RutleManiacs International Interview with ERIC IDLE

Without the postal service this interview would have been impossible. It is the result of months of sending questions overseas and receiving answers. Thanks go to Mr. Idle for answering, and to Christine Miller, his secretary, for transcribing.

RMI: How did you first get the concept of the Rutles, and how was it developed into All You Need is Cash?

IDLE: I was sitting in the Var writing, this was in 1975, and I wrote a joke about the camera pulling away from someone, and leaving them helplessly running after it. I liked the idea very much, and I knew it was funny. I wasn't sure though what he should be talking about.
I was writing a TV show for England called Rutland Weekend Television, which I did with Neil Innes, and Neil had a couple of Beatley songs, and there was one on a Bonzo album, very Beatley, and so I thought that it would be a good idea to combine these two elements, so that the joke would lead into a song, and that's virtually what happened on the show. We shot "A Hard Days Rut" in black and white, and I played the George character. When I first hosted Saturday Night Live we ran this clip from my TV show and it worked really well and everyone seemed to like it (Oct.'76). I had the idea to do it as a TV show, just a one-off and follow the mythical career of the Rutles, and I was going to do it with the BBC, but Lorne Michaels offered me a chance to do it with him as the producer for late night TV on NBC; and the offer of American money--while still filming in England--was too good to miss. He suggested that Gary Weis and I direct it together, since we had worked on a couple of silly little films for Saturday Night Live ("Drag Racing" and "Body Language"), and the combination of my writing and his shooting worked pretty well. So I wrote it in February of 1977 and Neil set about writing thirty tunes and we went filming in July. Pretty soon after the original synopsis NBC wanted to move the show to prime time, and we said no, since we didn't want to compromise what we wanted to do. Later, when everything was shot and there was nothing to compromise we were happy to move to prime time to get our money back!
It was a magic project, some things are like that. This was definitely one everyone enjoyed working on-from Makeup, Wardrobe, even the Minicab drivers would come and watch rushes. All thanks are due to Messrs Innes, Michaels, Weis, and Kellum for moving mountains.

RMI: What influenced you to make a career in humor?

IDLE: I spent twelve years in an English boarding school in an ugly Midford town. You either laugh or go crazy. I went crazy.
At Cambridge I first learned the serious side of writing, and discipline and working at making things funny--and it is bloody hard work, though luckily they pay you well if you persist. At Cambridge there was a club especially for people to write and perform comedy. You could only get in by performing, and if you were any good they elected you. Cleese and Chapman were both members, though Chapman had gone on to London to become a doctor when I joined.

RMI: How did your professional career get started?

IDLE: I was president of (that club) "The Footlights" in 1964/5, and amongst a few achievements in my life I'm glad that I changed the seventy year old rules to admit women as members. Amongst the first women to be elected was one Germaine Greer.
Anyway, at the end of the year we toured with a fairly unfunny revue called "My Girl Gilbert" which had only a couple of laughs but was quite successful in the provinces. When that finished I did cabaret with John Cameron at the Blue Angel, which taught me never to do cabaret with pianists: when it's going well they played loudly and attracted attention, and when it's going badly they hide behind the piano. For one night JC played loudly and attracted attention, and for the rest of the run he hid behind the piano, leaving me to face the drunken hoorays from the calvery who were the bulk of the audience. We later found out that most of our material had been done to death there by one Tony Hendra (who later went on to steal material for himself in America, and National Lampoon, and finally Lemmings. So watch it if you get near him).
After this abortive start to a showbiz career I disappeared into a production of "O What a Lovely War" in Leicester, in which the cast cried more than the audience, and then was retained to star as a walk-on in a dreadful farce called "One for the Pot." Backstage during the long hours of waiting to go on and say a few very unfunny lines I began to write for a radio show called I'm Sorry, I'll Read that Again. Since most of the cast were old pals from Cambridge they bought most of my jokes.
From there it was a short step (and much more rewarding) to write for The Frost Report, which I did for a while with Tim Brooke-Taylor, and then on my own. Once in television there was definitelyno going back to a proper job. I gained a lot of useful knowledge from hanging around and being the corpse in the coffin, or the man who falls to the ground dead, in At Last the 1948 Show, a very, very funny show that Rediffusion TV put on (about 1966) and which starred John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Tim Brooke-Taylor, and Marty Feldman. After that I wrote a TV series with Graham Chapman and Barry Cryer for Ronnie Corbett (called No That's Me Over Here) in one of which I appeared as a hippie.
Humphrey Barclay then asked me to do a TV show for kids on Rediffusion and I made him ask Michael Palin and Terry Jones (he'd already booked the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band) and next thing you know we were in Showbiz proper and not just TV writers. It was great fun and we had no idea what we were doing, except that we hated TV that talks down to kids, so we talked up to them and they liked us. The fourth show that we did won the Prix Jeunesse at Montreux, which was quite a big deal for a kids show and brought us actual cash in Deutchmarks. We did two series of this show, despite the fact that Rediffusion folded in the middle, and became very famous with waiters and criminals and all sorts of people who only watch TV at 5:30 in the afternoon. Plus, we got great ratings so they liked us at what was now Thames TV and offered us a grown-up show (me and Mike and Terry, that is). Oh, and this weird American (Terry Gilliam) had joined us and was doing weird animations, so we kept him because he was fun and nobody else would talk to him.
We said thank-you very much we'd like to do our own TV show and they said come back next year because the studios are fully booked. In the meantime John Cleese and Graham Chapman approached us to do something for the BBC, and because that was sooner we sort of agreed and the Flying Circus limped slowly off the ground (1969).
Throughout that time I had been writing for the various Frost programmes, and so you can see that life was fun, busy, energetic, and rewarding and not at all like the hard drudgery of breaking into showbiz that everyone expects. Still and all, we did provide value for money, and people did laugh at what we wrote, so we weren't all that spoiled.

RMI: How did Monty Python and Rutland TV fulfill your expectations and goals?

IDLE: Python was good fun, and went very well, until it became time to stop doing it. John Cleese was the one who felt this the most, Terry Jones the least. I think Terry would still be doing it if he could. It became a strain working constantly in a group and everyone felt some need to work on their own projects, which they have been doing for quite some time. My own project was the cheapest TV show ever produced. Quite why I did this I'm not quite sure, but it did teach me about writing at length on my own, away from the security, censorship, and rewrites of a very efficient group. I had been writing (in France) a radio show for Radio One (BBC Radio) which I called typically Radio Five. (Since there were only four channels, called imaginatively One, Two, Three, and Four.) It was the only comedy show on the pop channel and I was able to play records between the sketches.
But it took me forever to record since I did all the voices and sound effects, and spent months in the dungeon studios of BBC, but I liked the idea of pretending independence from the channel that was promoting me, and this is essentially the idea of Rutland Weekend Television. The first series was made for about $60,000 (that's six half-hour episodes!) and we came from a tiny studio with three cameras on the fourth floor of Television Centre next door to where they do the weather...I could have had a big show with audience and guests, but didn't, and I think I learned more from the restrictions of writing for this, than I might from a more successful larger Light Entertainment show.
There were fourteen Rutlands altogether, and they all have nice moments in, although without an audience it's impossible to know just how funny they are. There are moments in them that seem to me now not at all funny, and some things that still make me giggle, but I think that I've learned that it's always better to have enough money, because people never say, "How amazing, how did you do that on that money?" They simply don't care. They expect you to have enougth, and it's no use saying that there are only three people in this sketch when it would have been funnier with thirty, but we couldn't afford it. It was great working with Neil Innes, whom I always thought was absolutely wonderful, so it was good being his pal, and conspiring together, and I also found very funny people: Gwen Taylor (who played Chasity and Mrs. Mountbatten in All You Need is Cash), Terence Bayler (Leggy Mountbatten), David Battley, and Henry Woolf (Arthur Sultan), etc. etc....and its good to work with other actors, because later when you're sitting around wondering who to put in, you know what they're like and their strengths and weaknesses, and it's nice to write especially for people. Gwen Taylor is a wonderful actress. I think in the class of Diane Keaton (although she is not known in the U.S.) and Terence Bayler was always the perfect Leggy.

RMI: What was the filming of All You Need Is Cash like?

IDLE: The filming was great fun. It's very interesting dressing up and pretending to be other people. Especially if you've seen the other people go through their lives. You get a strange perspective. It's almost more interesting when you know that they were real people, rather than when you just make up some crazy character. So, yes it was interesting being dressed in that gear and swanning up to Buckingham Palace and watching the tourists having heart attacks like they were time tripping. We were actually mobbed on the Mersey ferry, although the reasons for this are obscure. Someone said he thought we were the Mafia. It was interesting to find out just how unpleasant it is having people scratching and chasing you. But basically the weather was lovely, and we got to film in the North of England, which is much more friendly than the South, and everyone was very happy, It was just one of those projects

RMI: Any problems?

IDLE: The only problem was a technical one. The first day we filmed "Let it Rot" (on the roof of a building in Wardour Street, that nice sequence from Let it Be) and I had grown a beard for it, and had it shaved off for the rest of the filming, but unfortunately there was something wrong with the camera, so we had to reshoot it anyway, so I had to have a false beard for the reshoot. If you're very quick you can see the back of Ronnie Wood sitting on the parapet...

RMI: Did you have any control over the mood and style of Neal Innes's Rutle songs?

IDLE: Neil wrote all the songs and had a perfect freedom in them. I would just comment on what I thought we needed. Obviously, I preferred some to others, and would put them in or feature them more strongly. Then again, he can write to order. I remember calling him up from the U.S. and saying we needed a sitar George-type number to cover a short piece of film, and he called me back in a couple days with it already recorded. Most of the songs I heard for the first time in the hospital, and Neil really has an incredible ear, a great gift for melody. It's a shame that ATV music in America took fifty percent of all the copyright of all his Rutle songs because some of them bear no relationship to Beatles songs, and are just good songs in their own right. Also it would have been stupid writing tunes that didn't sound somewhat like the Beatle originals, because that was the whole point, so I always thought they were very greedy in their demands, and showed no kindness or understanding or tolerance and I hope that one day their factory burns down, and they all have upset stomaches on their holidays and their children are unpleasant to them. I'm sure the Fab-Four don't know they own half of the Rutles music, and I'm damned sure they won't see any money from it--it's just the usual corporate greed (or corporate Grade, as it's known in England).
So the Rutles songs are officially by Lennon-McCartney-Innes and Harrison-Innes. I told Neil he should put out an album of these songs called The Best of Lennon-McCartney-Innes just to teach ATV a lesson! It wouldn't matter so much if Neil was extremely rich, but he lives off what he writes, unlike ATV which lives off what other people write. Anyway, I think you get the point....

RMI: Several segments of All You Need Is Cash had to be altered because of censorship by American TV. How did that affect the final result?

IDLE: American TV only insisted on one change. That was the bit with Danny Aykroyd as Brian Thigh. After a few questions I asked him "What's it like to be such an asshole?" One might well ask the same question of NBC. I did make certain changes though for English TV. Because there were no commercial gaps when it was shown in England and Europe, I snipped seven minutes out and made it flow much faster. I perfer the English version obviously, but you need the extra time on American TV. You're in and out of commercials so frequently you have to remind people you're back in your bit, and out of the selling parts.

RMI: How are your projects affected by censorship? How do you feel about it?

IDLE: Censorship is based on fear. It is always done supposedly to protect other people. It's therefore hypocritical and virtually useless. I hate it, and despise it, and think it's one reason why American TV is so awful. It exists in English TV but it's much subtler. They're likely to take you out for a drink and say, "Listen old boy we'll all get into trouble if this goes out". The only answer is to try not to avoid trouble. The basic motto is, "Fuck 'em if they can't take a joke!" Saturday Night Live has brought fresh air into American TV precisely because it is a continual dialogue with the censor. Python's new film Brian will have to spend most of its time fighting people who have not seen it and do not want it to be out. So, yes, censorship is repressive, and please don't grow up to be censors.

RMI: Why did you have Brian Thigh commit suicide at the end of the sketch?

IDLE: That was the only alternative to not having the joke line that the censor cut. In England we had the "asshole" line. Basically Danny and I ad-libbed an alternative, but it was never as funny.

RMI: Were there any long talent searches to cast for the show's leads?

IDLE: Neil was always Nasty. Rikki Fataar was the closest emotionally and spritually to the George that I knew. He too would just listen to the music. John Halsey was Barry Wom. I had originally played the George part, and I wanted to avoid being a Rutle so I was looking for a Dirk. Searched hard, but never found anyone. The difficulty was finding someone to balance Neil, someone who could hold his own in the comedy, and these people are not easy to find. I liked Ollie Halsall, but though he was left-handed and played and sang wonderfully, he wasn't really a comedian. Plus he shut his eyes while singing, which is the very last thing that Paul McC did. So in the end I was forced into playing it. Time ran out. I kept hoping someone would turn up.

RMI: Since you have a respectable singing voice, why did you have Dirk dubbed over?

IDLE: Two reasons really. One, Neil was already working with Ollie Halstall on the music. They rehearsed and played together and it was a tight band and working very well. And secondly, I was in hospital. I had an appendix out and then had to go back in for unpleasant complications, and I had only just made the filming. It was a lucky break really as I lost a lot of weight and had more chance of looking as the young man as he started out. I staggered along to one recording session, but could hardly stand, so they just carried on, and I think were much better than I could have been. Ollie is a great singer-guitarist (Boxer, etc.) and he did a great job. It was lovely miming him!

RMI: The programme has one major inconsistency. In the press conference when the Rutles first saw New York City, they are shown freely drinking tea, despite its illegality, yet no fuss is made until six years later, when Dirk confesses. Please explain.

IDLE: If that's the only inconsistency, I did really well!

RMI: Obviously considerable effort went into making the many "accurate" Rutle props. Who was responsible?

IDLE: Tony Cohen. He designed my "Rutland Dirty Weekend Book" (still available!) for me and is an expert at parody. He cares about details, which is the only thing that makes parody work. When we came to do the album Basil Pao and I were able to make the sixteen page booklet virtually in a weekend in New York (with the aid of several cups of tea?) largely because we had all this wonderful artwork, done by Tony Cohen. Thanks for noticing.

RMI: Will there be any future Rutle projects?

IDLE: I doubt it, we pretty much covered the ground, and it would be a shame to do something less good just for the sake of it. There are one or two other songs that aren't on the album, but they aren't the very best, although one or two were nice.

RMI: Are you satisfied with the way the programme came out?

IDLE: It was strange. In Europe the show was a teriffic success. Thirty-five countries bought it, and many repeated it at once, including England. In the United States if twenty-five million people watch the show then it's considered a failure. It seems to me that the failure lies with American TV thinking, because twenty-five million is a hell of an audience, larger than most films ever get until they are shown on TV. So, for me, I was really pleased that it was on prime time, sorry that it was opposite Charlie's Angels, and glad that it was re-run on late night TV. I think it's really hard to programme one-offs and specials. On TV, audiences build, and the longer you have the better they build. If we had done twenty-six weeks of the Rutles we would all be extremely rich and extremely boring. I'm glad to have gone from a small cupboard on BBC2 to the vastness of American TV without having to alter more than one "asshole."

RMI: There exists a bootleg version of "Cheese and Onions" that John Lennon suposedly sings. Where did it come from, who sang it, and who wrote it?

IDLE: Within two hours of the "Rutles" album being released there were rumours around about the Beatles really being on it. People very much think what they want to. The truth is often less interesting, but here it is: The second time I hosted Saturday Night Live in April 1977 Neil Innes was my guest, and he came out in a Lennonish wig and sang "Cheese and Onions." That's what you hear. It's obviously taped from that show. Mind you, I don't suppose even John could tell the difference at times. Neil has the voice so well.

RMI: What new projects are you working on?

IDLE: At the moment I'm working on my life and it's coming out really well. I have lots of little bits and pieces that I scribble away at, but none that I'm dedicated to. I spent all of last year working on a film version of The Pirates of Penzance that I really want to film, but as the budget is five million dollars I'm afraid that I haven't got very far. If you know of anyone with five million dollars who wants to make a loony movie, let me know please. The hardest part of filming is raising the money. From that point on it's easy, All thanks and praise to George Harrison and his partner Denis O'Brien for putting up all the money for Monty Python's Life of Brian.

RMI: Re that movie: tell whatever you can about it.

IDLE: It's quite funny. Set between 0 BC and 33 AD, it tells the classic story of the boy next door. Another little lad who is born just down the street from the famous messiah, but is in fact just a putz, and how he too ends up on a cross. Am glad to say that you can hear me singing at the end in my own song "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life," and I hope you always will. --France 1979.

Interview by David Rosenbaum for Rutlemaniacs International. Reprinted with kind permission.
David Rosenbaum can be reached through his web site at

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