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Eric Idle: “I’ve lost friends by being ironic”

Caroline Crampton talks to Eric Idle, late-blooming internet aficionado.

There are some voices you never forget. Eric Idle’s is one of them –even down a phone line from the other side of the world, you can’t help but hear that same distinctive voice screeching, “A witch! A witch!” as a grubby peasant in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, or his cheerful mockney singing of “Always look on the bright side of life” while being crucified in Life of Brian.

But while he might be frozen for ever in our memories as one-sixth of Monty Python, the one who does silly voices and clever songs and pretends to be a cross-dressing high court judge, Idle hasn’t exactly been idle.

There have been films, television, voiceovers, books, a Tony-winning musical (Spamalot, just opening for the third time in the West End), and now a “sort of radio play” about the decline of the British empire called What About Dick?, for which he assembled a cast like no other – Eddie Izzard, Billy Connolly, Russell Brand, Tim Curry, among others – and which he’s now trying to spread directly to his fans online.

“It’s very appealing to do things outside the system – the Hollywood system, where you have to go to the studios and ask them for money, and they tell you it’s not funny,” he says. There’s a kind of anarchy, a gleeful sense of sticking it to the man, in the way he describes it.

“I love it when new media comes along that isn’t immediately in the hands of all the people who will eventually own it . . . It’s like the British empire and the civil service. It kind of atrophies in the end.” He freely admits that he’s not the most likely internet entrepreneur. “People my age are terrified of the idea of downloading,” he says. “They’re scared.”

However, at 69, he seems to be more than comfortable in his new digital existence. Indeed, his technique for coping with the abuse he receives on his Twitter feed is breathtakingly simple: “I tell them to fuck off. I find that works.”

In one sense, however, Idle’s exposure to the internet has changed him.

“I’ve lost friends because I was just being ironic,” he says. “I’m trying to eschew irony, but it’s very hard. It’s embedded deep in my bones.”

At home in Los Angeles – “a silly town where you don’t have to take anything particularly seriously” – he reads voraciously and writes every day, starting at five or six in the morning, despite claiming to be “out of the business”.

There are just the slightest signs that this quintessentially British comedian, a US resident since the early Nineties, has fallen prey to a little of the Yankee influence – the odd “Sure!” peppers his speech, for instance – although, with his professed love for the classic Kenneth Williams BBC radio comedy Round the Horne, he’s fooling no one.

Idle’s contribution to the Monty Python output was always characterised by a dual fascination with language and with innuendo. That’s why he keeps returning to writing for radio, he says – it strips away the distractions of sets and costumes, and allows the imagination to take over purely through the connection between his language and our brains.

You have only to hear the way he enunciates his adjectives – “Hilarious. Hi-lar-ious” – to get a sense of how much he likes playing with words.

Later on, we get down to the seriously British topic of the weather. When I try to make a joke (I know, what was I thinking, making a joke to a Python?) and suggest he pack lots of jumpers for a forthcoming visit to London, the very word seems to fill him with delight (this is, after all, the man who invented a character who speaks only in anagrams).

“Jumpers?” he squawks. “Now, that’s a word you never hear in America . . .”

“What About Dick?” can be downloaded at:

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, What is Israel thinking?

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis