EMPIRE ESSAY: Monty Python and the Holy Grail Review

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King Arthur and his knights embark on a low-budget search for the Grail, encountering many very silly obstacles.


By the spring of 19 74 Monty Python was on the verge of collapse. The cult comic group, with their surreal brand of humour, had been together for five years, three TV series and one tour and the cracks were beginning to show. John Cleese had decided amicably to take no part in a proposed fourth series while other members were also discussing solo projects.

Looking for one last hurrah which might succeed where the earlier, And Now For Something Completely Different had failed in cracking the American market, the group found inspiration in Arthurian legend. They forged a comedy which delighted in subverting the epic tradition, parodied contemporary society and delivered numerous timeless scenes and characters of laugh-out-loud silliness. Shrubberies were demanded, hamster insults traded, relative wing velocities of European and African swallows debated and a generation of engineering students were never again found wanting for conversational material.

Terrys Gilliam and Jones, longtime critics of Python's visual shortcomings, appointed themselves directors. The Arthurian subject matter was decided upon, although initially the film was going to be shot in both mediaeval and modern times with the knights buying the Grail from Harrods and Galahad being a solicitor in Surrey.

Shelving the modern component, they set about raising funds. Python's popularity with the rock fraternity ensured them several high-profile backers with Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and Elton John all happy to invest and thereby siphon some money from the Exchequer's punishing 90 per cent tax rate. Michael White, who would go on to produce The Rocky Horror Picture Show, put together a modest budget of around £229,000.

Just how modest this budget was soon became evident, necessitating drastic, but inspired, modifications to the original script. Discovering that real horses would take their shooting well beyond the five weeks allowed, the group hit on the idea of using coconuts instead. But such invention did not prevent it from being a highly arduous shoot.

Locations for a variety of castles were scouted in Scotland, but only two weeks before filming began, permission to use them was withdrawn, forcing the privately owned Doune Castle to become the main backdrop. On the first day of shooting, the camera broke down and it was swiftly followed by the lead actor. Graham Chapman, always a keen imbiber and a firm friend of another famous non-teetotaller, The Who drummer Keith Moon, was now regularly consuming two bottles of gin a day. He resolved to give up drinking on the first day of shooting. However, as Gilliam struggled to shoot close-ups for the Bridge Of Death scene, Chapman experienced a violent bout of DTs and was shaking so badly that costume designer, Hazel Pethig couldn't get his gloves off. He resolved to fall off the wagon forthwith.

To make matters worse, the novel idea of co-directors was not working smoothly. Jones and Gilliam argued incessantly with matters often only being resolved by Gilliam backing down and then coming back late at night to re-cut things his way. The one point on which the two directors did agree, however, was that this would be a mediaeval epic that accurately reflected the period's filth think Ordure Of The Garter. Unfortunately, this obsession with dirt, combined with Gilliam's precise direction and the cast's inexperience at hitting their marks, served to make both directors unpopular with their fellow Pythons. Factor in an unseasonably cold and wet Scottish May, the 5 indignities of working with the rotting carcass of a dead sheep and production problems which meant that rushes could not be seen on a daily basis, and after ten days the cast were close to mutiny.

Fortunately, Graham Chapman, by now firmly back on the booze, came to the rescue with a morale-boosting round of drinks and a traditional sing-song which staved off disaster.

The following day, the rushes arrived and it was clear that, despite all the difficulties, they were doing great work. Even Cleese, always the most likely to resent the tedium of shooting, rallied. Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band member and unofficial seventh Python Neil Innes, who was brought in to write songs and find rhymes i for Camelot, recalls whiling away time with Cleese ! declining the verb "to sheep worry" with the future Basil Fawlty formulating an impeccable future perfect, "I am about to have been sheep worried."

Despite some disastrous early screenings, the film proved a huge success after opening in London on April 3,1975, helping to break the Pythons in America and making them rich men. The group had forsaken a salary for points, a wise decision as to this day a one per cent stake brings in an annual income of £60,000. The film proved popular in places as far afield as Russia and Graceland, where Elvis ordered his own print and watched it five times.

The success of Holy Grail revitalised the group, inspiring them to complete a fourth series and team up for further big screen outings in Life Of Brian and The Meaning Of Life. It also gave Terry Gilliam his distinctive modus operand! for his highly accomplished directorial career. "You plan everything carefully," revealed the Python animator recently. "Secretly hoping that things will go wrong."

A veritable facroy of memorable quotes and scenes.