Interview with Bill Jones, Ben Timlett and Jeff Simpson

“Good riddance to him, the freeloading bastard. I hope he fries.” Thus eulogised John Marwood Cleese at the funeral of his dear friend Graham Chapman in 1989. “He would never forgive me,” explained Cleese, “if I threw away this glorious opportunity to shock you all on his behalf.”

An audience member at the time.
The response of one member of the funeral congregation.

Chapman loved to shock and surprise. One anecdote runs thusly: he wanted to sit at his favourite pub table, but it was occupied by some recalcitrant customers. Chapman’s response? He strode over to the table, unzipped his flies, pulled out his tackle, and proceeded to stir the man’s G&T with his penis. This is the kind of person we’re dealing with in A Liar’s Autobiography: The Untrue Story of Monty Python’s Graham Chapman.

I speak to the three directors of the 82-minute animation in a round-table interview at their office in London: Bill Jones (son of Terry, the man who delivered the immortal line: “He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy!”), Ben Timlett, and Jeff Simpson. “The only thing I remember about Graham,” says Bill, “is his memorial service.” Bill was eleven at the time; he, Ben and Jeff are all part of the ‘next generation’ of Python fans, growing up in an era of comedy over which Python had stamped its distinctive footprints. They’ve brought their own comedic and artistic sensibilities to their film about Chapman, enjoying complete creative control, hiring fourteen-count-‘em-fourteen different animation studios, and making it in 3D. “We didn’t want a type of 3D that had lots of gimmicks,” says Jeff. “It was really just there to give a little extra depth to the animation.” The three directors aimed to use it creatively, and succeeded in doing so.

I ask why they adopted such a unique approach to the animation. Bill answers: “We realise that there’s a generation growing up on Family Guy, that there’s a market for adult animation. We wanted to push that by putting in lots of different styles together. People are interested in animation for its own sake.” Ben agrees: “If you produce good-quality stuff, any generation’s going to like it.” Each animation studio was selected on the basis of their style and how well it matched certain envisaged scenes in the film. There’s none of the slapstick animated humour in which Python often revelled, because slapstick humour is thin on the ground in Graham’s book. “[The book is] wordy, it’s thoughtful, it’s intellectual, it’s often ironic,” explains Bill. “The tone of the humour and the approach to the animation [were] really driven by the original book.”

Oddly, in a film that is almost wholly comprised of animated segments, there’s none of the legendary animation of Terry Gilliam, who appropriated an unnoticed corner of a Renaissance painting by Bronzino to create the ‘Monty Python foot’ that we all know and love. “He wouldn’t do it,” says Bill. “If he wouldn’t do it, we weren’t going to get someone else to copy him.” A wise decision: this is a film about Graham Chapman, and not about Monty Python.

It's about the guy right at the back.
It’s about the guy right at the back.

The voices of John Cleese, Michael Palin, and Terrys Gilliam and Jones are all present; Eric Idle declined to participate, not wanting the film to seem like a ‘Monty Python reunion’: valid grounds that the three directors respect. Surprisingly, however, the voice of Graham Chapman – who’s been six feet under for over two decades – is all over the film. Selections of his voice were mainly culled from his own narration of his quasi-autobiography, which he had read aloud in 1981. This was a key factor in the directors’ choices of what went in the film: scenes generally had to be compatible with Graham’s dialogue (as opposed to his narration). Unless, of course, they were sex scenes.

“We wanted lots of sex in there,” explains Jeff. “Sex is hilariously funny.” The film sees various cartoon versions of Chapman copulating in all sorts of positions, with both men and women. Bill elaborates: “In the book, he just lists [his sexual escapades]… We thought, ‘We need this scene. We need to convert it into something fun.’”

“Musical number!” Jeff chimes in, referring to the version of ‘Sit On My Face’, one of the Pythons’ most hilarious songs, which plays over the end credits of A Liar’s Autobiography. It features such chestnuts as “I love to hear you oralise | When I’m between your thighs | You blow me away.” Hear it if you haven’t already.

The corresponding image for 'Sit On My Face' is inappropriate for a relatively family-friendly blog.
The corresponding image for ‘Sit On My Face’ is inappropriate for a relatively family-friendly blog. I hope this black rectangle will suffice.

It’s impressive that everything Graham says in the film is actually from recordings of his voice, but what is even more impressive is the directors’ attention to detail. Ben says, “We went through hours and hours and hours of outtakes to find [some of] the material – Graham sucking his pipe, and giggling.” In the film, it’s all synthesised so naturally that it’s easy to forget that Graham has been dead for over 22 years.

“The animation absolutely fucking rocks,” opines one of the journalists next to me. “How do you think [the new generation of Python fans] will react to it?”

“You’re quite young,” says Ben, turning to me. “What do you think?” Suddenly, I am the voice of a generation. This is it. This is my turn to shine, to prove to the people my worth as an ambassador of the comedic taste of Britain’s youth. I answer decisively and honestly: “I liked it.”

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