I came across this clip of John Cleese on Seth Meyers’ last week and heard a story behind the making of Monty Python and the Holy Grail that made me slam on the brakes. Cleese talks about the difficulties behind the making of the film, citing the unbelievably wet and gloomy conditions of shooting in Scotland. What struck me hard however was the difficulty in raising capital to make the film in the first place. As Cleese tells it, the budget was so tight that they literally couldn’t afford horses (thus spawning the unforgettable clinking coconuts).
As a child, I was raised on the irreverent humour of English comedy. TV shows like Mr. Bean and Fawlty Towers were a huge influence and I devoutly revered the rag-tag troupe of gentlemen goofballs that was Monty Python. They seemed to inhabit a different universe, one that surpassed the banalities of everyday life. To discover that my childhood heroes had wallowed in financial purgatory like the rest of us suckers was like finding out Santa Claus was just a beer-bellied bloke on the dole.
Even more unbelievable was the story behind the funding for their follow up film Monty’ Python's Life of Brian — one of their most commercially successful films and my personal favourite. The film is a biting satire set around Jesus Christ’s final days, as seen through the eyes of a bumbling sack of potatoes who accidentally creates a cult of personality and sentences himself to a martyr’s fate. I like to remember the ending on the mountain top, the whole crucified cast joyfully singing ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’ in unison.
More importantly the film was brought to life with the financial support of George Harrison, the former baby Beatle. He would go on to invest over a million pounds in the production for the simple reason he made plain: “I want to see the movie." When I was growing up, Harrison eluded my sights, overshadowed by The Beatles key songwriters. That all changed when I finally sat down with Martin Scorsese’s enthralling documentary George Harrison: Living In The Material World. The portrait knocked my socks off and made me repent my sins.
Harrison was a fiercely independent spirit; an indomitable presence that always led with his heart. He was a brilliant musician in his own right (His first album produced by Phil Spector is one of my all-time favourites) while further investigation led me to discover that HandMade Films, Harrison’s production company, went on to produce some of my favourite English films from the 1980s including Withnail & I and The Long Good Friday.
For those willing to murder an hour of their life, check out this amazing BBC debate on the ethics of Life of Brian from the late 1970s. In typical English fashion, its effing ridiculous.