Always Look On the Bright Side of Life by Eric Idle (Book Review)
When you think of Eric Idle, what quickly comes to mind is his years as a member of the legendary British comedy team Monty Python. With his hard-to-miss nasal voice and pointy face, Idle made his presence felt in a bunch of classic, often-recited Python sketches, such as “Nudge Nudge, Wink Wink”, “Spam” and the Australian Bruces.
And as a solo act, Idle has distinguished himself even further, with his cult classic spoof of the Beatles “The Rutles”, his performance in a modern dress version of Gilbert & Sullivan’s “The Mikado”, the hit 1990 comedy movie “Nuns on the Run”, and as the creator of the Tony Award-winning musical comedy “Spamalot”.
As well, Idle has deftly applied his comedic talents as a singer-songwriter, responsible for putting together many of Monty Python’s best-loved ditties. However, the one song that Idle will forever be associated with is “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”. What began as a quick solution to end the Python’s 1979 movie “Life of Brian” on a positive, upbeat note (while the title character and many of his followers are meeting their fates by crucifixion) is now a song that has worldwide cult status, and is always performed by Idle to close out any live performance he does (it’s even one of the most requested funeral songs in Britain).
So when Idle decided to recount his life story in book form, it was only fitting that he choose his best remembered song for the title of his recently published autobiography (or “sortabiography”, as he puts it in his inimitable, self-deprecating manner).
Idle was born in 1942 in County Durham, England as Eric Idle (“We couldn’t afford a second name,” he glibly writes). He experienced personal tragedy early in life; at the age of three, his father, who served with the RAF since 1941 as part of a bomber crew and survived the entire war, was killed in a road accident in 1945, as he was riding in a truck on his way home for Christmas (he actually died on Christmas Eve).
At the age of seven, Idle was placed in a boarding school called the Royal Orphanage (or “Ophny”, as he and his classmates referred to it as). And the chapter that deals with his time as a schoolboy at the “Ophny” during the highly austere post-war period in Britain almost reads like something out of a Charles Dickens novel. However, with show business in his blood (his great-grandfather was a music hall manager and circus ringmaster), Idle entered Cambridge University in the mid-1960s and immediately joined the legendary Footlights Club, and soon began to write and perform in several of the club’s popular comedy revues, following in the footsteps of such memorable predecessors Jonathan Miller, Peter Cook, Graham Chapman and John Cleese. He even served a term as President of the Footlights Club, where he successfully fought for the right for women to join the club.
However, it was in 1969 that he landed with the comedy troupe that he will forever be associated with: Monty Python. And it’s his years with Python that takes up the majority of Idle’s very entertaining memoir. Through his wealth of anecdotes, Idle recounts every aspect of what made Python such unforgettable comedy legends, and his role in that development, from the unorthodox writing sessions; to the creation of some of the group’s best known sketches and songs; to the soggy, distasteful conditions of filming “Holy Grail” in Scotland (where they also had the use of one castle, and used every inch of it for all of their castle scenes); to the controversy surrounding “Life of Brian”; the overwhelming popularity they had in the U.S. as of the mid-70s; and the number of Python reunion tours, which climaxed on a grand scale during their series of final live shows at the O2 in London during the summer of 2014.
And there is a sizeable local angle to Monty Python’s rising fame during the 70s, as Idle gives Canadian fans their due towards the group gaining cult status in North America. “The Canadians were nuts about Python. They had been watching the TV show since very early on, and there had been mass protests outside CBC when they tried to take it off the air. These fans were crazy,” he writes in the book.
Throughout Idle’s 50+ years in show business, he has been quite lucky to involve himself in a number of post-Python solo projects (including several hosting stints on SNL, writing books like the novel The Road to Mars and creating TV series like “Rutland Weekend Television”), but it also gave him the opportunity to travel around the world and rub shoulders with a great deal of international celebrities, many of whom became close personal friends like Lorne Michaels, Carrie Fisher, David Bowie, Mick Jagger, Paul Simon and Steve Martin.
However, it was his cherished friendships with former Beatle George Harrison and actor/comedian Robin Williams that make up some of the most gratifying and emotional parts of the book. Harrison was a long time Python fan (and even made guest appearances on “Rutland Weekend Television”). When he mortgaged his home to come up with the required $4.5 million to make “Life of Brian”, Harrison’s chief reason was “because I wanted to see the movie”. Sharing the same type of glib humour, Idle and Harrison became close friends; his account of being by Harrison’s bedside as he was dying from cancer in 2001 makes for heartbreaking reading.
Reading the chapter about his friendship with Robin Williams is just as gratifying and heartbreaking, as Idle marvels about Williams’ uncanny ability to make other people laugh while he was experiencing a great deal of personal pain. One glaring example was when the two were on the set of the award-winning cable series “Faerie Tale Theatre” in 1982, when Williams found that “Mork & Mindy” was just cancelled. So, while in his frog prince costume, Williams did a 10-minute comic rant where he ripped apart ABC and the network executives to the entire crew who were on the set, which as a result left them laughing hysterically and Williams recovered enough and ready to work on the production. “What better example of the healing power of comedy?,” writes Idle.
What makes Always Look on the Bright Side of Life work so well is that the text is filled with Idle’s glib, pointed and at times self-deprecating sense of humour that has been his trademark for over 50 years, in which the reader can register every snide remark and “f— off” with a hearty laugh instead of a whiff of shock.
This book marks the fifth time a member of Monty Python has produced a memoir (only Terry Jones hasn’t taken that literary route), and it’s probably the best of the Python memoirs because of its honesty, unpretentiousness, and liberal doses of laughs and behind the scenes stories. It also shows Eric Idle is quite a funny, multi-talented individual who has had the incredible good fortune to sustain a long career in the entertainment world just by following the words of the song that he wrote to end a Python film, and has become an uplifting anthem on life, whether you find yourself being crucified by the Romans or making that final life’s journey.