Never have so few suffered for the enjoyment of so many: the making of Monty Python And The Holy Grail

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Hot Dog magazine, October 2000

"I still watch Holy Grail with angst, even today, because it was a nightmare to film - and edit," says director Terry "Bedevere" Jones. "Just two weeks before shooting and - fucking hell - we got banned by the Scottish Department of the Environment from using any of their castles in case we did anything 'inconsistent with the dignity of the fabric of the buildings.' They feared we'd make jokes in places built for torturing and killing. It was nightmarish finding new locations in Terry Gilliam's sports car."

"And ten days before we were due to travel up to Scotland for filming, earning a derisory 2,000 each for writing and performing in damp, knitted string chain mail, the producer rang up and said 'Would you mind sharing hotel rooms?'" recalls John "Launcelot" Cleese.

This, then, is the story of Monty Python And The Holy Grail, the most gruelling, cheap, sodden, epic, shit-stained and moody search for the grail of comedy in British cinematic history.

Jones recalls "the absolute nightmare" of the first day's filming in May 1974, at "The Gorge Of Eternal Peril", half an hour's climb up Glencoe. "When we got there, Graham 'King Arthur' Chapman, who was meant to be our mountaineer, was paralysed with fear standing near the edge of the gorge because he was suffering DTs. And on the very first 'action' the camera sheared its gears, going 'waaaaa-aaaaggh.' The only opportunity was to film little bits on the second mute camera across The Bridge Of Death but no one would chance it. So I kept prancing across saying 'Look, look! Please. It looks unsafe. But it's perfectly safe!"

The watchword coined by Jones at the emergency briefing that evening was "Don't panic". "I think the limitations created something very special," declares John Goldstone, executive producer and "Ralph The Wonder Llama". For a final sum of 229,575, the group, headed by two of their members, tag-team directors Jones and Gilliam, were to tell a story - and live a life - of battles, humiliation, fabulous scenery, damaged rent-a-vans, glory, anticlimaxes, aesthetic obsession and no lavatory facilities.

"I headed up to Scotland with a bloody enormous old caravan of gear on the back of my car which strted rattling apart if I went over 20mph," recalls production manager and professional loose cannon Julian Doyle. "The police kept ordering me off the motorway." On arrival at Doune Castle he was told unexpectedly by Gilliam and Jones that they wished to shoot the final battle scene that week at Castle Stalker, and in a cave down in Killin.

"I drove around to find someone who could lathe up a new camera cog and discovered they hadn't put a production phone in at Ballyhoulish Hotel, so I stood at a payphone with a bag of two-pence pieces, trying to get 200 weapons and 200 costumes from London. Then, at 5am, I went out in a van with John Horton (special effects) looking for a dead sheep. The one we got was green and bloated and I drove back with my head out of the window, retching. Then I rigged up my car to look like a police car for the final scene on day three. That's me as the inspector saying 'Alright, put that away, sonny'. Everyone was shattered that night. The boys realised it was fucking hard work."

Chapman, pre-promoting Grail on a Film Night programme during Christmas 1974, encapsulated the thespian angle: "They threw a sheep at me which had been dead for about three weeks, and it smelt rather a lot. Then I had to run up to the castle door and have human ordure thrown all over me, some of it very diarrhoeaic and it was rather wet and cold. Then they made me run out into the lake..."

Eric "Robin" Idle, wearing tights bearing 'Derek Nimmo - Babes In the Wood' on their label, perhaps less truthfully noted: "I'm playing the part of the producer's friend, sleeping with him. It's difficult. They asked me to do dirty things. I told Equity but Equity asked me to do it too."

Filth, though, proved Michael "Galahad" Palin's forte on location. "I have generally a fairly agreeable temper, but I was playing a minor character called 'The Mud Eater' in Plague Village and I lost it completely," he now remembers. "I had to crawl repeatedly through mud at the end of a long elaborate tracking shot and be seen to grab a chunk of mud - chocolate, practically indistinguishable from the real mud - and eat it with great relish."

Michael happily did the first seven takes," recalls Cleese, warming up for a Gilliam impersonation. "Each time, after chewing on mud for ten seconds, Gilliam would shout 'Cut! The wheel of the cart was about three-eighths of an inch too far to the left."'

"It was indignity heaped on indignity," twitches Palin. "And I remember suddenly screaming and throwing myself into the air, down into the mud, rolling around, yelling, 'fucking fucking waste of time'. When I calmed down there was complete silence, then John and Graham broke into applause, which was very touching." (Chapman, as a semi-trained doctor, also provided tetanus injections.)

"I thought, good for him," recalls Cleese, "Because, frankly, common sense and the lifeforce was on Michael's side - it's only these fucking directors who ruin it."

"I've never seen Mike so beside himself with rage," says Jones. "But it was a great great tracking shot of the village Terry G set up...though you don't see Mike in it."

Cleese was the next to blow. "Gilliam was trying to compose a shot (for the Trojan rabbit scene) in which we were foreground but what mattered was background and we were kneeling in kneepads that were fucking uncomfortable. And when Gilliam asked 'Can you move an inch in a north-westerly direction?' for the fifth time I shouted that we were not the fucking bits of paper he was used to animating, and poor Terry took it very badly and - ha ha ha - went off and lay in the shade for the rest of the day." "It was appalling behaviour," recalls Terry "Patsy" Gilliam.

Palin remembers Cleese playing a game of divide and rule, but Cleese insists his thoughts were on quality guffaws. "Like sportsmen who twice in a season have an inspired game, Eric and I did a really funny take one day (as Launcelot and Concorde). And I was on so much a high as Jonesy called 'cut' that I turned to him and said, Howwwabout that?!'. He looked at me blankly and said "Not enough smoke'. At that point I became extremely sarcastic. All I'd sa at the end of each take for the next five weeks was, 'Were you really happy with the smoke?', 'Smoke the right colour?' or 'I thought the billow over there didn't produce a very good take'...It's the single most annoying thing I've had said to me in my fucking life."

One night Chapman called out "Betty Marsden" repeatedly from his hotel room, Palin finding a card slipped under his door the next morning signed "Betty Marsden". "It was just one of those things," says Palin. "It made him feel better, like 'Lemon Curry'."

"He would just sit there shouting 'Betty Marsden, Betty Marsden, Betty Marsden!'," says Cleese. "He was sort of partly funny but there were moments when he shaded into great oddness."

Cleese took flight to another hotel miles away, with guaranteed hot water and a warm pool. "What I'd do is go back there after a punishing day, swim, shower, then go alone to a restaurant in Stirling. I'd sit quietly, eat beautiful food, drink a bottle of white Burgundy and read books in this little ocean of sanity. People would come over and say 'you look so lonely... would you like to join us?' and yet I was the most emphatically happy I'd been all day. Because I'm a quiet little creature."

Meanwhile, back at the other hotel, Palin won a competition to discover who could play bar skittles in the silliest way (by doing two pirouettes, running around the hotel three times, re-entering the bar, pouring a pint over his head and hurling the ball at the scoring board). Next, Chapman threw himself across a table and informed a respectable local woman, "Sorry, darlin', no chance with me, I'm a pooftah!", then being manhandled out of the bar. After Palin persuaded the landlord to let him back in, Chapman diagnosed the barmaid as having "Lymphadenopathy, possibly lymphadenoma or a blood dyscrasia such as leukaemia."

"I suppose I must have dined in the evening too but I can't remember," says Jones. "It was all so frenetic and sleepless. My wife came up for a few weeks with our baby daughter and I was sharing a room with them. I love that people love Grail but when I watch, say, Witch Village all I can remember is being down there, panicking about getting the set built in the morning with a day's shooting to get done in a frenzy of activity, and then suddenly realising, when everything was set up, 'Fuck, I haven't learned my lines, Jesus Christ I'm the main part'."

Costume designer Hazel Pethig recalls her budget working out at 1 pound per costume. "I remember staying up through a night sewing the Castle Anthrax maidens' costumes on a desperate high and Graham Chapman staying up with me, sitting there smoking his pipe, saying 'Go to bed woman, go to bed woman, go to bed woman'. He was so sweet, but I'd have to go hunting around the mountains for his crown and gloves because he'd leave them balanced on rocks and then move on."

Cleese feels the "lead actor" was "basically severely out of focus all of the time; inefficiency fighting talent", whereas Palin goes as far as believing the alcohol lended perfect qualities of "wonderful manic confusion and desperation" to King Arthur. "And he'd always be off scoring a young companion. He was industrious at arranging liaisons."

But at odd times there were still time for games of football on the soggy hillsides. "Graham would stand there, waiting for the ball to come to him and then kick it in a strange way, while lighting his pipe. John was happy playing football, happier than having a pint of beer with the team and driving off from the pub at 4am with strange people. He's quite a good footballer too."

"I'm not sure I didn't base Tim on an art teacher caled Bill Leadbetter, who was a bit quiet but would then suddenly come out with a semi-aggressive Scottish exclamation," ponders Cleese of an explosive day in the mountains, wearing three recycled Macbeth witches' costumes from the Royal Shakespeare Company, pluss rams' horns (borrowed from a friend of Hazel Pethig). This is as "The Enchanter", who knew the whereabouts of the cave, containing details making plain "the last resting place of the most Holy Grail."

Returning to London after five weeks - money having run out - missing segments had to be conjured out of nowhere. In the garden of his house in Hampstead, Julian Doyle set up the frenetic fight with the rabbit. "I also did the bodies falling into the Gorge of Death in my backyard, with an oven plate and some slates, and some petrol and dummies falling from my window. I shot the Grail in the sky in my front room. An opening shot of the Forest of Ewing was a page ripped out of a book, with candles in front. Gilliam was filmed having his heart attack in the workroom of Henry Moore's daughter."

The opening scene of Grail finally got filmed on Hampstead Heath, Gilliam coconuting over a hump until Chapman says "Woa there!" "When we were shooting that a plane flew over and Graham looked up cravingly and said 'Just think of all those people having their gin and tonics," recalls Doyle.

"I re-did the scene in which I kept running towards the camera as Launcelot and didn't appear to be getting any closer," says Cleese. "The camera couldn't be seen and there was no explanation for why I was sprinting along a path with a sword and yet nodody took the blindest bit of notice. Which I thought was wonderfully English."

In Epping Forest, Cleese and Chapman performed the bloody Black Knight scene. "We got a one-legged stand-in, chopped an artificial leg off him and then buried his one real leg down a hole so he could move the stump of the other," says Doyle. "His leg was down there for hours. It came up totally numb. We were very worried. That was the scene which Michael White, one of the investors, thought was 'too bloody' and which was removed - until I sneaked it back in."

John Goldstone, credited as Grail producer, in tandem with "Ralph the Wonder Llama", recalls the horrendous first screening - at which no one laughed - for the hotchpotch of music biz and theatrical investors. "It went down like a dead balloon. The film was almost shelved over the extra 30,000 required."

"Dis-aaas-trous," cringes Jones. "The editing went on for what seemed a year and then the soundtrack was redone. The angst. There wasn't one laughing audience until the premiere in LA."

Yet, arriving on the west coast, without Cleese and Idle ("just as well," said Palin at the time, a new TV series having been abandoned), and after Jones ordered 24-extra seconds cut (from a phone at the airport), the Pythons discovered cinema queues around the block. "Monty Pyth-on" had become a cult on PBS while the team had been busy rolling in shit. Grail shot to the top of Variety's chart and has maintained a large and faithful following ever since.

I feel 'Urgh, just by the skin of the teeth'," says Jones. "Our usual garrulous rubbish," says Cleese.


Tales of the Grail

Your number's up...

Deaths suffered by Terry Gilliam: 2

Total hairdressing bill: 505.10

Characters played by the Python team: 38

Dead bodies: 28

Limbs/heads severed: 6

University students employed as virgins: 19

Nuns with hammers: 4

Total special effects budget: 5,388.78

Takes of historian's death scene filmed before satisfactory blood effect achieved: 10

Ducks, chickens and cats utilised: 12

Moose references in the opening credits: 13

Llamas credited as co-directors: 7,695

Exclamations of 'Ni': 55

Pages killed by real or catapulted trojan animals: 2

Fights/battles: 8

Cost of power supply and generation during filming: 126.10

Height of giant rabbit: 18 ft.

Film crew's Budget Rent-A-Vans left undamaged: 0

Taunts and terms of abuse by Outrageous Frenchmen: 40

Payment received per day by extras: 2

Current monthly return from a 1 per cent stake in the film: 5,000

Gorilla's hands: 1

Times per second a swallow needs to beat its wings to maintain velocity: 493

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