by Eric Idle
Monday, 6 September 2004

A Hard Days Knight

Eric Idle and the cast of Spamalot

Idle watchers will be glad to hear that Eric's cast has been removed

Adapting the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail for the stage has been a great job. It is a very funny film. Even after three years working on the Book much of the original writing still makes me laugh out loud.

- You’re using coconuts.
- What?
- You’re using two halves of coconuts and banging ‘em together.

- I don't want to talk to you no more, you empty headed animal food trough wiper! I fart in your general direction! Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries!
- Is there someone else we could talk to?

It’s endearingly silly. It has a freshness and a simplicity which is rare. I think it has some of the same charm as A Hard Day’s Night: young men ignorant of what exactly they are doing but totally confident about it.

Arthur’s attempts to round up his knights and stop them bickering and running away is perfectly mock heroic. Almost epic. While dealing with large themes like the Quest for the Holy Grail the movie is really quite small in scale. Since the budget was a mere $400,000 we couldn’t afford armies or even horses (thank God for coconuts) that means most of the scenes can be fairly easily reconstructed on stage. There are of course technical problems: just how do you lop off people’s arms and legs on stage? But these are technical problems, which means somebody else has to solve them. That’s the great thing about being a writer….

The movie itself is discursive; characters pop up for one scene only to disappear immediately. Unless I was careful we would end up with a cast of sixty-eight: not good theater, and appalling economics. So it was always clear to me that our actors would have to play multi-roles. I also felt that we were missing good female parts for a Broadway show. I don’t know about you, but for me a show isn’t a show without leggy girls in spangly tights putting their legs over their heads. And that’s just backstage. But in the movie apart from the Witch and the memorable bathroom scene with Zoot and the Maidens who ask Galahad for a spanking, (a Broadway number if ever there was one), it’s all guys. I felt we needed to create a new part for The Lady of the Lake, who is referred to but doesn’t appear in the movie. All right, there is the Mother:

- Dennis there’s some lovely mud over here!

But, come on, that has to be a guy doesn’t it? It’s a classic Terry Jones’ ratbag. Pure Panto.

For American readers I should perhaps attempt to explain what Panto is, since all English people grow up with it, and it’s probably the most popular form of theater in Britain. Here goes: the Pantomime is a Christmas entertainment in the U.K. where the leading man is the Principal Boy who is played by a Girl, who romances the leading girl in tights, so that two girls kiss on stage, while the step mother of the girl is a man in drag, and her two ugly sisters are both men playing women….

I’ve lost you haven’t I? You think we’re weird don’t you? Let’s face it, your eyes have glossed over and you’re wondering how we ever managed to take an Empire. It’s hopeless. It’s like trying to explain cricket to Americans. It’s utterly impossible. Let’s just say that Panto is an odd hybrid of Vaudeville, Stand-up, Drag show, Variety, Revue, Broadway Musical and Fairy Tale. It’s full of double-entendres and cheap theatrical effects – well Spamalot really.

So, I know I’ve been teasing you for weeks, just how did the Python’s respond? (See Part 81, the Beginnings)


Synopsis of the plot of this article.
Eric Idle has had the idea of writing a Musical based on the Holy Grail. After fifteen hundred years he has written a book, recorded a CD and sent it off to the Pythons. How will they respond? Now read on:…

All the Pythons responded in an amazingly short time. Terry Jones was the first to reply. He called to say he loved it and was filled with enthusiasm. He had played the songs to his friends and they were all overjoyed.

Next came an email from Michael Palin:

First, fresh impressions. I loved most of it. Lots of good lyrics and very silly new songs which made me chuckle to the point of open, gurgling laughter. I think there is a core of very strong, very funny, catchy and very well-produced material here Love and congratulations to all, M

Terry Gilliam too responded by Email:

I loved Spamalot a lot. I laughed. I danced. I pranced. What is wrong?

Even the great John Cleese responded enthusiastically:

I really enjoyed almost all of the songs. My personal favorite is "xxxxx.” As I listened to it, I thought that the idea of parodying the kinds of songs you get in a certain type of annoying musical was wonderful. There were two other songs in the second act, both involving your female vocalist…which seem to be developing this theme. I've never come across it before, and it's very original…

The blessed and venerable Jonesy even organized a meeting so keen was he on the project.

Re Spamalot!
Terry G., Mike P. and John C. (via the electric telephone) and I all met yesterday to see what everybody else thought about Spamalot!. There was an unnerving degree of agreement. First of all we all think it's a jolly good project and that the songs and book are generally pretty spiffing. And I think we all think it could be a big success.

Terry G. and John were both (surprisingly) tempted to get more involved in the whole project because they thought it was so good, but were tempered by the feeling that it is really your project and that you wouldn't appreciate interference from super-annuated, white haired ex-pythons. There was a general agreement that the thing would get done more efficiently and effectively as your project. There was, however, a hope expressed that the rest of us could be useful as sounding-boards and coming up with some ideas and thoughts and criticisms.

Wow! Not only did they like it, they wanted to help! It doesn’t get much better than that. Fired up by their enthusiasm and inspired by their encouragement John Du Prez and I plunged into another writing session, using their criticisms and suggestions. The response to this new material was just as encouraging. This was Mike Palin:

I've listened to the new Spamalot material and like it very much. Knights Of
Ni song is jolly and superbly silly and I love XXX. A rather beautiful song and very funny idea. I particularly like the way it becomes YYY and wondered if there might not be scope for it to escalate even further .., ending, via a series of climactic key changes into a great universal anthem of nostalgic longing. A huge cathartic moan.

Anyway, I think that generally the show is in an impressive state, full of
life and good ideas. ..I think that the songs and jokes about Broadway are some
of my favourite moments.

So, good work all round. Some great changes of mood and tempo, lovely
melodies and, as I say, just a feeling of great, ebullient and redeeming
silliness. Congratulations to all. Onwards and upwards,
Love M

Terry Gilliam wrote a very long and useful note clarifying his feelings about one of the songs, and added this…

I'm tempted to get involved with the design...however, my problem is that when I start thinking down those roads I start thinking of how it should be staged and then how the dance numbers ought to go and then...... You can't keep a bad director down, but I don't want to do that job. However there are some excellent chances to do some outrageous stuff. For example, puppets could be a visually fantastic other element. I'm talking about big puppets...giant three headed knights....dancing. I think the sets should be based on the medieval illustrated manuscript artwork I used for the animations. Then I think... I miss the Beast of Arghhh and it could prove useful as an element of different scale and pace. When I get like this I have to remind myself that I'm supposed to be busy directing films. And probably will be when you are trying to stage the show.

So if he wasn’t going to do that job who was? And who was going to produce this show which was now looking as though it could really happen. Tom Hoberman, my lawyer, suggested Bill Haber. “He’ll get it completely” he said.

He did.

Bill is an extraordinary man, one of the four original partners who founded The Creative Artists Agency in Hollywood he has now moved on to producing shows on Broadway. His real life, though, is devoted to running the Save The Children Charity, for which he flies tirelessly around the world. He has just returned from the Sudan, in the Spring he flew to Baghdad. I have never known a finer man. His priorities are totally right. As he said to me recently “He who dies with the most toys, dies.”

He came to visit me at my house. I had all the Holy Grail dolls out. I played him the CD and laid the script on him, but it didn’t matter: he was already in! It was the easiest pitch of my life. At the doorway on his way out we discussed who we might get to direct it.

“Well Mike would be great” I said.

“Mike Nichols?” He laughed. “Never in a hundred years,” he said. “Mike’s a friend of mine” he said “but he is so busy you can hardly even get him to read something. It’ll probably take him ages to even respond.”

But what the hell, might as well give it a try we thought.

Three days later Mike Nichols called.

“Yes Yes Yes” he said.

Wow my cup runneth over! In a few short months we had managed to achieve a project which everyone had said yes to. You know how rare this is?? Now came the anti-climax. It was time to make a deal with everyone. Time to go to the Broadway lawyers. Almost nine months of frustration followed. I guess that’s what lawyers are for. In fact we spent more on the lawyers than the entire total budget of the original movie! But then again, that’s what lawyers do…

Now, under our great and good leader Mike Nichols we have had two hugely hilarious reads. The most recent, with David Hyde-Pierce, Tim Curry and Hank Azaria was a hoot and now they too are on board. We have a great cast, a great choreographer Casey Nicholaw and amazing sets designed by Tim Hatley, a man who really understands Panto! We begin rehearsals in the Fall. It’s very exciting, but it’s Broadway. Millions of dollars can disappear overnight in a bunch of damp hankies. We can go off the rails at any stage, but, we are dedicated to laughter, and if we fail to achieve at least that in Chicago I will be very surprised. Fingers crossed. Wish us well. And come and see us!