Dr Karen Oughton, my partner in crime back at Film4 FrightFest this summer, has checked in with coverage of A LIAR'S AUTOBIOGRAPHY – THE UNTRUE STORY OF MONTY PYTHON'S GRAHAM CHAPMAN straight from the London Film Festival. Before her full review of the film goes live, here's her piece on the press conference that featured two mighty Pythons in action, and a short audio interview from the red carpet with directors Bill Jones, Jeff Simpson and Ben Timlett.
A gaggle of film reviewers desperately trying to hide their inner fanboys faced some of the filmmakers behind the new Monty Python film, A LIAR’S AUTOBIOGRAPHY – THE UNTRUE STORY OF MONTY PYTHON’S GRAHAM CHAPMAN at London Film Festival this week. Those in attendance were Chris Hewitt, Pythons Terry Jones and Michael Palin, directors Bill Jones (Terry’s son), Jeff Simpson and Ben Timblettt, and Justin Weyers (animation producer). The film mixes the long-dead Graham Chapman’s audio-recorded diaries with animation and voiceovers from Jones, Terry Gilliam, Palin and John Cleese to provide an insight into what it was like to be, and indeed to live with, Chapman. We hadn’t yet seen the film owing to a technical glitch, but the boys explained the film in a way that brought back the absurdity, intellect and downright Englishness of everything the Pythons stand for. They had us from the second the cardboard cut out of Chapman, complete with military suit, was plonked in his place at the end of the table.
Comedy magicians indeed, they stated their hope to “elaborate his achievements”, doing effectively nothing less than bringing him back from the dead in true Jesus style. As a result, they have tried to recreate the time the Pythons were as big as the Beatles and it must be said that there was some spiffing spirit in the room. Michael Palin in particular was on twinkly form (as they must have known, positioning him in the centre). Terry Jones did rather fox one or two interviewers in the audience with his lack of knowledge of popular culture and looking somewhat perplexed at the notion that he might possess a television set.
The primary focus on the conference itself was (naturally) around what it meant to be a Python, starting with Chapman himself. What proved particularly interesting was the contrast between the different versions of the man that were remembered. At one end of the scale, Michael Palin was at pains to inform us that Chapman was incredibly silly, sillier than the rest in fact, and would often say something in this vein after being quiet for a time, sometimes to their irritation. This notion of an almost schoolboyish unreconstructedness contrasted against Jones’ answer on being asked whether he understood Chapman. He stated, “He [Chapman] didn’t understand himself. He’d have probably gone straight in the end. He styled himself as an alcoholic.”
Herein lies the Chapman that the film truly presents. The Python boys appear to view him as someone who could be delightfully daft, but he was also very much a performer who played with himself, play acted and could be bloody irritating in the extent to which he would do so. What comes across very much on meeting these men is the extent to which rather than purely being the silly-voiced loons who subverted the stuffy English stereotype, they were also produced by it. The Pythons (barring Gilliam) are so-called ‘Oxbridge men’ – people who went to the most highly-regarded and supposedly stuffiest universities in England at a time when going to university at all was not the norm. From there, as Palin commented, they set about being “surreal and trying to break down what comedy was”. As Palin puts it, comedy to them was an intellectual, almost scientific exercise about what the vital components of a composed humorous performance were, rather than simply trying to be funny, before adding hastily that they were all just being silly. They were, after all, all highly intelligent businessmen who found a way to differentiate and sell themselves as a product within the industry, and Python taught them to “preserve their independence”, as Palin commented.
For Graham, his identifications seem to them to have been as much about marketing as his own self-perception. He was a homosexual who had a flirtatious but often fractious relationship with the sometimes derogatory word “poof”. Even Jones’ notion that he might have “gone straight” appeared both whimsical and mildly perplexing, as he recounted that Chapman considered himself a “30/70 homosexual”, having completed scientist Alfred Kinsey’s sexuality-discovery questionnaire. This was at a time when very few media personalities indeed were out in the media, and it was noticeable that both at the press conference and on the red carpet event later, each of the directors carried a Chapmanesque pipe – a prop he carried supposedly to appear more butch. The man who emerges from his friends’ memories was one considered to be postmodern before the word was really known and who essentially forced them on the ride with him.
Perhaps the most touching aspect of the press conference was the level of remembered awe in the Pythons’ eyes when describing what it was like to work with Chapman, when the inevitable questions regarding THE LIFE OF BRIAN were posed. Chapman played the lead roles in both BRIAN and THE HOLY GRAIL, to the annoyance of Cleese as is already known. The reason for this, as Jones explained, was that despite Chapman’s preoccupation with his own identity, he “looked surprised to be [on screen]” and was certainly not ‘acting’. This despite having a charisma that meant Jones stated he couldn’t take his eyes off Chapman even though he was not necessarily the one being funny at that particular time. Indeed, so strong was this that Jones commented that even when recording their roles for the film, “it just felt natural to have Graham’s presence in the studio”.
The presence in the room of this man was absurdly palpable while his picture pondered us from the table with a mock-quizzical eye. It conveyed the rebelliousness that Jones evidently still loves and the silliness and sadness that are bundled up in the man whose voice and thoughts are heard in A LIAR’S AUTOBIOGRAPHY. Those closest to him seem as perplexed and awed by him as the rest of us: Chapman (pipe in place) has risen again.
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