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George Harrison's remarkable love affair with Monty Python

Pythonesque (adj)denoting a kind of humour that is absurd and unpredictable; zany; surreal.

The relationship between rock and roll and cinema in the 1960s and ‘70s was symbiotic. The generation who popularised rock and roll was born in and around the immediate aftermath of the Second World War and created subversive cultures that challenged social mores and the status quo. Whilst rock and roll would be the main focal point of this cultural change; fashion, art and comedy would also do their bit.

This cultural shift, led by the generation now known as “baby boomers”, was not restricted to each element of society being individually developed. It was an all-encompassing time and the different disciplines would meet and develop together, creating a new forward-thinking world. This looked markedly different to the old world, whose long winding road to oblivion had been sealed in the aftermath of the Second World War, as the conflict had peeled back the mask, revealing the darkest depths of the human psyche.

One only has to note some of the most iconic faces of this new subversive generation to realise the gravitas of the power couplings that were taking place, particularly in “The Swinging Sixties”. Andy Warhol and The Velvet Underground, Vidal Sassoon and Mary Quant, and latterly, British rock and comedy. It would be easy to concentrate on the hedonistic allure of the New York scene or the literal cutting edge of Sassoon, however, the relationship between British rock bands and Monty Python is one that has had far reaching consequences on the realms of cinema and comedy. It would be unjust to not tell this story.

Monty Python, the legendary comedy troupe specialising in surreal satire wherein no element of ‘60s and ‘70s life was sacred, shot to fame with their sketch show Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Performed by Python members Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin, the show was loosely structured as a sketch show but featured a highly innovative stream-of-consciousness approach, aided by the absurd animation of Terry Gilliam. In a style indicative of the time, it pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable in style and content. 

This was not the only ground-breaking element of ‘The Pythons’. They were a self-contained team of comics, responsible for the writing and performance of their work. This gave them total creative control, allowing them to experiment with form and content, discarding the rules of television comedy. Following the success of Flying Circus, they began making films, and the first of these, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, released in 1975, was funded by Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Genesis and Jethro Tull, donating money so the film could be made. Eric Idle, in his memoir, Always Look on the Bright Side of Life recalls: “The good news about them was that they didn’t want the money back,” he said, before adding: “They don’t care and they don’t interfere. They don’t say ‘Oh no, there should be a scene over here with someone with another head.’ They are the best backers.”

That’s not to say Holy Grail was without production issues, but nonetheless, the film was a hit. Since Flying Circus had first aired, the Pythons had been gaining new fans, one of whom was ‘The Quiet One’, George Harrison. Ironic, as retrospectively, the Python’s influence on comedy has been compared to the Beatles’ on music.

L R Olivia Arias, George Harrison Eric Idle and Tery Gilliam at the premiere of the Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Credit: Alamy)

Allegedly, when the first episode of Flying Circus aired in 1969, Harrison sent a fan letter via the BBC. Although, they never received it, claims Michael Palin. However, Palin has stated that the mischievous spirit of the Liverpudlians definitely influenced the Pythons at the time. Regardless, this was to be the start of George Harrison’s long and remarkable love affair with Monty Python.

Harrison had a keen interest in cinema, and his career in film started in 1971 when he helped to finance Ravi Shankar’s documentary, Raga. It was released through Apple Films, the filmmaking division of the Beatles’ multimedia company, Apple Corps. Subsequently, Harrison teamed up with Apple Corps chief executive Allen Klein, for the Concert for Bangladesh film, as Harrison continued to hone his film producing craft. Furthermore, in 1973, Harrison and Klein handled their biggest project yet, producing the feature film Little Malcolm. However, the project would eventually evaporate, as Klein would soon leave Apple Corps, leaving the company in turmoil. This was not about to put Harrison off producing films though.

For the next part of our story, we must fast forward to 1978, where the Pythons had scripted a feature-length follow up to Holy Grail entitled Monty Python’s Life of Brian. The plot centres around Brian Cohen (played by Chapman), a young Jewish-Roman who is born on the same day as, and next door to Jesus, and is subsequently mistaken for the Messiah. Due to the nature of the script being religious satire, this caused a few issues in getting it onto the big screen.

The story goes that just as production for Life of Brian was about to commence, the chairman of EMI, former theatrical impresario, Lord Delfont, decided to read the screenplay his company had bought. Turns out, he hated it. In fact, he was so appalled that he cancelled the whole project. This left the Pythons in the lurch and they had to raise £2 million swiftly, otherwise, there would be no going back. 

Somewhere, in the time between the Python’s TV debut and this critical juncture, Eric Idle had struck up a great friendship with the former Beatle. “His friendship meant an enormous amount to me,” Idle said. “I was going through a broken marriage at the time. He was very encouraging and friendly and supportive. We’d go to his house and play guitars.” Moreover, in Pythonesque fashion, Idle’s love for comedy and music was crystallised in ’78’s The Rutles: All You Need is Cash, a mockumentary satirising the Beatles. This fake group received the support of Harrison, who loved it and even made a cameo.

This was a relationship that was about to make history. Left in dire straits by EMI, Idle had the idea of phoning George Harrison, who was not only the richest person he knew, but had a keen interest in cinema production and nurturing talent. After the phone call, Harrison consulted his American business manager, Denis O’Brien, who suggested that between the pair, they fund the film themselves.

Typical of the whole situation, there was a catch. Harrison had to remortgage his mansion in the affluent Henley-on-Thames, and as did O’Brien with his London offices. Harrison maintained it was all worth it to see the new Python romp. It has since been called “the most expensive cinema ticket ever issued”. Idle later commented: “I mean, imagine what he says to the wife in the morning. ‘Hello love, I’ve just mortgaged the house, I’m going to put it on this film over here’.”

Regardless of the personal risk involved with this venture, Harrison injected around $4million of his own money into the film. He was convinced it would be a hit. Unsurprisingly, the opinion of one of history’s all-time greatest hit-makers was not skewed. That said, the size of the film’s success blew even Harrison away. Overnight, it became a box office smash and a bonafide classic. The film became the fourth-highest-grossing movie in the UK in 1979, and in the same year became the highest-grossing British film in the US.

Due to its provocative nature, the film was banned by numerous local authorities in the UK and was also banned in Ireland and Norway for decades after. Of course, the filmmakers pounced on its notoriety and utilised its status to promote the film. Posters in Sweden read, “So funny, it was banned in Norway!”

Life of Brian: George Harrison centre and John Cleese on the right. (Credit: Alamy)

The film became one of the greatest comedies of all time, and a lot of this can be attributed to the great love affair between George Harrison and the Pythons. Not only did he provide the financial muscle needed to make the film a reality, but he also starred in the film. Typical of ‘The Quiet One’, Harrison makes an appearance as Mr. Papadopoulos, literally characterising his support of the troupe.

The way Harrison so boldly gambled his home is indicative of his nature as a creative who valued passion and commitment over financial gain, something that was a common theme throughout his life, as is widely acknowledged. Ironically though, this particular risk would pay off financially as well, expanding his coffers exponentially.

Furthermore, this love affair was not only critical for developing comedy, it was also vital in developing British Cinema in the ‘80s. The relationship spawned the story of HandMade Films, the movie studio that Harrison and O’Brien would create to produce Life of Brian. HandMade would become a story of ups and downs, friendships and falling-out, success and failure.

The company was distinctly different from a lot of production houses in the ‘80s. It embodied that stream-of-consciousness, making it up as you go a long ethos that the Pythons had made their own. The independent company would parent several classics of that period such as Life of Brian, The Long Good Friday, Time Bandits, Mona Lisa and Withnail and I. This also launched Terry Gilliam‘s directorial career, without whom we wouldn’t have subversive classics such as Brazil, 12 Monkeys or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

HandMade is the subject of a recent documentary called An Accidental Studio. Summing up the essence of this love affair, and HandMade’s place within the film industry at the time, co-director Ben Timlett states: “They were ignored, really. The British film industry was much more interested in Merchant Ivory, whereas HandMade was down and dirty and different, and doing things the establishment couldn’t get its head around.”

This is what led to its trailblazing success throughout that tumultuous and defining decade. Idle states: “If you looked at the British film industry (in the 1980s) and took HandMade’s films out, there would be almost nothing left.”

Furthermore, Life of Brian has had a lasting and apparent influence on British comedy since its release and in North America, it tinted the early cult editions of Saturday Night Live. Even today, the effect of Harrison and Monty Python’s love affair is still ubiquitous, from Rick and Morty to Deadpool, showing no signs of letting up anytime soon. With the entry of the adjective into the English lexicon describing the group’s essence, there can be no doubt of the impact George Harrison’s love for Monty Python had on catapulting them into the god-like echelons in which he already existed.