interview by Hans ten Cate
Sunday, 28 September 2003

Bob McCabe, who is perhaps best known to Python and Terry Gilliam fans as a chronicler of Gilliam's film efforts, is now also the editor of the monumentally huge and very new book "The Pythons: Authobiography by the Pythons." Here is what Bob had to say about the project.

Bob McCabe

Bob McCabe is a noted film critic, broadcaster and author. He has written over a dozen books on movies including the number one best-seller Dark Knights & Holy Fools: The Art and Films of Terry Gilliam, the critically acclaimed Sean Connery A Biography, The Exorcist: Out of the Shadows and The Authorised Biography of Ronnie Barker amongst others. As a film critic he has broadcast extensively for the BBC, and has written for a number of leading British newspapers, as well as such magazine as Empire, Premiere and The Face.

Thanks for chatting with us, Bob. Tell us, how did the idea of the Python's Autobiography book come about?

The idea initially came from my publisher who had been involved in the UK publication of The Beatles' Anthology book. He was eager to cover another group in the same way and rather than go down the rock path he wanted to do Python, a group who in many ways parallel the Beatles, albeit in a different field. The whole thing began to come together over a lunch we had we Terry Gilliam - I had previously written a book on him and helped restore the first draft of Brazil for another book. The publisher, a man named Trevor Dolby, handed us both copies of The Beatles book and said 'I want to do this - but on Python.' I chimed in with the comment "Sounds like you need a good editor" and Gilliam said he would agree to it in principal if it was me doing it.

Did your publisher give you any directions on how the book should be put together?

Not too much. It was my idea to make it a strict autobiography, and by that I mean only involve the voices of the Pythons, for better or worse. There's already been a great deal written on the Pythons, and just about everyone's been interviewed. What I wanted to do was to let them speak for themselves, in isolation of others who may remember it better. There are undoubtedly inaccuracies in the book - and they often contradict each other. But that's the way they remember things, and that is the nature of autobiography.

And how long did the whole project take?

It's taken the best part of three years. After the initial meeting with Gilliam, it took another six months before we could get him, Palin and Jones round a table for lunch, at the end of which they had agreed to go along with it. John and Eric were contacted via the Python office and again took many months to agree - although given that the others had said yes it looked fairly likely. At one point nearly a year into negotiations, John was about to back out, uncertain of what this book could offer that wasn't already out there. But he was thankfully made to see the light and approximately 15 months in, contracts were finally signed.

When the project finally got going, how much creative input did you have?

In a strange way I had a fair amount of creative input on this book. Essentially, my role was that of editor - taking their conversations and putting them in context. Firstly as the interviewer you have a fair amount of control as you shape the way the conversation goes, pick up on comments that may otherwise be discarded and so on. Secondly, in shaping the book, you crucially create the flow of the story, largely by juxtaposition - Cleese may say something, and by placing a relevant comment by Palin for example, before or after the Cleese quote, you create a debate that hopefully says something more about the incident in question and offers you an insight into the people involved.

You spent a lot of time with the Pythons, interviewing them. How was it working with them?

A total pleasure to be honest. All of them came to the table prepared to talk in-depth. There was a real opportunity with this book to avoid sound bites and talk in much more detail than they ever had before. I think they all took to that very well, and I'm particularly pleased with the opening childhood sections and the honesty in those, material that hasn't really been seen in any depth before. For example, I knew Eric grew up in an orphanage, but here we have several pages of him detailing what a miserable existence that was for him and how it shaped his view of the world.

On a personal level, each and every one of them was welcoming, friendly and above all very trusting, all of which I was very grateful for.

How and where did you conduct the interviews?

Michael and the two Terrys all welcomed me into their London homes, where they plied me with tea, food and generally gave me the run of the place.
John's interviews took place on his amazing ranch in Santa Barbara, generally followed by lunch at a local restaurant and a tour of the ranch, complete with alpacas, an aviary and a rat room, no less. After many months of trying to track down Eric in LA, I ended up spending a delightful few days with him in a hotel room in Dublin where he was filming.



How was it dealing with the photographs, illustrations, and miscellany?

All three of the London Pythons has extensive archives. Gilliam is very happy to let me ramble through his trunks full of old artwork etc. Palin has a thoroughly well stocked archive, having recently had all his old diaries — from which he allowed us to quote extensively — transcribed, while Jones has an equally impressive collection of old sketches (dating back to all the material ever rejected from the Frost shows ands so on) photos etc. all piled away in a small and very cluttered room, something of a treasure trove of British comedy. Terry also has a number of rare filmed pieces - promos, early sketches from other shows - that I was privy to see, and were it not for his basement, this stuff simply wouldn't exist now. John seems to have lost most of his photos, and Eric's own archive was plundered for us by our American correspondent. All in all, the book has something like 1,000 photos and though strictly speaking it wasn't my job, I sourced nearly all of these, the majority of which come from the private collections of the Pythons and, as such, have never been seen before.

And was there anything that didn't make the cut?

There was a lot of material that didn't end up in the book. Even at the gargantuan length of 162,000 words there was a lot more that didn't get in there. Material was cut not simply for space, but to keep the text moving foreword.

After reading it, Michael said two very nice things - first of all he felt that it really told a story, it wasn't just a collection of anecdotes, it was as he said "the conversation we should have had, but never did." Secondly, he felt Graham had a real voice in the book.

Now, we've heard that there will be an audio version of the book as well. Is there anything you can tell us about that?

There is an audio version of the book coming out on both CD and tape. Originally this was not the plan so the original interviews were not mic'ed for further broadcast. However, despite the fact that each interviewee sound like they were in a different room (they were) the wonders of modern digital technology have tarted everything up and it makes a fascinating audio documentary.

We've also heard rumours of a "Life of Graham" book, is that project still on? Any details you can share?

I am in theory writing an authorised biography of Graham next. (Authorised by both David Sherlock and Graham's brother John.) That should be published late 2004.

In your "spare time" you've been hanging out with Terry Gilliam in Prague. What kind of project are you currently working on? How is Terry's film going?

Terry G is currently shooting The Brothers Grimm out in Prague with Matt Damon and Heath Ledger as the titular brothers. It's a big $80 million film, with some simply amazing sets (he's already built two forests and an entire fairy tale town) and as such is proving to be a long and difficult shoot (Prague weather is not to relied on). I'm often out there compling a book on the movie which will be part diary of this, and in part a look of how Gilliam got to this point, i.e. the last five years and the movies that didn't make it. The film is due for Nov 2004, the book sometimes around then.

Any chance of some behind the scenes looks for readers of PythOnline?

Probably. I'll let you know.

Many thanks, Bob!