Monty Python’s Eric Idle Breaks Down His Most Iconic Characters

When I first saw Mon­ty Python’s Fly­ing Cir­cus, late at night on PBS and in degrad­ed VHS videos bor­rowed from friends, I assumed the show’s con­cepts must have come out of bonkers improv ses­sions. But the troupe’s many state­ments since the show’s end, in the form of books, doc­u­men­taries, inter­views, etc., have told us in no uncer­tain terms that Mon­ty Python’s cre­ators always put writ­ing first. “I’m not an actor at all,” says Eric Idle in the GQ video above. “I’m real­ly a writer who just acts occa­sion­al­ly.”

Like­wise, in the PBS series Mon­ty Python’s Per­son­al Best, Idle dis­cuss­es the joy of writ­ing for the show—and com­pares cre­at­ing Mon­ty Python to fish­ing, of all things: “You go to the river­bank every day, you don’t know what you’re going to catch.” This idyl­lic scene may be the last thing you’d asso­ciate with the Pythons, though you may recall their take on fish­ing in the sec­ond sea­son sketch “Fish License,” in which John Cleese’s char­ac­ter, Eric, tries to buy a license for his pet hal­ibut, Eric.

Idle’s protes­ta­tions notwith­stand­ing, none of the show’s writ­ing would have worked as well as it did onscreen with­out the con­sid­er­able act­ing tal­ents of all five per­form­ers. (Idle mod­est­ly ascribes his own abil­i­ty to being “lift­ed up” by the oth­ers.) Above, he talks about the most icon­ic char­ac­ters he embod­ied on the show, begin­ning with the “wink, wink, nudge, nudge, know what I mean?” guy: a char­ac­ter, we learn, based on Vivian Stan­shall of the Bon­zo Dog Doo-Dah Band crossed with a reg­u­lar from Idle’s local pub named Mon­ty, from whom the troupe took their first name.

We also learn that the char­ac­ter was so pop­u­lar in the States that “Elvis called every­body ‘squire’ because of that f*cking sketch!” Pres­ley’s’ pen­chant for doing Mon­ty Python mate­r­i­al while in bed with his girl­friend (“if only there was footage”) is but one of the many fas­ci­nat­ing anec­dotes Idle casu­al­ly toss­es off in his com­men­tary on char­ac­ters like the Aus­tralian Bruces, who went on to sing “The Philosopher’s Song”; Mr. Smoke­toomuch, who deliv­ers a ten-minute mono­logue writ­ten by John Cleese and Gra­ham Chap­man; and Idle’s char­ac­ters in the non-Python moc­u­men­tary All You Need Is Cash, which he cre­at­ed and co-wrote, about a par­o­dy Bea­t­les band called The Rut­les.

Idle is stead­fast in his descrip­tion of him­self as a com­pe­tent “car­i­ca­tur­ist,” and not a “com­ic actor.” But his song and dance rou­tines, sly sub­tle wit and broad ges­tures, and for­ev­er fun­ny turn as cow­ard­ly Sir Robin in Mon­ty Python and the Holy Grail should leave his fans with lit­tle doubt about his skill in front of the cam­era.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Mon­ty Python’s Best Phi­los­o­phy Sketch­es: “The Philoso­phers’ Foot­ball Match,” “Philosopher’s Drink­ing Song” & More

Ter­ry Gilliam Reveals the Secrets of Mon­ty Python Ani­ma­tions: A 1974 How-To Guide

The Mon­ty Python Phi­los­o­phy Foot­ball Match: The Ancient Greeks Ver­sus the Ger­mans

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Cambrinus says:

    Beware of the British com­e­dy gods! ‘toss­es off’ sug­gests some­thing very rude in the UK.

  • Cambrinus says:

    Not as well-known, it seems, are the LPs or records that used to be issued to com­ple­ment the films. Many no doubt assumed that they con­tained the sound­track to the films, or the music. Not at all; the LP to ‘Mon­ty Python and the Holy Grail’ is a work of genius in itself.

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