They are so iconic that seeing them in person is like watching them step out of your television set. Yesterday morning at the London Palladium, the home of variety entertainment in the UK, Monty Python held a last press conference before their series of live shows kicks off and countdown commences toward the end of the line for the most influential group of sketch performers this country ever produced. Sculptures of cherubs and gargoyles look down on the pensionable quintet, contrasting nicely with an angel in high heels, created by Terry Gilliam for the promotional image which looms large behind them. The giant foot rests in a graveyard but there’s nothing quiet about this plot.
Cleese, Gilliam, Idle, Jones and Palin are as generous with their time and open to query from the world’s journos as they can be. They’re great company and there is little evidence of the tensions that characterize their story, aside from the odd moment of irritation at particularly inane questions. It’s tough to find a still from the event which doesn’t find one of them anxious and guarded. Hardly surprising – on the BBC’s Imagine documentary Alan Yentob read out some especially barbed comments from the Daily Mail, who described them as shrivelled and overrated. Personally I can’t see it. The team are far from frail and have the air of wealthy if wary men, though the real test will be when they take to the stage for an all-singing, silly-walking extravaganza in the musical revue style prevalent during their rise to prominence in the Sixties.
Before they appear onstage there is a guest appearance from Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts, followed by a montage of clips from rehearsals. From this we can see the Lumberjack and Parrot sketches are making an appearance, mixed in with an energetic troupe of dancers that are kitted out either as Vikings or lingerie models depending on the scene. It is also revealed during the interview that Professors Stephen Hawking and Brian Cox will feature amongst the mayhem. But enough about the supporting characters. Let’s get to Part One (Yes, there’s more to come!) of the horse’s mouth from the men we came to see…
The video we saw there gentlemen, that was from a dress rehearsal I guess…
Eric Idle: Friday night’s dress rehearsal yes. Not the good one, the bad one.
I think the last time you performed together was the Hollywood Bowl wasn’t it?
Eric Idle: We did four nights of that, and that was 1980 I believe…?
Terry Jones: All the audience were smoking marijuana, so when John and I went into the audience we came back pretty high.
Terry Gilliam: What drugs are going to be available at O2?
Michael Palin: Viagra. Lots of Viagra in the dressing room.
We saw some favourites up there… New material I think is what a lot of fans are looking for, what’s it been like writing together again?
Eric Idle: We’ve added a lot of songs and music to it. In fact we’ve sort of brought back musical revue, which is what used to be a form in the Fifties and nobody’s ever done it since, probably for very good reasons… I would say it’s pretty filthy, don’t you think? I’m happy and proud to say it’s really rather filthy.
John Cleese: The main point to make is that it’s much more complicated and, I suppose, spectacular… Certainly I realized when we sat down for the read-through first time, cos Eric’s done a wonderful job, brought in a lot of musical stuff using his Spamalot experience and so the show’s much bigger. In fact I was just talking to one of the producers who told me the show itself cost four and a half million pounds, which is quite a big figure. For example it’s pretty much what Queen are spending on their shows and they’re doing forty shows.
Eric Idle: And I think one should say that Arlene Phillips is doing the choreography and she’s just absolutely fabulous, so we’ve got some very hot boys and girls onstage. It’s important to have some rather more attractive people onstage with us…
Michael Palin: Youth!
And when it comes to writing, are you writing in the same groups you were before?
Eric Idle: It hasn’t been like that. That process hasn’t been like that. It’s something we talked about and I asked everybody what they wanted to do, what was their favourite sketch, to do on the last time out… And they gave me a list of things and I went away and assembled things and then we got together and read it and criticized it, did it again and it’s been sort of evolving…
Michael Palin: I do think that we should do the classics, I mean people are going to want to see the sketches they all talk about, so that wasn’t a question of writing new material, it was just fitting in the good old material into a nice new format.
Terry Gilliam: The show doesn’t feel anything like the original show to me… It really is a very high-powered, energetic show, especially for seventy year-old men. I think the most interesting thing is the backstage, if any of you get a chance to watch the backstage show… people at this age moving at the speed which we’re capable of is quite extraordinary.
Eric Idle: The question was how to fill that arena. And I know stand ups do it, but then (it’s like) everyone’s watching television. One person, one mic, all watching television. We wanted to give them something a bit more. Our motto has been “Leave them wanting less.” But we did want to add a lot of stuff and make it a big show and go out with a bang.
Michael Palin: The opening number’s quite energetic… I’m quite worn out, even after the first number… A kind of madness takes over and you leap about at a certain point… Well I do anyway.
Terry Gilliam: Yes, it’s the next day you realize what you’ve done to your body.
The show is called One Down, Five To Go and there is a missing Python. What do you think Graham Chapman would think about this if he were here?
John Cleese: He wouldn’t have a clue what was going on!
Eric Idle: He’s onscreen of course, and he even sings the last number (Christmas In Heaven) so… We’re obviously trying to make his presence noticeable and show he’s not totally absent and he’s certainly not forgotten.
Michael Palin: I miss him really. He was a very good actor Graham, very good stage actor… slightly puzzled way of approaching everything.
Terry Jones: I mean, he was our leading man in LIFE OF BRIAN and THE HOLY GRAIL. He was our leading man and never knew it.
John Cleese: He had a strength and a power that none of us had.
Michael Palin: He was always late. That’s the problem, he was never there. Strength and power but he couldn’t do Shakespeare, he’d arrive halfway through the third act.
And now, for some video for you:
Join us soon for Part Two, where the floor is thrown open to the global media, the individual Pythons talk about their future plans and the subject matter becomes decidedly random…
Monty Python Live (Mostly) or One Down Five To Go (#OneDownFiveToGo) starts this evening at the O2 Arena.