Dirk, Barry, Stig and Nasty are The Rutles in Eric Idle's All You Need is Cash.
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A selection of the best Python projects outside of Monty Python

Ryan Gilbey celebrates the best work by individual Pythons outside of their famous collaborations, from John Cleese’s slick Brit-flick A Fish Called Wanda to Eric Idle’s Beatles pastiche The Rutles.

The Monty Python reunion is almost over, the reviews are in (including this equivocal notice in the NS from Mark Lawson) and the commemorative concert Blu-Ray boxed-set and accompanying souvenir lumberjack shirts and tins of Spam are doubtless being readied for the pre-Christmas shelves. How to silence your Python pangs in the mean time when you’ve already watched Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Monty Python’s Life of Brian and Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life and you feel that now it’s time for something completely different? Well, moderately different anyway. Plug your longing, then, with this handy mini-festival of the best of the Python members’ extra-curricular cinematic activities:

John Cleese

Conventional wisdom would have it that, Fawlty Towers aside, A Fish Called Wanda was John Cleese’s post-Python peak. And that movie is certainly a slick, punchy piece of work, notable both for its cosy British nastiness and its transformation of this garden rake of a man into a romantic hero. But for an undiluted shot of Cleese’s livid energy, try Clockwise, the simple but comically agonising 1986 tale (written by Michael Frayn) of one punctiliously punctual headmaster’s attempts to reach a conference on time. Key line: “It’s not the despair. I can take the despair. It’s the hope I can’t stand…”

Eric Idle

He hit paydirt—or further paydirt—with his Holy Grail musical, Spamalot, but Eric Idle has never been smarter or funnier outside Python than he is in All You Need is Cash, a laugh-a-second 1978 mockumentary about the Rutles, aka the Prefab Four, the popular beat combo (Dirk, Barry, Stig and Nasty) who bear a remarkable resemblance to the Beatles. The Rutles, born out of Idle’s TV show Rutland Weekend Television, are both loving homage and prickly parody; their songs are immaculate pastiches as well as sparkling compositions in their own right. Idle, playing several roles in All You Need is Cash (including the McCartney-like Dirk and the ingratiating host of the documentary), is at his prissy, bristling best.

Michael Palin

Palin is not only the sprightliest member of the troupe, he is also the one clutched most tightly to the public bosom. Travel documentaries, frank and jaunty diaries, the matchless Ripping Yarns TV series (written with Terry Jones), endearing and vulnerable turns in A Fish Called Wanda and Alan Bleasdale’s Channel 4 series GBH, not to mention Palin’s sheer bloody niceness—all these things have contributed to his spotless persona. That’s why I’m prescribing as an antidote his cameo turn as a dapper, smiling torturer in fellow Python Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. No one else had exploited or even identified Palin’s capacity for the sinister (and, no, the Spanish Inquisition sketch doesn’t count) so it was both chilling and mildly revelatory to see him in that context.

Terry Jones

The two Terrys (who shared directing credits on Holy Grail before Jones got sole credit on the remaining Python pictures) were alone among the team in becoming established filmmakers in their own right. Its view of the sex industry may be delusional in its softness but I retain a lingering fondness for Jones’s naughty-but-nice 1987 comedy Personal Services. The film has a winning performance by Julie Walters as a suburban madam (based on Cynthia Payne), a gender-oriented surprise that predates The Crying Game and a delightful climactic courtroom scene in which Walters surveys those assembled to condemn her and realises that most of the men are clients of hers.

Terry Gilliam

The only member whose film career has eclipsed anything he did as part of Python is Terry Gilliam, who went on to become a visionary, if latterly infuriating, filmmaker. Brazil was his masterpiece, but his 1981 comic adventure Time Bandits is as near to that status as makes no difference. As well as featuring cameos from Cleese (as a sneaky, what-ho Robin Hood) and Palin, it fuses Pythonesque eccentricity with a properly thrilling time-travel plot and a robust sense of wonder. The unsentimental ending cheers the soul.

Graham Chapman

The “one” in the “One Down, Five to Go” title given to the Python’s reunion shows, Chapman died in 1989 but lives on, animated and re-animated, in the recent inventive documentary A Liar’s Autobiography: The Untrue Story of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman (co-directed by Terry Jones’s son, Bill Jones).

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

Stavros Damos for the New Statesman
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A L Kennedy Q&A: “Of course we’re all doomed"

The novelist talks wise politicians, time travel and Captain Haddock. 

What’s your earliest memory?
I’m not sure my early memories are that real. I recall pulling a doorknob off in the hallway in an attempt to leave home, because I was walking away from salad and was never going back . . . Salad back then was limited and scary.

Who was your childhood hero?
I was fond of Captain Haddock. And impressed by Henry Dunant. My heroes were mainly in books. My adult heroes would be numerous. The Lakota (and other) folks resisting the Dakota Access Pipeline are amazing. Bill Nighy is quietly doing amazingnesses on behalf of others. The whole of Médecins sans Frontières – they’re extraordinary. Lots of people do amazing things but don’t get mentioned. We are constantly given the impression by politicians and the media that everyone else is a bastard. It’s not true.

What was the last book that made you envy the writer?
I don’t think that’s ever happened. I’m always happy to read a wonderful book. But I guess I have envied writers who have been to amazing places or lived in amazing times and been useful. Rebecca West, then, Chekhov, Robert Louis Stevenson.

What politician, past or present, do you look up to?
Nelson Mandela was very wise about a number of things. Václav Havel and Gandhi also. In the present, the mayor of Düsseldorf is pretty impressive. So is Nicola Sturgeon. They’re people you can stand to be in the same room with – which is unusual in politics.

What would be your Mastermind special subject?
Anything I enjoy knowing would get spoiled by having to sit and spit out chips of it. Plus: my memory is on temporary leave of absence while I have the menopause.

Which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live in?
I’d like to have visited Shakespeare’s London – awful to live there. The UK in 1946-50 would fascinate me. And I’d like to have been in the US for the Sixties.

What’s your theme tune?
Depends. Bits of Dylan, lots of Elvis Costello, “Bread and Roses”, some First World War songs.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
I was told that if I held on and passed my forties, life would be infinitely more fun. I did and it is.

What’s currently bugging you?
Don’t get me started. Let’s boil it all down to ambient cruelty and stupidity. We seem intent on becoming extinct. And if we go on as we are – we kind of should.

What single thing would make your life better?
I can’t tell you. But it would.

If you weren’t a writer what would you be?
No idea. I quite liked bits of acting – that’s tough, though. I like painting, in the sense of decorating. I wouldn’t mind being a painter.

When were you happiest?
I would imagine it’s all the times when I’ve forgotten about being me entirely and been completely involved in something other – nature, writing, giving a shit about someone else . . .

Are we all doomed?
Yes, of course. We always are. We all die. That’s why we ought to be kind. 

A L Kennedy’s “Serious Sweet” is newly published in paperback by Vintage. Her children’s book “Uncle Shawn and Bill and the Almost Entirely Unplanned Adventure” is published by Walker Books

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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