Eric Idle - Comedian, Writer and Actor Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Eric Idle - Comedian, Writer and Actor

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Monty Python

Faculty of Arts and EntertainmentMonty Python - a Brief History | Graham Chapman - Comedy Writer and Actor | John Cleese - Comedy Writer and Actor | Terry Gilliam - Writer, Animator and Director | Eric Idle - Comedian, Writer and Actor | Terry Jones - Writer, Director and Actor | Michael Palin - Writer, Actor and Traveller | 'Monty Python's Flying Circus' - the Television Series | Monty Python's 'Dead Parrot Sketch' | 'And Now For Something Completely Different' - the Film | 'Monty Python and the Holy Grail' - the Film | 'Monty Python's Life of Brian' - the Film | 'Monty Python's The Meaning of Life' - the Film | Monty Python - The Books | Monty Python - The Records | Monty Python - The Stage Shows | Monty Python - The Best Bits | Almost Pythons - Important 'Monty Python' Contributors

Eric Idle, sitting at a news desk.
Nudge nudge, wink wink, say no more!

Eric Idle is arguably the most underrated member of the Monty Python team. His distinctive features aren't as well known as those of John Cleese or Michael Palin, but he was responsible for some of Monty Python's finest moments, and he's done some great work since the Python team split.

He's certainly the most musically gifted Python. It was Eric who gave us 'Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life' and 'The Galaxy Song', among many other memorable musical moments. He's made his own TV series and appeared as a guest in many others, he's appeared in numerous non-Python films, and he's written a rather excellent comedy/sci-fi book, The Road To Mars.

But where did the skinny, singing Python first spring from?

Early Eric

The answer is that Eric Idle originally came from South Shields, County Durham, in northern England. He was born in Harton Hospital, South Shields, on 29 March, 1943.

His father was an airman, who saw active service with the Royal Air Force in places like India and Nassau. By the cruellest of ironies, Eric's father survived the Second World War, only to be fatally injured in a road accident whilst on leave and hitch-hiking home for Christmas. He died on 24 December, 1945, and Eric would later say that his earliest memory was of a weeping mother at Christmas.

In 1952 Idle was sent to boarding school at the Royal School, Wolverhampton, an institution he has described as a 'semi-orphanage'. Although unhappy there, he was academically successful. He won a place at Cambridge University, and it was there that his comedy career began.

In March 1963, Idle was admitted to The Cambridge Footlights, the famous Cambridge University comedy club, after being auditioned by Bill Oddie and Tim Brooke-Taylor - who would subsequently find fame as two-thirds of The Goodies1.

In 1963 and 1964, Eric appeared in the annual Cambridge Footlights Revue at the Edinburgh Festival. He also co-wrote and directed the 1964 production.

He gained sufficient popularity in the Footlights Club to be elected President of the club in 1965. One of his first acts as President was to remove the Club's ancient ban on allowing women to become members. Among the first women to join the Footlights was the highly influential feminist writer Germaine Greer2.

After graduating from Cambridge, Idle first worked as a stand-up comedian on the London cabaret circuit, and as an actor in London-based theatre productions. But he soon began to concentrate more on scriptwriting. He contributed to David Frost's satirical TV show The Frost Report along with two other future Pythons, John Cleese and Graham Chapman, and Ronnie Corbett and Ronnie Barker3.

Idle was soon in great demand as a scriptwriter. He wrote for another TV comedy series starring Corbett, No, That's Me Over Here, for a show starring Frank Muir entitled We Have Ways Of Making You Laugh in which Idle also appeared as a performer, and for Twice A Fortnight, where he worked with John Bird, John Fortune4 and another Python-to-be, Terry Jones. He also wrote for radio, contributing to scripts for the long-running BBC Radio comedy show I'm Sorry, I'll Read That Again.

In 1968, Eric was invited to take part in a new TV comedy show that would be aimed mainly at children. The cast included half the future Monty Python team - Idle, Jones and Palin - as well as David Jason, Denise Coffey and The Bonzo Dog (Doo-Dah) Band5. Although it was broadcast in the late afternoon, the anarchic humour of Do Not Adjust Your Set won it a cult following among adult viewers.

Then Barry Took, a comedian and scriptwriter who'd enjoyed huge success with the hit radio series Round The Horne and Take It From Here, had the idea that would change comedy history. Took's idea was to team up two comedy writing teams: Cleese and Chapman, and Palin and Jones. Happily for the future of comedy, all four were keen on the idea. Palin invited along Idle and Terry Gilliam, and Monty Python's Flying Circus was born.

Eric the Python

As the only member of the Python team who wrote sketches alone, Idle - with no writing partner to support him - sometimes had to fight to get his material accepted by the others. But he still provided some classic Python moments. It's a curious fact that Idle's most famous contribution to the Monty Python's Flying Circus TV series was a sketch he tried to give away. The Nudge, Nudge sketch was offered to The Two Ronnies, but Corbett and Barker rejected it as they regarded it as being in poor taste.

Fortunately, the Pythons never allowed such considerations to inhibit their creativity. And so, instead of Corbett and Barker, it was Jones and Idle who acted out the roles of the stuffy-looking gent and the sleazy character who gleefully pesters him with highly personal questions and endless innuendo:

Idle: Your, uh, your wife, does she go, eh, does she go, eh?

Jones: (flustered) Well, she sometimes 'goes', yes.

Idle: Aaaaaaaah bet she does, I bet she does, say no more, say no more, know what I mean, nudge nudge?

Jones: (confused) I'm afraid I don't quite follow you.

Idle: Follow me! Follow me! That's good, that's good! A nod's as good as a wink to a blind bat!

Unusually for Python, the sketch had a punch line:

Idle: You've been around a bit, you know, like, you've, uh.... You've 'done it'....

Jones: What do you mean?

Idle: Well, I mean,'ve slept with a lady...

Jones: Yes...

Idle: What's it like?

Nudge, Nudge was, of course, just one of many major contributions Eric made to the Python TV series. He was Mr Smoketoomuch in the Travel Agent sketch, delivering an inspired tirade about the horrors of the English abroad. He was also one of the Four Yorkshiremen who competed with increasingly surreal claims about the extreme deprivations they'd endured in their youth, and the leader of the ultra-stereotypical Australians, the Bruces - in which guise he performed one of the funniest Monty Python songs, 'Bruce's Philosophers Song'.

Eric even occasionally got to show off his talents as an impressionist. The real people impersonated by Idle in Python TV shows included John Lennon and the celebrated soccer manager Brian Clough.

In the Python films, Idle's two finest moments come with songs. In the unforgettable finale of Life Of Brian, it's Eric who leads the crowd of crucifixes in singing 'Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life'. In The Meaning Of Life, it is he who appears in a pink suit to croon 'The Galaxy Song', which lists lots of scientifically accurate facts about the vastness of the Milky Way before coming to a hard-to-argue-with conclusion:

So remember, when you're feeling very small and insecure/ How amazingly unlikely is your birth/ And pray that there's intelligent life somewhere out in space/ 'Cause there's b****r all down here on Earth!

Idle took part in the 1998 reunion of the surviving Pythons in Aspen, Colorado, USA. He was, however, the only one of the five to decline to take part in the BBC special to mark the team's 30th anniversary in 1999. This was reportedly due to arguments between Eric and the other Pythons over what form any new Python project should take - and if one should happen at all.

Rutland Weekend Television

Whilst the Python TV series was running, Idle wrote and performed a show for BBC Radio 1 entitled Radio 5 on Radio 1, featuring sketches in between records. This was before the launch of the real BBC Radio 5, and the concept was that a small station was temporarily taking over the Radio 1 frequency for the duration of the show.

In 1975, Eric took the same idea on to television with Rutland Weekend Television, a Pythonesque comedy series featuring regular musical contributions from frequent Python collaborator Neil Innes. This time, the show was supposedly coming from a tiny independent TV station based in Rutland, England's smallest county.

Rutland Weekend Television ran for two series, but a spin-off from the show is probably better remembered. One sketch in RWT featured a band called The Rutles, who bore a curious resemblance to The Beatles. Idle and Neil Innes expanded the idea into a Rutles special, All You Need Is Cash. A spoof documentary supposedly telling the story of 'The Prefab Four', it gained much acclaim, largely due to the brilliance of the authentically Beatlesque songs Innes wrote for it, and it still retains a cult following. Guest stars in the show included a real Beatle: George Harrison, who made a cameo appearance playing a reporter. Mick Jagger and Paul Simon also appeared, giving interviews about fictional encounters with the legendary Rutles.

Further adventures on the small screen

Although he's best known for Python and Rutland Weekend Television, Eric has appeared on plenty more TV shows over the years. He hosted the long-running US comedy show Saturday Night Live on four occasions between 1976 and 1979.

In 1989, Idle starred as Passepartout in a six-hour production of Jules Verne's Around The World In 80 Days, shown on American TV over three nights. In the same year, he took a leading role in Nearly Departed, a sitcom about a deceased couple who haunt their former home. The series itself departed from the TV schedules fairly rapidly.

More recently, in 1999 and 2000, Eric was a regular in the cast of Suddenly Susan, a sitcom set in a magazine office and starring Brooke Shields.

But the most successful sitcom that Eric has been associated with in recent years has been One Foot In The Grave, the much-loved BBC show about grumpy pensioner Victor Meldrew. Eric's contribution to the series was mostly musical: he co-wrote and sang its theme song. In 1990, he also made a couple of guest appearances in the show itself.

Cinematic Eric

Idle's performances in the Python movies launched a film career that has seen him contribute to a wide range of films of varying quality.

He had a lead role in Nuns On The Run (1990) a cross-dressing comedy about two men who disguise themselves as nuns in order to escape angry gangsters. Idle's co-star in Nuns On The Run was the British actor and comedian Robbie Coltrane, famed for his role as Fitz in the UK police drama Cracker and for his portrayal of Hagrid in the film of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone.

In 1993, Eric starred in Splitting Heirs, a farce about the English upper classes for which he also wrote the script. He then enjoyed box-office success with 1995's Caspar, based on the comic strip Caspar The Friendly Ghost.

In 1996, Idle played the part of Rat in Terry Jones' film adaptation of Kenneth Grahame's classic children's story The Wind In The Willows6. The film reunited four members of the Python team, with Jones, Palin and Cleese also appearing in a star-studded cast alongside Steve Coogan, Stephen Fry and Victoria Wood.

Unfortunately, Idle's cinema career suffered a setback in 1997, when he took a leading role in An Alan Smithee Film - Burn Hollywood Burn, a satire on the film industry that received scathing reviews.

Since then, Eric hasn't been seen in any hit films - but he has been heard in some big box-office successes. He provided the voice of Dr Vosknocker in South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (1999) and that of Waddlesworth in 102 Dalmatians (2000), and featured as the Narrator in Ella Enchanted (2004).

Eric by the book

Idle's first novel, Hello Sailor, was written in 1970 but - largely due to Eric's understandable mistrust of the publishing industry - didn't appear in book shops until 1975. Hello Sailor is a satire on British politics, about a Prime Minister and a Cabinet including a Foreign Secretary who is in fact a stuffed corpse.

Although Hello Sailor sold respectably, it was 1998 before Idle's second novel appeared. The Road To Mars is a mixture of comedy and science-fiction that might well appeal to Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy fans. It tells the story of a 23rd Century comedy duo on an interplanetary tour, accompanied by an android who yearns to understand comedy, and is writing a thesis on the subject.

In October 2003 Eric began a lengthy series of live shows in venues around the United States, and wrote an online tour diary that was regularly uploaded to the Pythonline website. In 2005, those thoughts from the road were published in a book whose irreverent name was derived from that of the tour: The Greedy Bastard Diary - A Comic Tour Of America.

Eric stage by stage

Idle tried his hand as a stage actor during his pre-Python days, but soon decided that the life didn't suit him. In 1966 he appeared in a production of the anti-war satire Oh! What A Lovely War that he thought was a wonderful production.

Sadly, as Eric later recalled, the audience didn't seem quite so impressed:

It was an amazing production, where every night the cast cried more than the audience. We were all so terrifically motivated, while they left for early buses.

However, that wasn't the end of Eric in the theatre. Naturally, he joined the rest of the team for the Monty Python stage shows.

Then, in 1979, Idle wrote a comedy play, Pass The Butler, about a government minister whose own family conspire to murder him. It was 1981 before Pass The Butler was first publicly performed, but it then became a sizeable success. The play was particularly popular in Scandinavia, breaking box-office records in Sweden.

In 1986, Idle returned to theatre performance as - of all things - an opera singer. He played the part of Ko-Ko in an English National Opera production of Gilbert & Sullivan's comic opera The Mikado. Eric admitted afterwards that he'd been nervous about attempting opera, but he needn't have been. Both his performance and the production received highly enthusiastic reviews.

Idle’s greatest stage success came in 2005 with the Broadway triumph of Monty Python’s Spamalot, a musical adapted - or 'lovingly ripped off', as the posters put it - from the movie Monty Python And The Holy Grail. Eric had long wanted to revive the Holy Grail concept, and tried to persuade the surviving Pythons to make a new film based on the later adventures of some of the characters from Holy Grail. But John Cleese could not be convinced that the new movie would work, and so Eric decided to turn the Grail into a stage show instead.

Idle wrote the script and wrote some new songs with help from his long-time musical collaborator John Du Prez. Cleese also contributed, recording the 'Voice of God' heard in the show. The show features some old Python songs alongside the new Idle-Du Prez numbers: 'Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life', 'Finland' and 'Knights Of The Round Table' are all included.

The first public performances of Spamalot came in the form of previews at the Chicago Shubert Theatre in December 2004. After great success there, the show then transferred to Broadway, with the five surviving Pythons reuniting for the Broadway premiere in March 2005 and joining the regular cast on stage for the finale of 'Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life'. The show enjoyed huge commercial success and critical acclaim, collecting three Tony Awards, including Best Musical.

Pop Idle

Eric enjoyed another surprising singing success in 1991. He briefly became a pop star, when 'Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life' unexpectedly became a major hit single in Britain, following its use in a TV advertisement7. He made a memorable appearance on the BBC's long-running pop show Top Of The Pops, clad in an old raincoat. The performance ended with Eric walking out of the studio, still singing the song, with a camera following him, before clambering into a waiting taxi - from which dry-ice smoke mysteriously poured.

After it hit the charts, 'Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life' became a popular anthem for football fans. After all, what more appropriate song to sing when your team's losing 6-0 with five minutes to go?

In 2000, Eric again revisited the Python musical legacy when he toured the US singing Python songs, in a one-man show entitled Eric Idle Exploits Monty Python. He also released an album of songs from the show, with the title amended to Eric Idle Sings Monty Python. Whatever differences Eric may have had with the other members of the team, he's still obviously happy to be associated with Monty Python.

1The third member of The Goodies was Graeme Garden, with whom Idle shared a flat later in the 1960s.2Greer's contributions to Footlights productions included a rather unusual striptease routine. She appeared on stage dressed as a nun, stripped down to a bikini, then donned flippers.3Corbett and Barker went on to form a hugely successful double act with their own long-running TV series, The Two Ronnies.4Bird and Fortune are still satirical stars on British TV via their appearances on Bremner, Bird and Fortune, on which they team up with impressionist Rory Bremner.5One of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band's members, Neil Innes, would later join the Python team for their fourth TV series.6 In the US, the film was only released on video, and was retitled Mr Toad's Wild Ride.7 In order to facilitate radio airplay, Eric was obliged to re-record the song, amending one line in the lyric to 'Life's a piece of spit'.

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