Eric Idle interview: ‘Are we interested in each other as individuals? Not in the slighest!’

The LA-based Python is masterminding the troupe’s reunion shows, and here he explains why, unlike Terry Gilliam and Michael Palin, he always looks on the bright side of life

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You’re directing the reunion shows and putting together the running order. Why have you been landed with all the hard work?
‘I was the only one who was available to actually do anything, having carefully positioned myself into a nice retirement position!’

Have you faced many challenges so far?
‘Well, the first thing I had to contend with was [the set designers] gave me a set concept that had huge holes in the stage with things coming up through them, like a Madonna show. I said, “Look, you can’t take the risk that on the first night one or two of the Pythons wander into the holes and the other nine nights are cancelled.” The show is costing over £3 million, so it’s not like we put it all in our pocket. This is the worst I’ve ever been paid for nine months’ work! It’s not for the money for me. After 50 years of knowing these guys, what a great joy it is just to be able to get together and do this thing for the last time.’

So this is definitely the end?
‘It’s got to be the last time. We’re having a “last night”, which I love, it’s very classy. We’re not going to become the Eagles, trolling around the world or whatever. We haven’t even met since October. Once Michael said he didn’t want to do any more, I said: “absolutely, let’s make it a farewell.” The Beatles never had that chance, to do a last night. So it’s very cool to have that happening in your life at such an enormous age.’

Michael Palin didn’t want to tour the show across the world, then?
‘Pretty much. When we were asked it was just for one night, nobody said, “Oh, by the way, let’s all cancel everything we’re planning to do for two years.” That’s always been the Python way: nobody’s forced into doing anything they don’t want to do. We were offered America, Australia, Canada, South Africa. And some people who have got more debts were more keen than others!’

I guess Palin has seen quite a lot of the world already… He also said recently that he thought a lot of Monty Python was ‘crap’.
‘He can say that but I think it’s a shame when people start abusing their own work. I’m not saying, “Oh, we’re all great”, but it’s not really our place to make those judgements. So what? If people like it, why abuse it for them?’

Do you worry that the shows will dilute the Python legacy?
‘Oh, I hope so. There’s nothing that could be better than that. We didn’t ever do comedy for legacy, we did comedy to make people laugh, and we’ll do it for exactly the same reasons this time.’

Eric Idle (left) in 'Monty Python's Meaning of Life'

Eric Idle (left) in 'Monty Python's Meaning of Life'

Terry Gilliam has said that he finds it ‘depressing’ that you’re getting back together.
‘Oh, he’s such a little arsehole! He’s got to be the one that’s always more holy than everybody else. I’m sure he’ll carry on talking it down, but he’s always a bit bitter like that, you know? I mean, how’s his film doing? He’ll be saying he’s the only real artistic one, but that’s because he equates artistic success with box office failure [laughs].’

You’ve said one of the key things about Python’s success was that you ‘don’t have the slightest interest in each other as people’. Were you friends?
‘We’re all friends in that we’ve known each other far too intimately for far too long. But are we interested in each other as individuals? Not in the slightest! We all have our own intellectual and creative lives going on, which is much more important to each one of us individually.’

Have there been many disagreements over the years?
‘Oh, we’d fight over what sort of chairs to use! But disagreement was the healthiest form of collaboration. If you had a sketch, and the Pythons laughed, you knew it was funny. If they stop laughing, they would then say, “It was funny until that happened,” and then they would say, “So what if this happened?” Criticism opened the door to where we would go next. That’s always been the whistle test for us: read it, does it make us laugh? If it does it’s in, if it doesn’t we sell it to the Two Ronnies.’

Which sketch are you most looking forward to performing at the O2?
‘Well, I’ve only recently turned my attention to the fact that I’ve actually got to perform this damn thing too, so I’ve been hiking up the [Hollywood] Hills trying to get fit! I’m looking forward to doing Anne Elk – that’s one I’ve never done. We’ve updated Blackmail, now that we have the world of the tabloids to help us.’

You’ve said that Graham will be there ‘in spirit’. How is he going to be part of the shows?
‘Luckily we have film footage of him – he’s even going to sing, for fuck’s sake! You can’t ignore Graham, he will be present and recognised and saluted.’

Will you be jazzing up the old material with topical references?
‘There might be a bit. But the fact is we’re all septuagenarians. The combined age of this cast is over 360. We’ll do whatever makes us laugh, which has always been our basic light motive. It’s a nostalgic farewell. And it’s better than a fucking funeral!’

Monty Python Live (Mostly) – One Down, Five to Go’ is at the O2 Arena, Jul 1-5, 15, 16, 18-20. Tickets available through montypythonlive.com and 08448 560202 ‘The Last Night of the Pythons’ will be broadcast live to cinemas on Jul 20. ‘Monty Python Sings (Again)’ is released on Jun 30.

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Michael Palin – Travelling to Work

Former Monty Python member-turned global adventurer Michael Palin talks about his world travels over the last two and a half decades plus his adventures as part of the Python gang.

  1. Palace Theatre Shaftesbury Avenue, W1D 5AY
  2. Mon Oct 20
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