❉ Neil Innes talks Monty Python, Bonzos and of course, The Rutles.
“It’s nice that people linked the Rutles onto the Beatles legend, because it was an affectionate biography of the Beatles whatever way you looked at it. It was probably the only way you could tell the Beatles story without it being too sad. Because it really was sad when it broke up. But you can make fun of it through the Rutles to tell more that way, than by telling the real Beatles story…!”
Originally conducted by We Are Cult’s James Gent for the seminal Monty Python fanzine And Now For Something Completely Different, this archive chat has been exhumed to celebrate 40 years of The Rutles!
JG: Hi, Neil. So, you first met the Pythons on ‘Do Not Adjust Your Set’. Did you get to know them fairly well on the programme?
NI: Well, yes. Because we did 26 programmes in all. We didn’t know too much about each other when we started, but pretty soon we got to be quite chummy. The Bonzos used to take them out to Indian restaurants and they used to take us out to Chinese restaurants.
JG: And how exactly did you get dragged into Python?
NI: Eric rang me up one day and said “Our warm-up man’s ill so do you want to come and do our warm-up?” at the BBC where they were making ‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus’. So I said, “I don’t do warm-ups!” He said, “…it’s 25 quid” and I said “Done!” So anyway, I went there for the laugh more than anything else and found myself doing music on the albums and tours, scribbling a bit here and there and whatnot…
JG: So what items did you contribute to the fourth, final series without John Cleese?
NI: I wrote ‘Appeal on Behalf of Very Rich People’ and I was responsible for the awful family – with Terry Gilliam eating baked beans and Eric ironing the cat. So I started that one off and worked it through with Graham. And some of the others contributed memorable ideas, like Palin’s memorable “Dad? Why is Rhodesia called Rhodesia?” but I thought of the awful family.
JG: What were the scripting sessions like when sketches would be chosen for a show? Were they ruthless over what would go in?
NI: Well, I only had a few meetings. That was in the very last series. Before that, Eric had told me that if people laughed at the script meeting it would go in. You weren’t allowed to say, “Well my wife liked it!” or anything like that. That meant it was definitely out! And everyone would try and get Michael Palin to read their sketches, because he was the best reader and had the best chance of making the others laugh. So yes, they were very tough with each other.
JG: Just before Series Four, you were in “Monty Python And The Holy Grail”. Was your role as Sir Robin’s Minstrel your sole involvement in the film?
NI: No. Every time a large object, like a cow or a wooden rabbit, needed to be lobbed at anybody, it was lobbed at me. I think the boys have always been trying to tell me something… When we did “The Missionary”, I had a bar stool lobbed at me.
JG: It clearly wasn’t the most glamorous of films to be in! What was it like for you? Did the atmosphere affect the cast’s attitudes?
NI: Erm…no. It was quite good fun. All the chainmail was in fact made out of string sprayed silver but this got soggy halfway up a Scottish mountainside, and we did crosswords and kept ourselves in good spirits. I invented a game called “Decline the verb: to sheep worry’” – you know, I am sheep worried, you are sheep worried, and Cleese came up with the future pluperfect which was ‘I am about to have been sheep worried’. He won that one, I think.
JG: You were prominent in the Pythons’ First Farewell Tour. Was it an early decision that you would be brought in to do songs and sometimes be in sketches?
NI: Well, yeah. When the tour was first put together I was necessary as a kind of link, really, because sets and costume changes had to be made. A live thing you can’t do like television with edits and things like that. So I was built into the design of the live performances.
JG: Having had it both ways, was there any difference between touring with a rock band and a comedy team?
NI: Very little in fact. The Bonzos as a rock band didn’t really inspire the same sort of adulation as other rock bands! And when we played the City Center in New York fans were literally jumping on the cars and things like that. Which was quite frightening, actually! (adopts Colonel voice) I don’t approve of that sort of behaviour at all.
JG: There must have been some memorable incidents during the various shows, on and off stage. Can you recall any particularly?
NI: Yes. I remember Cleese used to be really naughty on stage. And if you were about to go on, he’d sometimes come up behind you and grab you in a vice-like grip. And you knew you were supposed to be on. Your cue was there and you’d be yelling, “John! John! What are you doing?” and he would hold it, and hold it, and hold it. After much struggling, he’d let you go and you’d come on and try and do your line. So we had a lot of fun, and there was a lot of sabotage going on, n fact we never did the sketch with the bishop on the landing ever properly, ever. Palin would rush in with his flashing cross on top of his policeman’s helmet, go “Ullo, ‘ullo, ‘ullo, AMEN!” …We couldn’t possibly do that one properly.
JG: Did you enjoy playing the Hollywood Bowl?
NI: Not as much as having it both ways! Yes it was a demanding role. First of all, I had to get myself into shape – a bowl is not a very easy character to play… No, it was fine. Loved it. I’ll tell you what, if there had been a shred of hostility in the crowd the answer would be no but everyone was so pleased to be there, you couldn’t help but enjoy yourself. It was so warm and friendly.
JG: When Eric came up with ‘Rutland Weekend Television’, how involved were you in its conception?
NI: Eric thought it would be a good idea for me to be a part of it. He wanted to do it with me. In fact I said I didn’t want to do television. I remember on the ‘Do Not Adjust Your Set’, with the Bonzos the cameras never pointed in the right place, and he said, “You can tell the cameras where to point.” so I thought, “Yes, why not”. So I went off and wrote songs, and he went off and wrote sketches and we would meet together and see what we’d got. And we constructed the shows between us.
JG: ‘Rutland Weekend Television’ was made on a very small budget. Was it a problem or didn’t you mind much?
NI: It was sometimes a problem but that was in fact the whole raison d’etre of the programme. It was such a cheap budget programme that it worked in our favour. You could actually show how cheap and cheerful it was because it was ‘Rutland Weekend Television’. It was made in a studio at the BBC called Presentation B, which is where they do the weather from. So you get some idea of how big it was! And when we had the court of Queen Elizabeth I in there, I think the cameras were out in the corridor somewhere.
JG: What are your favourite bits in RWT, as there were many classic sketches and songs during its two seasons?
NI: Oh, that’s hard. Erm… Well, I suppose my favourite bits of the thing where when we’d finished filming and going to the bar! I’ve obviously got fond memories of the Rutles and I liked the “Hawaii Five-O” thing we did – it was sort of a spoof. I got to play an American policeman. (Camply) I just LOVED the uniform! There are too many bits to remember. I liked it all, really. I liked doing it.
JG: Would you like to see it re-run?
NI: I’d like to see it first I think! When you see things that were done all that time ago, you sort of wonder how well they’ve travelled through time! But I’m sure there must be some highlights they could put out. We could make a five minute programme I’m sure.
JG: When the Rutles clip was shown on NBC’s ‘Saturday Night Live’, were you surprised by the massive interest the clip provoked – two years after it was made, in a country that hadn’t even had RWT?
NI: Yes, I was agreeably surprised, but on the other hand it was very recognisable as a kind of Hard Day’s Night spoof. As I say, I went off and wrote songs for RWT on my own and I though – again because it was a cheap budget – that a black and white, silly film Beatles parody would be a good visual. So I wrote a Beatleish song and Eric came up with the name The Rutles. Eric had close connections with Lorne Michaels, the producer. It was funny, on one ‘Saturday Night Live’ I did the John Lennon impersonation with the white piano and the big long wig singing “Cheese & Onions”, and the NME rang me up and said, “Did you know one of the Rutles songs is on a Beatles bootleg?”. I said I didn’t know, I wasn’t told, and what’s it doing on there… I asked them to play it to me over the phone and it was ME! On ‘Saturday Night Live’! And it had ended up on a Beatles bootleg! So I thought, never underestimate the power of the NME!
JG: When you and Eric were approached with the idea of the Rutles rockumentary, were you a bit wary about having to parallel the all-too-real Beatles story?
NI: Yes I was (laughs), who wouldn’t be? I’d done one as a bit of a laugh and they said, “Can we have fourteen more – by Thursday lunch?” I thought it was a good challenge. I would have a go, but the annoying part is that I’ve been labelled as a pop parodist ever since. I think I’ve written some ordinary songs – quite normal, really.
It was fun to do. The whole project was fun to do.
JG: In 1990 you and some of the Rutles did a one-off gig in Liverpool. With the Rutles reissue on CD, the tribute album (Rutles Highway Revisited) and everything else, could you foresee a proper Rutles reunion?
NI: No. I don’t think so. It’s nice that people linked onto the Beatles legend, because it was an affectionate biography of the Beatles whatever way you looked at it. It was probably the only way you could tell the Beatles story without it being too sad. Because it really was sad when it broke up. If you look at the real footage, which we did, we thought, this is wonderful, wonderful, and then Epstein dies and it all starts to fall apart. The overall emotion you get is one of depression by watching the real thing. But you can make fun of it through the Rutles to tell more that way, than by telling the real Beatles story… and George Harrison was always keen to get up there and act his bottom off.
JG: Where would you rate the Rutles on your list of achievements?
NI: What? Rutland! That’s where I’d rate it, I’d rate it in Rutland!
JG: You did a cameo for ‘Life Of Brian’. Were you present for the whole film’s making?
NI: No, I wasn’t. I was making the first series of ‘The Innes Book Of Records’. I was going to be out on location doing a lot more but Bernard Delfont pulled all the money out and it was put back, and by then I was filming. So I managed to go out there for the last week to a lovely hotel on a beach in Tunisia, and they’d been in the desert with diarrhoea, getting bitten by various things, including camels. Dr. Graham had been an ace sort of chap to have on location. I got the luxury bit, and I didn’t even have to do anything till the last day of filming! So I had more or less a week’s holiday on the beach, and in the evening Eric and I had decided to do an album of unsolicited jingles. One of which was called ‘For Gitane’, the French cigarette. “Fumez, fumez Gitane; fumez, fumez Gitane; as many as you can; fumez Gi-ta-ne…”
JG: Being the Pythons’ first collaboration for many years, had the Pythons changed in relation to each other by then?
NI: When we were doing RWT, Eric and I thought we’d write a musical about God, called ‘Good God’ but a lot of those things evolved in to ‘Life Of Brian’. And I think the Pythons worked really well together on that, and in terms of writing a whole integrated thing, like the ‘Holy Grai’l was an integrated movie. Whereas ‘The Meaning Of Life’ wasn’t – it was going back to sketches. So I think ‘Brian’ was the last piece of integrated writing they did. Very good it was too.
JG: How did the 1974 single ‘Recycled Vinyl Blues’ with Michael Palin come about?
NI: I had done it anyway as a song, and poor old Michael, I talked him into it. It’s hardly a Python collaboration! At the time they were talking about getting old records and melting them down because there was a vinyl shortage. And I thought about the idea that when you melted these old records down, some of the bits would come through. So I proceeded to write this thing, it was very funny. We did this wonderful arrangement and the record company loved it, put it out, but then we found that 8 publishers wanted a share for every little bit of quote on it. It was getting airplay at first until people realised they had to fill out 9 PRS forms – that’s Performing Rights Society – every time it was played. So it’s a collectors’ piece. In fact it’s out on the Bonzo CD (‘Cornology’) – it’s an added track on the Dog Ends one, track number 19.
JG: You’ve also been involved, to varying degrees, in ‘Jabberwocky’, ‘Erik The Viking’ and ‘The Missionary’. How did your association in these films evolve?
NI: By telephone! Everybody who has ever done anything with Python has sort of rung up and said, “Do you want to do a bit in this?” In fact, it was more or less a case of “Come down and do a bit” for ‘Jabberwocky’. They’d given me this page role and Maggie – Terry Gilliam’s wife – said that everybody has to have this medieval hair cut. I said, “Come on! You’re not going to see the back of my head, I’m just stood there playing a drum!” but she insisted, “No, everyone has got a have it” – this awful ruddy haircut, like a funny farm haircut. Actually it’s quite trendy now (laughs), but I didn’t like it at the time! You didn’t see the back of my head once! And once again, in the great Python tradition, John Bird lifted up the drum and cracked it over my head. But what he didn’t know was that I was going to carry on playing the drum. He nearly corpsed and ruined the whole scene, but no, good times, that’s ‘Jabberwocky’.
‘Erik The Viking’, well, I just did the music for that of course – I forgot how it happened. Oh, I asked why, always in film-making, does the music get added last? I thought it would be a good idea if I went along to see how things were going and get some ideas. So I went out to Malta with them and found myself up to my knees in a huge tank flooded with water and a lot of other extras and Maltese, doing silly things in Hy-Brasil with King Terry J.
There’s an amusing anecdote – when we did the music we had to do it quickly, as we had so little studio time, the leader of the string section asked me to give them all some idea as to what each scene was about. So I was giving them these little thumbnail sketches and as time as slipping by faster and faster, these were getting shorter and shorter. We got to this bit, which is supposed to be very sad. “Well, what is going on in this scene?” they said. “The King dies”, I replied. The leader tutted exacerbatedly, “But – do – we – like – him?” and an engineer pointed out that it was the film’s director! ‘The Missionary’ – Michael came up and asked if I had any old music hall songs, “We need a music hall scene. Would you like to be our music hall singer?”. I have got these old music hall songs and I found, ‘Put On Your Tata, Little Girlie’, which we proceeded to record with Mike Moran. And of course, written into the script was the bar stool flying through the air!
That was swung down from the ceiling on a bit of tungsten wire, which the camera couldn’t really spot. And there was another piece of tungsten wire which was supposed to pull it up short of my head. So I was to mime with gusto this very last note, and down would come the bar stool. So there we were and they said, “OK. Turnover” and I said, “Just, just, just a minute. Don’t you think we should test this thing?”. Richard Loncraine (the director) told me not to be a wally, that everything was alright, and really I don’t mind doing anything, as long as it’s tested first. So Richard stood there, miming. It came down and snapped. He got his hand across his face just in time. So we tried a bit of thicker wire… (sighs) THREE thicknesses of wire LATER, it was deemed safe, and we did the shot.
JG: What was your involvement with Terry Jones’ ‘East of the Moon’ for Yorkshire TV?
NI: Terry Jones was approached by Joy Whitby – the head of Yorkshire TV Childrens – to adapt his Fairy Tales. He then said, “Very nice. But I think I’d like Neil to adapt it”. So he gave it all over to me to rewrite for television. Obviously, the pen is mightier than the budget and you can write things in a book that you can’t necessarily film that cheaply. So I changed a few things like using sneezing powder instead of flames and chopping off dragons’ tails, and things like that. And I just generally designed the programme. We spent a lot of time and effort trying to get it done as an independent production. It took about four years to make it. It was made as a co-production with Channel 4 Wales for Channel 4, and German money was in it as well.
Terry only did a couple of cameo roles. I got my own back! He was an elf and he had to wear these huge glued-on ears, and a beard. He was miserably uncomfortable for a day… it made up for all the things they’d lobbed at me in the past!
JG: How many series were there?
NI: Well, they commissioned thirteen but they only filmed seven because not long after that, Michael Grade came and said he didn’t see the point in Channel 4 making childrens’ programmes because they were in competition with the networks. So he virtually cut out the childrens’ television except for those imported Sesame Street lunchtime kind of things.
JG: Having mentioned these more recent involvements, I assume you’ve still got strong ties with the Pythons. Do you often see them socially?
NI: I don’t know about strong ties… Loud ties, revolving bowties… I’ve just heard that Terry Jones has got a new film. I wrote him a cheeky postcard saying, “I’m glad to hear you’ve got a new film. If I promise not to argue, interfere or put tunes in where you don’t want them, would you consider letting me do the music?”
JG: Being so linked with Python, do you ever regret that many prejudge you as a zany comedy musician in spite of your diversity?
NI: I used to jokingly say to the lads that working with them for another year put my own career back ten years! But you can’t help it. Even though I was working on other things at the time, because Python are so much more famous you are linked with them. And ever since the Bonzos I’d been called wacky, madcap, zany… ‘Do Not Adjust your Set’ was pre-Python but that’s when we met Mike and Terry, and Terry Gilliam and Eric. And of course we were sort of winding up as they were more or less getting going as Python. So that’s how it happened, that’s the whole story, and I’m going to bed now…
❉ James Gent has contributed to several acclaimed publications devoted to cult and popular television including 1001 TV Series You Must Watch Before You Die and is the co-editor of Me and The Starman, coming soon in 2018 from Who Dares Publishing.