Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
Chapman, Graham (1941-1989)

Actor, Writer

Main image of Chapman, Graham (1941-1989)

With a pipe firmly clenched between his teeth, the outwardly calm, poised, and studious appearance of Graham Chapman (born in Leicester on 8 January 1941) belied a sometimes alarming propensity for unpredictable, maniacal behaviour. In this sense he can be seen as having fully lived up to the image, more than any other member of Monty Python's Flying Circus, of what was expected of someone from that particular comedy team. These contrasting aspects of his personality, however, were also successfully channelled by Chapman into his performances, to make him, according to fellow Python John Cleese, "the most talented actor of us all".

Chapman and Cleese met when they began performing in the Footlights revues while at Cambridge University (they also wrote sketches together). Following university, Chapman successfully completed medical studies to emerge as a qualified doctor, but any aspirations he may have held regarding the medical profession soon ran aground. Cleese, who was by now a writer and performer on David Frost's sketch series, The Frost Report (BBC, 1966-1967), instead persuaded him to renew their writing partnership on the show.

While The Frost Report was still running, Frost served as executive producer on At Last the 1948 Show (ITV, 1967), a sketch series written by and starring Cleese and Chapman (now in the limelight as a performer), together with Marty Feldman and Tim Brooke-Taylor. With hindsight, the series can clearly be seen as laying some Monty Python foundations, the freedom granted to the cast allowing them to experiment with the structure and overall concept of a sketch show.

Other series to which Chapman contributed as a writer in this period include Ronnie Corbett's first starring vehicle No - That's Me Over Here! (ITV, 1967-1970), the Marty Feldman sketch series It's Marty (BBC, 1968-1969) and sitcom Doctor in the House (ITV, 1969-1970), loosely based on the Richard Gordon books.

While now viewed as groundbreaking, Monty Python's Flying Circus (BBC, 1969-74) was launched with minimal publicity in a late-night slot. Consequently it drew a small audience. But that audience was enthusiastic, and the growing worldwide popularity of the succeeding series helped to make the writer/performers one of the most important and internationally influential of all comedy teams, a position that subsequent recordings, publications, stage appearances and films helped to reinforce.

The Python team's successful, and often controversial, cinematic ventures were And Now For Something Completely Different (d. Ian MacNaughton, 1971), Monty Python and the Holy Grail (d. Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam, 1974), with Chapman as King Arthur (in addition to some other minor roles), Monty Python's Life of Brian (d. Jones, 1979), with Chapman, living up to Cleese's estimation of him, providing a finely-judged comic performance as Brian that no other member of the team could have equalled, and Monty Python's The Meaning of Life (d. Jones, 1983).

His own more personal projects away from the Python fold did not achieve the same degree of success. A pilot for his own sketch series, Out of the Trees (BBC, tx. 10/1/1976), co-written with Douglas Adams and Bernard McKenna, unfortunately never developed beyond the one episode, and two film ventures, The Odd Job (d. Peter Medak, 1978), a black comedy he starred in, executive produced and co-wrote with McKenna, and pirate comedy Yellowbeard (US, 1983), which he again starred in and co-wrote (with McKenna and Peter Cook) were disappointments.

Painfully shy, he had turned to alcohol in the early Python days as a means of coping with the strain of performing, but had successfully beaten the bottle by 1977. With this history in mind, he surprised many when he embarked on a series of successful lecture tours/one-man shows in both Britain and the US in the 1980s.

His final acting role, as a medieval knight, was in an untransmitted pilot made for US television, Jake's Journey (1988), co-written with his long-time partner David Sherlock. Chapman had never been one to hide his homosexuality, being an early campaigner for gay liberation and co-founder, in 1972, of the publication Gay News.

He was diagnosed with tonsil cancer in 1988. Although believed to be in remission, the cancer spread to his spine and he died on 4 October 1989.

John Oliver

More information


From the BFI's filmographic database

Related media

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 It's Marty (1968-69)It's Marty (1968-69)

Marty Feldman's unjustly forgotten pre-Python sketch series

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

Legendary sketch show that revolutionised TV comedy

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

Related people and organisations

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

Actor, Writer, Director

Thumbnail image of Idle, Eric (1943-)Idle, Eric (1943-)

Actor, Writer

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

Actor, Director, Writer, Presenter

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

Actor, Writer