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Not The Messiah (He's A Very Naughty Boy) - Eric Idle interview

Not The Messiah (He’s a Very Naughty Boy)

Compiled by Jack Foley

ERIC Idle talks about the inspiration behind Not The Messiah (He’s A Very Naughty Boy) and reuniting with many of his former Monty Python cohorts. Not the Messiah (He’s A Very Naughty Boy) is released for one night only on Thursday, March 25 at digital cinemas across the UK and Ireland.

It’s a comedic oratorio written by Idle and John Du Prez (long-term Python associates and co-creators of the multi-award winning musical, Spamalot) and inspired by Monty Python’s Life of Brian. The questions were posed by Ross King.

Q. When did you have the idea for Not the Messiah?
Eric Idle: My cousin Peter Oundjian is the principal conductor for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and he came to see me on The Greedy Bastard Tour in 2003. We had dinner and he said we should write something, do something together. He kept saying that because no one goes to concerts any more. I thought yes we could do Always Look on the Bright Side, we could do one or two songs easily. But that’s not an evening; what’s the excuse for the evening? Later on, after Spamalot I suddenly thought how about Not the Messiah? It’s such a perfect idea. If The Messiah comes from The New Testament’s life of JC, then Not the Messiah comes from The Life of Brian. It adapts really nicely. It tells the story. You have the angels and you’ve got the shepherds.

So it became in my mind a nine-carol service; an oratorio and orchestral concert all in one, but with narration. That’s something I’ve learned about, because it’s the story that keeps you in there. I wrote a libretto and I gave it to John [Du Prez, Idle’s co-writer of many years]. We normally don’t work in this fashion but I said off you go, and he went off for about three months. He brought me back this demo which blew my mind. It started off with the Shostakovich stuff which was just amazing, and I thought this is real stuff. What’s nice about it is, it moves between grandeur and absurdity, which is a style we’ve made our own.

Q. Was there ever any point where you thought maybe we’ve bitten off more than we can chew this time?
Eric Idle: We never have that thought! The whole object is to bite off more than you can chew. John [Du Prez] always says, Eric thinks of something completely insane and insists we go in that direction. It’s the correct way to look at things and the correct place to start, I think.

Q. It’s almost like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid; you sort of hold hands…
Eric Idle: …And jump into the river! Absolutely like that. We’re falling, and we’ve been doing that for 40 years. We’ve made things, recorded things, and put out things, hopeless and useless, that have never been heard of. But then we started to get it together with Spamalot. We learnt a lot because we got in with real choreographers who tell you what they need from a song, because a song has to advance the story. Then real directors like Mike Nichols tell you where you can have ‘B themes’ and ‘C themes’, and we go oh yes, B themes and C themes! So we were taught in the finest school amongst the finest people. And also by the school of experience. I think you often learn from failure. Success just teaches you how great you were, but in fact it’s knowing what will fail that will help you to make the right choices.

Q. After the success of Spamalot, were you tempted to just follow a similar formula?
Eric Idle: I always have a feeling you should move the playing field and the minute you know what you’re doing, you’re wrong. Therefore, I wanted us not to try to follow Spamalot immediately, but to do something different. This is perfect because it uses all the same skills, like story telling and lyric writing and music writing, but it’s presenting it in a different form. And of course it gives me and John a nice chance to perform and show off which is also fun.

Q. Not the Messiah opened in Canada in 2007 so why wait so long for the European premiere or were you always thinking of it to coincide with 40 years of Monty Python?
Eric Idle: No, but I did book it about 18 months to two years ago when I saw the date was coming up and I knew there would be a lot of pressure on us to do something. People would say are you going to reunite? Are you going to do something? And so I thought if I book the Albert Hall and we do Not The Messiah and I get it together then I can write to the Pythons, which I did immediately. I said just hold this date and if you feel like it, it is the 40th anniversary; there is no pressure, you can just come on and get a completely free round of applause and hold hands and shake hands and bow. It’s something that happened in the 2002 Concert for George. We did the concert for George Harrison (to celebrate his life and music one year after her died) in 2002 at the Albert Hall and when the Pythons came on everyone went mad!

You could feel the place going crazy because we hadn’t been on stage together for maybe 35 years and the audience could just feel us in the darkness come on and they went nuts. It made the little hairs stand up on the back of my neck and we sang Sit on My Face, which I thought was wonderfully appropriate for George’s memorial, and then we bowed and we showed our bare asses. And so I thought you know it wouldn’t have to be much more than that if we just did Not The Messiah and the Pythons came on and did The Lumberjack Song at the end. That in itself would be nice for people. So I set that up and as we got nearer the date I just reminded them and then the nicer ones said yes.

Q. It must have been great to get back together?
Eric Idle: Well, we actually had been together the week before in New York where we were promoting our documentary and there were 140 photographers shouting ’hey, over here!’ all that sort of stuff. So, what was nice about this was it was so human. It was time to be together and sing and perform, and the audience were our audience. It was really touching. I loved that evening.

Q. Did you get a chance before the concert to just have the Pythons in the one room alone?
Eric Idle: No. They came to the dress rehearsal just the day before in London and then there was a dress rehearsal the day of. We didn’t have a lot of hanging out. John Du Prez had less than a week to kick the orchestra and chorus into shape and we had the Royal Albert Hall for one day only, so we got into the hall in the morning… and that was it. There was also a 12 camera shoot going on at the same time. The film is wonderfully directed.

Q. You were talking about having serious singers singing very seriously, and also at times being very funny. How hard is it to get that class of singer who then also understands the nuances of comedy?
Eric Idle: Well we were lucky because we started in Canada where everybody has a sense of humour! We flirted a little while with Josh Groban. He was personally interested in it. He said oh I’d love to do something different, and I said well it’s pretty different! But in the end the dates didn’t work out. From the US, we got William Ferguson, who was really funny and good, as were Christopher Purves and Rosalind Plowright from the UK. Shannon Mercer was from the original Canadian cast. It’s terrifying to have to do comedy for one performance only and they all did it brilliantly.

Q. After the show, what was the boys’ reaction to it all?
Eric Idle: I think they had a great time. I was so busy having to meet everybody I didn’t see them too much afterwards. But all their families came and it’s not every day you see Dad at the Albert Hall. I tried to give each of them bits that would be very strong for them. Terry Jones has a great, wonderful voice; the Welsh song Take me Home I thought would be perfect for Terry. I cried each time a Python came on. I blub a lot!

Q. Have you had much chance to be alone with the Pythons, just all on your own, no cameras just you guys?
Eric Idle: We’ve had some very funny drinking dinners or lunches at The Ivy. I’ve known these people for so long. I met John Cleese in 1963! I said to Terry Jones, who was out here in LA last week and we had lunch: “Terry I’ve known you since 1963 – that’s 47 years.” He said: “Oh bloody hell!” There are a great deal of memories, from Frost to Do Not Adjust Your Set. It goes way, way back. But by the same token we’re not bosom friends, we’re just people who have been doing this madness together for all those years, so there’s that shared memory experience.

Q. On the night of the Royal Albert Hall, the London audience seemed sensational. How did they compare to elsewhere?
Eric Idle: When the audience realises they have the liberty to laugh in a concert hall, it’s nice. It’s liberating for them. It makes young people feel less intimidated about going. That was one of the ideas, that they would say well actually I enjoyed that music. Let’s go back and hear some more. I’d love to do a sing-along Not The Messiah. We were going to do a sing-along Monty Python at one point. Not The Messiah is just such a fun thing to have done and we may never do it again; that might be it. But if this is IT, how great to do it with Palin and Jones and Gilliam, and Neil Innes and Carol Cleveland too.

Q. There is a sing-along at the end. Is it now impossible to have a show that doesn’t end with Always Look on The Bright Side? *Eric Idle: Well it’s sort of impossible not to, but it also ends things nicely. This time we put The Lumberjack Song in as an encore because of Michael Palin. I thought well he’s GOT to sing The Lumberjack Song.

Q. When you have a moment like this to look back over the past 40 years, has it gone fast?
Eric Idle: It never seems like that because you’re always in the moment. I never feel like I’m 66, as I am. I’m sure I’m 23 still and then I look in the mirror and go ah. Time does do that strange thing of dragging heavily and then suddenly flying past. It is odd because I think we are largely composed of our memories; that’s what gives us our sense of identity.

Q. The wonderful thing for you Eric is the incredible body of work you have…
Eric Idle: Well, the hardest thing of all of Python was to survive it, because it’s one of those things that got bigger and bigger; it wouldn’t go away. I hid in France for a while and that didn’t work. We won the Cannes Film Festival jury prize! There actually was no escape from it and it got confusing. I was trying to do movies and writing and comedy, and I realised the thing to do was not to avoid it but to get out there and sing Always Look on the Bright Side in Chinese (because who else is going to bloody sing it). And then I got a lease of life and I was able to say, I don’t have to do the Python bits. We can do things from Python that were so Pythonic but were kind of newish. And that gave us some kind of an insight on how to deal with Spamalot, because we were doing some Python sketches and some stand-up and they loved the Python bits. You can’t even begin a sketch and there is recognition applause. You don’t want to make that your calling card either. So you need to find the creative way to not get caught in that trap, but use it to lead you into things that interest you.

And of course I had a great mentor in George Harrison. George was a great mentor on how to not get trapped in groups. He was a great one for saying well we’re all going to die. No point in being a bloody Beatle, we’re going to die anyway… what’s the point? I loved that about him. He helped me see my position. I remember once being in Tunisia filming and he said how’s it going? And I said arghh, I can’t get near the camera for Cleese and Palin, and he said imagine trying to wait in the studio for Lennon and McCartney to finish. And I said alright you win!

Q. Was there a period of dislike or resentment towards Python?
Eric Idle: I think that there’s a lot of resentment from the guys towards Python because it seems to dominate you, it won’t leave you alone. But I’ve been fortunate to have had a lot of therapy and that helps you come to terms with it by saying: “Hey, by the way this isn’t a bad thing, this is rather good and you should be proud of it.” You don’t have to be ashamed of that and go creeping around, that’s part of what you are, of who you are. But it’s not all of who you are and it doesn’t describe who you are in the future, it is just several paragraphs in an obituary. And I have my famous last words… because one day I was in London and this guy comes up to me and says: “I’m working with The Daily Telegraph and I’m just writing your obituary.” I said: “Oh thank you very much.” He said: “Can I have your favourite last words?” I replied: “Sure, here are mine: ‘Say no more’.” So, that’ll be on my tombstone.

Q. How do you follow this?
Eric Idle: You do something different. That’s what’s great about all this. I love musical theatre and what we’re trying to do now is an original show. There are very few original Broadway musical shows written right from scratch, for very good reasons: it is an adaptive medium. I thought that’s very hard, let’s do that next.

Q. Can you tell me more about it?
Eric Idle: No it’s all completely secret because when it’s developing you don’t want to talk about it; it’s still growing. It’s like taking an eight-year-old and saying he’s going to be on Broadway. He’s eight! He’ll end up a dreadful insurance salesman in Chicago.

Q. You’ve had phenomenal success; you’ve got an incredible body of work. What is it that keeps you going? There must be days where you think, I’ll just sit in the garden?
Eric Idle: There are two dreadful things in life. One is death and the other is boredom. And I think boredom on the whole is much worse then death. I’m a boarding school boy. I think all I learned to do in those 12 years at Wolverhampton is to keep this brain occupied and if you’re occupied, reading books, composing or writing, then you’re not at a boarding school at all, your body is but your mind isn’t. So, I love getting up and instead of sitting in the room and saying: “Remember Monty Python…”

I get up and start to write, and see what happens, and see if it intrigues me. I always compare it to fishing: you always have to go to the bank in the morning to catch a fish. You don’t know how big the fish will be, or if there will be eight fish, or if the fish is going to swim to the opposite side. But if you go every day, then you will after 100 days have quite an extraordinary, sizeable amount. The other thing I don’t do is work for too long. I don’t trust my mind after the first hour, or hour and a half, because everything is clear when I wake up and I just get straight in and do it, and then it becomes gradually more ambivalent. I give up and stop to watch football – that’s what football is for.

Find out more about Not The Messiah