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The life of Graham
By BARRY DAVIS
22/01/2013
‘A Liar’s Autobiography’ is a documentary tribute to the late Monty Python member.
 
As any comedian will tell you, timing is of paramount importance when delivering a punch line or, in the case of the Monty Python team, occasionally leaving your audience hanging, waiting for the punch line that never comes.

Graham Chapman’s ability to deliver immaculately weighted material, in deadpan fashion, and at just the right – or wrong – moment was definitively proven when he died in 1989, on the eve of the celebrations lined up for the Python gang’s 20th anniversary.

Chapman’s sad but peerlessly timed shuffle off this mortal coil, at the age of just 48, was marked by the first eulogy ever delivered live on BBC television, in which fellow Python John Cleese stunned an audience comprising, besides the other surviving Pythons, a veritable who’s who of the British comedy elite, by merrily and lovingly lambasting Chapman.

Ben Timlett, Jeff Simpson and Bill Jones – the latter is the son of original Python member Terry Jones – have created their own salute to the late comedian in an intricately crafted animation work entitled, in typically dubious manner, A Liar’s Autobiography: The Untrue Story of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman. The film is on the roster of this year’s British Film Festival which kicks off on January 31 and will run at cinematheques around the country – including Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa, Sderot and Herzliya – until February 10.

The three directors invested significant effort in putting together not only something which they feel is a fitting tribute to the late great actor, but also a work which they believe Chapman would have applauded himself.

“The film is really Graham’s own work – his writing and his humor,” states Simpson. “The good thing is that people who knew Graham recognize Graham in the film, and say ‘yes, that’s Graham, that’s how he was.’ We also worked closely with Graham’s partner of 25 years, David Sherlock.”

Mind you, the directors had to make sure they had all the many facets of Chapman’s personality and abilities covered.

“There were many different Grahams,” Simpson continues. “There was the actor and comedian, there was the writer, the doctor [Chapman studied medicine at Cambridge University] and the homosexual – all these different characters that he was in real life. People recognize that in the film.”

The quest to leave no trait or mannerism untouched, as far as possible, led to the directors adopting a multipronged approach to the creative process.

“That’s why we used 14 different animation styles in A Liar’s Autobiography,” explains Simpson, “because we are representing all the different aspects of Graham with different visuals.

That means there’s always something fresh coming at the audience, because we used different styles to represent different sections of his life.”

Bearing in mind Chapman’s and the Pythons’ irreverent take on life, and their no-holds-barred take on what could be laughed at, A Liar’s Autobiography is anything but a fawning representation of Chapman and his work.

“The John Cleese eulogy comes up at the end of the film,” continues Simpson, “and it really sums up our approach because John’s words in that speech were: ‘anything for Graham apart from mindless good taste.’ We certainly weren’t aiming for mindless good taste in our film.”

Although the Monty Python’s Flying Circus TV series ended almost four decades ago, and the team’s last movie, The Meaning of Life, came out a full 30 years ago, the sextet’s impious brand of humor continues to inform the cultural mindset of the average Brit.

“They are the comedy group everyone refers to,” notes Timlett. “They are the most iconic comedy group.”

“The expressions the Pythons used are part of everyday language,” adds Simpson. “As soon as you say something like ‘no one expects the Spanish Inquisition’ [taken from a popular Python sketch from the second TV series] people recognize that. But it is interesting that all the Pythons have gone on to become famous for other things as well. So, for instance, if Michael Palin walks down the street he gets asked about his travel programs.”

Chapman was also highly active following the breakup of the Python team and, says Timlett, probably sparked a process of Stateside recognition for the British comedic gang.

“Graham was actually the first Python to move to the States, and he appeared on all sorts of chat shows and game shows, like Celebrity Squares,” Timlett explains, “so Americans got to know him, and later the rest of the Pythons.”

That was indisputably proven to be the case when the team, with support from Carol Cleveland, who appeared in Python sketches whenever the acting services of a real woman were required – the Pythons often appeared in drag in ludicrously camped up female roles – and musician Neil Innes, put on a run of sketch-based shows at the Hollywood Bowl in 1982. That led to the release of a movie called Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl which included Chapman in an impressively athletic role in the One Man Wrestling sketch.

However, while Cleese, Palin, Jones, Eric Idle and Terry Gilliam have all gone on to do great things in acting and directing, and in the documentary field, Chapman’s premature demise obviated a continued post-Python career.

“Part of the idea behind this film was just to remind people of Graham, and give him an opportunity to step back onto the spotlight, even though he’s dead,” says Simpson.

“This is very much a Graham Chapman film. It is not about Monty Python,” notes Timlett. “It is based on his writing and he stars in the film.

The other Pythons just play other roles in it. That is something we sort of battled with when we set out on this project, because there is always the weight of expectation, of the Pythons getting back together again.”

Simpson says that he, Timlett and Jones were determined to keep to the Chapman side of the creative tracks.

“The fact that we’ve made this as a small independent film, where we’ve had the final editorial say, was important. That meant we could keep it close to Graham’s original writing. I think that if we’d made this through a big Hollywood studio the studio would have demanded that the film [be] a kind of Monty Python’s greatest hits. We definitely didn’t want to go down that road.

We often tease the audience with Python references, but this film is about Graham and his work.”

For more information about the British Film Festival: www.ukfilmisrael. britishcouncil.org and the respective cinematheques.
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