by Declan Joyce
Wednesday, 10 March 2004

“What you owe the dead,” says Jim Yoakum, “is the truth.”

The dead, in this instance, is Graham Chapman, who formed one-sixth of the legendary British comedy troupe Monty Python until he passed away from cancer in 1989 at age 48. And the truth, per Yoakum, is that while Chapman has never enjoyed as high a profile as his fellow Pythons John Cleese, Eric Idle or Michael Palin, he embodied the anarchic spirit of the Python troupe more completely than any of them. “All of the Pythons are enormously funny men,” he says, “but you get the feeling that its their job and at the end of the day they go home and turn off the comedy button. Chapman lived and breathed this stuff.”

A fuller vision of Chapman’s life and work is what Yoakum, the curator of the Graham Chapman Archives in Atlanta (it’s a long story) and the editor of two collections of Chapman’s writings, hopes to bring to the screen with “Gin and Tonic,” a $12-million movie based on the actor’s life and work that is now in pre-production.

Yoakum’s “Gin and Tonic” co-writer and the man who will direct the movie is David Eric Brenner (whose company, Hippofilms, will also produce). Though he and Yoakum have had, at times, “extremely heated” discussions about their competing visions for the script, both are agreed that Chapman is a vastly underappreciated performer. “He was a brilliant man, and one of deep contradictions,” says Brenner. “He was an Cambridge-educated doctor on the road to a successful conservative life who gave it all up for comedy; he was unpredictable, wild, sometimes embarrassing when he was drunk but was also a deeply shy man. The other five Pythons acted and wrote Monty Python. Chapman lived Monty Python.”

Much of his off-camera behavior, certainly, seems little removed from Python treasures like “Architect Sketch” or “Ministry of Silly Walks.” In one legendary episode that he pulled off with his close friend and late Who drummer Keith Moon, Chapman walked into an upscale Savile Row tailor’s shop in London and, having chosen a pair of expensive trousers, asked how strong they were. The flustered salesman said he had no idea, whereupon Moon, posing as another shopper, offered to help Chapman test their strength. The pair pulled on the trousers until they ripped in half. As the salesman looked on aghast, a one-legged man hired by Chapman and Moon hobbled into the store, took one look at the sundered pants and said, “That just what I’ve been looking for! Wrap ‘em up.”

Chapman’s legacy as a writer and actor has been muddied by a tendency to focus on the two most media-ready aspects of his life: his alcoholism (in the early 70s he was downing two bottles of gin a day, but sobered up by 1977) and his homosexuality. “To focus on these things does him a great disservice, because he was a brilliant and brilliantly funny man,” says Hans ten Cate, a long-time Python fan who is also the webmaster of the troupe’s official website, “Graham was a well-read, intelligent man, capable of the most erudite observations while also at the same time being sublimely silly. There was a lot more to him than people realize.”

When Chapman died, in fact, he left behind 30 boxes of his output as a writer, almost all of which went unused in his lifetime and which now forms the bulk of the Chapman archives in Atlanta. Yoakum knew Chapman and collaborated with him towards the end of his life, and came into possession of the boxes when Chapman’s longtime partner, David Sherlock, doubtless distressed by the constant reminders of his dead friend, threatened to put the whole lot out on the street. Yoakum now keeps the material in acid-free boxes in a climate-controlled location. “There’s an enormous amount of stuff here that never saw the light of day,” he says. Among the treasures was a play Chapman wrote in the mid-70s entitled “O, Happy Day” and which enjoyed a successful six-week run in Atlanta in 2000. The archives also receive a constant infusion of new material sent by Chapman fans from all over the U.S. and beyond.

In addition to his creative output, Chapman was, according to those who knew him, the most pleasant and approachable of men. Kim Howard Johnson, a frequent artistic collaborator with John Cleese and considered one of the world’s foremost Python authorities, recalls a trip he took to London in 1978. “I showed up at Graham’s house in Highgate on Sunday and explained who I was,” he says. “He couldn’t have been nicer, and even invited me to stay with him for a week.” Johnson was later invited to Tunisia for the six-week shooting of the Python classic “Life of Brian” and remained close with Chapman until his death.

Auditions for the roles of the six Pythons begin in Los Angeles on March 20th, and Brenner says the interest in the project has been overwhelming. “We’re getting in the region of 120 e-mails a day and phone never stops ringing,” he says. “I keep having to add new staff.” Principal photography begins in London later this year (a London location, in addition to providing generous tax breaks, will also afford an echt Python ambience) and the film is slated for release in mid- to late-2005, at which point, one hopes, comedic history’s debt of truth to Graham Chapman will begin to be paid.