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 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
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
How was it dealing with the photographs, illustrations,
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
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
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!