Always Look on the Bright Side of Life: A Sortabiography by Eric Idle

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Reviewed by Annabel

Eric Idle is perhaps the most elusive of the Pythons. He’s the one who wrote on his own, the one whose characters are full of banter, ‘Nudge nudge, wink wink, know what I mean,’ the one famed for his brilliantly witty songs, the most famous of which forms the title of this book and is, he tells us near the end of the short introductory chapter, ‘the number one song requested at British funerals.’

Idle then takes us back to his childhood and schooldays. When he was not quite three-years-old:

Try this for irony: my father was killed hitchhiking home from World War II. He’d been in the RAF since 1941 in the most dangerous seat of a Wellington bomber, … and yet seven months after the war in Europe was over, he was killed in a road accident hitching home for Christmas.

It wasn’t a good start, compounded by boarding school paid for by the RAF at the age of seven, eventually saved by Elvis and rock and roll, ‘at fourteen I wanted to play guitar very badly. By fifteen I did.’  Something must have gone right though, and Idle ended up as a rather idiosyncratic head boy, despite refusing to take the CCF (Combined Cadet Force) seriously.

Staying with a friend in London in early 1963, Idle saw Beyond the Fringe, and decided that a life without comedy would be nothing, and when he took up his place at Cambridge, he tried out for the ‘smoking concerts’ and went on to join the famous Footlights. It was at the Edinburgh Festival that he would meet future colleagues Jones and Palin who were in the rival Oxford Revue, and they all went on to make the BBC TV series Do Not Adjust Your Set – a sketch comedy show for children (David Jason and the Bonzo Dog Doodah Band also starred, as did some animations from Terry Gilliam)! Cleese and Chapman were fans of this show, and the scene for the birth of Monty Python was set.

Idle doesn’t dwell on Python on TV, he quickly moves on to the successful Pythons touring the USA and Canada and the release of their second film Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It was one day in Hollywood that his life really changed direction – and thus the tone of this memoir.

It was when Idle met one of his idols that a lifelong friendship would begin – that friend was George Harrison.

Funny and serious and wise, he changed my life. We played together, partied together, argued together. He was irresistible. It was definitely love at first sight.

George would, of course, become Python’s saviour, mortgaging his house to finance The Life of Brian.  During this time, Idle’s first marriage also broke up, after he played the field away too often – Idle’s not proud of this. He is proud though of his second wife, Tania to whom he remains happily married, and his two children, one from each marriage.

Once George appears in the book, Idle’s celebrity name-dropping goes into top gear. The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Michael Caine, Paul Simon, Steve Martin, Dan Ackroyd, John Belushi – are just some of a long list of stars who feature, alongside George and David Bowie. Of the latter, Idle would be godfather to Bowie’s son, and made a speech at David’s wedding to Iman:

…Tania kept asking him for me just how low I should be. Tell him to make it as low as he wants, David would reply. I, of course, went too far as usual, and I blush to think of it now, but it went down very well with the guests, who included Ono, Eno and Bono.

Aside from all the celebrity pals and bonhomie, there is a serious side to Idle. He is the Python with the business brain (and the contacts) that got their albums made, books published, and films financed. Then there are all the side projects – from Rutland Weekend Television to The Rutles, and of course there is Spamalot. The musical recycles the Holy Grail film and various other Python sketches and songs and was a huge hit on Broadway directed by Mike Nichols. 

It’s clear that Idle still loves working, even though he’s now in his seventies – he popped up at the closing ceremony of the 2012 Olympics to sing ‘… bright side’ and directed the Pythons’ sell-out shows at the O2 arena in 2014.

As an only child who lost his father when he was two, Idle’s mother and children are rather relegated to being bit part players in this memoir, his celebrity pals rather taking centre stage, and often upstaging Idle. There are black and white photos of Idle with his pals throughout, and a separate colour section, one of the first photos though is of him as a toddler at the beach with his father.

There is a sense of self-deprecating fun that pervades this book that made it always entertaining to read (I don’t mind the name-dropping), but Idle’s personality is always so perky that one can’t help but think that throughout he’s still acting a role and playing with his readers. I enjoyed it a lot, ‘Say no more.’

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Eric Idle, Always Look on the Bright Side of Life: A Sortabiography (Orion, 2018) ISBN 9781474610278, hardback, 296 pages.

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