ERIC IDLE'S THE OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT --
ERIC IDLE IS THIRD PYTHON TO BECOME AUTHOR-OF-CHILDREN'S BOOKS
by Hans ten Cate
Wednesday, 12 February 1997

Last October, Eric Idle joined Michael Palin and Terry Jones in the prestigious club of Monty-Python-Members-Turned-Authors-of-Children's-Books. He has written a marvelously entertaining and humorous book called The Quite Remarkable Adventures of the Owl and the Pussycat. This is Eric's first venture into the realm of children's literature. Terry Jones has written quite a few children's books already, as has Michael Palin. Terry Gilliam, of course, gets honorable mention for the 1989 novelization of the Baron Munchausen script.

Eric's Owl and the Pussycat, is based on an Edward Lear poem and other works and drawings by the 19th century painter and author. "One day I found myself reciting to my daughter Lily the poem of The Owl and The Pussycat," said Eric. "Like most children she fell under the spell of its charm. I realized that its fabulous combination of love story, adventure and happy resolution would make a great musical subject... [Lily] was really struck by it and I decided to sing it to the guitar. Then I thought, well, let me write the story."

The original poem appeared in Lear's Book of Nonsense which, like most of Lear's works, was about as silly as most Monty Python sketches and didn't make much sense. Eric explained that in the poem, "...there is no explanation of who they [the owl and the pussycat] are or how they meet... or why they do such a bizarre thing as putting to sea with only some honey and plenty of money wrapped up in a five pound note. This left Act One very much open. It was my job to construct the back story, to create a reason for them to sail for a year and a day to the land where the Bong Tree grows."

Eric's version tells the story of an owl and a pussycat who set off on an adventure to strange lands to rescue the Bong Tree, a magical tree that walks, talks, swims, and goes shopping. No, this is certainly not the Legendary Walking Tree of Dahomey, popularized in an old Monty Python sketch, but even adults will find a number of funny and poignant comments to enjoy here. In one passage, the owl and the pussycat come across an exotic plant, the Manypeeplia Upsidownia, which consisted of a great many people hanging around, all talking a great deal of nonsense. "It's just like the government!" observes one character in the book.

In fact, Eric makes sense where Edward Lear's poetry left utter nonsense. That was Lear's style, of course. But Eric thought it might be fun to turn Lear's poetry and drawings into a work that might be even more appealing to kids, maybe an animated film. "In 1993," Eric said, "John Du Prez and I were casting around for a subject for an animated musical." The owl and the pussycat quickly became the subject for the effort. "John and I began by writing some songs... we sat in an old stone cabin in Provence, John with his keyboard and me with guitar and bashed out about twenty songs, which we stuck in some kind of order on battered cork boards. I then began the writing task. This continued off and on for three years. "

Eric ran the idea of an animated film by famed director Steven Spielberg, who pointed out that animated films starring animals typically do not do very well (although Spielberg was proven wrong when The Lion King opened a few weeks later). A major movie studio also toyed with Eric's story for a while, much to Eric's chagrin. So the idea of a movie was replaced with a children's book and an audio tape featuring Eric Idle as narrator. Eric also performs most of the songs he composed with Du Prez. You could almost expect Eric to launch into the ribald tales of Ricky the Magic Pixie and Daisy Bumble... "He found her in the bedroom. Roughly he grabbed her heaving shoulders, pulling her down on the bed hurridly and ripping off her..." well, you get the picture...

For the complete personal account of Eric's trials and triumphs as children's book author, visit his Owl and Pussycat web page here on PythOnline! You can also order the book and the audio cassettes from the PythOnline giftshop.


SIDEBAR:

Edward Lear (1812-1888) -- Edward Lear was an English painter and humorist who, for a brief period, even gave Queen Victoria painting lessons. He spent most of his life abroad, traveling extensively on painting tours through the Balkans and the Middle East. He was obscure and poor and would probably have remained so but for the publication of A Book of Nonsense in 1846 which was an overnight sensation. The book included the poem The Owl and the Pussycat, which is as popular today as it was then.


Notes:

  • "The Walking Tree of Dahomey Sketch," Monty Python's Flying Circus, Season Four, Show Six (5 December 1974)
  • "Children's Story Sketch," Monty Python's Flying Circus, Season One, Show Three (19 October 1969)

    Sources:

  • Lynne Heffley, "Eric Idle Puts His Own Spin on 'Owl and the Pussycat" in The Los Angeles Times, Tuesday, November 5, 1996, Family Section
  • Eric Idle, The Quite Remarkable Adventures of the Owl and the Pussycat, A Dove Kids Book, Los Angeles, 1996