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Why Python great Eric Idle’s autobiography isn’t all about him

Eric Idle. Photo/Supplied

Somewhere in the middle of an otherwise jolly pleasant conversation, which Eric Idle is conducting from the back of a car somewhere between Bath and Manchester, a question seems to have hit a nerve.

It’s just that his autobiography, Always Look on the Bright Side of Life, is a celebrity memoir featuring rather a lot of other celebrities. What a cast. There’s David Bowie and Mick Jagger carrying Idle’s wedding cake. There’s Idle at Bowie’s wedding. There’s Idle with George Harrison, who put his Beatle money into Monty Python films, became a good mate and cameoed in the Fab Four satire and early mockumentary All You Need is Cash (“It was one of the best shows I ever wrote and directed”).

On some pages, the load of illustrious names suggests the book should have been printed on red carpet and delivered by limousine. Idle makes fun of it, though. Chapter 20 begins: “I have many people in my life and, sadly, many of them were not famous. I agree it’s not their fault, though they might have tried harder.” 

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But when you start a question about all those names dropped, Idle jumps right in. “Well, I tried to write about dull people who lived in New Zealand but I thought I am not going to do that,” he says in that jovially sarcastic way of his.

“Remember this, Lytton Strachey wrote Eminent Victorians, he didn’t write about extremely dull Victorians nobody has heard of.”

Er, quite. The first half of the book is a breezy dash from being a wartime baby, boarding school, finding his comedy feet at Cambridge and writing for radio and television, to the stars aligning for Monty Python’s Flying Circus on television, then movies. The famous friendships dominate the second half (Prince Charles once asked Idle to be his jester over dinner at Billy Connolly’s place), as does the late-career Broadway success of his musical Spamalot. Idle also reflects on directing the 2014 Python London stage reunion and, soon after, recounts a side trip to Palmerston North. There, while on tour with John Cleese two years ago, he scaled Mt Cleese, the mound of landfill so named at the suggestion of John Clarke after Cleese said unkind things about the Manawatu metropolis. Idle had his photo taken on the summit, complete with the sign installed by the local council.

“I was able to tell John the name was clever abuse from a funny Antipodean. He was a lot happier then.”

The initial impetus for the autobiography, Idle says, was Python’s 50th birthday next year.

“I thought, I had better be prepared, and if I’ve done my book I can say ‘see page 226’.” It follows recent memoirs from Cleese and Terry Gilliam and multiple earlier volumes from Michael Palin. (“He never stops. It’s all about him, modest little fellow.”) It wasn’t a book deal that got him started. He wrote it, edited it and sold it to the highest bidder.

“It’s not like you are bullshitting them six months ahead saying this will be about this, that and the other. They just read it and either they like it or they don’t.

“I don’t like people employing me. I can’t stand people trying to help me.”

As he wrote and redrafted, he found the book wasn’t just about him and his famous mates. He’s talking about his generation. “I’m privileged to belong to it and we, of course, were the comedians. The rock ’n’ roll people had been on the road since 16, but we didn’t get to work professionally until we were about 24 or 25, when we were lucky enough to go into television because it was wide open.

“The thing is, we were hunted down by all the rock stars. It wasn’t the other way round. I was at a time in my life when I was able to go out and play. I wasn’t encumbered by a wife so I was able to accept their invitations and I had a great deal of fun doing it … and I only like funny people or people who play guitars.”

Always Look on the Bright Side of Life: A Sortabiography by Eric Idle (Orion/Hachette, $37.99)

This article was first published in the December 15, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.