Letter to my Younger Self: Eric Idle

From being bullied in boarding school to singing for the Queen and surviving pancreatic cancer, Monty Python’s Eric Idle looks back on the dark, bright and bizarre sides of his life.

At 16, I was in my ninth year of being in an orphanage in Wolverhampton. I was there from seven till 19. Life was just starting to show a bit of glimmering hope. We’d learned how to climb over the wall and go for beer and meet girls. But it was a boarding school – it wasn’t great, put it that way. I think an unhappy childhood is very good, because after that everything’s fine. A happy childhood is terrible! How can things get better? But if you have an unhappy childhood, it can only get better!

Being funny is a defence against bullying. People find it hard to hit you if they’re laughing. If you are the clown, or the funny one, you say the right things at the wrong time – so everybody laughs! But you still get beaten. I think it is a sort of defence mechanism. It was a great help for me – that and the guitar. It was [comedy] and Elvis that saved my life.

Arriving at Cambridge was fabulous. Everybody had a good time all the time. You didn’t even need to go to lectures! You just drank sherry and met people – I met John Cleese in my second term there. That was 1963. I was auditioned by two of The Goodies, Bill Oddie and Tim Brooke-Taylor, for the college smoker [an annual comedy revue] and they put me in it. By the end of that year, I’d met [Terry] Jones and [Graham] Chapman, and the year after I met Michael [Palin] at the Edinburgh Festival.

Suddenly, my life went sideways into comedy. I went to see Beyond the Fringe [a comedy revue starring Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and others] and they made me laugh so much. I thought, Well, this is what I want to do. They were laughing at all the things we were supposed to take seriously at school. It was like, This is okay? We can mock the army and the police and the Queen and the monarchy? I had no idea you could do that.

Peter Cook mocked the Prime Minister of England, [Harold] Macmillan, and portrayed him as a doddering old fool – and everybody laughed! So, it was very much a corrective. I think I became a vindictive little lad after that. That was my chosen path – we can mock them!

I’d always be amazed when I found myself saying something funny and everybody laughed. I’d think, Where did that come from? You don’t decide to say something funny, it’s just like bang! I think Cambridge was the defining [turning point] because I was chosen to be in the Pembroke revue. On the first night, up comes this tall fellow called John Cleese. He says, “Oh, you’ve got to come and join the Footlights.” And I said, “What’s the Footlights?” And he said, “It’s a comedy club.” And they had their own bar! I thought, Well, this is a good idea. By the end [of university], I was the president. I changed the rules to admit women, which was very controversial at the time. The first woman through the door was Germaine Greer.

I never got out of comedy. After leaving Cambridge, I began to write for I’m Sorry, I’ll Read that Again for radio. And then at 23 I’m writing for The Frost Report, a huge smash hit on BBC TV. It was like, Whoa, whoa – what happened here?

We were very fortunate – Python was over before we were very famous. We weren’t famous in America until we’d finished doing the [Monty Python’s Flying Circus] series. Promoting Holy Grail was the first time we went there. So that protected us a bit. It wasn’t like Saturday Night Live where suddenly you’re big names. If you do anything publicly, it can be very disconcerting and can make people strange and unhappy. You know, it’s one of the skill sets you have to learn, I think.

George Harrison used to tell me, “We’re all going to die.” He’d say to me, “You can have as much money as you want, you can be the most famous people in the world, but you’re still going to have to die.” Thanks boys, but not tonight, no. He was a very, very great friend. I was very fortunate to meet him in 1975 – he was a huge Python fan. He sort of stalked me at the back of a screening of Holy Grail. He came up to me and said, “Hey, I’ve been looking for you. Let’s go have some reefer in the control booth.” And I thought, Well, okay! The poor projectionist – here comes a Beatle and one of the guys from the film and they’re lighting up reefer. We talked all the rest of that night. He was very, very, very helpful to me. It was an extraordinary friendship and he helped me through a lot.

My life was conditioned by the death of my father at the end of World War II. He was killed hitchhiking home for Christmas. Which is like, how ironic can you get? Christmas was really big in our household, I can tell you – a miserable festival! So, you know, it was tough and it was puzzling: you’re a kid and everybody’s suddenly sad. He had been in the RAF since 1941. If you look back now, you think, Well, that’s a pretty difficult childhood. I think that the comedy thing is about trying to attract attention and love from strangers. My mum went into a big decline when my dad was killed. I think she had a very big breakdown – it’s hard to tell because I was two. I think the young self forms the old self and I have to try and get rid of the angry child – that’s what my shrink says now. I like learning about yourself, I think it helps.

‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’ came about because we needed an end to Life of Brian. Ending a movie with a song is a great idea. So I thought, Well, we’re all being crucified – we should sing something cheery. About 13 years later, a friend called Gary Lineker, who was a footballer, said, “They’re singing your song on the terraces. When they’re being thumped or losing five-nil, they go, ‘Always look on the briiiight side of life!’” It was released as a single and it just shot up the charts. Then I had to sing it for the Queen at the Royal Variety Performance. I think about then I realised, There’s something going on here. And I made the Queen laugh!

The Queen loved comedians. She loved Norman Wisdom and when she knighted him, he stepped back and did a pratfall. Which is fabulous, isn’t it? We used to go to Billy Connolly’s, and he’d have all these comedians staying like Steve Martin, Eddie Izzard, me and other people, and [King] Charles would come to dinner – and we’d just rip his ass. He would laugh and laugh, because people are creepy to you all day [when you’re a royal] so it’s really refreshing to have us all going smack, smack, bang! He actually loved that. I sang to him once while dressed in a tutu at the English National Ballet.

Spamalot being on Broadway – and winning the Tony for Best Musical – was a complete surprise. I thought it would be funny, but I didn’t think it’d be a smash hit. It ran for four years.

Pancreatic cancer was also a surprise. I was writing a musical show called Death: The Musical. And the plot of the show was a writer who finds out he’s dying. I said to my doctor, “What’s the quickest way to get rid of a character?” And he said, “Pancreatic cancer, every time. You maybe have three weeks.” So I said, “Perfect!” Ten years later, with the same doctor, we’re looking at a screen of my MRI and there’s a little tumour. He said, “That’s pancreatic cancer.” The irony! It was really kind of funny. It was early, so we put me into surgery within about 10 days and they got it all out. So that is a lucky break. It wasn’t a great surprise for the wife and kids. But you know, we decided to call [the cancer] Kenny because “pancreatic cancer” seemed so foul of a term. We’d go to the Kenny Centre and meet the Kenny doctor to discuss Kenny.

Comedy is a way of looking at ourselves and realising our mortality. We’re not going to be here forever! This is what George [Harrison] really helped me to do: come to terms with death. I was with him on his deathbed and he was very comfortable with it. I think because it’s inevitable – I think that’s all I was trying to do with that musical, to be honest. I thought, All the Boomers are heading for the exit. Here’s a show which will help people to understand the process. It was obviously silly. But underneath it all is a thing that says, Well, we’re all going to go through this. So, let’s have a look at it. I think that’s why I didn’t really panic [after the cancer diagnosis]. After all, I was old. The really hard thing was the other people around you, they’ve got to deal with it. But I thought, Good innings. What am I missing? Another World Cup?

If could give my 16-year-old self a piece of advice, it would be, “Look on the bright side.” Keep going. Things get more interesting!

By Sinéad Stubbins, Deputy Editor
First published in Ed#673