Graham Chapman helped make the world a much sillier place. The Life of Graham, a new book about the pipe-smoking Python, retreads his formative years in the county.
Graham Chapman was the Leicestershire-born hero of British comedy. One-sixth of trail-blazing surrealists Monty Python, the pipe-smoking Chapman was the one Python who truly lived and breathed the group’s bonkersness.
In a new biography, written with the co-operation of Chapman’s brother John, long-term partner David Sherlock, and the rest of the Python tribe, it reveals a complex man with a spontaneous edge.
Author Bob McCabe wrote the book because in spite of Chapman’s autobiography (A Liar’s Autobiography), there were “a lot of stories that hadn’t been told”.
“The thing about Python,” says Bob, “is everyone who came into it came in influenced by the post-war generation; The Goons, Dudley Moore and Peter Cook. With Python, they took it to a more surreal level and they all contributed, they were all individuals.
“Graham’s main contribution to Python – he wasn’t the guy who would be doing all the work – but he would throw in the great idea.
“In most ways, he was the most absurd one. The classic example being the parrot sketch, which was originally written about a car.
“While John Cleese was typing it up and dotting the Is and crossing the Ts, Graham took his pipe out of his mouth and said ‘what about a parrot’?’’
It was the making of comedy history.
Today, the dead parrot sketch is an indelible part of British humour. In April, it came second in Channel 4’s 50 Greatest Comedy Sketches in a vote of 32,000 people.
The son of a policeman, Chapman was born at a nursing home in Wigston Fields on a dull January day in 1941.
A younger brother to four-year-old John, he was the second and final child of lower middle-class parents Walter and Ethel. Graham would later describe it as a “semi-country-pork-pie-and-Stilton-cheese childhood”.
Growing up in Wigston, the most remarkable event came when he was three. An aircraft carrying eight Polish servicemen exploded above Wigston, showering the area with body parts. As Graham’s dad was a police constable, the young boy scurried around after his father who had the gruesome task of bagging decapitated limbs.
At King Edward VII Upper School in Melton, and already tall for his age, the pretty boy with the blond curls would excel at rugby, science, and, as fate would have it, acting.
By the time he was 15 and playing rugby on Saturday with the men of Melton, he was following his brother John (the first of his family to go to university) into a career in medicine. With excellent grades, he went to Cambridge University and in his second year, joined the Cambridge Footlights revue.
Joining forces with law student John Cleese, the pair began penning the sketches which would later make their fortune.
“I do remember that sitting down to write,” recalled Cleese, “was a bit like dating. Your ego was, to some extent, at stake, and you didn’t want the other person to turn down too many of your ideas or think they weren’t funny. I remember we had no experience, we had no confidence.”
In a Pythonesque twist of fate, Graham’s career was settled by the Queen Mother. As secretary of the students’ union at St Bart’s medical school in London, the pair met over a cup of tea. At the meeting, Graham explained his wish to join a comedy tour of New Zealand, but it would mean postponing his studies.
The Queen Mum thought the opportunity was too good to miss and called over the dean of the medical school, telling him to let Graham go with the Cambridge Circus. He did, and for the first time the trainee doctor realised there might be a career in comedy after all.
Five years later, on October 5, 1969, Monty Python’s Flying Circus was first broadcast on the BBC. It soon developed a cult following, and it wasn’t long before The Beatles admitted to being fans.
Although he first began drinking to calm his nerves, Chapman was a notorious alcoholic, drinking up to three bottles of gin a day. By Christmas 1977, he decided to get sober. After three days dry, he collapsed and was rushed to hospital.
“He decided that he had to stop drinking in order to get through Life of Brian (Python’s second film),” says his brother John in the book. “He went for complete cold turkey and brought this upon himself. But he saw it through.”
Unusually for the 1960s, Chapman was openly gay. In 1967, he held a coming out party, inviting an ex-girlfriend, who promptly burst into tears.
“None of the Python boys were hostile,” said Chapman later. “John Cleese had most difficulty accepting it because he knew me better than the rest and he didn’t expect or suspect it. I mean, when you’re a rugby-playing, pipe-smoking mountain climber, people tend not to think of you in that light.”
McCabe remarks: “He had the back-up of celebrity to get away with it, although he was never actually political.”
On October 4, 1989, on the eve of a huge party celebrating Monty Python’s 20th anniversary, Chapman died from throat cancer at Maidstone Hospital.
The celebration was inevitably cancelled, leading Terry Jones to harrumph that his friend’s untimely demise was “the greatest act of party-pooping in history’’.
Avoiding his funeral to prevent it being a media circus, the Python team held a memorial in the Great Hall at St Bart’s two months later.
Cleese’s address included the immortal words “Graham Chapman is no more. He has gone to meet his maker. He has run down the curtain and joined the choir invisible.”
Remarkably, despite his undoubted contribution to modern comedy, the only testament to Chapman’s Leicestershire upbringing hangs outside King Edward VII Upper School.
A pupil from 1953 to 1959, his brother Dr John Chapman unveiled the dedication in 1999.
It’s a situation that needs remedying, believes Bob McCabe.
“Python’s contribution to British comedy in general has been huge and the influence is still there today in Little Britain and every other show you see on TV.
“I think there should definitely a be a large monument of Graham smoking a pipe in the centre of town, made of gold,” laughs the writer. “Or,” he giggles, “just a pipe – in fact, a pipe would be really good.”
* The Life of Graham by Bob McCabe is published by Orion Books.