Monty Python Vet Eric Idle: 'Not The Messiah'

Eric Idle i i

Eric Idle, along with collaborator John Du Prez, also wrote the musical Spamalot. Matt Sayles/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Matt Sayles/AP
Eric Idle

Eric Idle, along with collaborator John Du Prez, also wrote the musical Spamalot.

Matt Sayles/AP

Monty Python's Eric Idle created a stage show based on Life of Brian called Not The Messiah (He's A Very Naughty Boy).

Idle calls this production an "oratorio," or a musical without the sets and costumes, performed only once or occasionally.

"We modeled on the Messiah by Handel," Idle tells NPR's Neal Conan. "I jut thought what a great and silly gag it would be to do the full Handel treatment for Brian."

A special performance of the show, featuring fellow Python members Michael Palin, Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam, has been released on DVD.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

In 1970, Monty Python's "Life of Brian" told the story of Brian Cohen, a young boy mistaken for the Messiah, not only by his fellow Jews but - sadly for him -by the Romans as well.

Eric Idle and John du Prez adapted the film into an extravaganza of opera that played in Los Angeles and the D.C. area. And to celebrate Monty Python's 40th anniversary, it played for one night only, live at the Royal Albert Hall, with the BBC Orchestra and Chorus, and a cast that included Michael Palin as the narrator.

(Soundbite of "Not the Messiah")

Mr. MICHAEL PALIN (Actor): (as Narrator) The story so far: Brian, a good Jewish boy - pardon the expression...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PALIN: (as Narrator) ...has discovered that his father was a Roman. Shocked and torn, he has joined the Republicans, a group of power-hungry, desperate people with no future.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PALIN: (as Narrator) Hiding from the Romans, he is mistaken by the mob for the Messiah, and flees back to his place with Judith for a cup of tea and a good cry.

CONAN: An excerpt from "Not the Messiah (He's a Very Naughty Boy)." If you'd like to talk with Eric Idle about the film or the new musical version: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website at npr.org; click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Eric Idle joins us from the studios at NPR West in Culver City, California. Nice to have you on the program today.

Mr. ERIC IDLE (Actor): Nice to be here, thank you.

CONAN: And after...

Mr. IDLE: Can I...

CONAN: Well, go. I'm sorry.

Mr. IDLE: Can I point out that during that little clip, Michael Palin is actually in full drag.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IDLE: He's dressed...

CONAN: Well...

Mr. IDLE: ...he has...

CONAN: Not just a (unintelligible)...

Mr. IDLE: ...a beautiful green, little frock on, with earrings and a big Thatcher wig. And he's - in the first act, he has claimed to be Mrs. Betty Palin, who is the mother of the little-known governor of Alaska.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IDLE: So I think we've nailed Sarah's parentage now completely.

CONAN: Oh - and a Roman was the other one?

Mr. IDLE: And the Roman - we didn't go that far. Yes, and a Roman, exactly.

CONAN: After "Spamalot," you said you didn't want to do another musical.

Mr. IDLE: Well, we didn't do another musical. We did an oratorio - which is, you know, a musical without the sets, the costumes. I mean, you just do it once or occasionally. So we - modeled on the "Messiah," by Handel. And I just thought what a great...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IDLE: ...what a silly gag it would be to do the full Handel treatment for "Brian."

CONAN: And was it a moment of godlike power to have the BBC Orchestra and Chorus at your command?

Mr. IDLE: Oh, we had 240 musicians onstage at the Albert Hall.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IDLE: We - it was 80-piece BBC Symphony Orchestra, 160-piece choir; we had 15 bagpipers, some sheep - and four Pythons.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And tell us a little bit about your collaborator. We've mostly seen his name as your collaborator on a couple of well-known ditties, John du Prez.

Mr. IDLE: Well, I've been working with John du Prez for 30 years. And, you know, we spent a lot of time, well, either touring America or doing silly songs. So finally, we got on to "Spamalot," and that took us about four or five years. And since then, we've been able to sort of do more and more silly things. So we're very happy. We just carry on writing songs and working on musicals. And that's a very nice place to be.

CONAN: To give you an idea of what the oratorio itself sounds a lot, here's a -here's one of the performances from the famous skits in the "Life of Brian."

(Soundbite of oratorio, "Not the Messiah (He's a Very Naughty Boy)")

(Soundbite of song, "What Have the Romans Ever Done for Us?")

Mr. CHRISTOPHER PURVES (Actor): (As Reg) (Singing) The Romans are all bastards. They have bled us till we're white. They've taken everything we've got as if it was their right. And we've got nothing in return though they make so much fuss. What have the Romans ever done for us?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Group: (Singing) What have the Romans, what have the Romans, what have the Romans ever done for us?

Mr. IDLE: (as Xerxes) The aqueduct?

Mr. PURVES: (as Reg): What?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IDLE: (as Xerxes) They gave us the aqueduct.

(Soundbite of applause)

CONAN: And the conversation goes on from there. Is that - am I pronouncing this correctly, Christopher Purves?

Mr. IDLE: Yes, that's right.

CONAN: And yourself, there in that dialogue?

Mr. IDLE: Right.

CONAN: And it goes on to explore many other things that the Romans may have not done for anybody.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IDLE: Indeed, yes. It's sort of - it's the opposite of grand opera. It's a tiny opera, whatever that would be, the opera...

CONAN: Well, hardly tiny.

Mr. IDLE: Well, I describe it as the Bling Cycle.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IDLE: It's very poor Wagner.

CONAN: Did you, when you were doing the movie, ever imagine - did you ever imagine it would have such a long shelf life?

Mr. IDLE: Well, not a Python - I mean, we did - when we did the Python TV shows, it was just for that week. You know, we had no idea that 40 years on, people would still be interested in this insane stuff.

CONAN: And the - not only interested, there are people who care deeply about this and will scour this DVD for inconsistencies with the original film.

Mr. IDLE: Well, I mean, I - when I'm adapting things, same as "Spamalot," you know, you've got to make it work for the actual media in which you've chosen to put it. So "Spamalot" had to become a Broadway musical. We have Act One, Act Two; it had to end romantically; there are girls in it - that's really anathematic, you know, to Python, really. And it's the same with the oratorio. You know, you have to fulfill the expectations. You have to tell them a story, lure them in, give them a bit of moving story and then some hilarious stuff. You know, that's the way we work these things.

CONAN: Though fans of Pythonmania will be pleased that Carol Cleveland, who was featured in many of the skits, originally on TV, and Neil Innes, another collaborator, are both in this production.

Mr. IDLE: Yes. No, I dragged them all out of retirement. You know, it's 40 years on. I thought, well, what could be nicer than come and say goodbye and thank you to the British public, as they were then. You know, I mean, it's just a nice thing to do after 40 years. It seems so unlikely and improbable that we should've lasted that long. I just thought everybody would be a little bit moved to come and do something in the Albert Hall.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Some of us who are pretty creaky around the edges will also remember Neil Innes as one of the principals of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band.

Mr. IDLE: And the man who wrote all the Rutles songs.

CONAN: Indeed. Let's get some callers in on the conversation. If you'd like to speak with Eric Idle about the new, oratorio production of "Not the Messiah," give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org.

Toby's(ph) on the line with us from Chapel Hill.

TOBY (Caller): Hi, Neal. Hi, Eric.

CONAN: Hi.

Mr. IDLE: Hi.

TOBY: Eric, I just wanted to say, one, I'm a huge fan. And "Life of Brian" was one of my favorite movies of all time. And I remember, I grew up here in the South, I remember going to see it - only to find that it had been banned. And it took a week before I could find a theater that was showing it. And you know, I just love that movie. And I was wondering what your thoughts were about the political side of it.

Mr. IDLE: Well, you know, people often misunderstood that film. They thought it was somehow an attack on Christianity, whereas in fact it's really - you know, Jesus Christ is in the movie twice, once as a baby and once doing the Sermon on the Mount.

So in fact, it's really about false messiahs and people's ability to just form a religion around anything, really, given half the chance. And the comedy lies in this poor guy being pursued by people who think he is a messiah. I mean, what could be more awful than that? He keeps saying, no, I'm not, leave me alone, go away. So in a sense, that's also a parody of fame and what happens to people when they're famous.

CONAN: And to be fair, you even gave the Romans their due. They, after all, gave you the aqueduct.

Mr. IDLE: Well, the Romans, of course. I mean, they have a lot to be - we have a lot to be grateful for the Romans for - at least in Europe, anyway.

CONAN: Toby, thanks very much for the call.

TOBY: Thanks for all the laughs, Eric.

Mr. IDLE: Thank you.

CONAN: This email from Catherine(ph) in Chico, California. I've been an avid Python fan since I was 13 and thrilled to see "Not the Messiah (He's a Very Naughty Boy)" at the Hollywood Bowl almost a year ago. I particularly liked Mr. Idle's Bob Dylan impression as well as the finale of "The Universe Song." It was really spectacular.

Mr. IDLE: Well, thanks. I do appear as Bob Dylan at one point, to give advice. And in fact, very Bob Dylan (mumbling) - you can't actually hear a word he's saying.

CONAN: And with the harmonica holder...

Mr. IDLE: With the harmonica holder. But he's really saying, you must all be individuals - which is a very Bob Dylan thing to say anyway.

CONAN: And in that production, the finale or the encore was "The Universe Song" "The Galaxy Song," rather, than...

Mr. IDLE: At the Hollywood Bowl, we were asked if we would put up with fireworks. And we said yes, we'd tolerate fireworks. And so John Du Prez wrote some fireworks music out of "The Galaxy Song." And I think it's the first fireworks music written since Handel. So it was just - it was spectacular. Obviously, we couldn't do it inside the Albert Hall, so we do - our encore there is Michael Palin singing "The Lumberjack Song."

CONAN: Indeed, and very well, too. You did have some mild pyrotechnics in the Royal Albert Hall, but nothing to threaten to catch the curtains on fire.

Mr. IDLE: No, no, not at all. We don't want to burn down the Albert Hall.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller in on the conversation. Let's go to Todd, Todd with us from Toledo.

TODD (Caller): Yes. Hello. (Technical difficulty)

CONAN: Todd, your cell phone is betraying you. Can you move to a better spot?

TODD: Excuse me?

CONAN: OK. Now try it again. We were having trouble hearing you.

TODD: Yeah. We were public TV people early on and we had the BBC in the house. And there was never any generation confliction with my parents of any sort. They were right there, taking us to the movies early on, when we were kids - my mother just pointed out that I'm on.

CONAN: It's amazing. You call in to the show, and people will call you to tell you you're on their radio. Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

TODD: And we had the opportunity to expose our small community here in Bedford into - in 1982 - to the Parrot, "The Lumberjack Song," so on and so forth on stage. And (unintelligible) people had been there, their first exposure, period, and we started a community of Python people here and just - to the family it's been a - I'm not sure how to put it - it affected the whole family in great and wonderful ways. And to this day it's just a (technical difficulties) family that just is there, the culture (technical difficulty)...

CONAN: Todd, you're having trouble with your phone again. But thank you very much for the effort to make the phone call. We appreciate it.

TODD: Thank you so much. OK. Bye-bye.

CONAN: All right. Bye.

Mr. IDLE: Bye.

CONAN: I've always meant to ask. I've never been quite sure - you obviously produced these original TV skits for the BBC. Who owns them?

Mr. IDLE: Well, we own them because thankfully, when we came to America, we were put on, you know, public television, which was fantastic, which -means everybody around America could see it all the time. It was just an amazing thing. And because nobody counts those figures, it's of no importance to advertisers.

So we will - though everybody was always available to sort of see them. Then ABC got a hold of some, put them all together, took all the jokes out. So we sued ABC to try and stop us going on American television. And out of that lawsuit, we won the right to own all our masters, because they were not allowed legally to do what they did - i.e., cut all the jokes out. So the answer short answer is we own it all, and aren't we clever boys?

CONAN: And it's not their first nor the last show that ABC has cut all the jokes out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IDLE: Well, at least it had some at the beginning, you know, which is a nice change, isn't it?

No, it was a good thing for us because now we own - we own everything that we ever made, with the exception of one movie. I think "The Meaning of Life," we still don't own. But - so we may be silly, but we're not stupid.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: We'll live with that verdict. Eric Idle is with us. He's talking about the new DVD of "Not the Messiah (He's a Very Naughty Boy)," which is just out. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's go to Judy, Judy with us from Raleigh.

JUDY (Caller): Hey. It's so good to talk to you. I want you to know, my husband and I both grew up with Monty Python. And now we have a son in high school and a son in middle school. And when they are at their most argumentative, just for the sake of arguing, we put on the argument clinic. And it's a great parenting tool, so thank you very much.

Mr. IDLE: I totally agree with that. I used to do it with my daughter on the way to school, you know. No, it isn't. Yes, it is. No, it isn't. Yes, it is. No, it isn't.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IDLE: It's very good, because it makes you both laugh, which is nice.

JUDY: Yeah.

CONAN: But you do all the words.

Mr. IDLE: I know all the words, and they're denying anything anybody says. It's really - it's very simple.

JUDY: Well, we've loved it for so long, and we have the full collection. And we really appreciate your work. Thank you.

Mr. IDLE: Well, thank you. I think it's very important that parents and kids share the same comedy sources. I think that's really, that's really nice. And it happens quite a lot with Python, actually, that we get parents enjoying it with their kids.

JUDY: Still funny, still funny. Well, all the best to you. Thanks a lot.

CONAN: Thanks, Judy.

Mr. IDLE: Well, then you have your husband's, you know, Father's Day present -anyway - ready.

JUDY: Yeah, there we go.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IDLE: Yeah.

CONAN: That's right, Father's Day is definitely coming up.

Mr. IDLE: This is a good one for Father's Day.

JUDY: Frank in North Carolina emails to ask: Please ask Eric to explain the inspiration behind the scene when Brian is abducted by the UFO.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IDLE: I don't think there's any explanation. It's - he jumps off a tower. He's pursued by the Romans. He jumps off a tower to his certain death. And by -quite by chance, there's an intergalactic battle going on. And one of the spaceships goes underneath, and he drops into it. I mean, it's a perfect Gilliam moment.

You know, we would normally go to animation. We'd say - right - go to animation, get us out of this. And so this was the equivalent, in filmmaking terms, of cutting to Gilliam. And you know, he sits in that spacecraft for a minute or two, then is landed back on Earth and gets out, looking rather puzzled. And I think a passerby goes: You jammy bastard.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IDLE: So he should have fallen to his certain death, but that would have been the end of the movie too early.

CONAN: Ray is on the line from Salt Lake City.

REY (Caller): Hello there, Eric.

Mr. IDLE: Hello, Ray.

RAY: Hi. Of course, we're all great Monty Python fans and - here's my question. How much did "The Goons" influence Python?

Mr. IDLE: They influenced quite a lot. "The Goons" are a radio show on British radio, a postwar British radio. We grew up...

CONAN: Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe and Spike Milligan.

Mr. IDLE: Correct. And we didn't have television, so the radio was tremendously important until we were about 12. And so they were very important. That and "Beyond the Fringe" are the two most powerful influences - which was Peter Cook and Jonathan Miller, Alan Bennett, Dudley Moore.

CONAN: Ray, thanks very much. You were talking just a moment ago about the scene where the UFO sweeps in unexpectedly. There's a million moments in "The Goon Show" that are like that, but reminded of the scene where they're all clapped in jail in Spain. What are we going to do? Ninety-nine years. The announcer comes in: 99 years went by.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IDLE: That's the sort of thing you can do with radio. And I think we were sort of slightly surreal in our writing like that on television, too.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go - I think we have time for one more, if it's quick. David in Philadelphia.

DAVID (Caller): Hi. I'm a Latin teacher, and I'm actually curious. That scene in "Life of Brian" where the graffiti artists are corrected on their grammar, is that inspired by any particular episode in the education of any of the Pythons?

Mr. IDLE: I think it was inspired by John Cleese teaching Latin at Clifford College for two years before he went up to Cambridge. So he clearly was the one pulling people's ears and saying: No, boy, that doesn't decline. I did Latin too, but not as good as that.

CONAN: David...

DAVID: Fantastic.

CONAN: ...thanks very much for the call and - (speaking Latin phrase).

Mr. IDLE: Exactly, yeah.

CONAN: All right. Thanks very much. And Eric Idle, thanks for being with us, and we wish you the best of luck with your DVD.

Mr. IDLE: Thank you, Neal. I appreciate it.

CONAN: Eric Idle joined us from NPR's bureau in Culver City, California, NPR West. The DVD "Not the Messiah" is out today. Tomorrow, political junkie Ken Rudin joins us on the busiest week of the primary season. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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