Monty Python’s long, not entirely serious history of hating each other

Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Graham Chapman, John Cleese and Michael Palin, aka Monty Python
Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Graham Chapman, John Cleese and Michael Palin, aka Monty Python - PA

He may not be the Messiah, but, in the eyes of those who venerate Monty Python, one of its members, Eric Idle, has been a very naughty boy. Over the past few days, Idle has taken to social media to complain vociferously about the downsides – both artistic and commercial – of his involvement with Python, which began as long ago as 1969 and has continued to delight, and frustrate, both its members and fans ever since. Idle declared, apropos of a fan’s innocuous enquiry, that “I don’t know why people always assume we’re loaded. Python is a disaster. Spamalot made money 20 years ago. I have to work for my living. Not easy at this age.”

Idle, who is well known for engaging frankly and openly with his social media followers, then went on to complain: “We own everything we ever made in Python and I never dreamed that at this age the income streams would tail off so disastrously. But I guess if you put a Gilliam child in as your manager you should not be so surprised. One Gilliam is bad enough. Two can take out any company.”

For good measure, he attacked his erstwhile colleague John Cleese, alleging that “he bullied Jonesy [Terry Jones]. I always felt ashamed we did nothing”. When someone asked whether Cleese was really a bully, he replied: “Totally. Still is.” He then revealed that he hadn’t seen Cleese in seven years, and when another fan said “That makes me sad”, replied “Why. It makes me happy.” (Cleese is yet to respond to any of this.)

Monty Python's 1971 sketch 'World of Whickers'
Monty Python's 1971 sketch 'World of Whickers' - Getty

Under normal circumstances, Idle’s series of candid disclosures would be seen as both shocking and deeply revelatory, lifting the lid off the British comedy troupe who are still regarded as one of the most influential and important forces in humour of the 20th century. Idle acknowledged the mixed feelings that he has towards the group, saying “I still love and am proud of what we did as Python. It was a very unique group. I think of us as an ex Liverpool team. We played together well. Way back in the day. But it was never very supportive of people’s feelings and emotions. Not Brothers. Colleagues.”

This is in keeping with other remarks that he has made, such as in an interview with the Guardian from 2022 when he said: “I’m not particularly close to any of them. Michael is always the first to write a sweet letter if he finds out you’ve been through a few things because he genuinely is like that. But I don’t think of it like we were mates. We were colleagues and there’s a huge difference.”

Yet Monty Python has always had two factors that mark it out from virtually every other similar act: firstly, there has been a long legacy of rows and disagreements between its members, usually played out in public. And secondly, there is also a very English side of self-deprecation and mickey-taking to the group that means taking the remarks that are made by its stars wholly seriously might be an error. In any case, here are some of their previous scraps – sincere or otherwise.

John Cleese’s domination and Graham Chapman’s drinking

Monty Python was always made up of a series of writing partnerships rather than a coherent whole: Graham Chapman and Cleese wrote together, as did Michael Palin and Terry Jones, while Idle wrote individually. Terry Gilliam’s contributions were largely visual, rather than verbal. However, from the outset, there was a tension between the roles that Cleese and Chapman played within the group. Palin wrote in the published edition of his diaries The Python Years, dealing with the period 1969 to 1979, that because Cleese was higher-profile than the other members of Python – “John was a big name, one of the great new discoveries of the Sixties…the rest of us were journeymen scriptwriters”, he said in 1993 – he felt that he was in charge and therefore dominated the others. Hence Idle’s later claim that Terry Jones, in particular, was bullied by him.

The Pythons in 1989
The Pythons in 1989

It may have been because of Cleese’s influence on the group that Chapman, an amicable and talented man – and also one of the first public figures in Britain to come out as gay – was allowed to remain in Python, given how heavy and destructive his drinking was. Palin wrote in his diary in 1969 that Chapman was “the high priest of hedonism”, and complained that “he is now concerned with his homosexual relationships and perpetuating the atmosphere of well-being which good food and drink bring. He doesn’t want to have to think too much about himself now, and above all he does not want to have to struggle. He seems to feel that, having stated his position, he now deserves the good life.”

Eric Idle’s celebrity lifestyle

Of all the Pythons, the one who seemed (and seems) happiest with the life of a celebrity is Idle, who long since swapped rainy England for a life in California, and recently complained, of his diminished earnings, that “we still get something but not enough to keep me on the beaches.”

Yet from the early days in Monty Python, there was a sense that the actor-writer was keeping his options open and refusing fully to commit to the group with the same intensity that his colleagues had done. Palin complained in his diary in 1970 that Idle alternated between lucrative scriptwriting for Ronnie Corbett and his supposed day job, claiming that Idle got away with it “for the simple reason that everyone had done the work for him on Monty Python.”

Eric Idle and his wife attending the Vanity Fair Oscar Party in Hollywood, 2005
Eric Idle and his wife attending the Vanity Fair Oscar Party in Hollywood, 2005 - Reuters

This resentment only increased with time, and in 1971 Palin wrote that “The split between John and Eric and the rest of us has grown. John and Eric see Monty Python as a means to an end – money to buy freedom from work.” This was not an opinion shared by Jones, of whom Palin wrote “Terry is completely the opposite and feels that Python is an end in itself – work which he enjoys doing and keeps him from the dangerous world of leisure.” He noted that “In between are Graham and myself.”

The Pythons implode

Predictably, the continual disagreements over billing (and therefore money) began to lead to schisms between the Pythons after a few years. At the start of 1973, Cleese announced that, while he was prepared to work on a stage tour, he was no longer prepared to appear in the television series. As Idle later said, “It was on an Air Canada flight on the way to Toronto, when John turned to all of us and said ‘I want out.’ Why? I don’t know. He gets bored more easily than the rest of us. He’s a difficult man, not easy to be friendly with. He’s so funny because he never wanted to be liked. That gives him a certain fascinating, arrogant freedom.”

Michael Palin and John Cleese on the set of The Holy Grail in 1974
Michael Palin and John Cleese on the set of The Holy Grail in 1974 - Getty

Cleese refused to appear in the fourth series of the show, which only ran to six episodes, although he was credited as a writer on three of them. It may have been just as well for relations between the group, as he was arguing vitriolically with Jones – Palin noted in his diary that “At lunchtime, Terry had a shouting match with John, and the intensity of T’s outburst took even John by surprise. It was all about T feeling oppressed by John’s rather dismissive handling of any suggestion of Terry’s” – and general bad feeling meant that the group could no longer function in the way that they had done for the previous four and a half years. At the end of the year, Palin wrote that “1973 is the year which saw the break-up of the Python group. A freshness has gone, and 1974 will see just how we pick up the threads again.”

Big screen, big fights

Ironically, it transpired that the bad feeling between the members of the act led to two vast cinematic successes, in the form of 1975’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail and, even more so, the ever-controversial, ever-brilliant 1979’s Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Yet neither of these proved to be an easy sell. In the case of Holy Grail, the film was put together by private funding from rock acts such as Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin after no studios would invest in it – perhaps aware of the potential for fighting between its combustible members – and Chapman’s heavy drinking continued, leading to him forgetting his lines and often being unable to perform on set.

Palin pithily summed up the situation in his diary in May 1974. “Graham shaking and quivering with suppressed neurotic rage….John is still tense and unrelaxed with people, which compounds his problems.”

Out of tension comes creativity, and the film was a huge hit. Yet when Life of Brian was mooted a few years later, there were, again, severe disagreements. Cleese was angered by the group’s belief that Chapman was the right casting for the role of Brian, the man who is, notoriously, not the Messiah, and it did not help that Chapman himself was still drinking heavily during script meetings; Palin wrote that “He arrived at 10 quite ‘relaxed’ and has drunk gin throughout the morning. Everyone else is on the ball, but Graham can never find where we are in the script.” Eventually, Chapman abandoned drinking in December 1977, and played Brian entirely sober – a discipline which can be seen in his focused and hilarious performance.

Graham Chapman dies

Monty Python sporadically reformed throughout the Eighties for benefit shows such as the Secret Policeman’s Ball and the much-acclaimed 1980 Live at the Hollywood Bowl performances, as well as the less successful 1983 film Monty Python’s Meaning of Life. Yet there was a sense that the momentum was running out behind them as a group rather than a series of individuals who could produce brilliant work separately, and occasionally together. It was noted that, when they were awarded the 1988 Bafta for Outstanding British Contribution to Cinema, both Idle and Cleese were absent from the ceremony.

Chapman, at the time, was suffering from cancer that would eventually kill him in October 1989, and his televised memorial service on December 3 became notable for two things: firstly, Monty Python’s members’ almost childish desire to say “f___” during the service, and secondly Cleese’s eulogy, in which he (tongue in cheek) declared that “I guess that we’re all thinking how sad it is that a man of such talent, of such capability for kindness, of such unusual intelligence, should now, so suddenly, be spirited away at the age of only forty-eight, before he’d achieved many of the things of which he was capable, and before he’d had enough fun. Well, I feel that I should say, nonsense. Good riddance to him, the freeloading bastard, I hope he fries!” It was irreverent and hilarious: the last gasp of Python united. Chapman, you suspect, would have loved it.

‘Trying to get everybody’s needs together has proved very difficult’

By 1999, Monty Python no longer seemed to have a future as a group. Although they had united as a quintet the previous year in Aspen, to great acclaim, and had planned a lucrative thirtieth anniversary tour, the idea was swiftly nixed by Gilliam, who said, according to Cleese, that “he didn’t really want to do it, which is not what he said in the room. And then some weeks, months later, Michael decided he didn’t really want to do six or eight weeks, he really only wanted to do two. So trying to get everybody’s needs together has proved very difficult.”

The Pythons performing in Aspen, 1998
The Pythons performing in Aspen, 1998 - AP

Gilliam, by then an acclaimed – if erratic – film director, commented “I can’t personally think of anything worse than getting up there and reciting that old stuff again.” An irritated Idle therefore refused to participate in the 1999 televised special Python Night on the BBC, featuring new sketches and material by the remaining Pythons, and it was widely regarded as a tired retread of former glories, rather than a particularly successful quasi-reunion in its own right.

The Spamalot spat

Idle had his greatest Python-related success in 2005 with Spamalot, the musical adaptation of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It was an enormous hit on both Broadway and in the West End and continues to be revived to this day. Although the Pythons were initially supportive of the project, with Cleese serving as the recorded voice of God, and all of them appearing at the West End premiere, they offered their own candid opinions about the show; Gilliam dismissed it as “Python-lite” and says “it helps with the pension fund, and it helps keep Python alive…as much as we’d like to pull the plug on the whole thing it carries on”, and Jones alternated between saying that Spamalot was “terrific good fun” and complaining that “Spamalot is utterly pointless….regurgitating Python is not high on my list of priorities.”

Eric Idle with the cast of Spamalot in 2005
Eric Idle with the cast of Spamalot in 2005 - Getty

Palin was the most tactful of the quintet, saying “It’s a great show…it’s not ‘Python’ as we would have written it, but then none of us would get together and write a Python stage show….now we’re just proud to be associated with it, rather pathetically”, and Cleese, typically, said “it’s the silliest thing I’ve ever seen and I think Eric did a great job.”

Yet there were disagreements over money. In 2011, Idle said “I fired John Cleese – surgically removed him. It wasn’t mean – he’s had millions of dollars from it. He charges people a fortune for using his voice. He’s always been in financial crisis.” Cleese duly hit back, saying “I see Yoko Idle’s been moaning (again), about the royalties he had to pay the other Pythons for Spamalot. Apparently he paid me ‘millions’. Actual rough figures last time we checked - Yoko Idle $13m (£8.49m), Michael Palin $1.1m (£700,000), the others just under a million each...(around £650,000).” Once again, money became the defining cause behind a Python row.

The last reunion

One unexpected but unpleasant side-effect of the Spamalot musical was that the group were sued for royalties by the producer Mark Forstater, who produced the Holy Grail film and successfully demanded £800,000 in unpaid earnings. As a result of this, Monty Python reunited for a series of 10 sold-out shows at the 02 in July 2014, named Monty Python Live (Mostly). They met with great acclaim from the hundreds of thousands of fans who saw the shows, but although Python were offered an enormous sum to tour worldwide afterwards – up to £20 million, according to reports – they turned down the opportunity, as, according to Idle, “When you get old, grumpy old men, you go ‘I don’t care how much bloody money, I’m not going out, I’m staying home.’”

The 2014 show Monty Python Live (Mostly)
The 2014 show Monty Python Live (Mostly) - Getty

Palin confirmed in 2018 that there would no longer be any Python reunions. “All I want to do is continue doing new stuff,” he said. |The past is great but the future is more interesting to me at the moment.” He also confessed that a world tour would have “been a good way of making money but honestly, we’d have got bored stiff.”

He was candid about their reasons for reforming in 2014 – “It came to a point where certain people needed large amounts of money fairly quickly. And within, I should think, about sort of five and a half seconds, we’d all agreed. Having been disagreeing for the last, sort of, 15 years!”