❉ The Godfather of British comedy on being Python’s warm-up act, inventing the first gay sitcom and stalking J.B. Priestley.
We chat to the Godfather of British comedy, Barry Cryer, on the living legend’s experiences as a mentor and collaborator of the Pythons, including how Barry Cryer and Graham Chapman almost created the first gay sitcom and an unlikely meeting with Python fan J.B. Priestley…
“Graham and I wrote a pilot for a gay sitcom called ‘Frank & Ernest’, and we wrote the whole thing and we showed it to Humphrey Barclay, the producer, and he said, “I love this. Too soon. We will never get this on. Too soon.””
You first encountered the Pythons-to-be – Chapman, Cleese, Idle, Palin and Jones – when they joined the writing team for The Frost Report. Can you tell us a little about that?
That’s right, ‘The Frost Report’ was the first time all the British Pythons were in the same room together.
Eric was always – it used to bug Eric – the odd one out of the five, before Terry Gilliam became in it, the American animator. It used to piss Eric off, he was the odd one out, you know, ‘cos you got two pairs – Palin/Jones, Cleese/Chapman “and me” he used to say. He then did Rutland Weekend Television, and he said to me once, “It’s full of Python rejects, this is the stuff the other buggers turned down”, he said!
And then of course you had this court case and Spamalot, it’s a shame really.
They always cheerfully referred to Eric as the money man. The memories you get, all those years ago, long before mobiles, and I was on the ‘phone to Terry, at White City tube station outside the BBC, and there’s Eric Idle at my elbow saying, “Baz, Baz, how do you get a commission on this show?”
After ‘The Frost Report’, David Frost put John Cleese, Graham Chapman together with fellow Frost Report alumnus Tim Brooke-Taylor and Marty Feldman to write and star in ‘At Last the 1948 Show’.
The 1948 Show was intermediary, it was on the way to Python. And, of course, 1948 Show had Marty Feldman in it, who’d been in music hall in an act called Morris, Marty & Mitch, and then he fell into writing, and was just known to us all as a writer.
You appeared in a couple of episodes, didn’t you?
In ‘At Last the 1948 Show’ I was a waiter, probably in the Four Yorkshiremen sketch, we all used to do little bits. The American, Dick Vosburgh, who I wrote a lot with, great man, he did the voiceover at the beginning of the ’48 Show, and then they wanted something a little different and Dick couldn’t do it, so I exist somewhere doing an imitation of him! Briliant man.
When Frost Report started, Mike Palin always remembers, Dick & I were involved at the beginning, and we were only a few years older than them but we were Uncle Dick and Uncle Barry. We were the old men!
“John Cleese said it’s the classic example of a show’s title looking like what it felt like making it, how to irritate people. He said he felt sorry for the audience!”
In January 1969, John Cleese, Graham Chapman and Michael Palin made ‘How To Irritate People’, a TV special produced by David Frost. What do you remember about that?
‘How to Irritate People’ was an independent studio down at Stonebridge Park, Wembley Way, and that went on for two and three quarter hours or something. I kept going on between every sketch, they carried me to the bar shoulder-high afterwards, saying ‘You were on even more than we were!’
John said it’s the classic example of a show’s title looking like what it felt like making it, how to irritate people. He said he felt sorry for the audience!
It’s weird that it never came out here until it came out on video, it was a ‘Paradine Production’. A paradigm, if you will?
In the early days of ‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus’, you were brought on to provide the warm-up act for the studio audience… How did that come about?
Frosty saw me doing old time music hall at a place called the Players Theatre in London and said, ‘You could do the warm up!’ I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘I saw you MC’ing that show’ and then I became his warm-up man for the Frost shows and, you know, in the early days, when he went to ITV, we were doing three a week, it was a good source of income for me. It was Frosty who get me doing warm ups. Of course, when Python came along, I was drafted in to do the warm up.
They asked me to do the warm-up. I mean, the story, which is true – I don’t know if you’ve heard it – the first Python recording… Nowadays, TV companies, the BBC or whatever, they cast the audience to match the show, but they didn’t in those days, they just bussed in people, and a load of OAPs came to the first recording thing thinking it was a circus, and they saw sketches with a dead body in a binbag and undertakers and God knows what, the atmosphere was amazing! These dear old souls – ‘Oh yes, a circus, that’ll be interesting!’
After a time, the Python disposed of the warm-up act. Michael Palin told James Gent: “I seem to remember that we used the minimum amount of outside entertainers, because it was quite embarrassing to invite Barry on to tell a few jokes and then, ‘Right, shut up!’, the gallery comes down to shut them up, ‘We’re all ready and on we go’.” Barry remembers it differently:
It’s a strange thing to do, but I took myself out of the warm-ups and said, ‘I’m off’ and Michael said, ‘What?’ I said, ‘I’m wrong!’ They all said, ‘No you’re not!, I said, ‘I’m wrong’. My routine was an orthodox thing. When I say, orthodox, you just welcome the audience, tell them something about the show, do a few jokes and then you bring one or two of the cast in, get them to do a bit, all that sort of stuff. That was alright, but I instinctively felt it was wrong for Python, which was this quirky, strange, sketch show. They didn’t agree, which was very flattering.
Spike Milligan didn’t take too kindly about Python, did he?
Well, he blew hot and cold. On some days he’d be saying, “They’re flying the flag!” and on others it would be, “Those bastards have ripped me off!” But that’s Spike.
“I found writing with Graham a joy, for about an hour and a half, he was absolutely brilliant. He was very good at construction. I was the one-line man and the character man.”
At the same time as Python, you worked with Graham Chapman on the Ronnie Corbett sitcom ‘No, That’s Me Over Here’. Can you tell us a little about that?
That was Frost again. He saw something in me and Graham. Frosty, I always called him a ‘practising catalyst’, he put me and Graham Chapman together to write and we became friends. He saw something in us, we did fifty shows or more together outside Python, Graham and I wrote a lot together.
The early Ronnie Corbett sitcoms, long before ‘Sorry!’ – No That’s Me Over Here’ – the most disastrous title, because no one could remember it properly. But it made sense initially, because the opening credits was a school photograph and you could ‘Photoshop’ Ronnie Corbett onto it, then, just popped him into the back row of a school photograph, and as the music plays, the camera pans along, and Ronnie’s voice says, “No, that’s me over here!” And then from the second series, they cut that, so the titles baffled people, and they’d say, “No, I’m there…”, no one could remember the title!
Eric Idle was the third writer on the first series, and then Eric went off and did other stuff, but then Graham and wrote a lot together. It was interesting, because I would have thought, ‘A sitcom? No, not Graham…’ and I hadn’t done a sitcom before that. Frost was an amazing man. As I say, a ‘practising catalyst’.
I found writing with Graham a joy, but bless him, the drinking took over. I would go, in later stages, to his house in Highgate, arrive about half past ten – I always said, I loved the man, it was like the old joke, ‘I don’t drink much, I spill most of it’ – I’d arrive about half past ten and he’s putting some tonic into his glass. For about an hour and a half, he was absolutely brilliant. He was very good at construction. I was the one-line man and the character man.
Frosty saw something in us, as I said, and Graham would say, “Ah, I’ll tell you what happens now” and all that. But by about twelve noon, “Ooh, Ba” – I was always Ba – “Ooh, Ba, just the one?” I thought (curses silently)… and we’d go to the pub, and that was the day gone. And in the finish, you couldn’t exist on an hour and a half’s writing. But our friendship survived, that’s the good thing. But we drifted apart writing, luckily I was doing other stuff. The friendship survived, and he would come to the pub with me, after he’d stopped drinking and have a Diet Coke, which I admired, because it must have been a strain, being in a pub with all that ambience going on.
The early days of ‘No That’s Me Over Here’, we would solemnly write in the script, ‘Ronnie enters Ivor’s desk. Ivor is standing wearing a posing pouch’ and the goat was a running thing. There was a wedding (episode) and we wrote, ‘The sandwiches have been nibbled by the goat. We cannot see the goat as it is outside in the garden. The goat is just outside the front room door’. This just became a silly thing. And the last recording in the series, Graham and I arrived at the studio and the crew had brought along this goat! Oh, we used to love that silly stuff. Also, language. Ivor Dean would suddenly say, ‘Corbett! What the FUCK are you talking about?’ and that would make us laugh at the read-through.
In the early ‘70s you chaired ‘Jokers Wild’, which was something of a gag-fest for old-school joke merchants. How did you get John Cleese on board for that?
‘Jokers Wild’ – we always used to get the morning train up to Leeds and we asked John on. The old heavyweights are on the train – Ted Ray, Arthur Askey, of course, ‘rat-tat-tat’ over breakfast, and John wasn’t being rude but he just couldn’t cope, so he sat on the other side from the aisle, reading a book. He said, “Oh boy, I can’t handle that, that’s amazing, I’ve got no jokes left in me or anything.” I said, “Let’s do that on the programme.” He said, “What?” I said, “You’re reading a book.” “Yeah” and we talked and he said, “Yeah, I’ll do that” so the other comics were there, and John, and he’s just sitting there reading a book, then the buzzer subject comes up, “Mr Cleese!” He ignores me completely, carries on reading. “MR CLEESE!” [Huffily:] “…WHAT?” “Your subject…” “What are you talking about?” and he put his bookmark down, very carefully. “Yes…’ ‘Mothers-in-law.” “WHAT?” “Mothers-in-law” and then he had a joke ready, but the comics loved him. It worked, this ‘Mr Cleese’, you know. ‘WHAT?’
And then, of course, he met Les Dawson and they hit it off immediately. Such an odd couple! Cleese thought the world of Les, and it was mutual.
Obviously, you knew Graham Chapman very well and Kenny Everett, too. I was watching the Python sketch ‘The Mouse Problem’ again recently, and it’s fairly obvious it’s a satire on homosexual behaviour in less liberated times…
It was an era of haunted, hunted men. It was terrible. Younger people say, “Oh, they didn’t come out!” No, they didn’t come out, because they’d be ruined and probably imprisoned. Women had the best part of the deal, they weren’t covered by the law. It’s a fallacy, a myth, that Queen Victoria didn’t believe lesbianism existed, but whatever the reason, gay women were not covered by that law, so they were okay, but even they didn’t come out too overtly because it was still…
“Jimmy Edwards could be incredibly rude but was lovely when you got to know him, it was all the insecurity and the paranoia, you know? Jimmy Edwards, the war hero… Jim was gay and it tortured him.”
Graham ‘came out’ very early on in his career, didn’t he?
The timing – if there is such a thing as timing – the timing was right, and he came from this wacky, weird show, but if you were in the orthodox, old school world like Frankie Howerd or Jimmy Edwards, they drank a hell of a lot; Jimmy Edwards could be incredibly rude but was lovely when you got to know him, it was all the insecurity and the paranoia, you know? Horrible. No, it was a horrible era for my gay mates. And some of the big stars… Frankie Howerd, Jimmy Edwards, the war hero… Jim was gay and it tortured him.
Graham had a coming out party. John Cleese, his writing partner, always claimed he was stunned and baffled. I thought, “John… Really?” John got Graham a prostitute once, in Rome, and she turned up in Graham’s room and he said, “Hello!”, bought her a drink and a cup of tea, said “Anything I can do? Here’s some money…” and she left! But then Graham’s fiancé from way back, I’ve forgotten her name, she was lovely but then she disappeared off the scene, and then a few years later, they got together, briefly, for one night, and Graham said, “Oh, I’ve missed out!”, he said, “I’m bi!” I said, “You’re just fucking greedy!”
What fascinates me, Kenny Everett called me “honorary gay”, friend of the family, which was lovely. Words become reclaimed, gays reclaimed ‘poof’ and ‘queer’. Horrible words but ‘We’ll use them. ‘Like nigger – ‘WE say nigger. YOU don’t say nigger’. You reclaim these words for your own, you know.
And yet, to meet Graham, he didn’t conform to any of the stereotypes of the time did he, with his pipe and his rugby?
It was very funny that Graham was there with the pipe smoking, “no, no, stop that, because his dad was a pipe-smoking copper from Leicester.
Graham and I wrote a pilot for a gay sitcom called ‘Frank & Ernest’, about two guys who lived over a launderette. It was based on something in Graham’s own life. Graham and David Sherlock, who got together already by then, Graham said he was so ashamed, looking back, saying to David, ‘Can you make yourself scarce, my parents are coming this weekend?’, which is an awful thing to do. Then his mum and dad turn up, and his dad spotted a kaftan in the wardrobe, and beamed, ‘A woman’s been here!’ And we wrote the whole thing based on that, Frank & Ernest, and we showed it – this is way back – to Humphrey Barclay, the producer, and he said, “I love this. Too soon. We will never get this on. Too soon.” Have you seen ‘Vicious’? Hated it. It’s possibly homophobic… Bitchy remarks, insult, insult, insult. You think these two don’t like each other, you can’t believe they live together, it’s just relentless. I thought it was awful.
“Of course, we were the spin off from ‘I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again’, forty three years ago! John, Jo Kendall the actress, Bill Oddie, Graham Chapman and Tim, that was the line-up permutations on the first series. They just left. So it was now, me, Graham and Tim and then we got Willie Rushton in and that was it. It wasn’t regarded as a prospect at all, the first time, it nearly got taken off!”
But there had been precedents for gay humour, hadn’t there? Round The Horne…
Oh, Julian & Sandy on the radio, I mean, overtly gay. Really subersive in those days. I’m sure one or two BBC bosses at the time knew exactly what was going on, but claimed they hadn’t noticed. All the polari, all the slang, was in there. Still funny.
It would be remiss to not mention ‘I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue’…
Of course, we were the spin off from ‘I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again’, forty three years ago! I wasn’t in the first series. John, Jo Kendall the actress, Bill Oddie, Graham Chapman and Tim, that was the line-up permutations on the first series, and the great Humphrey Lyttleton obviously. Humph couldn’t do the first couple of shows so I was the chairman… So, I was in on the first series as a chairman deputy, and then there was an agonising rethink, John couldn’t stand it, he didn’t like all the pissing about. Bill Oddie used to throw up before a recording. They just left. So it was now, me, Graham and Tim and then we got Willie Rushton in and that was it.
It wasn’t regarded as a prospect at all, the first time, it nearly got taken off!
“Turns out J.B. Priestley was a big Python fan. And then you find out Priestley was furious because Python wasn’t shown for a while and then it was shown late at night instead of show jumping. The Python gang were thrilled when they heard Priestley was a fan!”
You caught some of the Pythons’ ‘First Farewell Tour’ in 1973, didn’t you? It’s said that John Cleese found it frustrating seeing fans quote sketches ‘parrot fashion’ if you’ll excuse the pun, given that they were trying to be innovative?
John hated all that –well, they all did, hated the over the top fans, ‘Oh, please, just laugh, that’s all we want you to do, you don’t need to chant…’ It’s ironic that chanting sketches word for word is the sort of behaviour they were spoofing.
Tell us about the J.B. Priestley story…
During the Python tour, I told Graham, my absolute idol as a writer was J.B. Priestley, and typical Graham, I remember he said, “Ooh, Ba, you’re a bore on the subject of J.B. Priestley…” I said, “I’m sorry!”
“Ring him up”, he said. I said, “You don’t just ring a man like that up, and how would I know his phone number?” and I thought, “Wait a minute, Wendy at Yorkshire Television did a documentary…” and that’s that. You can’t plan this sort of thing. So I ring Wendy at YTV, I say “Have you got J.B. Priestley’s phone number?” ‘”Yes!” Gives me the number, oh boy!
A woman answers the phone, we thought it was his secretary or assistant, it was his cleaning lady! I said, “Is Mr Priestley there?” Silence. Click. [Gruffly:] “Hello”. I sobered up in a split second. [Barks:] “Who’s that?” I said, “Oh, my name’s Barry Cryer?” [Snaps:] “Is it indeed?” And then I floated away on a pink cloud, this great man said, “I’ve heard you on the wireless.” So I thought, what can I say to him? I said, “My mate and I, we’re writers, and we’d like to come and see you.” [Gruffly:] “Who’s yer mate?” I said, “Er, Graham Chapman…” [Sharply:] “Monty Python, eh?” Turns out Priestley was a big Python fan. So what can I say to him that won’t worry him. I said, “Can we have tea with you?” “Yessss. Monday, three o’clock, I’m giving me address, I’m giving up me walk.” I’m in Coventry on the Sunday night, not a million miles from Alverston, where Priestley lived. So Graham and I book a car, John Cleese heard about it and joined in, we went down and met the great man, Graham and JB swopped pipe tobacco…
That was Graham, you see. Direct. ‘Ring him.’ Fascinating. And then you find out Priestley’s a fan of Python and that it wasn’t shown for a while and then it was shown late at night instead of show jumping. Priestley was furious! The Python gang were thrilled when they heard Priestley was a fan!
❉ ❉ James Gent has contributed to several acclaimed publications devoted to cult and popular television including 1001 TV Series You Must Watch Before You Die, You & Who: Contact Has Been Made and Blake’s Heaven: Maximum Fan Power. In 2014, he wrote the biography for the official Monty Python website. James is Editor-in-Chief of We Are Cult and digital marketing officer for Torch Theatre.