by Eric Idle
Friday, 13 August 2004

Run Away!

I told you of my quest to make a musical comedy. This frustrated determination goes back as far as the late seventies, when I began shooting an adaptation I had made of The Pirates of Penzance. I had no budget, no deal, no cast, no studio and no money, but I knew a great photo opportunity when I saw it. I had a fantastic final scene for my movie. I was going to film the entire British army marching down the Mall, in their red coats and their bearskins, the flanks of their horses gleaming, their brasses glinting, their sabers drawn, their bright breast plates flashing in the June sunlight. Over this I would play the magnificent elegiac, ironic, but magnificent anthem which was one of three numbers I was lifting from HMS Pinafore, and which might indeed be my own motto.

For in spite of all temptations
To belong to other nations
He remains an Englishman!

For he himself has said it
And it’s greatly to his credit
That he is an Englishman.

He remains an Englishman!

Researching this movie I had become friendly with some cavalry officers of the King’s Troop, a brigade of hussars garrisoned in St. John’s Wood. At least once a week they would ride past my house, perhaps fifty horses, hooves clip clopping, pulling their field guns down to the park to practice. After visiting their barracks, and discovering they were Python fans and loved Gilbert and Sullivan, I had gained permission to film them bringing their perfect horse-drawn Victorian field guns into action in Hyde Park and firing off a 21 gun salute for the Queen’s birthday. More, they had offered me permission to take a camera crew on to the Queen Victoria monument, an ornate edifice on a traffic island directly in front of Buckingham Palace, and shoot the entire British army marching down the Mall. This was a godsend and a million dollar shot, since even if you could afford it you could never achieve it. Fortunately for me, the British army in full dress uniform is not all that different from a century before. All I had to do was to avoid shooting anything that was not in period and I would have the most superb footage. And herein lay the problem. The army marches down the Mall, wheels around the Victoria monument and passes directly in front of the monarch and her consort, where they make an eyes right, while she receives their salute sitting on her horse saluting. I could shoot any part of this event, with the single exception of the Queen. Everything else would be perfect for the movie. I didn’t have the Victoria monument quite to myself, there were one or two obligatory cameramen from the Press, but largely it was just me with my shoulder length hair, baseball cap, tank top and shorts and my tiny crew. It was a blazing June day as we ecstatically captured rank after rank of the British army advancing directly down the Mall at us in wide screen. It was a magnificent shot. I could practically hear Sullivan’s music in my head. This was fantastic. As the front ranks wheeled around us, we scrambled to the Buckingham Palace side of the monument to catch them marching directly in front of us. I directed my cameraman to close in on the horses hooves, the glistening buckles, the glinting helmets, the gleaming swords, all tight shots I could use later to intercut my footage. I was running around enthusiastically pointing and exhorting and bending and jumping about with glee at what we were getting when I became aware that I was being watched. Two pairs of eyes were staring at me: the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, both on horseback had become riveted by our activity. You have to understand that this was their show; the eyes of the entire world were on them; thousands of people had turned out to see them, lining the London streets for hours, TV cameras were beaming their image live round the world, as they took the salute from the whole army, while this maniac ran around, directly in front of them, not fifteen yards away, totally ignoring them. What was he doing? It must have seemed incomprehensible to them. Not once did I even turn my camera in their direction. I was clearly shooting everything but them. They were the stars of the show and I was shooting the extras. They stared at me in mute incomprehensibility, this hippy ragamuffin, right on their patch, on their turf, outside the gates of their Palace, deliberately ignoring them! This was the Queen of England, the center of an historic ritual, the Trooping of the Colour, a tradition that goes back centuries. What was going on? What the hell was I doing? I could feel their eyes, boring into me. I stopped what I was doing and turned to look at them. I was watching the Queen watching me. Her hand raised to her hat in salute. The Duke next to her in utter disbelief. They stared at me for thirty seconds while I froze. What to do? Impossible to explain in a look, a glance, a gesture that I meant no offence, that they simply couldn’t be in my Victorian film. That I meant no disrespect. There was no way to convey anything at all. I grinned at them, shrugged, nodded in a vaguely reassuring way and went back to shooting my inserts. They never stopped watching me. Two completely different worlds passed by, each utterly incomprehensible to the other.

I never got to make The Pirates of Penzance, which is a pity, as it had some cute ideas, but I never abandoned my love for the musical comedy form. The Rutles is of course a musical, as is Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life which has about eight songs in it, more than most musicals. (Most of them by John Du Prez and me.) So now John and I had determined to open the Pandora’s box of Python and start work on The Holy Grail and simply see where it led us, trusting in good faith and optimism.

Thank God for computers, because mine tells me I began writing the first draft of Spamalot on Monday December 31st 2001. I had filled a small red spiral note book with notes and sketches and now I downloaded the text of the Grail from one of the many illicit websites, which thankfully saved me all the bother of typing out the script and I could paste and cut and rewrite as necessary. I worked hard and fast and early, usually starting at dawn with a cup of tea, a pencil and a plain piece of paper. It went well and I printed out a First Draft on January 24th 2002. at 6.37 a.m.

On that same January day I met John Du Prez for breakfast at a deli in Studio City where I presented him with the still warm First Draft. That night, to celebrate, we went to see a very funny all male version of H.M.S Pinafore somewhere on Melrose. Inspired by this particularly silly production of Gilbert and Sullivan we started work writing the songs next day at 9 a.m. on the 25th January. John and I are fairly prolific. We write fast. We’ll catch an idea and run with it, stopping to tape record snatches that we like. I’ll be frantically scribbling down lyrics on a legal pad and John will be at the keyboard polishing chords and changes and melody. Sometimes I play guitar along with his keyboard, sometimes not. Later I go back and revise the lyrics for individual songs. Usually it takes me about a day to hammer out a lyric for each song and then when we come to record it I’ll polish them again before we go into the studio. We like the studio. It helps us to focus our work. Songs come to life in there. We usually lay down a live track to get the feel of the song, John on keyboard, me on guitar, right there in the same room with Larry Mah who plugs us directly into the board. Then I’ll have a rough stab at singing the lyric in his tiny triangular glass closet. There is just room for John and I to squeeze in together and add chorus voices. I usually leave them to it after lunch and when I hear the songs again they have been totally transformed into magic: accordions, geese squawking, coconuts clacking, full orchestrations. It is truly amazing what you can do with John Du Prez, Larry Mah and Pro Tools.

Eric performs with (L to R) Shawana Kemp, Jennifer Julian, and Samantha Harris
courtesy of Eric Idle

Looking back now at the First Draft I am struck by how little of the original lyrics we kept. In the text I had indicated areas where I felt we needed a song, but it was all still fairly loose. There were some completed lyrics, some snatches of doggerel, and some fairly sketchy rhyming gags to indicate song possibilities. Here and there we lifted a line for a song, or we picked up a theme from a suggestion, but there was a total sea change the minute John came on board. That’s the great thing about a partner, they get you to places you would never even have imagined. We got so into writing that at one point we ad libbed a complete song directly on to the tape recorder, John at the piano and me screaming lyrics. We just opened a vein and out the song poured. It is still the best song in the show and it was the one that all the Pythons immediately responded to. (No of course I’m not going to tell you what it is….) We wrote songs solidly for two and a half weeks and then went into Larry’s tiny garage studio in Sylmar for some fairly intense recording. The resulting CD is just John and me on everything, though we did pay a few session fees to Shawana Kemp, Jennifer Julian and Samantha Harris, our girls from my 2000 tour, to add the essential glamour of female voices. Now it sounded like Broadway. We finished the recording sessions at about 4pm on the 27th February when John drove straight to LAX to catch his flight back to the UK, while I tinkered with a few last minute revisions. Five weeks in total since the time he touched down…

Of course, don’t get me wrong, this was only a first draft. I have learned one thing about writing and that it is all about re-writing. Just so you know, we are currently on Draft 9 and we have written something like thirty songs. There will certainly be a Draft 10 before we begin rehearsals in New York City in October, and even this week we are going into the studio to try out a further four songs. But at this point in the process we had a First Draft book and a CD of demo songs, the next thing to do was approach the Pythons. How would they react….? I sent them each a package and waited, nervously.

To be continued...