Eric Idle is a survivor. We’ve known that for decades. After all, it’s 53 years since Monty Python formed, and the bunch of absurdist jokers are still regarded as the Beatles of comedy. But it was only last week that we discovered what a survivor he is. Idle revealed that three years ago he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and that he has come through it. His medical team has now told him that thanks to early diagnosis and surgery, he’s likely to be around for the foreseeable.
Idle has always loved his ironies. And none come bigger than this, he says. About 15 years ago, he started working on a project. Death: The Musical became his obsession, even though countless people told him it didn’t work and would never get made. (It hasn’t been.) The basic plot was simple – a man writing Death: The Musical finds he is dying. Idle asked his doctor for advice. “I said: ‘What’s the quickest way to get rid of a character?’ and he said: ‘Pancreatic cancer.’ This is the same doctor who ended up diagnosing me. That was the fucking plot! So I had to laugh. And when it’s on yourself it’s even funnier.”
Did he really respond with laughter or did the tears come first? “No, I didn’t cry till I knew I was going to live. I just got on with it. I’m British! You try not to show emotions in the face of danger.”
Idle, 79, has lived in Los Angeles for decades, but few understand Britishness like him. Upper-class twits, deadly bureaucrats, oleaginous salesmen, pedantic bores, establishment perverts, heroic stoics, Panglossian optimists: Python gave all these British stereotypes a surreal twist. One of Idle’s most memorable sketches is Nudge Nudge, in which he asks a stranger in a pub about his sex life via a series of terrible double entendres. It’s one of the few Python sketches with a punchline, and was apparently Elvis Presley’s favourite.
Perhaps Idle is best known for Always Look on the Bright Side of Life, written by him and sung by his character Mr Cheeky as he hangs from the cross in the Python film Life of Brian. Idle was often at his funniest as the sextet’s song-and-dance man. He made his fortune as the writer and lyricist of the musical Spamalot, based on the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail. His estimated worth is $70m (£63.3m), but he describes this as “laughable” and insists he still has to work. My favourite Idle project is the mockumentary The Rutles, a brilliant parody of the Beatles story, featuring Paul Simon, Mick Jagger and George Harrison.
Idle collects celebrity friends like stamps. Rarely does a sentence pass without a reference to one. It should be insufferable, but he manages to get away with it. As he says, it’s just how life has worked out. “People say: ‘How d’you know all those people?’ Well, if you’re in the circus you meet all the other clowns.”
Although he’s in London, we meet on Zoom because I’ve got a bug and he can’t afford to catch it. “As a cancer survivor I am high-risk,” he says, “so they try to keep me away from anybody suffering from anything.” He’s wearing thick black glasses and a blue jersey and looks as cheery as ever. While John Cleese has become grumpier over the years, Idle has retained his idealism and sunny disposition. On Twitter he rails against the reversal of abortion rights in the US, and the government in Britain, but in person he often looks as if he has just been told the funniest joke in the world. Even when talking about his cancer.
He is here briefly for a surprise appearance on scientist Brian Cox’s live show at the O2 in London. Cox is another famous friend. It will be only his second public appearance since his diagnosis. A couple of weeks ago he made his first, on the US’s The Masked Singer singing Love Me Do. “I wanted to see if the audience still lifted me in the same way – and if I could remember the words, for God’s sake.” And? “It’s a bit challenging. I don’t think I’m in danger of being out there too much, but if you can support other people and be with them, I like to do that.”
Was he shocked when he got his diagnosis? No, he says, there wasn’t time. “I told my wife [former model and actor Tania Kosevich, whom he married in 1981, and with whom he has a daughter, Lily] and kids, made sure everybody was OK and within 10 days I was in hospital. My doctor assured me he had a good chance of getting it because it was right in the middle of my pancreas. It wasn’t attached, it had no nodes.” The cancer was removed perfectly intact after a five-hour operation.
For three years, he kept silent about it. He would turn up for his twice-yearly scan, knowing the news could be bad. “I’ve been living six months to six months on tests. I didn’t know how much longer I had. I saw my doctor recently, and that’s when I got the real shock. I asked him how long I had left, and he said: 10 years. He also said: ‘Had you been two weeks later you wouldn’t have got to see the surgery; you would have been straight into chemo’, which is unpleasant and not much use at that stage.”
In the UK, only 7.3% survive five years with pancreatic cancer. “And some die within three weeks,” he says. “It really is that quick.” Did he know that at the time? “Of course, because I’d been doing the musical, and I’d asked my doctor that very question.”
Even so, he says, he wasn’t scared. Why not? “George Harrison. He always said to me: ‘Well, you can have as much money as you want, you can be the most famous person in the world, but you’re still going to have to die.’” He does a cracking dour scouse impersonation of the former Beatle. “This was always his theme. And he prepared for it his entire life. I was around his deathbed. He wasn’t worried because he was in the Hindu faith.” Idle’s only faith is in science, but Harrison’s acceptance of death profoundly affected him. “It was just fabulous to see someone pass away calmly without panic, regret or bitterness. It was a great example.”
Despite what he says about his British stiff upper lip, Idle is an emotional man, and probably now more so than usual. He becomes tearful talking about Harrison. “George was such a force for good, and so supportive of me at a time in my life when I was confused and sad. My first marriage [to Australian actor Lyn Ashley, mother of his son, Carey] was breaking up, and he just looked after me. I’d never had such a close friendship before with anybody.” Nor since. “I think George was the most influential person I’ve met in life. And certainly in death.”
He and Harrison, who remortgaged his house to finance The Life of Brian, had so much in common. It’s not simply that they were in the biggest groups of their type – it’s the role they played in them. Both were outsiders. Lennon and McCartney were the main Beatles composers, while Harrison wrote on his own. Similarly in Python, Graham Chapman and John Cleese, and Michael Palin and Terry Jones, wrote as teams, while Idle wrote alone. “I was like a free-floating radical, and that’s where George and I bonded.” He grins. “And we liked a reefer and to play guitar together.”
Idle says that, like so many comedians, he was always an outsider. Even in a group of comedians he was the outsider. Although all five British Pythons went to Oxford or Cambridge universities, he was the only one of them who hadn’t been to grammar or public school. His father, Ernest, died when he was two, and his mother, Norah, never really recovered. Ernest had survived the war in the RAF, got back to Britain and was hitchhiking home when he got run over. The story sounds like one of those bleakly surreal Python cartoons created by Terry Gilliam. “It absolutely is!” he says. “My two watchwords are entropy and irony.”
He was sent to a school in Wolverhampton for children of fathers who had been killed in the war, paid for by the RAF Benevolent Fund. He hated the bullying culture and being away from his mother, yet it taught him how to get on with people, partly by taking the mickey out of the teachers. He was both subversive and swotty, and became the first student to win a place at university.
In his first year at Cambridge he was invited to join the Footlights by Tim Brooke-Taylor and Bill Oddie, and performed in a sketch written by Cleese. He went straight from university to writing for TV shows such as Do Not Adjust Your Set (with Palin and Jones) and At Last the 1948 Show (with Cleese and Chapman).
Gilliam, the maverick American film-maker, joined Idle, Jones and Palin on Do Not Adjust Your Set. “He’d been sent to us by Cleese, oddly. Mike and Jonesy were not impressed. I said: ‘No, he’s got something about him.’ I don’t know why I said it, and we let him into the gang. He couldn’t write but he did brilliant animations, and that gave Jonesy the idea that the second Python series should be linked by animations.”
He adored Python’s anarchic defiance. “Anything would go. They’d say: ‘You can’t do that’, so we’d think: ‘Let’s do that, then.’ We were in a cab in New York going to get a picture taken by Richard Avedon and we said: ‘Well, what are we going to do?’ One of us said: ‘Well, we’re not taking our clothes off, for starters’, and of course we had to do that immediately.”
What does he think when he hears Cleese claiming that comedians are no longer free to make jokes without fear of being cancelled? “He’s who he is now. The thing I try to remember is the good times when we were young and funny. And we are no longer those people or speaking to today’s generation. We’re old farts. We should be left to go quietly to bed and watch the telly.” He giggles.
There are only four Pythons left now. Chapman died of cancer at 48; Jones from complications of dementia at 77. Who is Idle closest to nowadays? “I’m not particularly close to any of them. Michael is always the first to write a sweet letter if he finds out you’ve been through a few things because he genuinely is like that. But I don’t think of it like we were mates. We were colleagues and there’s a huge difference.”
A few years ago he did three huge international tours with Cleese. “It was fun. We got on really well,” he says. But it still doesn’t mean they are friends. Most of his friends have been from the world of music rather than comedy. “I like to play guitar. I like people who play guitar. I like to stick around with people, and we just play and it’s fun. I’ve played with half the Stones. I’ve been up all night in Rome playing with Keith Richards.”
His closest friend in comedy was Robin Williams, who he says was the most naturally funny man he has known. “He was just a great mate. I loved him. We’d go on holidays together. I never expected to out-survive him. I couldn’t believe it when I heard he’d died.” At the time, in 2014, Idle was performing live with a reformed Monty Python. “We were putting a celebrity on stage in a mask and then unmasking them. I asked if he’d come to the last night and do that for us. And he said: ‘I don’t want to be onstage.’ That should have been the clue for me – Robin not wanting to be onstage. Then shortly afterwards we heard the tragic news.” Williams, who had an undiagnosed condition called Lewy body dementia, took his own life. “Robin had this awful disease that nobody knew about till after he’d gone. It makes you completely paranoid. His wife would leave the room and he’d think: ‘She’s having an affair.’ Horrible.”
Williams’s family asked Idle to speak at his memorial. He couldn’t face it, so he wrote a song for him. Does he remember the lyrics? “Goodnight, Robin, thanks for all the laughs, thanks for all the fun you brought and those silly photographs.” He starts to well up again, and stops. “Ugh. It makes me go. Sorry. Yeah, I still miss Robin. And George has been gone a long time but I really miss him.”
I ask if he’s still friends with King Charles, as he appeared to be in the 00s. “No, I’m not. I’ve not seen him since his 60th birthday when I appeared with the English National Ballet.” He stops and corrects himself. “I might have met him since at Billy Connolly’s, but it’s been a while since those days. He’d come over for dinner and we’d rip his ass, and he just loved it. He just loved it. Imagine you’ve got sycophantic people around you all day and now a bunch of comedians are ripping you apart. It must feel so healthy finally.”
Is it true Charles asked him to be his jester? “He did. I don’t think he’s ever quite forgiven me because I said: ‘Why would l want a fucking awful job like that?’” Was the King being serious? For once, Idle stumbles over his words. “I, err, erm, I think he was being funny.” I mention the recent footage of Charles losing his temper over a leaky pen and an ill-placed pen-stand. “This is why the Queen was so amazing because she did it so wonderfully and apparently effortlessly. But if you think about the stress he’s suddenly under … Your mum’s died and now you’re king, for God’s sake. I think you have to forgive people because they’re still people, they’re still going to have to die.”
Is he a monarchist? “No. I only worked out the other day why not. On the wall in our house it said about my father: ‘He gave his life for King and country’ and I think I blamed the King when I was growing up.”
As he says, his job has always been to poke the establishment rather than pander to it. Which is just what he does on his Twitter feed. He’s terrified at the thought of Donald Trump winning a second term as president. “If he gets to run again I don’t know what will happen. We’ve gone back to the time of the dictators.” There’s only one solution, he says. “You need to have presidential candidates subject to psychological testing. ‘You’re an insane narcissist; you have no business being in charge of a teapot.’ They are undiagnosed monsters, that’s the problem.”
And now he’s on to Britain. “I had dinner with Jeffrey Archer last night and he said: ‘She won’t last long.’” Truss? “Yeah. I like Jeffrey. He’s very funny; a wonderful gossip.”
If Idle was living in the UK, would he prefer to pay 45% tax rather than 40%? “45% always,” he says. (He admits he balked when he was paying 83%.) “The Tories are just paying back their supporters. I was happy that the pound dropped in reaction to that. Two weeks in, they’re already talking about a vote of confidence.”
He tells me more about the dinner with Archer. “We were all cancer survivors at the table, and one thing Jeffrey said last night was that in 30 years people will no longer die from cancer. And I thought: that’s my goal.”
We catch up a couple of days later, after his appearance with Cox, where he sang The Galaxy Song. How did it go? “It was fabulous. Great fun. There were 7,000 people there.” Has it given him confidence to go back on stage? “Just with Brian Cox!”
It was only after receiving the recent good news from his doctor that Idle went public about the cancer. He decided it was time to campaign, to tell people that there is hope. “That’s why I came out about it. I wanted to say: ‘Look, I was very lucky and I survived. And so can you.’ I’ve heard from so many people how much that meant to them. And that chokes me up. That makes me cry.” He pauses. “If there is a more appropriate song for me than Always Look on the Bright Side of Life, I’d like to know about it.”
In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. You can contact the mental health charity Mind by calling 0300 123 3393 or visiting mind.org.uk