest.
Cleese, who had not met Ron before, clearly warmed to him and at the end of an hour’s discussion (Ron emphasising the extraordinary audience ratings which Python still picks up whenever it’s shown in the US), John proposed that we should meet in a week’s time, when all of us reassemble for the recording of Python’s Contractual Obligation Album, and we should agree to approach Ron formally and ask him to set out his terms for distributing Python tapes.
Denis is quite actively pursuing a company called Telepictures Inc, who he hopes can be persuaded to handle all Python product (in and out of the series).
Again the big business approach of Denis confronts and seems to conflict with the decentralised Python plans, which are born of mistrust of big American companies and trust in individuals whom we like instead. I foresee the Telepictures v Ron Devillier situation becoming a head-on battle between Denis’s ‘philosophy’ and our own.
Tuesday, April 29th
As I drive from Wardour Street up to TG’s I’m quite forcibly struck by the inadequacy of the title Time Bandits. It just won’t create much of a stir on the hoardings, marquees and billboards. My favourite new title is ‘Terry Gilliam’s Greed’.
Saturday, May 3rd
The post brings a very cheering letter from the headmaster of William Ellis to say that Tom has a place at the school from next September. So do most of his best friends, so this is good news indeed, especially as Willy will now automatically be offered a sibling’s place.
As a reward I take Tom out for lunch and a trip to the South Ken museums. But the reward turns into quite an effort – for I take Louise and Helen [Guedalla], Rachel and Willy as well as Tom.
Buy the children McDonald’s fast food, then drive on down to the Geology Museum. Have to detour as Kensington Gore is cordoned off because of the Iranian Embassy siege at Prince’s Gate. Now in its fourth day – and deadlines and threats have passed. There is massive police presence, but a remarkable calm now as the siege becomes a London institution.
Rachel and Helen haul me round the various exhibits and we in fact visit three museums. My mind is a mass of surrealist images from a score of exhibition stands and I am quite exhausted by the time we get home at six.
Wednesday, May 7th
After a poor night’s sleep, up in good time and down to Euston by 9.30. Myself and the film crew catch the 9.55 to Manchester. I’m supposed to be an ordinary traveller in an ordinary second-class coach, but will viewers think it entirely coincidental that the only other occupants of the 9.55 today seem to be Orthodox Rabbis?
Monday, May 12th: Grosmont, North Yorkshire
We drive over to Grosmont to interview Kim Mallion about restoring railway engines. It’s a strange process trying to appear natural whilst having to do unnatural things like stand in an unusual relationship in order to keep the interviewee’s face to camera, having to cut him off in mid-sentence because we have to move casually to another pre-set position and at the same time trying to mentally edit his remarks and your questions, knowing that this whole encounter will probably take up no more than one minute’s film. I began to realise why TV interviewers and presenters develop their aggressive pushiness. They’re doing their job. Well, I’m glad I’m in comedy.
Tuesday, May 13th: Grosmont
Woke at four to the silence of the countryside.
For a moment or two, lying there in the pre-dawn in the isolation of this tiny North Yorkshire village, I was seized with a crisis of confidence. What I was doing all seemed so unreal. I am not a documentary presenter – I have no special knowledge or authority to talk about railways, or even a special skill in getting people to talk. I have been chosen mainly because of what I have done in the past, which has made me into a reasonably well-known TV figure, but more precisely I’ve been chosen because Ken senses in my personality something which the viewer will like and identify with.
So there I am, lying, listening to a cuckoo which has just started up in a nearby wood as the grey gives way to the gold creeping light of another hot day, trying to bring into sharp and positive focus this ephemeral ‘personality’ of mine, which is my chief qualification for this job. How I wish I were dealing in something much more finite – like the skill of an engine driver or a cameraman. Something which you can see, feel, touch, switch on and off. But no, for an hour on national TV I am to be everyone’s friend – the traveller that millions are happy to travel with.
Up at a quarter to eight, resolved to treat my predicament in the classic existentialist way – not to worry, just to do. The weather is perfect for our idyllic shots of Egton Station and the Esk Valley Line. I lie in the grass by the track reading Paul Theroux’s terrible adventures in La Paz [in The Old Patagonian Express] and thinking myself in paradise here, with the hot sun shining from a cloudless sky and wind in the thin line of pines above my head.
Wednesday, May 14th: Teesside
Interviewed a man who knew some details of Stockton-Darlington, the world’s first public passenger railway. Only after the interview do I find out that his son had been crushed to death six weeks before owing to the negligence of the nearby factory where he was an apprentice. It would have been his 18th birthday today, the man told me – on the verge of tears. He’d had a lot of personal problems – the break-up of a marriage, etc – and this was the last straw. He apologised for not being able to remember all the details for me, but the doctors had put him on a drug after his nervous breakdown and it left him irritatingly cloudy on memories, he said. He’d half-built a model train. Just an ordinary bloke.
Thursday, May 15th: Newcastle
On to the 125 at Darlington and various shots of The Traveller looking around him. I’ve long since run out of delightfully informal, spontaneous and casual gestures and am now concentrating on trying not to appear too idiotically interested every time I look out of the window.
My rosy-spectacled view of Newcastle provoked a nice comment from a local. I was raving about the wonderful easiness of the Cumberland pub in the working-class district of the Byker and someone quipped, ‘Oh, yes, the Cumberland. They say there’s one bar full of locals and one bar full of playgroup leaders.’
Friday, May 16th: Newcastle–Edinburgh
Wake to sunshine and clear skies and the chorus of squeaks, rumbles and soft hissing of diesel exhausts from the station below. Outside a panorama of cars and trains crossing bridges. Tyneside coming to work.
We board an HST for Edinburgh which is half an hour late. I haven’t been on a single punctual train this week.
Between Berwick and Edinburgh, as the train staggers home with an out-of-action rear power car (what a bad day for this to happen to British Rail), I sit with three randomly selected ‘members of the public’ and we’re filmed chatting. Maybe the age of television is conditioning us all, but they speak with the easy assurance of people who are interviewed daily.
My last memories of elegant Edinburgh, as serenely unflawed in its beauty as ever, are of a group of very drunken chartered surveyors milling around in the lounge of the North British at midnight, tipping each other in and out of a wheelchair. If they’d been punks they’d have been out in the gutter, but they were Chartered Surveyors of this Fine City and were in dinner jackets and had paid well for their tickets, so no-one stopped them behaving like the worst sort of hooligans. My last image was of them falling on top of each other and knocking back Napoleon brandy from the bottle.
Saturday, May 17th: Kyle of Lochalsh
Up and across the Central Highlands – shot of me reading, etc. On time at Inverness’s crabbed and disappointing little station. Inverness full of yobbos, drunks and ladies with twinsets and pearls doing their Saturday shopping. We have time off. I make for the castle, but in front of it are three fairly incapable teenage Scots. One turns and spits long and high into the air. To my astonished horror another runs forward, tries to catch the gob in his own mouth and fails.
The other thing that I notice in Inverness this sunny Saturday afternoon are the number of churches. Severe, pencil-thin towers – the grey pointed fingers of disapproval. Enough to drive you to drink.
So begins the memorable nightmare of the journey to Kyle. The train has an observation car on the end, a special old coach with free-standing armchairs and tables.
Ken’s idea is to fill the special coach with travellers whom I casually chat to, plus one or two specially researched guests. One of whom is a Mrs Mackenzie, a 99-year-old who I’m told remembers the railway on the day it opened in 1896. She’s a wonderful, bright old lady, but not soft of hearing, and my first question – a tortuously-phrased effort to elicit information as to how old she was – is received with a stony silence. A pleasant smile, but a stony silence. I try it again, then again even louder. The crew and the rest of the compartment must be either splitting their sides or squirming in embarrassment.
For a full ten minutes I persevere, trying everything, but, like a man with an enormous fishing net and six harpoons trying to catch two small fish, I end up with very little for a lot of work. It leaves me exhausted, though still in admiration of old Mrs Mackenzie.
Tuesday, May 20th: Mallaig
At 10.30 I’m filmed boarding the Skye ferry to Kyleakin. The cameras are staying on the mainland to film exteriors from the Kyle train. I’m free until after lunch and, as I have no option but to go on to Skye, I decide on a morning’s walking to compensate for much eating and drinking over the last few days.
I stride on out of town, having left my case at the Caledonian MacBrayne [ferry] office. I stop at a hotel which is a country house – red-grey stone and tall pitched roofs – set in very lush gardens with brilliantly deep pink rhododendrons and a settled air of detachment and solid comfort.
But as soon as I step inside my stomach tightens with the identification of a very early feeling of my childhood of a claustrophobia, a fear of being stifled in dark rooms with well-polished doors, in which old ladies move in the shadows.
Mallaig, which we reach in the evening, is even bleaker than Kyle of Lochalsh, a fairly wretched spot to be faced with the prospect of a night in – after a day like today. But I have a room overlooking the Atlantic and the sharp points of Rum and the volcanic spur of Eigg and there is a sunset after all and it looks quite idyllic with a score of fishing boats heading for the harbour.
After the ritual of an evening meal together (‘Are the “Melon Cubes” out of a tin?’ one of our number enquires ingenuously. ‘Oh, yes…’ the waitress assures him quickly), Ken and I go to visit the engine driver whom we will be filming tomorrow, as his wife has called and asked us over.
They’re rather a special family – with three children roughly the age of my own, and yet Ronnie McClellan must be over 20 years older then me. He married late to a very bright and articulate district nurse. Their children come down in dressing gowns to meet us (it’s 9.45) and shake hands solemnly and politely. They don’t have television, but they have dogs, cats and, I think, some animals in the croft. The children kiss their father obediently but warmly. I should imagine he’s quite a strict and traditional father.
Back at the empty vastness of the West Highland, the two men who were drinking half and halfs (Scotch and Heavy) at six o’clock are still drinking half and halfs at twelve. Ken beats me three times at pool. Go to bed feeling inadequate.
Nylon sheets and a colour scheme which looks as though an animal’s been slaughtered in the room. Read Michael Arlen’s The Green Hat and enjoy the utter incongruity. It gives me great comfort to know that Cannes and Mallaig exist on the same planet.
Wednesday, May 21st: Mallaig–Glenfinnan
Fresh Mallaig kippers for breakfast. Later I’m told that there’s no such thing as a Mallaig kipper as there’s a ban on herring fishing. So it was probably a Canadian herring – which may have been kippered in Mallaig. Anyway, I ate two of them.
An especially beautiful journey down along the coast – made more civilised by the presence of a buffet bar and a couple of glasses of wine. I have to be filmed in the said buffet bar with two Danish students and a flavour chemist from Chicago who is over here on a cycling tour of Scotland. He’s a great Python fan and he’s honestly called Constantine Apostle.
Our hotel here – the Glenfinnan House – is situated in an almost unbeatable Highland surrounding. Pictures of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s heroic failures (it was here at Glenfinnan he gathered his forces in the summer of 1745), a set of bagpipes, pieces of igneous rocks on a dark-stained mantelpiece in a passable imitation of a baronial hall.
The house is set beside a lawn surrounded by broadleaved trees and running down to Loch Shiel. Beside a wooden jetty, a couple of rowing boats bob on the water. Walk down to the jetty and look down the length of Loch Shiel, at the sheer magnificence of the spurs of epic mountainside tumbling down to the lakeside.
As we unload, a cool-looking kid of ten or eleven skids up on his bike. ‘Do you live here?’ I ask…The boy, in a particularly businesslike way, nods and adds, quite naturally, ‘D’you think I’m lucky?’
To bed around midnight. It seems almost a crime to close the curtains against such a view.
Monday, May 26th
A Bank Holiday again. Surfaced mid-morning. Regular phone calls and door bells ringing – mostly for the children, who have the next week off school. There was lots I wanted to do and a big pile of mail. Most of all I wanted to do nothing – to be at no-one’s beck and call for a bit.
Terry Gilliam comes round soon after six. The first week of Time Bandits is now complete, but the shoot in Morocco was gruelling even by TG’s standards. Moroccans less good at organisation than Tunisians, which didn’t help, but they managed 97 slates – some in locations only accessible by mule.
After one week in Morocco he’d come back feeling like he did after ten weeks of Brian. Rushes on Wednesday will show whether this almighty opening effort will spur everyone on, or be the start of the collapse.
Thursday, May 29th
A heavy day ahead. The sky is grey and lowering, but still no rain. Prepare for the arrival of the BBC unit to film outside and inside the house. Also today we’re expecting Al and Claudie1 to stay, so No. 2 has to be prepared.
As it turns out we have a most successful shoot. We block off Julia Street with a 60-foot hoist to shoot an epic ‘leaving home’ scene. Helen and the three children all have to do their acting bit and acquit themselves very well on all four takes. Really it’s an elaborate reconstruction for the viewing public of what happens every time I leave home for filming away. Rachel, last out, hands me my toothbrush with an easy self-confidence which I hadn’t expected at all.
Friday, May 30th
Helen goes out to badminton and Al, Claudie and I make a rambling feast out of quite a simple selection of soup and cold meats, ending with a liqueur tasting – Al determined to try all the bottles he brought over from Brittany. Their Jacques Brel tape played loudly – Al enthusing, as only he can, over each track. ‘One of the greatest people of this century’ is Al’s verdict on Brel.
Claudie comes to life more when the subject turns to France, but her English is now much more confident. But I wish she would eat more and smoke less. Al wants to have a baby – they want a girl and they have a name, ‘Chantelle’.
A warm and woozy evening. Much laughter.
Tuesday, June 3rd
Listen to the Python Contractual Obligation Album. I’m afraid it does sound rather ordinary. One or two of the songs stand out and there are some conventional sketches of Cleese and Chapman’s (man enters shop, etc) which are saved by good performances. Twenty-five percent padding, fifty percent quite acceptable, twenty-five percent good new Python.
Saturday, June 7th
Drive up to T Gilliam’s for a meeting. Terry is very deflated. He looks and sounds quite pummelled by the pressures of this creature he’s brought into life. Filming all week, meetings with actors in the evening, all weekend looking at locations.
Now Amy wants his attention and he wants to give me his attention. So we work on rewrites and additions for next week whilst Amy piles me up with teddy bears and races round the room with a manic energy, shouting, tumbling, grimacing. The only way we can work is by me reading the script corrections as a story to one of Amy’s teddies. A bizarre session.
Monday, June 9th
Work and run in the morning. Talk to a fan from Indiana on the telephone at lunchtime – she was visiting England, had seen Grail 17 times and Brian nine times and loved everything we did.
To Denis’s office at two. Meet Peter Cook there. He has a very silly hat, but we have a few laughs, mainly about a pop group Peter had seen in Los Angeles called Bees Attack Victor Mature. Peter rambles on a while, then wanders off – a little concerned as to how he’ll find his way out of the EuroAtlantic fortress. Denis has just done a deal for GC’s Yellowbeard screenplay, provided that the screenplay is rewritten. So Peter Cook, whom Denis was much impressed by at Amnesty, is to rewrite the script with GC – and they have a six-million-dollar production budget. Denis does want to see us all happy.
What Denis doesn’t know is that E. Idle has probably slipped the O’Brien net. A very positive letter from him in France – the ‘Pirates of Penzance’ now looks more likely to happen. Gary Weiss [Eric’s director] is a very ‘hot’ property and he wants to do it. Eric now has a direct phone line in Cotignac, but asks me to promise not to give it to Denis, under threat of setting fire to my stereo.
I leave, having told Denis that the next thing I want to do is a film on my own – probably to shoot next summer.
Watch last hour of the Test Match v West Indies on the box, then Helen and I, suitably tarted up in DJs and long dresses, drive down to Kensington for the reception at the Royal Geographical Society to commemorate their founding 150 years ago.
The Queen and Prince Philip and the Duke of Kent are to be there. We’ve joked about going and not going, but tell Helen it’s my duty as a diarist if nothing else.
Sir John and Lady Hunt are receiving the guests. He’s quite frail now and totally white-haired. Lady Hunt seems very bright and on the ball.
I meet the daughter of Lord Curzon, on whose land the RGS HQ was built, and the sparkling wine with strawberries in it is going to my head quite pleasantly when we are asked to move away from the gravel terrace. Quite amiably, but firmly. Around us some people are being lined up as if for some military manoeuvre – not in a long line, but in a number of short ranks, like football teams.
Helen and I are enmeshed with a world authority on gibbons, who also happens to be an enormous Ripping Yarn fan and slightly more pissed than we are.
The Duke was, at one point, just beside my right shoulder and sounded to be having quite a jolly time, but entourages always deter chance encounters, so I didn’t spring forward. About 10.30 he and Queenie disappeared inside.
Helen and I, quite mellow, but hungry, left about 15 minutes later, but, as we prepared to cross Kensington Gore, there was a shout from a policeman who was standing only 100 yards away from the SAS siege building – ‘Stay in the middle!’1 We froze on the traffic island in the middle of Kensington Gore and realised that the Queen had not yet left.
In fact at this moment her Daimler, with the swollen rear windows for better visibility, was sweeping away from the RGS. The light was on inside so the Queen and the Duke could be seen, and for a moment in time we on our little traffic island and the Head of the British Empire came into eyeball to eyeball contact. Helen waved. The Queen automatically waved back, the Duke grinned and the black limousine curved left and right into Hyde Park and was gone.
Thursday, June 12th: London–Llanwern
To Paddington to catch the 1.15 to Newport. There is a long wait, blamed first on signal failure, then, with what sounded like a stroke of inspiration from a tired guard, on a bomb scare. But it enables me to complete the ‘Robin Hood’ rewrites, losing the ‘Future’ sequence.
Finally arrive at the Gateway Hotel, Llanwern, at about four o’clock. Various members of Time Bandits crew are surfacing after the second of their week of night shoots at nearby Raglan Castle. Last night a lady on stilts ‘lost her bottle’, as Ian Holm put it, but the crew seem to be in good spirits.
TG and I discuss the rewrites. Then I go to my room and watch some of the England v Belgium match – some promising football and one of the great international goals by Wilkins, then fighting on the terraces and the Italian police react fiercely with riot police and tear gas.
TG’s fictional recreation of the sack of Castiglione is not unlike the actual scenes I’ve just witnessed on the terraces in Turin. Both take place in North Italy and in each smoke is drifting everywhere and bodies are falling. But TG’s pictures are much more impressive and I’m tantalised by the brief amount I’ve seen of this strange film that is slowly and painstakingly taking shape in the rain at a nearby castle.
Tuesday, June 24th
Midsummer’s Day. And, as it turns out, the first day in the last three weeks when it hasn’t rained on the Time Bandits.
Out in the mosquito-ridden beauty of the Epping Forest, with the pollarded trees striking wonderfully Gilliamesque poses, with lumps and gnarls and strange growths, Shelley [Duvall who’s playing Pansy, one of the star-crossed lovers] and I and the mammoth unit enjoy a dry day. Not 20 miles away, there were fierce storms with hailstones scattering the players at Wimbledon and Lord’s.
Wednesday, June 25th
After more shots with the dwarves passing us, Shelley and I get on to the rain sequences. I can’t complain. I wrote the dreaded word ‘rain’, and here it is in all its dispiriting glory, courtesy of the Essex Fire Brigade, Not a terribly good take and the next 40 minutes are spent under a hair-dryer, preparing my wig for a re-take. But then it’s lunch and I have to go to the pub with a plastic bag over my head.
Afterwards a fairly horrendous experience in the second rain scene, when Shelley and I are down to our mediaeval underwear. The elements of the developing shot are so various that it takes six takes before we have a satisfactory conclusion. And on each one we have hoses directed on us for about a minute and a half.
Shelley seems much more tolerant of the ordeal than any actress has a right to be. But, as she says in the car on the way home, it’s better than having to cry every day for seven months with Kubrick! Nicholson had to take a six-month break after the movie [The Shining] was finished to get himself straight again.
Thursday, June 26th
Drive to Pentonville Road, where, on the hill from which the great Victorian painting of St Pancras was made, I find myself in the BUPA medical centre for a screening. No particular reason, I just thought I should have a complete medical check-up and where better than under the personal eye of one of the BUPA centre’s leading lights – Alan Bailey.1
Alan reassures me on one point: that Parkinson’s Disease isn’t hereditary. Then he examines me, pokes, prods and fingers my genitals, after which we have a talk about houses, education, the possible break-up of ILEA [Inner London Education Authority], and he offers me a drink from his metal cupboard full of Scotch and other drugs. I have a beer and meet the doctor who is, as Alan cheerfully informs me, ‘in charge of the clap clinic here’.
The clap man is neat, less of a character, and we talk about beta-blockers – pills which reduce the heartbeat. He thinks them a quite brilliant advance, and yet could talk only of the dangers of their misuse.
Alan is quite keen to show off the body scanner in the basement and the instant computer details of each patient. So far, all the results of my tests show no danger areas. I’m four pounds lighter than I was when I came seven years ago at eleven stone seven, and I’m five foot eleven inches – which is news to me and means I’m officially taller than I thought I was! Sight and hearing are 100% apart from one frequency of hearing – that of telephone bells and gunshots!
Monday, June 30th
I have something of a record in the make-up line today – four layers – my own tightly-cropped hair, a bald bladder on top of that, a wig stuck onto the sides of that and, to top the lot, a toupee. The make-up takes a couple of hours, but Elaine [Carew, my make-up artist] and I now get on so well that I hardly notice the time passing. I can’t blame anyone but myself for any inconvenience either, as I wrote it.
Katherine Helmond, of Soap fame, who is Ruth Gordon’s replacement, is on the set for fittings, etc, together with Peter Vaughan, who plays her Ogre husband. She’s delightful, Vaughan strong and quite quiet with his foxy little eyes and mouth easily cracking into a smile.
Shelley and I work all day on an impressive set of the ‘Titanic’. Final shot is uncomfortable and involves me losing my toupee and causing a lot of damage. They like it on the third take and we wrap at 7.30.
Tuesday, July 1st
A stormy night as a depression, pushed by cold north winds, crosses over us. The blind flaps and bangs and it’s as cold as November. Up at seven and drive through the rain to the studios [at Wembley] by eight.
Into mediaeval outfit this time. A steady morning’s work on the coach interiors (Shelley and I sitting in a coach resting on inner tubes of lorry tyres – four men waving trees above our heads).
In the afternoon, as we prepare to shoot the dwarves dropping on Patsy [one of the two star-crossed lovers, played by Shelley] and myself, the director hurtles through the air towards us, strikes Shelley sharply on the left temple and knocks her almost senseless. Gilliam spends the next half-hour comforting a very shaken Shelley. Turns out he was demonstrating to one of the dwarves how safe it was to fall.
I work in my dressing room, waiting for the final call. Rain and wind outside. Quite cosy. Stodgy food and assistant director constantly coming round to ask if there’s anything I want. Stardom means eating too much. After eight, Neville Thompson, the associate producer, arrives in my ‘suite’ to tell me that they will not be getting around to Shelley and myself this evening. The shot has been cancelled, as this was Shelley’s last day on the picture.
Wednesday, July 2nd
To Park Square West by ten for a Python meeting. Eric is already there, playing the piano. I’ve no idea how today’s meeting is going to turn out – all I know is that John has told Terry G that he’s never felt less like writing Python and yet officially we have this month set aside for just such an enterprise…
Terry J arrives next, looking mournful – with reason, for he has his arm in a sling. Apparently he threw himself on the ground at a charity cricket match last Sunday and has a hairline fracture of a bone called the humerus.
John arrives – he’s growing his Shakespearian beard back again, I think. He claims it went down very well with the ladies and shaving it off (which he did for the Time Bandits) only revealed what a tiny mouth he has. I advise John to have his mouth widened. He says he is considering another hair transplant.
We talk briefly about Python’s general biz. Denis’s call for a business meeting and a meeting to discuss his exciting new proposals for a distribution network of our own are met with almost universal lack of interest. ‘Tell him we went off to sleep,’ John advises Anne when she is desperately asking what reaction she should relay to DO’B about his proposals.
Then to lunch at Odin’s. Cliff Richard at the next table looks permanently off the beach at Barbados. Apart from Eric, the Pythons are white, apart from TJ who’s grey. After a long wait, and some white wine, I lead off perhaps provocatively by asking who wants to write the new Python film this month. Then it all comes out.
JC wants a month of leisurely talk and discussion and does not want to face the ‘slog’ of nine-to-five writing. I suggest that we don’t yet have a very clear and positive area or identity for the subject matter of the film and that we should only write when we are really ‘hungry’ to write. But it’s Graham who quite blandly drops the real bombshell – he’s working for the next few days on a Yellowbeard rewrite and then he hopes to film it in Australia during the winter. This straight pinch from previously discussed Python plans is a real stunner and the well-controlled indignation of Eric and Terry J rises to the surface.
I have the increasing feeling that we are going through a period similar to the post-Grail days in ’75,’76, when individual Pythons want to stretch their legs. Terry G led the field with Time Bandits, I’ve done the Yarns and the ‘Railway’ documentary. So I’m not too worried about proving myself.
I don’t know about Eric, but he was clearly amazed when John suggested we didn’t meet together till next Wednesday. At Eric’s surprise JC dropped all pretences – he hung his head in his hands and became cross. ‘I’m tired…I’ve done six weeks of…’ and so on.
This lunch and the discussions were all part of the painful process of preserving Python. We don’t fit into any easy patterns, we ask each other to make enormous compromises, adjustments and U-turns, but we do produce the best comedy in the country.
Not much rest at home, for at 6.30 I’m collected by Graham in his Mercedes and we drive one and a half hours out to Associated Book Publishers in Andover for a sales-force-meet-authors binge. It all seems quite a tiresome waste of time, except that Christopher Isherwood is there, which saves the evening for me. He’s 76 and looks fit and neat. His skin is weathered like an elephant’s leg, in contrast to the softer, tanned brown of his friend Don Bachardy. Bachardy has bright eyes and looks terribly healthy. He’s almost a carbon copy of Isherwood. Isherwood talks to Graham about a supermarket they both share in Brentwood, Los Angeles.
Isherwood talks fluently – like a man used to talking and being listened to (GC tells me his voice has become quite ‘stentorian’ since doing lecture tours). I would love to spend more time with him and Don – they seem such a bright, lively pair in this drab and colourless sales conference world.
Wednesday, July 9th
To Gospel Oak School for the Infant Concert. Rachel is a sheep. She wears her clean, Persil-white T-shirt and petticoat and a cardboard mask which makes it difficult for her to see, and the sheep bang into each other. Rachel’s class less imaginative than the others, but her rather morose teacher did wear black fishnet tights.
Monday, July 14th
Hurry through the rain to 2 Park Square West and a Python meeting. Eric and Denis are already there. I’m wearing a ‘Leica’ disposable jacket and hood which I acquired [whilst filming] at the Rainhill Trials at the end of May. Eric says I look like a red sperm.
All Pythons present except, of course, Gilliam. Denis has greatly looked forward to this meeting, for this is the first time he has aired his latest proposal to the group as a whole. The proposal is that Python should become involved in the setting-up of an independent UK film distribution company – HandMade Films.
Denis rides all interruptions as he slowly and impressively reveals his plans. But he is not a good judge of people – and of English people especially – and instead of being received with wide-eyed gratitude, his proposals are subjected to a barrage of strong scepticism.
Eric wants to know how much it all will cost us and then queries whether or not we need it, as it will mean yet another source of interminable business meetings. John C queries Denis’s assumption that there will be eight ‘Python-based’ films at least in the next five years. He certainly isn’t going to do one, and neither is Eric. Also the assumption that Time Bandits and Yellowbeard will each make at least £650,000 in the UK is received without conviction.
Denis’s worst enemy is his own ingenuous enthusiasm in the face of five very complex, quite sophisticated minds, four at least of which distrust one thing more than anything else – uncritical enthusiasm. So it’s left undecided.
Denis rather rapidly runs through the rest of the agenda, but he’s lost us. The more he enthuses over terms, deals, percentages, controls, etc, the more John turns his mind to doing anagrams on his agenda (he had a good one for Michael Palin – i.e. Phallic Man).
To lunch at Odin’s. Terry suggests the group should spend three days in Cherbourg, writing. John thinks we should do a film about the Iliad. Denis looks bewildered.
Wednesday, July 16th
Children are prepared for school – with the right clothes, shoes, music, forms for teachers, etc. At ten to nine Sam Jarvis arrives to work on painting the outside of the house and settles first of all for his cup of tea. Letters are sorted, diaries written and banks visited on the way to Cleese’s for a Python session.
Only John is there at the appointed time. He’s thumbing through his address book for someone to take to dinner…‘Come on, Michael, you must know some ravishing creature…’ and so on. He grins happily when I half-jest about the demise of Python. Eric is still unwell, TG’s off…‘I think we should disband this rapidly-crumbling comedy group for at least a year.’ John grins…
At seven leave for Tom’s orchestral concert at Gospel Oak. Tom plays a clarinet solo, piano solo and a duet with Holly [Jones] and is one of the two or three stars of the show. I feel very proud, especially as his clarinet piece is quite difficult. Both Helen and I dreadfully nervous in the audience.
Sunday, July 20th
After breakfast and Sunday papers, I retire to workroom (most reluctantly) to prepare for tonight’s Save the Whales concert. Various tiresome little props and costume details to sort out, but Anne H is a great help and locates such things as Gumby glasses and the like. I write a new piece – a short monologue about Saving the Plankton.
I complete my plankton piece, gather props and cossies into a big suitcase and, in a state of numbed resignation, set off under grey skies for the Venue in Victoria. I forget Gumby flowers, vase and mallet and have to drive all the way back from Regent’s Park.
The Venue is a cabaret-type theatre, with audience at tables eating and drinking, so they don’t seem to mind us starting nearly an hour late. From then on I begin to enjoy it. All the lethargy of a Sunday disappears and is replaced by the sharpness of performing adrenaline. ‘Plankton’ goes especially well and is received all the better for being obviously specially-written material.
Second half the audience are in very good form. ‘Save the leopards!’ someone shouts as I come on in my leopard-skin coat as the spangly compère of ‘Shouting’. I reassure the audience that it is artificial, whereupon the rejoinder comes smartly back ‘Save the artificial leopards!’
Home with huge feeling of relief and satisfaction – a 100% different from the way I felt on leaving seven hours ago. Am I a manic depressive?
Monday, July 21st
Anne rings early to say that Python has been offered four days at the Hollywood Bowl at the end of September. Two weeks in LA in late September, all together, would, I feel, do our writing chances and the group’s general commitment to working together so much good that we should decide to go ahead with it as soon as possible.
Wednesday, July 23rd
TJ comes up after lunch. It’s actually too hot to work upstairs at No. 4 – sticky, with bright, shining sun unremitting – so we decamp to No. 2, to the leaky double bedroom. TJ rather content here. Says it reminds him of Belsize Park!1 There complete ‘Sperm Song’.
In the evening (we work on until 6.30), I ring John C to find him very disappointed with his writing progress. He claims not to have been really well since last Friday and says that he and GC have not written much and he doesn’t like the family idea and could we not postpone the entire film for six months?
Thursday, July 24th
Blue skies and high summer again – the fine weather is persisting despite all forecasts. So a fresh buoyancy to my step as I come back from Mansfield Road with the papers – abruptly slowed down by the news that Peter Sellers died last night. Though not as sudden and unexpected as the news seen in a French paper on holiday in 1977 that ‘Elvis est Mort!’, it affected me in the same way. Sellers and Milligan were to the humour of my pre-and teenage days as Elvis was to the music.
Friday, July 25th
Duly arrive at J Cleese’s at ten – bringing Eric. It’s a hot day. John is upstairs recovering from taking Cynthia for an early-morning swim. We meet out in John’s garden – this prospect of unbroken sunshine is so rare this last month that the sun-worshippers in the group (everyone except TJ) feel unable to ignore it.
JC proposes a moratorium on the film – period unspecified. This rather deflating proposal is perhaps made more acceptable by a general welcoming of the Hollywood Bowl show. This, after brief discussion, is received most constructively. It makes the film postponement seem less like a positive break, more of a long interruption of work in progress. We shall be together for two or three weeks in LA in late September, we will do four nights at the Bowl and it is agreed that it shall be videotaped for sale to US TV.
Our ‘break-through’ writing of yesterday and the days before is not even read out. John seems happy to let things drift. There’s a listless feeling. EI says July is a rotten month to write anything.
No-one has yet really decided how long this ‘interruption’ should be. Six months is the minimum and any attempt to compromise on this meets very strong objections from John. But six months merely means an almost impossibly short period for the resolution of any alternative plans, so a year is proposed. And reluctantly accepted, as if acknowledging a measure of defeat.
We shall meet again to write the movie in September 1981.
Wednesday, July 30th
Catch the 8.55 Euston–Manchester train to see the first assembly of my ‘Great Railway Journey’.
At the BBC we watch the 62-minute first cut on a Steenbeck. My impression is of endless pretty railway trains disappearing behind trees – clichés of this sort of documentary. There is little evidence of my own impact on the journey…but more disappointingly a very ordinary, flat feeling to the camerawork and strangely the editing as well.
It was a depressing viewing – depressing because I value Ken’s friendship and the working relationship between us, depressing because I had hoped that his unconventional choice of presenter indicated his intention of trying some exciting and experimental approach to the programme. Depressing because I had to fight Denis O’B so hard to come up with something so dull. I think Ken is well aware of my feelings, and there is a conspicuous lack of over-enthusiasm.
So when I dash off to catch the Manchester Pullman back to town, I know I have a job of work on – much more than I expected to do at this stage of the programme, but there is hope and I have always in the back of my mind the memory of my first reaction to the initial cut of ‘Roger of the Raj’.1
Thursday, July 31st
To the foot man at 9.30. He’s running very late. I sit in his little surgery in Mornington Road, with a nun and a sad, rather dim, shuffling old Irishman, and write my Python album notes.
Then to EuroAtlantic for what is supposed to be a couple of hours of business and a couple of hours of thought on the content of the stage show. It turns out to be four hours of business and hardly a thought for the content.
Once again Denis pushes us towards the Telepictures video deal and the distribution company. All of us weaken on Telepictures, apart from Eric, who maintains that we should not give video rights for seven years to a company we know nothing about. At one point Eric suggests directly to Denis that he is in some way an interested party on Telepictures’ side. Denis denies this. Eric will not be moved, though, and vetoes the agreement until he’s thought about it more.
Monday, August 18th
Meet Ken Stephinson for lunch and we have a very productive chat about the documentary. He feels as I do that it’s bland and rather dull at the moment, but we hatch plans to revive, restore and enliven it. The only thing that worries me is that I calculate I have a maximum of 12 clear writing days before Hollywood.
Thursday, August 21st: Copenhagen and Malmö
Caught British Airways’ 9.25 flight to Copenhagen [for Life of Brian publicity] with Terry J and Anne Bennett (of CIC, our distributors) from a marvellously uncrowded Heathrow.
We lost an hour in the air and landed at Copenhagen at 12.05. A Cadillac limousine (looking very out of place) swept us and our Danish hosts through the neat, clean streets of suburban Copenhagen, with row upon row of apartment blocks, but mainly of brick, with pitched roofs and in small units, usually angled to avoid a wilderness of long concrete vistas.
From this neat, clean, modest little capital we took a neat, clean hydrofoil across to Malmö in Sweden.
I hear from TJ (confirmed by Anne Bennett) that Python has not begun too well in Germany. Strong religious anti-reaction in Stuttgart – elsewhere sluggish. So Brianity is perhaps not to be the new world religion after all.
As we leave Malmö for the University of Lund the wind has freshened. Not much impression of Sweden on the way. An extension of Lincolnshire perhaps.
About a quarter past eight we are introduced and go into a question and answer session. Most of the questions seem to come from Englishmen or Americans. Round about nine TJ is getting rather restless and asks the audience (numbering 300 or so) if he can ask them a question. Much eager nodding. ‘How many of you want to go to the lavatory?’ Our hosts take the hint and wind up the session. For some reason we sing them the ‘Lumberjack Song’ and that’s it. Both of us quite tired by now.
We’re driven to the Students’ Union and eventually find ourselves in a small, circular room where a table is laid. We each have a glass of rather weak beer – they are not allowed to serve full-strength beer to students – and nothing is happening. Outside the wind is strong and gusting and rain is lashing the panes.
Finally a large plate of Swedish crayfish arrives. They’ve been marinaded in beer and dill (very popular in Sweden) and are quite tasty. Then bottles of aquavit, which are drunk to the accompaniment of rather hard drinking songs. A lady called Lotta Love, said to be Sweden’s foremost groupie, also comes in from somewhere.
Terry J is strongly resisting Anne’s and my attempts to get us all onto the last hydrofoil to Copenhagen. I know that we must get back. We have to start early tomorrow and the drinking – already producing a noisy and rather belligerent atmosphere – will only accelerate.
With great difficulty we get TJ up and mutter our apologies. We just managed to get downstairs and into our waiting limousine, which then drives like hell into Malmö. The wind buffets the car on the motorway, causing it to veer dangerously at high speed, but we do reach the quay in time and to my intense relief the hydrofoil is still running, despite the storm. We are in Denmark again by one.
Friday, August 22nd: Copenhagen
Terry is terribly thankful that we didn’t let him stay in Malmö, and he goes off for a walk whilst I bathe, do my morning exercise and gently test my body and brain for any damage caused by Sweden yesterday.
Outside the life of Copenhagen goes on, very unhurried, like model life in a model village. Even the workmen are clean and I don’t believe that they really have the work to do anyway. They must be Play People. Eventually decide that the men engaged in raising and replacing paving stones opposite the hotel are in fact now reduced to cleaning the underneath of the Copenhagen streets.
At about ten o’clock we start interviews in our room, followed by a press conference downstairs, after which we are to give a TV interview. A Danish actor is portraying a Norwegian. The Danes and Swedes both find the Norwegians a Scandinavian joke – slow-witted, thick-headed, humourless fishing folk – and they send them up unmercifully. The fact that Python’s Life of Brian has been banned in Norway causes our hosts great glee and the Swedes have a poster tagging the film ‘So Funny it was Banned in Norway’.
We are then taken to the Tivoli Gardens for lunch and more filming. By now my head is clear, but my stomach is distinctly off-balance. I drink mineral water, eat more ham and eggs, but find to my horror after lunch that we are to be interviewed on the Big Wheel. I’m now feeling very queasy and not at all far from the point of uncontainable nausea.
Here I am, quite likely to be sick even if I just stand still, being loaded onto a big wheel compartment opposite a grinning interviewer, a cameraman and a sound man. The wheel moves up, we hang over Copenhagen then swing down, round, up again, going faster. Only desperate laughter at my plight and Terry’s touching concern and huge gulps of cool air as we swing up keep my stomach contents from being vividly reproduced on Danish television.
At last the living hell comes to an end and I’m quite proud to have survived. But the interviewer hasn’t finished, he wants more. High over the city we go – I really can’t answer any more. Even TJ is going groggy. ‘Alright,’ is all I can shout. ‘I give up! I give up!’ At the end of the torture I’m white and wobbling, something’s churning away inside. At last I can pause…No I can’t…We’re led away to be photographed doing funny things with the Danish comedian.
Then into the limousine, to be driven, with the dubious aid of stomach-lurching power-assisted brakes, to Danish radio. At last our Danish hosts seem to have got the message that I’m unwell, so I’m escorted carefully from the limousine and the first request is a ‘toiletten’ for Mr Palin.
Monday, August 25th
Work on the ‘Railway’ programme – looking through the video cassette and running and re-running. I’m very much encouraged, and there is enough in there to give a high-quality look to the programme – now all we need is a cohesive element of typical Palin stuff. I need to inject into the documentary what I can do best – which is not, clearly, being a straight documentary presenter.
Go out for a pizza in Hampstead, full of Bank Holiday revellers. We talk over ‘TB’. Terry is as positive about it as I’ve heard him since May. Highly excited by the battle scenes at the end.
I feel much encouraged by today – both on ‘GRJ’ and ‘TB’. At one time I was feeling that I have fallen between so many stools this year that I can only have done myself harm, but now it looks as though all the hard work and hassle may just have been worth it.
Monday, September 1st
School starts again – Rachel and Willy to Gospel Oak today, Tom to William Ellis tomorrow. Tom has tried on his blazer, matching shirt, dark trousers, dark shoes and hates them. I must say it’s a little sad to see him suddenly restricted by a uniform. Some loss of innocence somewhere.
Before I start work I have to go through the unnerving and slightly distasteful business of giving myself an enema – to clear out my bowels in preparation for a visit to the botty doctor this afternoon.
After squeezing the phosphate mixture in, I realise I’m unsure what an enema is quite supposed to do. Should I retain the fluid for a certain time? I’m downstairs looking up ‘enema’ in the Shorter Oxford Dictionary when events overtake me and I just reach the lavatory for ten or fifteen minutes’ worth of quite uncomfortable straining, with nothing to read but an article on the state of the economy.
Then to the Medical Centre. Talk with Alan Bailey, then meet Mr Baker, the botty doctor. He takes various particulars, then I’m led to a room next door with various contraptions lying about. My eye flicks over them, wanting – and at the same time, not wanting – to see the sort of thing which will be going up my bum.
The doctor enters, formally, from another doorway. I’m laid down, naked and with my legs up in my chest, and the ordeal begins. His first probings are, after penetration, not too bad, quite bearable, but the higher he gets (and I can feel this tubing peering and turning and twisting and thrusting up into my stomach) the more severe the pain.
I’m told to take deep breaths and I grasp the nurse’s hand tightly as he squeezes air and water into my bowels to enlarge them so he can see better. For some moments the pain is acute. I can feel sweat dripping off me. The worst thing is not knowing how long it will last.
Finally the pain eases and he begins to withdraw his instrument. Never have I been so glad to have an examination over. It turns out he’s been using a sigmoidoscope and 50 centimetres of thick, black tube. ‘Wonderful view,’ he says, disarmingly…‘Maybe you ought to do a postcard series,’ I suggest, but he doesn’t laugh.
Thursday, September 4th
Complete a rough draft of the new ‘Railway’ commentary by lunchtime. Then run on the Heath – it’s almost a year to the day that I began regular running.
I’ve kept at it, apart from two or three weeks on the ‘Railway’ documentary and a week in Cyprus. I’ve run in Central Park and across Fisher’s Island and pounded the lanes of Suffolk and the long hills between Abbotsley1 and Waresley and I’ve run in rain and snow and 80° sunshine. In darkness and on Christmas Day.
I do always feel better after a run. It’s as simple as that. And the physical well-being is very rapidly transformed into a feeling of mental well-being. Running makes me feel relaxed and gives me all the complex satisfaction of a test successfully completed, a feeling of achievement. I hope I shall still be at it in a year’s time.
Then I write some extra lines for David Warner in ‘TB’. Manage to get the word ‘sigmoidoscope’ into the script.
Saturday, September 6th
So full of the joys of spring today that I ring George H and invite myself over for the afternoon.
Have lunch in the garden, scan The Times, then leave, taking Tom and Willy and open-roofed Mini. In Henley an hour later. George is mending an electric hedge-cutter which cut through its own flex. As George tinkers in homely fashion with his garden equipment (‘I was an electrical apprentice,’ he assured me. ‘For three weeks.’) the boys and I swam in the buff in his swimming pool, surrounded by lifelike voyeuristic models of monks and nuns.
Then George took us in a flat-bottomed boat around the lake and at one point into water-filled caves. George told me that Crisp1 modelled one of the caves on the Blue Grotto on Capri and we went on to talk about Gracie Fields and how King Farouk [of Egypt] had been a great admirer and had come to Capri to live with her, but all his secret servicemen and bodyguards filled the swimming pool all the time and she eventually had to turn him out.
As we stood on the bridge surveying the lakes and the towers and turrets of the extraordinary house, George told me that he really wanted more space. He doesn’t want to have people anywhere near him. The other weekend he’d rung up Knight, Frank and Rip-Off2, as he calls them in friendly fashion, to enquire about a 1,600-acre farm in Gloucestershire next door to his old friend Steve Winwood. ‘Do you want all of it…?’ the man had enquired incredulously.
Thursday, September 11th
Basil Pao3 comes round for a sort of farewell meal together before he returns to his native Hong Kong for a long stay – perhaps permanent. I like Basil and feel warmth and trust and friendship easily reciprocated. Basil tells how he was known as ‘Slits’ for five years at his English public school and the reason he was sent to the school was because at the age of twelve he was a heroin runner for the Triads!
He outlines his novel, which is epic and sounds very commercial. Put him into a taxi about 12.45. Sad to see him go, but lots of good intentions to visit.
Friday, September 19th: Los Angeles
It’s ten minutes to five in the morning. I’m sitting at my desk in my suite at L’Ermitage Hotel on Burton Way in Los Angeles – Beverly Hills to be strictly accurate.
I try to sleep, but my mouth is dry from the air conditioning, so I get up and pour myself water – drink and settle down to sleep again. But my mind refuses to surrender – I notice the refrigerator as it rumbles suddenly into one of its recharging fits. It’s huge, much bigger than the one we have at home for our family of five, but only contains four bottles at the moment. And I can’t turn it off so I resolve not to worry about that – it’s something I must learn to live with, for Suite 411 at L’Ermitage will be home for the next 15 or 16 nights.
I must also learn to live with the air conditioning, which also boosts itself noisily every 45 minutes or so. And I must learn to live with the occasional hiss of water from an invisible tap somewhere near my head, and the metallic clangs and roar of igniting truck engines from the depot outside my window.
It’s a desolate time to be awake, the middle of the night. Even in America. I suppose I could watch television, but the thought of yielding to a very bad movie is worse than lying there trying to sleep.
Pour myself a glass of Calistoga mineral water – one of the four bottles in my massive refrigerator department. I tidy the room and try and improve my attitude towards it – to try to get to know it a little better.
The almost obligatory reproduction antique furniture of these hotels gives the place a sort of spray-on ‘Europeanism’. It’s called a Hotel de Grande Classe (which is an American phrase, not a French one, neatly translated by Neil Innes as ‘a hotel of big class’) and the place is carefully littered with books of matches and ashtrays. A table before the window has a basket of fruit, courtesy of the management, on it, a bowl of sweets which would set the children’s eyes popping, and a rose in a thin vase, which came up with my breakfast yesterday. There are reproductions of European artworks on the wall – I have the ‘Night Watch’ by Rembrandt behind me as I write.
Saturday morning, September 20th: Los Angeles
At 10.30 we all assembled in the lobby of the hotel and gradually trickled in the direction of our rehearsal room for a first look at the script. Rehearsal room is a vast hangar of a place, ten minutes’ walk from the hotel.
In this bleak great shed, full of Fleetwood Mac equipment in boxes with little wheels, we sit and talk through the show. A couple of short songs from the album are to go in – ‘Sit On My Face’ at the start of Part II and Terry’s ‘Never Be Rude to an Arab’ (though Terry does very much want to do his Scottish poem about the otter – this doesn’t impress over-much, though he auditions it courageously). John and Eric are doing ‘Pope and Michelangelo’ instead of ‘Secret Service’ and one of TG’s animations – ‘History of Flight’ – may be cut.
Afternoon spent running words – and making ourselves laugh as we renew acquaintance with the show and material we haven’t done together for over four years. In particular ‘Salvation Fuzz’ – perhaps the most anarchic and unruly and disorderly of all the sketches – gets us going. A very heartening afternoon.
Back to the hotel at five. Sit in the jacuzzi, talk with Neil and Richard Branson of Virgin Records, who is rather pleased with himself having this day sold off Virgin’s loss-making US offshoot. Apparently no-one was interested until he doubled the price, then they came right in.
Monday, September 22nd: Los Angeles
To rehearsal at 10.30. André is there, and also Mollie Kirkland – the very efficient stage manager, who worked on the City Center1 show. Both welcome and reassuring faces. Denis O’B looms in, beaming in such a characteristic Denisian way that we have all started doing it. He gives us all a copy of [Peter Nichols’ play] Privates on Parade, but is mysterious as to exact reasons why.
Apart from two thoroughly enjoyable run-throughs in our rehearsal cavern, there seems to be little really good news about the shows. Ticket sales are only at 50% so far. The costs are beginning to increase and Roger Hancock is threatening to pull Neil out of the show because of haggling from Denis.
We are all trying to avoid being dragged into all this peripheral activity and are concentrating on tightening, sharpening and adding to the show. And in this we have been successful – our approach and our spirit is much less tense than it was in New York.
After the afternoon rehearsal, out to Universal City to see Paul Simon in concert at the Universal Amphitheatre. It’s a spotless clean place, staffed not by bouncers, heavies, ex-army PT instructors and the general run of London concert toughs, but by endless numbers of bright-eyed college kids with red blazers.
The concert was clean and crisp too. Under a full moon with the almost unreal shadowy line of the Santa Monica Mountains in the background, Paul did his unspectacular but endearing thing, backed by a superb group of top session musicians playing with a disarming lack of big presentation.
The Jesse Dixon Singers came on and quite dwarfed Simon for a while with their polished, pumping Gospel songs. At one point I thought Paul had been literally swallowed up by one of the massive black ladies with whom he was duetting.
We ate, all of us, afterwards, and at two o’clock TJ swam.
Tuesday, September 23rd: Los Angeles
Wake at eight-ish…snooze, worry vaguely about voice and the Bowl, then up at nine for a lounge in the jacuzzi under the cloudy morning skies.
I feel time hanging so slowly at the moment.
John said he doubted whether the group could ever agree on anything again and reiterated that he himself no longer enjoyed writing in the group and had never wanted to repeat the 13 weeks of what he considers non-productivity on the script this year. It was history repeating itself. 1972 all over again.
A mood of determined resolution not to be brought down by John’s despondency grows. TG, away from so much of the Python meetings this year, is here, and Graham joins us too and we reaffirm a basic aspect of our work together, which JC and Denis O’B and others sometimes tend to cloud, which is that it’s fun.
To the Hollywood Bowl. Much standing around here and a photo-session distinguished by marked lack of enthusiasm amongst the Pythons. How old will we have to be to finally stop putting our heads through chairs, eating each other’s legs and rolling our eyes? Saw an obviously posed picture of the Three Stooges going through the same ordeal the other day – and they looked about 70.
Wednesday, September 24th: Los Angeles
The air is officially described as ‘unhealthful’ today.
I lunch with Denis O’B. He’s taking all of us away for little chats, but I think it’s a sign of the good health of the group that everyone reports back to the others.
He talks of the ‘family’. This is his concept of the group. A family in which we all do little creative tasks for each other. I know that he is moving around as he says this, prodding away, waiting for the opening to spring out – yet again – ‘Yellowbeard’! Yes, here it comes. I give a categoric no again. DO’B retreats.
Actually we have a good and open chat over things and he doesn’t talk high finance and he restrains his bouts of Denisian ‘glee’ to a little outburst about all the Warner executives who are coming to the show. ‘I tell you, Michael…there is so much interest…’
Drive myself up to the Bowl. Still the rig has not been finished. Neither of the 20-foot-high eidophor screens are up, but otherwise, with drapes now hung, the acting area is beginning to feel and look quite intimate.
We work on until midnight, then back to the hotel for a small party given for us by Martin Scorsese, who has a ‘condominium’ above us at the hotel. Delightful food, cooked by his chef, Dan; Dom Perignon and Korbel champagne, and Scorsese, who speaks so fast that at a recent film festival he had to have someone to repeat his English to the translator, before the translator even began.
Tells stories of Raging Bull, which is the picture he’s just done with De Niro – who at one point had to put on 60 lbs.
Friday, September 26th: Los Angeles
Drive down to Musso and Franks for a pre-show meal. TJ declares sensationally that this is the first time he’s ever eaten before a show. I remind him of last night. ‘Oh…yes…apart from last night.’
Back at the Bowl, five thousand paying customers. Denis has had to drop the lowest price from ten dollars to seven to try and fill up the extra seats. So there are about five and a half thousand folk out there for opening night.
The show goes well. The audience is reassuringly noisy, familiar, ecstatic as they hear their favourite sketches announced – and it’s as if we had never been away. A continuation of the best of our City Center shows. Thanks to the radio mikes my voice holds up.
Afterwards an extraordinary clutch of people in the hospitality room. I’m grabbed, buttonholed, introduced, re-introduced, in a swirl of faces and briefly held handshakes and abruptly-ending conversations. There’s: ‘I’m Joseph Kendall’s nephew…’ ‘I’m Micky Dolenz’s ex-wife…’ ‘We made the T-shirts you got in 1978…’ ‘Do you remember me…?’ ‘Great show…Could you sign this for the guy in the wheelchair?’
Finally we free ourselves of the throng and into the big, black-windowed Batcar, signing as we go, then smoothly speed off to a party, given for us by Steve Martin in Beverly Hills. His house turns out to be an art gallery. Every wall is white, furniture is minimal. The rooms are doorless and quite severe in shape and design. There’s a soft pile carpet and it’s all quiet and rather lean and hungry. In fact just like its owner.
Martin is very courteous and straight and loves the show. He isn’t trying to be funny and we don’t have to respond by trying to be funny. But his girlfriend does have a tiny – as Terry J described it – ‘sanforized’ poodle called Rocco, which pees with both legs in the air.
This is the comedy high spot of the evening.
Sunday, September 28th: Los Angeles
Have booked back four days earlier than I’d expected – on the Tuesday night flight. Back in London on the first day of October – all being well. Helen tells me Rachel cried herself to sleep after talking on the phone to me last Sunday, and asked for a photo of me to put beside her bed!
I don’t think I will go to Hugh Hefner’s tonight. Graham says it’s like getting into Fort Knox, but there’s no gold when you get in…
GC’s book Autobiography of a Liar [in fact it was called A Liar’s Autobiography] has been one of the features of this trip. Coming out at the same time as Roger Wilmut’s ‘History of Python’ – which is straight and competent and almost depressingly like an early obituary – GC’s is a sharp, funny, chaotic, wild, touching and extraordinary book. Written in great style, very lively, it’s already got TJ very angry about misrepresentation and JC greatly relieved, for some reason, that it doesn’t say unpleasant things about him.
Feel very much sharper and better prepared for the show tonight. Probably to do with being less tired. It was a good audience once again. Afterwards one of the scene boys said how much nicer we were to work for than pop groups!
Monday, September 29th: Los Angeles
Drive up to Hollywood Boulevard to buy toys, clothes, T-shirts, etc as presents. Everything’s there, including the names of stars like Sir Cedric Hardwicke embedded in the sidewalk outside a shop selling erotic lingerie. A sign reads ‘It’s not expensive to look chic, but it’s chic to look expensive’. Another LA motto.
Anne reckons our total BO take over the four nights will be 350,000 dollars – the total possible being 450,000. Not a crashing success, but we’ll cover costs. Any revenue will come from the TV sales, which Denis says will only fetch 300,000 dollars. There are, however, the invisible earnings that it’s impossible to quantify – record sales, movie re-run attendances, and just keeping the Python name up front there.
Tonight we have a film and a video camera backstage and the audience lights keep going up at strange times. But the audience stay with us and at the end a large section of them won’t leave. They wait up to half an hour for an encore we don’t have. There’ll be outraged letters in Rolling Stone about that.
Behind stage, in our small and ill-appointed dressing room beneath the Bowl, we entertain G Harrison, who looks rather shell-shocked after a trip to Montreal to see a Grand Prix, then a drive across the border to New York to avoid a Canadian air-controllers’ strike. It’s very good to see how he lights up with the satisfaction of seeing us all performing.
Anne has organised bottles for our dressers and drinks behind stage for our rather dour American crew, of whom only a handful have tried to make any contact with us at all – my favourite being a dwarf, who carted huge weights around, generally behaved like a roadie and had an easy, warm, approachable manner.
Eventually I was driven away from the Bowl to a party flung our way by H Nilsson, who lives in a house of modern, airy design, atop a ridge of mountain above Bel Air.
Harry Nilsson, so big, all-embracing, soppily friendly and sporting a complete and refreshing lack of the obligatory LA tan, moves around with his young son on his shoulder. Not drinking, either, as far as I could see. He’s terribly happy that George H has surprised him by turning up.
Saturday, October 4th
Today I’m up and out to buy the croissants and the papers. But London disappoints with its shabbiness, with the endless unswept, litter-strewn pavements and the lack of anything new and bright and lively.
A pint and a half of IPA at lunchtime with GC and John Tomiczek at the Freemasons. The remarkable thing about our meeting was that Graham had given up smoking. His most familiar landmark – the pipe with its attendant paraphernalia – proggers, matches, ashtrays and lumps of half-burnt tobacco – have, if he’s to be believed, been discarded for ever…
He says he’s not quite sure about what he’s done, but it was an impulse when he arrived at LA Airport last Wednesday evening and was confronted with some of the worst smog he’d ever seen in the city – so he’d decided not to add to it. So he hasn’t used this prop…that he’d had since the age of 14…for almost 72 hours. ‘Mind you, I’ve had to hit the Valium rather hard to make up for it.’
Tuesday, October 7th
Helen and I and parents and all the kids of Gospel Oak packed into All Hallows Church to give thanks for the harvest.
Rachel’s class sang a ‘Potato’ song to Mr Muxworthy’s guitar and babies cried as the vicar tried to defy the appalling acoustics of this strange Gothic Revival interior. Talked with Father Coogan afterwards – ‘Very Hampsteady food,’ he observed, looking down on a font with smoked salmon peeping out from behind Yugoslavian crispbreads.
Have instituted a ‘read-a-Shakespeare-play-a-day’ regime. More realistically, I’ve subtitled it ‘Read Shakespeare’s plays by Christmas and his sonnets by New Year’. Decide to read them through chronologically, as they were written, and completed Love’s Labour’s Lost today. Plenty of laughs and relentless wisecracking. A real Marx Brothers screenplay.
Wednesday, October 8th
Tom is twelve today. He says that ‘I only woke up at 5.30…that’s not bad…’ But he is now a fully-fledged adult as far as air travel goes, as I find out when booking a half-term holiday for us all in Ireland at the end of the month.
A depressing foray to Tottenham Court Road/Oxford Street to buy a new 8 mill film to show at Tom’s party. Depressing because of the domination in that corner of London of the awful, blinking, hypnotising spell of video…There is video equipment everywhere – video films, video games – and it’s like a giant amusement arcade providing a sort of temporary electronic alternative to listlessness. Lights flash and disembodied voices bark out of electronic chess games and football games. There doesn’t seem to be much joy around here.
Rather staid interview with the BBC at Broadcasting House. TJ does it with me.
The IBA ban on TV or radio advertising of Monty Python’s Contractual Obligation provides the main gist of the chat.
‘Do you think it’s filth?’ she asks us.
‘Oh, yes,’ we reply hopefully…and I add ‘and worse than that, puerile filth…’
The nice lady interviewer doesn’t know quite what to make of a comedy album called Monty Python’s Contractual Obligation and neither do we. But all parties try hard.
After the interview TJ and I go to eat at the Gay Hussar in Greek Street. I have quite delicious quenelles of carp and then partridge and lentils. We knock back a couple of bottles of Hungarian wine and admit to each other that neither of us really thinks the album we’ve just been plugging is much good.
After the meal we walk through Soho to the very hub of its wheel of naughtiness – to Raymond’s Revue Bar in Walker’s Court. Here there is a small auditorium called the Boulevard Theatre, where a new comedy club called the Comic Strip has just opened. For a long time after the Establishment folded there have been no such clubs in London, but recently the Comedy Store opened and now this. White and Goldstone1 are involved and this was the second night.
As we wait to collect our guest tickets, a demure voice announces ‘The second part of the Festival of Erotica is starting now…members of the audience may take drinks into the auditorium if they so desire…’ Sober-suited businessmen down drinks and shuffle off to the Festival of Erotica, whilst the rather scruffier, long-Mac brigade troop into the Comic Strip.
In a small, low room with a stage and seating for about 150, only the front two or three rows are full. There are about six or seven acts, including guests. One duo, calling themselves Twentieth Century Coyote, were excellent, with one superb performer. Targets seem to be the new establishment of the left – feminists, alternative society jargon, social workers.
In the intermission buy drinks in the bar and the Comic Strip trendies mingle with the Festival of Erotica straights, whilst two ladies rub and lick each other on a video film projected above the bar. TJ kept wanting to ‘just pop in’ to the Festival of Erotica, but we stay with the comics and talk to them afterwards. All very young. I wish them well…but the Twentieth Century Coyotes were the only ones I would really keep my eye on.
Tuesday, October 14th
Into town to see the two and a half hour first assembly of Time Bandits.
The effect of the wall sliding back in the room and the first fall into the time hole are stunning, then a series of very funny sequences – Napoleon, Robin Hood, Vincent and Patsy, David Warner and the Court of Eric and the Ogres – lift the film and involve me totally.
It really is the most exciting piece of filming I have seen in ages. I want to be cautious and I want to see all the problems and not be carried away, but the sum total of my impressions leaves me only with heady enthusiasm.
Wednesday, October 15th
Graham Chapman on Parkinson (the first Python to be there, I think). Quiet, pipe-less, subdued, but, as an ex-alcoholic homosexual, steals the show.
Thursday, October 23rd
J Goldstone rings to say that the Life of Brian appears to be making great progress in Barcelona. Starting slowly, it got good reviews and after two or three days audiences began to pour in. Now didn’t I always say I liked the Spaniards?
Write letters and babysit in evening as H goes off to badminton. Watch John Cin Taming of the Shrew. John gives an excellent performance. Controlled and clear, as you’d expect, and the quiet moments work as well as the screaming. Better, in fact.
He’s still not one of those actors who seem to start each new character from scratch, but he did make one listen to every word and as such did a much greater service to Shakespeare – and to J Miller, the director – than most of the other actors.
Friday, October 24th
The weather continues various. Today is bright sunshine, which makes a lunchtime visit to Shepperton all the more agreeable.1
First we visit the Ragtime lot, which has been built on the triangle of green fields below the reservoir, hired from the Thames Water Board. It’s been used sensationally. There are two long New York streets of the 1900’s, intersecting halfway. The J P Morgan Library and the brownstones look so solid and substantial and the cobbled streets and paved sidewalks and lampposts so painstakingly reconstructed, that after a few minutes in the middle of all this the only unreality seems to be the Friesian cows munching contentedly in the sunshine behind Madison Avenue.
Then to the newly-refurbished canteen and catering block, open now for two weeks. I feel quite elated at what has been achieved after three years of constant nagging, reaching desperation point so often that I almost gave up hope. But today what was so often a running sore on Shepperton’s reputation is now bright and gleaming and freshly-painted as a set for an ad. The kitchen, through which birds used to fly and, for all I know, nest, is now compact, clean and full of new equipment.
In the bar I meet Iain Johnstone,2 who is very surprised to hear of my directorship of Shepperton. Iain nodded to the restaurant. ‘The Gandhi mob are here.’ Richard Attenborough is indeed here, for a planning meeting for his forthcoming film on the great man.
Monday, October 27th: Ballymaloe House, Ireland
It’s raining at a quarter to seven when I’m woken by Rachel talking to herself. At eight we go down to breakfast – table with bright blue and white check cloth beside a long window of gracious Georgian proportions. Free-range eggs and bacon like it used to taste before it was sealed and suffocated in cellophane packets, and home-made bread and toast too thick and generously cut to fit in any toaster. This sets us up well for the day and, to improve matters, the rain sputters to a standstill about ten.
We play a word game, trying not to listen to the party nearby talking about operations, diets and how many times they’ve been on the verge of death (the next morning Helen hears the same woman, pen poised over postcard, asking at the desk how to spell ‘anaesthetic’).
Thursday, October 30th: Ballymaloe House
On Tuesday afternoon, with the wet weather cleared away and sunlight filling the house, Mel [Calman] idly suggested that he and I collaborate on a children’s story. I started work on Small Harry and the Toothache Pills that afternoon and completed it and another shorter tale, Cyril and the Dinner Party by Wednesday evening.
I’ve called them both ‘Ballymaloe Stories’ and given the scribbled pages (snatched from Rachel’s drawing pad) to Mel to think about. Mel says that he isn’t the right illustrator for the longer story, but will have a go on Cyril. So that’s all rather exciting.
Otherwise I have done very little. I’ve read a rather fine little book on the history of Ireland by Sean O’Faolain, published in 1943, which makes me stop and think. The English have done some dreadful things to this country in the last four centuries. Greed, adventure, religious conviction or plain bullying have all played a part and even in this quite restrained and tolerant account there is an awful lot to shame England and the English.
I shall hate Irish jokes even more. The lovely thing about the Irish and the way the jokes arise, is their literalness. They seem not to be a guileful people, they’re straight, direct, gentle, and yet very good at conversation, at describing beauty and at making strangers feel at their ease.
Our room is full of kids for most of the day, including the ubiquitous Cullin – he of the chunky thighs, who follows Rachel and is rather rough and Irish and makes her alternately excited – ‘Can you see what colour my knickers are?’ – and prudish – ‘Go away, I hate you…I do.’
Friday, October 31st: Ballymaloe, Cork and London
Last night Mrs Allen chatted to us for a while and said goodbye, as she wouldn’t be seeing us this morning. Mel tells me that when working on The Ballymaloe Cookbook with her, he found that she kept a little card about guests’ vagaries. Some are not welcome again. Against one man she’d written ‘Free with his hands in the evening’. Which all makes her sound a rather censorious, stern lady, but she’s far from it. She’s hardworking, capable, but very tolerant and entertaining. An excellent hostess.
I think we’re probably all ready to return to England. My run last night was quite a battle after another lunch, following another solid breakfast, following a fairly unrestrained dinner.
We reach Cork about 9.30, getting lost in the traditional manner. When there are signposts at junctions they invariably have only one arm and one destination (usually where you’ve come from).
TG rings. Paramount are not interested in Time Bandits. Last Monday there was a viewing for Filmways and apparently it went amazingly well. The Filmways head of production was jumping up and down at the end, grabbing TG and calling the film all kinds of success.
The next morning Denis rang TG to say that the Filmways board has rejected it. Too long, too British. TG said he was absolutely stunned at the news after the reaction at the viewing. Denis is now fighting (which he enjoys), but is getting twitchy about his money and the long interest rate on which he’s borrowed it.
Sunday, November 2nd
At 3.30 I drive down to BH for appearance with TJ on a chat programme. It’s ostensibly about the new Ripping Yarns book [More Ripping Yarns] and then is to be widened into a whole exploration of the technique, limitations, causes, effects and everything else to do with ‘humour’. The sort of thing I dread. A knitting machine operative from Oldham is to be on hand to ask searching questions and a man is on a telephone in Plymouth for further interrogation.
In the event the man in Plymouth never speaks and the poor man from Oldham is tongue-tied with nerves. So Jones and I rattle on and afterwards I have a glass of wine, sign some autographs and meet Kate Adie – a rather dynamic lady who tells me that she was with Princess Anne unveiling something in Darlington. It turned out to be a particularly unprepossessing plaque to ‘The Spirit of New Darlington’ and, as everyone applauded, Princess Anne leaned over to Kate Adie and muttered a heartfelt ‘Fuck me’.
Monday, November 3rd
Attempt to go to Python writing meeting at Anne’s on my bike, but the pump decides to treat me badly and sucks air out of the tyre. Abandon cycle for the Mini which decides, equally unhelpfully, not to start without much coaxing. So eventually arrive at this first meeting of Pythons Without John for Further Work on the New Film in an unrelaxed rush.
Anne has, I gather on Eric’s instigation, kitted out the downstairs room of 2 Park Square West as a Python writing place. We have a table and our own coffee machine and some flowers thoughtfully laid out on top of a filing cabinet.
Tuesday, November 4th
The weather seems to have London in an East European grip.
Still not enough to deter me from cycling to the ‘office’. There to find two bits of good news – Life of Brian, which, after much censorship to-ing and fro-ing, finally opened in Norway last week and has taken 100,000 dollars in the first three days. And in Australia the album has sold 25,000 copies in a couple of weeks and is now officially a gold album there.
Whether any of these pieces of good news actually strengthen our resolve to persevere with the new movie or not is debatable. But certainly our little room with its fresh flowers, fresh newspapers, fresh coffee and a ping-pong table is the nearest we’ve come to the Python clubhouse. But I don’t remember a great deal of work being done in clubs.
I watch the Carter and Reagan election. It’s very obvious that Reagan is going to win. I must confess I’ve never known why Carter has been so disliked in the US. Also I find it interesting how Reagan, whose initial candidacy was greeted with jeers and sniggers, is already being accepted as a sane and sensible leader of the Western World. No-one on the ITV panel really had the guts to say what they were saying about Reagan before he won. Now it’s all smiles.
Tuesday, November 11th
Tonight I go to see Babylon, a hard, uncompromising British film set in Brixton.1 The setting of the film and its subject make me feel very soft as a writer dealing with the Raj and with Robin Hood and railway trains. There is so much energy in the black music – so many good performances from the black actors that their repression should be seen at worst as a scandal – demanding more movies like Babylon – and at best a pointless waste of a national asset. For even in their most hysterical moment of frustrated rage against the white neighbours who tell them to shut up and go back to their own country, Trevor Laird yells ‘This is my fucking country.’ They’re here. We need them and we need their creative energy far more than we need the energy expended in hate against them.
As I leave there’s a black boy with a coloured knitted hat leaving up the stairs with me. Bouncing up with the arrogant, easy stride of the kids in the film. And I wanted to just make contact – say something about what the film had done to me. And I just didn’t know how to do or say it. I smiled and that was all.
Sunday, November 16th
To lunch with John and Linda Goldstone. A couple of actors from Shock Treatment – the follow-up to the Rocky Horror film – are there. One is an actress called Jessica Harper, who is in Stardust Memories. When John’s next guest – a bubbly, middle-ageing American who talks much about jet-lag – arrives, there occurs the following conversation:
‘This is Jessica Harper.’
Man: ‘Oh, I loved your new movie.’
Man’s girlfriend: ‘I loved your new movie too.’
Jessica H: ‘I’m so glad you loved the movie.’
Man’s girlfriend: ‘Oh, we really loved the movie.’
Man: ‘And you were great.’
Man and friend: ‘Oh we loved the movie.’
The man was Henry Jaglom, who’s got a movie called Sitting Ducks at the London Film Festival. He was very funny in a Jewish, improvisatory sort of way. I liked him a lot. His girlfriend, Patrice, was later seen by Helen taking 12 of the largest pills Helen had ever seen. Jessica Harper was a sweet, light, gentle lady who ate no meat and was of such a slight build she looked like a little doll.
And there was an actor called Cliff de Ville (or some such) who had seen us at the Hollywood Bowl and who, sadly for him, spoke and looked just like Jack Nicholson.
Thursday, November 20th
With trepidation to Owen the Feet, having vowed never to return to his shabby little Mornington Foot Clinic, with its fighting dogs in the waiting room and 100-year-old chair.
Today he seems more eccentric than usual and I wonder if he will extract some sort of vengeance upon me for shutting him up rather firmly last time. He injects my toe and gives me the electric needle cauterisation treatment. I was glad to be out of there with the toe still on. He told me that if it was painful in the next week to bear it.
Hobble into the Python meeting at 10.30.
At 12.30 J Cleese arrives to play with the Space Invaders game and watch the 60-minute video of the Hollywood Bowl stage show – which JC has been in charge of editing. All of us feel the sense of occasion is lacking. It is, after all, Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl and at the moment it’s just Python Live Against Black Drapes. TJ’s initial worry that it would look boring is borne out. I’m afraid it doesn’t excite any of us.
Should there be a possible 83-minute version for theatrical viewing? TJ and EI feel emphatically no, the rest of us would like to see one assembled. I feel that if the material is well done (and performances at the Bowl weren’t bad) and the cartoon film sequences are fresh, we could quite honourably sell it in France, Scandinavia, Australia and possibly Canada at least.
Tuesday, November 25th
Denis is in – having just arrived from the West Coast. Without a Time Bandits deal. So obviously he’s subdued. He asks me what we thought of the video of the Bowl. I said no-one was that elated by it, and there were very strong feelings in the group that we should not even attempt to make a movie version.
Travel-crumpled Denis went off to have a haircut (saying he had to look tidy tomorrow because he’s going to ask someone to lend him £2 million).
Wednesday, November 26th
Can actually feel the warmth of direct sunlight on my face this morning as I toil over post-synch lines for Time Bandits. Rachel sits beside me reading – she’s home with a sore throat and suspected flu.
Fortunately I’m in quite good creative flow at the moment and the lines come quite easily. I even find a couple of slogans (which I’m usually rather bad at). ‘Time Bandits – it’s all the dreams you’ve ever had. And not just the bad ones.’ (This is changed after I try it out on Tom, who immediately suggests ‘not just the good ones’!)
Reading The Wheels of Chance by H G Wells, which Jan Francis’s husband, a writer called Thomas Ellice, has sent me, hoping that I might be interested in the part of Hoopdriver.
I read the story in about three hours and liked it a lot. HGWells is a good comic writer – well in the Jerome K Jerome class and even better when he brings in the political angle – the Hampstead women with their New Way of life – and Hoopdriver becomes a full and rounded character, a nonentity who becomes a hero. I love leading characters who are introduced: ‘If you had noticed anything about him, it would have been chiefly to notice how little he was noticeable.’
Thursday, November 27th
I visit the eccentric chiropodist, Owen, at 9.30. He launches into a stream of consciousness about prices, his son-in-law, the Jewish mafia who run London Zoo.
He puts on some paste to further kill the beast straddling my toe, assures me it will hurt, tells me not to run for a week and, with a gloomy nod of the head, suggests that there are chiropodists about who wouldn’t have touched it at all.
George H rings. He had seen an assembly of ‘TB’ and been very worried by some of the ‘amateurish’ stuff between the boy and the bandits – at the end especially. He felt the film should be a lot shorter and had advised Denis not to hawk it around in its present state. All of which depressed me somewhat.
At nine my episode of the Great Railway Journeys is aired. I was relieved how well the programme held together. Most of the potentially embarrassing spots had either been ironed out or well-padded with music and sound effects.
I expect this will not be enough for the critics. But it was enough for me – and Barry Cryer and Angela and my mother – who thought it was the best of the series, ‘and not just because I’m your mother’.
Friday, November 28th
Pesky reviews. Telegraph generously lukewarm, Guardian crustily lukewarm, Mail happy. All stop short of personal vilification, all mention the pre-opening credits ‘confession’ piece as a good sign of comic delights to come and all register various degrees of disappointment that they didn’t materialise.
Drive down to Coram’s Fields to be present at the launching of a new ‘play kit’ (‘kit’ being a radical/progressive word for what used to be called in car showrooms ‘literature’). It’s being launched by Fair Play for Children, of whom I am a vice-president, to try and help teachers and play leaders with the problems of getting multi-racial kids to play together.
Neil Kinnock MP is there. He’s the Labour spokesman on education and carries with him a little notebook, pages scrawled with figures and notes. Gleefully he unearths some figures he’d given to Paul Foot about Heinz beans’ current ad campaign – buy Heinz products, collect the labels and you can exchange them for new equipment for your school. For 86,000 labels you can buy a video recorder and camera set. Kinnock did some quick sums, searched in his little book and came up with the triumphant result ‘That’s £21,000 for a video set-up.’
Glenda Jackson was also there – nice, friendly, open and quite unaffected. There’s a small video film made by the organisation, which typifies all their problems. Full of good intentions, but hopelessly over-serious in presentation. Not a smile in it. Just a dose of current sociological jargon. And this is all about play. I said I would be prepared to help their next video presentation. Glenda J agreed too – so they could have quite a cast!
Had to rush away at 12.30 to get to a Python meeting.
A successful read-through. Eric has written a classic – ‘The liberal Family’. GC has made some progress and Terry is very anxious to show Graham his penis. It has some deficiency which he is worried about.
Tuesday, December 2nd
Today we sit and stare at the board on the wall on which cards bearing the names of sketches have been hopefully pinned. Graham muses rather distantly and Terry and I sputter on. But around lunchtime it dies. We only have a working lunch – sandwiches on the table – and afterwards Eric, who has been in one of his silent spells, suddenly galvanises us all into working out a story.
The end of the world, 6,000 AD, the bomber with the Ultimate Weapon, all disappear and we build on the one constant of the month – the working-class family sketch of mine, a fabric of a story about – guess what? – three brothers of the Forbes-Bayter family and the rise to fame, wealth and power of Trevor from obscure working-class origins to become Prime Minister just as the final nuclear war breaks out.
It’s all in place by five o’clock, but I feel quite drained of energy as the room empties. I can hardly believe that after all this work and discussion we have come around to a ‘Ripping Yarn’ which Terry and I could have written in a fortnight on our own.
I find curious solace in talking to a reporter from a Boston, US, radio station. Anne revives me with a scotch and I quite enjoy answering questions from this perky little guy like ‘Do you think Britain’s really finished?’
Wednesday, December 3rd
I have to say as we meet that I do think the family story we worked out yesterday was a soft option and that the End of the World and the 90-minute countdown remains for me a much more striking idea and a more thoughtful subject altogether. There is no disagreement here and for a while it seems that we have two films. A ‘Yarn’ and an ‘Apocalypse’. Terry J loves the idea of making two films at the same time and showing them at cinemas on alternate nights – Monty Python’s two new films.
Friday, December 5th
To EuroAtlantic for the six o’clock Python meeting. Denis O’B has stage-managed the encounter quite carefully. There is an air of calculated informality and there are delicious Indian titbits to disarm us to start with – ‘No meat in any of them,’ Denis assures us, with a significant look at Eric.
Then one by one the various members of the EuroAtlantic team give us a report – which sounds less like a report and more like a justification, at times as blatant as a sales pitch, of their own usefulness. Even though John Cleese isn’t present they still sound intimidated and there is an unrelaxed air to the proceedings until Steve Abbott1 punctures it well.
The atmosphere is very different from the unalloyed enthusiasm of the New Dawn of Python beside the swimming pool at Fisher’s Island 14 months ago.
I drive Anne back at the end of the meeting and she is fuming.
I watch Points of View which says glowing and wonderful things about the railway programme – ‘The finest programme ever’ – and flatters me wonderfully. I really seem to have tapped the ageing, middle-class audience.
Saturday, December 6th
I take William over to Upton Park – not more than a 40-minute drive – to watch Sheffield Wednesday versus West Ham. The usual 10–15 minute walk from car to ground, but two tickets are waiting for us – £3.50 comps – left by the Sheffield trainer. And inside it’s perfect. A cold, but dry afternoon with a wintry sun lighting up the East Stand opposite us. There’s a crowd of 30,000 and an anticipation of good things to come. All the images with which the press have fed us over the last weeks and months of the danger and alienation of the football grounds are absent. I feel quite elated to be there with William and our thermos of hot chocolate and a brass band playing marching stuff over the loudspeakers and an Uncle Mac-type announcer advising the crowd to enjoy themselves judiciously – ‘Let’s keep the fences away from Upton Park’. And I notice for the first time the absence of the now increasingly common steel barriers to fence in the crowd.
Tuesday, December 9th: Southwold
At Gospel Oak Station by a quarter to nine to combine a visit to Southwold with my first opportunity to thoroughly revise the Time Bandits script for publication at Easter.
It’s a dull and nondescript morning – the shabby, greying clouds have warmed the place up a bit, but that’s all. I reach the station in good time. Holly Jones is waiting for her train to school, having just missed the one in front with all her friends on. It’s she who tells me that over in New York John Lennon has been shot dead.
A plunge into unreality, or at least into the area of where comprehension slips and the world seems an orderless swirl of disconnected, arbitrary events. How does such a thing happen? How do I, on this grubby station platform in north-west London, begin to comprehend the killing of one of the Beatles? The Rolling Stones were always on the knife-edge of life and death and sudden tragedy was part of their lives, but the Beatles seemed the mortal immortals, the legend that would live and grow old with us. But now, this ordinary December morning, I learn from a schoolgirl that one of my heroes has been shot dead.
My feelings are of indefinable but deeply-felt anger at America. This is, after all, the sort of random slaying of a charismatic, much-loved figure in which America has specialised in the last two decades.
Once I get to Southwold I ring George. And leave a message, because he’s not answering.
I work through for a five-hour stretch and we have a drink together by the fire and watch tributes to John Lennon, clumsily put together by newsroom staff who know a good story better than they know good music. And Paul McCartney just says ‘It’s a drag’ and, creditably I think, refuses to emote for the cameras.
What a black day for music. The killer was apparently a fan. The dark side of Beatlemania. The curse that stalks all modern heroes, but is almost unchecked in America – land of the free and the armed and the crazy.
Wednesday, December 10th
Arrive a couple of minutes early at Liverpool Street, enabling me to catch the five to six North London Line. Solemn rush hour travellers, preoccupied in themselves, until a man gets on with a watch which plays a ‘digital’ version of ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas’. This makes many more people than I’d expect start giggling. Which is heartening.
At home pick up car and race out to a meeting with Denis O’B at EuroAtlantic. All routine stuff, until Denis makes me a convoluted offer of 180,000 dollars to go to Sri Lanka (he shows me most alluring pictures) and take Helen and the kids for a while, early next year. I’m a little lost as to why, then suddenly the penny drops. He’s trying to get me to rewrite Yellowbeard again!
All I commit to Denis is that I shall have a first draft script of my own movie ready by the end of June, 1981. And that’s that. Denis does tell me, which I must say I find a bit surprising, that TJ has agreed to the Sri Lanka bait and will be working on Yellowbeard. I won’t believe this till I see Terry.
Tuesday, December 16th
Watched Ken Loach’s The Gamekeeper on TV. His lack of sensationalism and his delicate and seemingly effortless portrayal of real life amongst those people generally ignored by the commercial writers and directors is really admirable. He is, I think, the most consistently rewarding director working in Britain. But his marvellously observed celebrations of English working-class life will, it seems, never be as popular as the escapist gloss of Dallas. Which is a sad thing. Write 17 letters in reply to some of the 40 or 50 I’ve had as a result of the ‘Railway Journey’. Quite a different audience from the Pythons. Mostly 70 and retired, I think. Is this the Silent Majority?
Wednesday, December 17th
At one I leave for a Shepperton Board Meeting. Fortunately Ragtime are about six weeks behind, keeping the studio well-used over Christmas and into January.
One of the few things on offer in early ’81 is Yellowbeard. I’m not surprised to hear from Charles Gregson [a fellow director of the studio] that he was told that Yellowbeard was a Python film and that I was in it.
Thursday, December 18th
My foot is alarmingly red and a little swollen and Helen has looked in her books and is bandying words like ‘toxaemia’ around. I have two tickets at the Screen on the Hill for the first night of Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories. I hope that people will mistake me for an aged, but legendary film director as I drag myself, arm round Helen’s shoulder, up Haverstock Hill. Actually I feel more like a Lourdes pilgrim fighting off disease and imminent death just to reach the shrine of comedy.
The cinema is full and I like the movie very much indeed. But I can see that my appreciation of some of the scenes depicting horrific excesses of fan worship comes from having experienced this sort of thing and viewed from the other side, this could be seen as Allen kicking people in the teeth.
Though my foot still throbs angrily, I feel the worst is over. I have been cured by a Woody Allen movie!
Saturday, December 20th
The Irish hunger strikers have called off their action within 24 hours of the first expected death. This is the good news for Christmas – though how I abhor the naivety and dangerously ill-informed sensationalism of the New Standard billboards in Soho yesterday – ‘Total Surrender’. The demise of London evening papers over the last five years is terrible to watch.
HALFWAY TO HOLLYWOOD Copyright © 2009 by Michael Palin.