A number of people planning to come to see Not The Messiah this summer have been concerned they aren’t familiar enough with the Python cannon, or don’t know much about Graham Chapman. It’s worth pointing out that the play still works fine for such people – it should be entertaining and tell a cracking story no matter what your background.
That said, it probably is rather more fun if you have something of a Python background and get some (if not all) the references.
In summary, Graham Chapman was one of six young writer/actor comedians who made up Monty Python. They made lots of silly sketches and then four very successful films during the 1960s and 1970s. The other five Pythons include some very familiar names – John Cleese (who went on to do Fawlty Towers etc.), Michael Palin (who went on to travel round the world etc.), Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam.
But rather than read about it all we thought we’d take you through in it videos. Much more fun. The following (spot all the links in the text) should, between them, give you most of the references to get that little bit more out of the show…
Graham Chapman in video
So, we’ll start with Graham Chapman. Born during WWII, He had an ordinary upbringing in Leicestershire, before ‘poncing off’ to Cambridge. His father was a policeman (plenty of those in Python) and we imagine his family life was something like this sketch (in which Graham happens to give one of his finest performances as the father).
Graham got a place to study medicine at Cambridge where he began mixing with the upper classes. He also met John Cleese in the Cambridge Footlights and the two formed a writing partnership. This continued up to and throughout Monty Python and the pair created some of the group’s most famous works, including The Parrot Sketch (based on an idea from Michael Palin) and The Argument Clinic.
As well as a great comic writer, Graham was also a skilled actor. Among a group of mad comedians, he was probably the best straight actor, often cast in their sketches as Policemen, Colonels, mountaineers, English country gents and vicars. Straight is an apposite word as this persona meant the Python team were completely surprised when Chapman came out as gay toward the end of their first season. He’d had to keep this a secret during a time when homosexuality was still illegal in Britain and more commonly the punchline of a joke.
After four seasons of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the same team regrouped to produce four films, the most famous of which are Monty Python’s Holy Grail and Monty Python’s Life Of Brian. Graham was once again cast as the central ‘straight’ role in both. Here he is as King Arthur and here as Brian. A chance here to compare alcoholic Graham with ‘on the wagon’ Graham: Holy Grail was shot when he was drinking copiously and could barely remember his lines; Brain was shot a few years after he’d collapsed and completely cut all alcohol to save his life.
We won’t ruin the show by describing exactly what happens next, although it’s hardly a secret that Graham Chapman still sadly died long before his time. He is best remembered through the great characters he created and played in the videos above, still being rediscovered by generation after generation.
And that’s pretty much all you need.