Graham Chapman (1941-1989) is the best member of Monty Python, because he is dead.
Consider all the projections, revisions, distractions, protestations, enumerations, iterations, pauses, disappearances and re-emergences we have been spared due to Chapman’s being dead. No defending writings that annoy the uptight and religious; no half-realized and forgotten films, like Terry Jones’ “Erik the Viking”; no contrite reintroductions to respectable society after a bout (or bouts) in the Betty Ford clinic. Chapman had the last laugh first, and saved himself all that embarrassment.
We can all hope for his resurrection, a la Christ cum Brian, which would be most suitable, and enjoyed by all.
Chapman is described by those who worked with him as a shy intellectual, his humor of the baroque and cerebral bent peculiar to Britain. Meeting John Cleese at Cambridge, the two became writing partners, and after graduation both had the great fortune to begin writing and performing for David Frost and Marty Feldman at the BBC. Chapman landed his first significant role as writer and performer for At Last The 1948 Show, aired in 1967. David Attenborough commissioned Monty Python’s Flying Circus in 1969.
Monty Python’s success did not faze Chapman. He came out in 1968 and was a lifelong champion of gay rights. He began drinking in college, favoring gin, but gave it up in 1977. (After missing cues in stage shows, he was concerned he would not be able to perform well in the second Python movie Life of Brian, and thus ditched it.) I recall a Python documentary with Michael Palin describing picking up Chapman for the morning’s writing meeting, and the reek of gin and toothpaste filling the car. I like to think Chapman returned to his center.
Considered by the Pythons to have the best straight acting skills, Life of Brian gave Chapman the lead of hapless founder of an accidental religion. The movie’s memorable scene, beyond all the other memorable sacrilege, is featured in the image above, where naked Brian opens shutters never expecting an admiring throng to admire his…majesty.
Wikipedia states that “Chapman did not mind being filmed fully nude in front of a crowd in Life of Brian[.]” But I have seen an interview where Chapman states this scene rattled him badly. Opening the shutters on the first take elicited shrieks from the extras below, and Chapman slammed the shutters. Being nude, in the light, in front of a crowd of strangers horrified at him, Chapman recalls in a quiet, softly lit room, froze and terrified him. He had not anticipated the risk of being so open.
1979 is a world under glass now. Public nudity and gay marriage in 2015 are tolerated, more or less, or at least far less dangerous to practitioners. Teen to post-teen pop stars regularly do things on stage that would have got them drowned as witches in 1979. Sexualization of everything has made us numb to how pervasive pornography is, if not of the human body, then of the social compact whereby we agree some things are sacred. The outrage Life of Brian elicited in 1979 is 2015 quaint.
Seeing Chapman’s visible discomfort recalling his nude scene resonated with me. It resonates still. He seems like, and comes across as, such a kind and dignified man. He plays to type by being scarred. After all, he invented The Colonel, the Monty Python character that ends scenes by declaring them “too silly”. The Colonel is the kind of mask that shows the face beneath the skin.
I missed Chapman even before he was gone. He seemed like the least visible Python, the others having found well-lit places as writers, actors, and directors. I didn’t know about his wild college shows, and was still discovering all the Python films when he passed away. It was a strange loss to learn of, as if an historical figure had been reanimated ten years before I knew about it, only to die again before I learned how well he or she meshed with me.
When Brian opens the shutters, he is surrounded by people, but alone. Nobody sees him, just his nakedness. Without clothes, he doesn’t even have himself.
In the right circumstances, I can be an exhibitionist. These are limited and I’m sure preclude opening a shutter on a village square. But, if that happened, I like to think I’d have a dignity that would keep away shame. That stuff is poison, and all I did was open a shutter.
We overcome adversity, more or less. Big things we can shrug off with alarming ease, while lesser things dig in and persist. I have been lucky to have suffered little loss, but I have had enough to make for some grey years. But more vivid is my memory of a girl yelling Gawd! Fuck you, faggot! when I asked to get to my high school locker. The light in that hall, the look on her face, and the sound of her voice persist in a way more real than bigger, more recent things.
Did opening that shutter stick in Graham Chapman’s memory in the same disproportionate way? There’s only so much to read out of videotaped body language. But the possibility that this did was a revelation for me. Even someone like Chapman–educated, worldly, a trained doctor–can be wounded.
Thanks for the lesson, Colonel.