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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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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide