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

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

Eric Idle performing with some rollerskating nuns during the Olympics Closing Ce
Eric Idle performing with some rollerskating nuns during the Olympics Closing Ceremony. Photograph: Getty Images

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: whataboutdick.com