David Morgan, Monty Python Speaks!, Fourth Estate, 1999
David Morgan's Monty Python Speaks is a nicely understated collection of interviews with the surviving Pythons twenty to thirty years after their heyday. Having had sufficient time to reflect on the whole phenomenon, they give us some candid and revealing insights into what it was like to produce the TV shows and films, and to work with each other. The overall impression is that they were and are pleasant, funny and intelligent men; any character flaws only make them all the more interesting.
Morgan wisely keeps out of the Pythons' way and lets them do most of the talking. His intros and summaries hit the mark well: not too effusive in their praise and idolisation of the group (he lets the fact that he's written a whole book about them speak for itself), and not trying to be 'wacky' or (God help us) 'zany'. He knows his Python facts, and asks the right questions.
His only questionable choice is the inclusion of some older interview material among the recent 1998 interviews: specifically, an interview with Michael Palin about appearing in Terry Gilliam's Brazil. Fascinating stuff, but its appearance only makes apparent the lack of any in-depth discussion of other relevant non-Python films, like Jabberwocky (which, coming as it did between Holy Grail and Life of Brian, is worthy of some comment and analysis—even if it wasn't a Python film as such).
That aside, there are plenty of revealing moments. The financial precariousness of their early days is made clear—the shoestring budgets on the first BBC series, and on Holy Grail—as is the adverse effect of having too much money and too comfortable a lifestyle when making The Meaning of Life. You can't help but wonder if editor Julian Doyle's excellent suggestions for strengthening that film's ending, outlined here, would have been passed over quite so readily if it had been made by the Pythons in their younger and keener years.
There are also staggering moments: none worse than learning that the company that owned the negs and outtakes to Life of Brian, in an apparent fit of pique over Python's legal efforts in the late 1980s to get them to do the right thing by the film, threw out the lot. No more Otto and his crack suicide squad; a crying shame. (But then, the BBC was responsible for much worse in the 1980s, throwing out whole series of classic television left, right and centre; we're lucky that Python wasn't affected by that.)
The best aspect of the book is its portrait of the group dynamic: they truly were the Beatles of comedy, and like the Beatles could never have been quite the same without any one of them. This has been particularly obvious since the death of Graham Chapman, who emerges—as some of us already suspected—as the true Spirit of Python. An alcoholic, a frustrating lazy sod to work with, a fairly ineffective comedian outside the context of the group, and: a comic genius. No doubt about it. This passage, for me, summed up Chapman, and with it Python:
John had written [a sketch] by himself. It was based on something that made him very, very cross ... he'd been sold a faulty toaster and he was going to complain about it.... It was a beautifully written, beautifully crafted sketch, good sort of pear shape to it, and Graham must have listened to it or read it. As the story goes John was feeling a bit cross that he'd done all this work and Graham was merely sitting there, and Graham's only remark was, 'Yes, it's boring, why not make it a parrot instead?' (Douglas Adams)
Taking something already funny and giving it that twist that makes it unforgettably, insanely funny: that was the essence and brilliance of Python. This book is the perfect reminder of it.