[First published in The Guardian, October 6, 1989. Reprinted on Pythonline, 1996]
By Michael Palin
I first heard of Graham Chapman as one of that pool of ex Oxbridge revue talent that sloshed around the BBC in the mid1960s.
I use the word sloshed advisedly, for many of our best times were had propping up the various bars of the Corporation. Graham was like a figure out of a Biggles story. Strong, finely chiselled features, pipe at a jaunty angle in his mouth, pint in one hand and progger in the other. A progger was Graham’s name for the flatended instrument which he used to bed down the tobacco in his pipe. I never knew whether it was a real name or not. Graham liked words and used them well, but if he felt the right one didn’t exist he’d invent another one.
In the post Cambridge days he was a journeyman writer, like us all. One day he would be working with John Cleese to produce a dazzling succession of successful sketches for The Frost Report, the next he would be writing filler jokes for the Petula Clark show.
He kept a low profile as a performer until At Last the 1948 Show in which he revealed a talent for playing intense, rather serious characters hilariously. He was a charismatic performer, drawing the eye to himself, as much for the originality and unshowbizziness of his approach, as for the likely detectable hint of unpredictability. An audience was never quite sure what he would do next. Nor I think, as a performer, was Graham. During a singing court scene in one of the early Python shows he quite inadvertently substituted ‘window dresser’ for ‘window clearer’ in his song. A Freudian slip at which we all fell about, especially Graham.
In 1969, when the mutual admiration society which became known as Monty Python assembled, Graham met David Sherlock and embarked on one of the many radical changes in his life, when they decided to live together. It was a courageous decision, which shocked some of his friends at the time but was borne out triumphantly by the fact that they shared the rest of their lives. David, together with their adopted son John Tomiczak, nursed and cared for him with stoic patience and quiet strength throughout his final illness.
Graham’s need to relax himself with a dram or two took a disproportionate hold on his life as the pressures of a heavy Python schedule grew. Drink was not always the friend he thought it, affecting his performances and occasionally doing a great disservice to a much underrated natural acting talent.
His writing contributions to Python were of quality rather than quantity. Whilst all around were scratching their heads for inspiration. Graham would puff his pipe and glance sideways at the Times crossword and be quite silent for 30 minutes or so before coming out with a single shaft of inspiration that would transform a mundane sketch into something very mad and wonderful.
Such surreal flashes were the very essence of Python as were his memorable performances as the Colonel, as the Hostess in the Eurovision song contest, Raymond Luxury-Yacht and others.His offstage performances included collecting an award from the Sun newspaper by leaping high in the air, emitting a loud squawk and crawling all the way back to his table with the award in his mouth, leaving Lord Mountbatten, who had given him the award, looking very confused.
But Graham’s most memorable performances were sustained and demanding-as King Arthur in Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Brian in the Life of Brian.
Around the time of the filming of Life of Brian, Graham made a conscious effort to free himself from the dependence on the large G and Ts-after that “ice but no lemon please. ” His restless everinquisitive need to be freed from the boring and the conventional had led him to the brink, but his cautious disciplined rational side saved him at the last minute from toppling over. He gave up drinking and later, with immense difficulty also laid aside his pipe.
Perhaps Graham too easily overestimated the talents of others while underestimating his own and, as a result, his ventures outside Python-Out of the Trees for the BBC and his two films, Odd Job and Yellowbeard - were full of good ideas badly resolved. The commercial failure of Yellowbeard depressed him.
His recent illness was another in a series of mountains which Graham had to climb. He always regarded death as highly overrated and could never understand why anybody made such a fuss about it. Despite great physical discomfort he remained alert, informed, articulate and humorous.
He hated to be bored which is why he joined the Dangerous Sports Club and once hurled himself into thin air attached to a length of rubber… “I was high for two weeks after that.”
I suspect he would have enjoyed an old age of increasing eccentricity, dispensing his considerable wisdom and hospitality, occasionally leaping in the air and shouting “Eeke!”