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.

KEVIN C MOORE
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Notes from a small island: the fraught and colourful history of Sicily

Sicily: Culture and Conquest at the British Museum.

When a gun was fired a hundred metres or so from the Sicilian piazza where we were eating, my reaction was to freeze, fall to my knees, and then run for cover in a colonnade. As I peered back into the square from behind a column, I expected to see a tangle of overturned chairs and china but I watched instead as the freeze-frame melted into normality. I retrieved my shoe from the waiter.

I should not have been surprised by how coolly everyone else handled what I was inclined to call “the situation”. The Sicilians have had 4,000 years in which to perfect the art of coexistence, defusing conflict with what strikes outsiders as inexplicable ease, rendering Sicily one of the most culturally diverse but identifiable places on the planet. Still, having visited “Sicily: Culture and Conquest” at the British Museum, I feel vindicated. There may be no Cosa Nostra in this exhibition, which charts the island’s history from antiquity to the early 13th century, but that doesn’t mean there is no simmering conflict. Like Lawrence Durrell, who described Sicily as “thrown down almost in mid-channel like a concert grand” and as having “a sort of minatory, defensive air”, I felt the tension beneath the bliss that has characterised Sicily for many centuries.

The “barbarians”, wrote the Greek historian Thucydides, moved to Sicily from Iberia (Spain), Troy and Italy before the Phoenicians and Greeks settled there in the 8th century BC – the time of Homer, whose Odyssey provided a useful guide to some of the more threatening features of the landscape. The giant, sea-lying rocks off the east coast were the boulders that the one-eyed Polyphemus hurled at Odysseus’s ship; the phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” referred to the Strait of Messina that divides Sicily from the mainland; Lake Pergusa, in the centre of the island, was the eerie spot whence Hades snatched Persephone and carried her down to the underworld.

It is a delight to behold the British Museum’s case full of terracotta figurines of Persephone, Demeter and their priestesses, some of thousands uncovered across Sicily, where the Greeks established the cult of these goddesses. The Phoenicians introduced their
own weather god, Baal Hammon, and the indigenous Sicilians seem to have accepted both, content that they honoured the same thing: the island’s remarkable fecundity.

The early Sicilians were nothing if not grateful for their agriculturally rich landscapes. As early as 2500 BC, they were finding ways to celebrate their vitality, the idea being that if the soil was fertile, so were they. On a stone from this period, intended as a doorway to a tomb, an artist has achieved the near impossible: the most consummate representation of the sexual act. Two spirals, two balls, a passage and something to fill it. The penis is barely worth mentioning. The ovaries are what dominate, swirling and just as huge as the testicles beneath them. We see the woman from both inside and out, poised on two nimble, straddling legs; the man barely figures at all.

Under the Greeks in the 5th century BC, it was a different story. Although many of Sicily’s tyrants were generous patrons of the arts and sciences, theirs was a discernibly more macho culture. The second room of the exhibition is like an ode to their sporting achievements: amid the terracotta busts of ecstatic horses and the vase paintings of wild ponies bolting over mounds (Sicily is exceptionally hilly) are more stately representations of horses drawing chariots. These Greek tyrants – or rather, their charioteers – achieved a remarkable number of victories in the Olympic and Pythian Games. Some of the most splendid and enigmatic poetry from the ancient world was written to celebrate their equestrian triumphs. “Water is best, but gold shines like gleaming fire at night, outstripping the wealth of a great man” – so begins a victory ode for Hiero I of Syracuse.

But what of the tensions? In 415BC, the Athenians responded to rivalries between Segesta and Syracuse by launching the Sic­ilian expedition. It was a disaster. The Athenians who survived were imprisoned and put to work in quarries; many died of disease contracted from the marshland near Syracuse. There is neither the space nor the inclination, in this relatively compact exhibition, to explore the incident in much depth. The clever thing about this show is that it leaves the historical conflicts largely between the lines by focusing on Sicily at its height, first under the Greeks, and then in the 11th century under the Normans – ostensibly “the collage years”, when one culture was interwoven so tightly with another that the seams as good as disappeared. It is up to us to decide how tightly those seams really were sewn.

Much is made of the multiculturalism and religious tolerance of the Normans but even before them we see precedents for fairly seamless relations between many different groups under the 9th-century Arab conquerors. Having shifted Sicily’s capital from Syracuse to Palermo, where it remains to this day, the Arabs lived cheek by jowl with Berbers, Lombards, Jews and Greek-Byzantine Sicilians. Some Christians converted to Islam so that they would be ­exempt from the jizya (a tax imposed on non-Muslims). But the discovery of part of an altar from a 9th-century church, displayed here, suggests that other Christians were able to continue practising their faith. The marble is exquisitely adorned with beady-eyed lions, frolicsome deer and lotus flowers surrounding the tree of life, only this tree is a date palm, introduced to Sicily – together with oranges, spinach and rice – by the Arabs.

Under Roger II, the first Norman king of Sicily, whose father took power from the Arabs, the situation was turned on its head. With the exception of the Palermo mosque (formerly a Byzantine church, and before that a Roman basilica), which had again become a church, mosques remained open, while conversion to Christianity was encouraged. Roger, who was proudly Catholic, looked to Constantinople and Fatimid Egypt, as well as Normandy, for his artistic ideas, adorning his new palace at Palermo and the splendidly named “Room of Roger” with exotic hunting mosaics, Byzantine-style motifs and inscriptions in Arabic script, including a red-and-green porphyry plaque that has travelled to London.

To which one’s immediate reaction is: Roger, what a man. Why aren’t we all doing this? But an appreciation for the arts of the Middle East isn’t the same thing as an understanding of the compatibilities and incompatibilities of religious faith. Nor is necessity the same as desire. Roger’s people – and, in particular, his army – were so religiously and culturally diverse that he had little choice but to make it work. The start of the Norman invasion under his father had incensed a number of Sicily’s Muslims. One poet had even likened Norman Sicily to Adam’s fall. And while Roger impressed many Muslims with his use of Arabic on coins and inscriptions, tensions were brewing outside the court walls between the
island’s various religious quarters. Roger’s death in 1154 marked the beginning of a deterioration in relations that would precipitate under his son and successor, William I, and his grandson William II. Over the following century and a half, Sicily became more or less latinised.

The objects from Norman Sicily that survive – the superb stone carvings and multilingual inscriptions, the robes and richly dressed ceiling designs – tell the story less of an experiment that failed than of beauty that came from necessity. Viewing Sicily against a background of more recent tensions – including Cosa Nostra’s “war” on migrants on an island where net migration remains low – it is perhaps no surprise that the island never lost its “defensive air”. Knowing the fractures out of which Sicily’s defensiveness grew makes this the most interesting thing about it. 

Daisy Dunn’s latest books are Catullus’ Bedspread and The Poems of Catullus (both published by William Collins)

“Sicily” at the British Museum runs until 14 August

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism