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Idle, Eric (1943-)

Actor, Writer

Main image of Idle, Eric (1943-)

Though forever destined to be remembered as 'a Python': one of the team behind the groundbreaking comedy series Monty Python's Flying Circus (BBC, 1969-74), Eric Idle was somewhat iconoclastic in his views of their legacy in the years following the team's dissolution. Prolific in his pursuance of other projects, Idle has nonetheless been highly proactive in perpetuating the Python brand name.

Idle often seemed the cruellest of the team, a malevolent streak lurking behind the fixed toothy grin. Adept at the portrayal of glossy insincerity, he excelled playing smarmy salesmen or self-important television presenters. Conversely, he was also skilled at portraying idiotic innocents. He later categorised his characterisations into two broad groups: 'Nudge' ("South London wideboy"), or 'Cheeky' ("nice to the point of being brainless").

Eric Idle was born in County Durham in 1943. His father, an RAF officer, died in a car crash after the war. According to Eric, the roots of his comedy lay in his lonely, difficult years at an austere war-orphans' boarding school in Wolverhampton. "Comedians are formed early. And usually they're the ones whose mothers aren't around." Idle read English at Cambridge; elected president of Footlights, he appeared in the television showcase Footlights '64 (ITV, 1964).

Idle wrote for various television comedy shows, including The Frost Report (BBC, 1966-67), where he was united with what would become the Python writing team: Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Michael Palin and Terry Jones. With Palin and Jones, he co-wrote and appeared in the offbeat children's comedy series Do Not Adjust Your Set (ITV, 1967-69). Monty Python's Flying Circus followed soon afterwards.

Whereas the other Pythons wrote in pairs, Idle always wrote alone. Skilled at clever, quick-fire wordplay and comic songs, Idle might be best known for his "nudge nudge" sketch, in which a man sidles up to a stranger to interrogate him about his wife with a barrage of sexual innuendo, and the song 'Always Look on the Bright Side of Life', cheerfully sung by crucifixion victims, led by Idle, at the end of Monty Python's Life of Brian (d. Terry Jones, 1979).

After the end of Monty Python on television and stage and the first original Python film, Monty Python and the Holy Grail (d. Terry Jones/Terry Gilliam, 1974), Idle wrote and starred in Rutland Weekend Television (BBC, 1975-76), another sketch series along similarly surreal lines, based around "Britain's smallest television network". Though beset by tiny budgets, tight scripts and a strong supporting cast were complemented by strange musical interludes courtesy of the Bonzo Dog Band's Neil Innes.

An Innes-written Beatles pastiche, shot in a Richard Lester style, first seen on Rutland Weekend Television, was well received on an Idle-hosted edition of the US comedy Saturday Night Live (1975-). Idle developed the idea into an acclaimed spoof-documentary TV special based around the career of a band very similar to the Beatles - the Rutles - entitled All You Need is Cash (d. Gary Weis, 1978). Idle socialised with many of the rock music 'nobility' of the period, and it was Idle's friendship with George Harrison that led to the former Beatle funding the controversial Monty Python's Life of Brian.

Idle also pursued non-Python film projects. Nuns on the Run (d. Jonathan Lynn, 1990), an unpretentious farce which saw Idle and Robbie Coltrane as robbers hiding out in a convent disguised as nuns, was a major US success. Splitting Heirs (d. Robert Young, 1993), written, co-produced by and starring Idle, was not, despite the appearance of John Cleese. Intended as "post-modern Ealing" and selected for the Cannes Film Festival competition, Idle lamented that in the UK the film "was greeted by nothing but abuse".

The following years saw the now US-based Idle as an actor-for-hire, in American sitcoms, and providing voices for animated childrens' features. He starred as a ghost in the ill-fated Nearly Departed (1989-90) and later was a regular in the Brooke Shields vehicle Suddenly Susan (1996-00), but confessed to approaching such jobs with little enthusiasm. Idle's goal, he insisted, was to make enough money to secure his intellectual freedom.

Though often dismissive of the idea of a Python reunion, in 2006, with John DuPrez, he reworked Holy Grail into a successful stage musical, Spamalot (2006). Other Pythons were sceptical, but Jones, Palin and Gilliam eventually joined Idle on stage in 2009 for a special performance of the follow up, Not the Messiah (He's a Very Naughty Boy) (2007), a comic oratorio based on Life of Brian.

Vic Pratt

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979)Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979)

Controversial but hilarious comedy about a reluctant messiah

Thumbnail image of At Last The 1948 Show (1967-68)At Last The 1948 Show (1967-68)

Sketch comedy series now seen as a dry run for Monty Python

Thumbnail image of Do Not Adjust Your Set (1967-69)Do Not Adjust Your Set (1967-69)

Madcap children's sketch show starring several future Pythons

Thumbnail image of Liver Birds, The (1969-79)Liver Birds, The (1969-79)

Classic Liverpool sitcom about two young women sharing a bedsit

Thumbnail image of Monty Python's Flying Circus (1969-74)Monty Python's Flying Circus (1969-74)

Legendary sketch show that revolutionised TV comedy

Thumbnail image of One Foot In The Grave (1990-2000)One Foot In The Grave (1990-2000)

Victor Meldrew settles down to enjoy his retirement

Thumbnail image of Rutland Weekend Television (1975-76)Rutland Weekend Television (1975-76)

Comedy sketch series centred on `Britain's smallest television network.

Thumbnail image of Wind in the Willows, The (1984-88)Wind in the Willows, The (1984-88)

Definitive animated version of the Kenneth Grahame children's classic

Related collections

Thumbnail image of The Roots of Monty PythonThe Roots of Monty Python

Before the Circus flew: the hidden origins of the Python wit

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Thumbnail image of Chapman, Graham (1941-1989)Chapman, Graham (1941-1989)

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Thumbnail image of Cleese, John (1939-)Cleese, John (1939-)

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Thumbnail image of Gilliam, Terry (1940-)Gilliam, Terry (1940-)

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Thumbnail image of Jones, Terry (1942-)Jones, Terry (1942-)

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Thumbnail image of Palin, Michael (1943-)Palin, Michael (1943-)

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