Cult comedy act Monty Python will perform live together for the very last time this weekend. JEANNE CRAIG finds out why it’s time for a change once the circus leaves town
The Monty Python stars have dusted off their dead parrot and are busy strutting their silly walks on stage, but for those who can’t make it to London’s O2 Arena, there’s a chance to catch them on screen before they hang up their lumberjack gear for the very last time.
More than four decades since the Flying Circus first hit screens, the comedy quintet have reunited for 10 Monty Python Live (Mostly) shows, featuring their best-loved surreal sketches and songs, alongside new material.
And the tenth and final gig, featuring the fish-slapping, septuagenarian stars John Cleese, Michael Palin, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle and Terry Jones, will be shown live on the Gold channel and in cinemas around the world.
“Our motto has been, ‘Leave them wanting a bit less’,” says Idle, 71, who directed the extravagant stage show and penned its famous closing number, Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life, back in 1979.
“It really is a very high-powered, energetic show. Especially for 70-year-old men,” adds American-born Gilliam, 73. “I like to think of it as a pre-posthumous memorial service, with all the dancing and joy one would hope for at a funeral.”
Monty Python’s Flying Circus aired on TV between 1969 and 1974, and the act performed their last big stage show, a four-night stint at the Hollywood Bowl, in 1980. They also shared a stage at the Aspen Comedy Festival in 1998.
Welshman Jones, 72, breaks into laughter as he recalls the Hollywood Bowl gig: “All the audience were smoking marijuana, so when John and I went into the audience, we came out pretty high.”
These days, Palin jokes, the only drug involved is “some Viagra in our dressing rooms”.
The Pythons had originally planned to do one reunion show, but more dates were added as demand grew.
The July 20 gig “really is the last show”, Cleese, 74, insists.
“We all feel very content with that now. We weren’t sure at one stage. I certainly thought it might be fun to go and do America but, the more I thought about it, I thought, ‘I don’t really want to’.
“I think it’s much better to try and do it once, really well, in England, where it started, and just leave it at that.”
Almost 45 years since Monty Python’s Flying Circus first hit screens, Idle believes the material is still relevant.
“We followed a satire boom in England and everything was topical. When we came on, we tried to not do that. Our humour tends to be just general types and funny things rather than particular, and so it doesn’t date as fast.”
The team admit it’s been hard work performing the high-octane shows at a 20,000-seater venue.
“I’m quite worn out, even after the first number,” says Palin, 71. “A slight madness takes over you and you just leap about at certain points. Well I do, anyway.”
“It’s the next day you realise what you’ve done to your body,” film-maker Gilliam adds.
“I think the most interesting thing is backstage - people at this age moving at the speed we’re capable of. It’s quite extraordinary to get into the various outfits as quickly as we do.”
The show is subtitled One Down, Five To Go in honour of sixth Python Graham Chapman, the leading man in the Holy Grail (1975) and Life Of Brian (1979) films, who died of cancer aged 48 in 1989.
So far, some of the biggest cheers each night have come when archive footage featuring Chapman is shown.
“He’s on screen of course, and he even sings the last number, so we’re obviously trying to make his presence notable in the show,” says Idle.
“He was a very good stage actor, Graham, he had a slightly puzzled way of approaching everything,” Palin adds with a smile. “But he was always late, that was the problem! He was never there...He couldn’t do Shakespeare; he’d arrive halfway through the third act, ‘I’m King Who?’”
The Pythons are keen to stress that they have plenty of individual projects in store once the curtain falls for the last time.
“We’re retiring from Python so we can enjoy the rest of our lives,” says Palin.
Four-times married Cleese (who had a famously expensive divorce from third wife Alyce Faye Eichelberger in 2009) adds: “I’m still paying off the alimony, so I do certain things for money I wouldn’t be doing [otherwise].
“Others are freer to do exactly what they want to do, but in a year’s time, we’ll all be doing exactly what we want and I think there’ll be some big surprises.”
In the meantime, the Fawlty Towers star is enjoying being reunited with his fellow Pythons.
“We don’t see an enormous amount of each other normally, and when we get together we have a very good time,” he says as the other stars nod in agreement.
“Somebody once said we laugh more together than we do at any other time, and that’s true.”
Monty Python Live (Mostly): One Down Five To Go is on Gold on Sunday, July 20.