Posts tagged ‘Michael Palin’

Michael White and The Holy Grail

I’ve just been watching The Last Impresario on Imagine (BBC1), a film about Michael White, the theatre and film producer. Michael was the exec producer of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and he invested 50% of the budget. I liked Michael very much, and we worked well together. We eventually went on to do other things. such as a production of Woody Allen’s The Bluebird Of Unhappiness. He was incredibly helpful on the Holy Grail, because when we had a terrible preview of the film, Michael didn’t panic but helped to put up the additional money to redo the soundtrack. He was cool in the face of seeming disaster. Here is how I describe it in The 7Th Python:

The Disastrous First Screening

It was one of those evenings when Python flopped. – Terry Jones

Back in London, we worked hard to produce a cut of the film that we could show to the other Pythons and the investors.

The preview took place on October 1 1974 at the Hanover Grand Preview Theatre in central London. We had invited about 200 people, including most of the investors. This screening was one of the worst film experiences of my life.

Every screening has a certain mood that you can feel in the theatre, and the mood at the end of that screening was certainly pretty grim. People weren’t responding, they weren’t laughing the way they should have been. There was laughter at individual scenes, but no sustained build-up. The main problem was that the sound effects were too prominent. Because the comedy is quite slight, the jokes need to have a context in which they work, and if you overwhelm them with sound, they will just get drowned, which I think is what happened.

This was the first time that either of the two Terrys had ever done this kind of film sound mixing, so it’s very easy to try something which doesn’t work, and at that point it can all be thrown away, can all be redone. But someone who doesn’t know the technical side, might think looking at it, “God, this is it, and we’ve got to live with what we’re currently seeing,” which of course is not the case. A certain amount of inexperience may have led people to think it was a disaster which couldn’t be repaired.

Afterwards, there was a feeling of “This is a mess, what have we let ourselves in for?” I think there were people who probably felt the film was a lost cause. And it’s
very easy, when you’re in a position like this, to panic.

Eric Idle walked out halfway through the film; everyone else stayed to the bitter end. There was polite applause at the end. (Michael) White and (John ) Goldstone (executive producers) didn’t speak to the Pythons.

Here is how everyone remembered the event, in David Morgan’s book, Monty Python Speaks:

TERRY JONES: Terry G. had done the dub, and you know what it’s like when you’re making a film: you’ve got two or three sound editors working away for months and months building up wonderful, incredibly thick soundtracks. It started off everybody laughing at the beginning and then after a while just nothing; the whole film went through [with]
no laughter at all. And it was awful, I was sitting there saying, “It
just can’t be unfunny.”

JOHN GOLDSTONE: We’d already spent all the money by then and couldn’t quite go back to them and say, “Can you put up some more because we’d like to refinish it?” So we had to go to a bank and borrow money against personal guarantees to make up the difference.

TERRY JONES: So we went and redubbed it and as soon as anybody started talking I just took all the sound effects out, all the atmosphere, everything. I went through the entire film doing that, and that seemed to help, it was something about the soundtrack filling in all the pauses.

TERRY JONES: Neil Innes’ music sounded quaint, it didn’t have an epic
feel to it. And we’d run out of money by that time, so I went along
to De Wolfe Music Library in London and just took out piles and
piles of disks and just sat here at home trying out music to it, trying
to get something to work. So it felt like what you needed was really corny, heroic music.

NEIL INNES: The Arthurian themes were too thin with the instruments we had available- two French horns, two violins. Terry rang to say we can’t use the music because it’s just not strong enough. The 12 piece orchestra couldn’t cope with the 120 piece orchestral sound that the film required. Artistically it was a better solution to go to a library to get epic music. We would never have had the money to record that size score. I wasn’t that disappointed. I understood it. If it was my film I would have made the same choice.

We had some very heavy meetings over the next few days, a post mortem to see if we could bring this dead film back to life. Michael White was very supportive; he didn’t panic and I was glad that I had kept him involved in the production. In the end we remixed the film, bringing down the level of the sound effects to let the dialogue punch through, and added the mock heroic library music score. We knew there was a good film buried there, and if we went back and remixed it, we’d have a funny film. The next screening was very positive. Now we knew the film was very good, it was very funny, it was working well. I think everyone was very happy with it. So it was really night and day.

If the Pythons had not owned the film, the director (or directors) would probably have been replaced at that point, or at least told to stay out of the cutting room. But the structure I set up meant that even through a disaster, the two directors had the time (and we had to find the extra money) to let them correct their initial work.

Everyone benefited from the great success of the film, and thirty years is plenty of time for memories to blister and fade so that some of the Pythons seem to have had a bout of amnesia concerning who raised the money – and much else. The two Terrys, Graham and Michael all knew what my role had been, but Cleese and Idle had no involvement with the setting up of the film, so had no idea as to what I had done for them. This became a real problem when their management changed, and (their former manager) Anne Henshaw was no longer there to keep alive that memory.

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December 2, 2015 at 12:23 pm Leave a comment

Michael Palin and the Pythons Defer to Their Lawyers

In my post on Why I Wrote The 7th Python (Part 2) I commented: “But I could also see a disturbing pattern in the behaviour of the Pythons during this 7 year struggle. During this entire period, not one Python rang or emailed me wanting to discuss the problem. I was forced to deal only with their lawyers and managers. And when I did reach out to Michael Palin and Terry Jones by letter, it didn’t make any difference.” A friend of mine said that she was surprised that I expected to hear from them. She thought I was being naive and said that I should have realised that once there was a dispute and lawyers got involved, their advice to the Pythons would be – ‘Don’t communicate with him, leave it to us.’ This is probably the case, since this relieved the Pythons of any need for dealing with me or the dispute. This removed their responsibility to do anything about the problem – after all, they could just leave it to their lawyers.

Of course I wasn’t happy with this situation, since I had no way of knowing what their manager and lawyer were saying to them. Were they being informed about the case? So I decided to write to Michael Palin to make certain that he at least understood my position. I had hoped that he would be an honest broker and try to see why I was so certain that my position was correct (as it had been for 30 years). But Michael only passed my letter to their manager or merely asked him what was happening, only to be told that their lawyer was looking into the claim. Eventually Michael wrote to me that their lawyer had decided that my claim was not valid. I was disturbed by this. How could their lawyer make a unilateral decision like this, after I had been collecting these royalties since 1976. I felt let down, but decided that I had to continue to assert my rights.

I wrote again to Michael asking him to consult Anne Henshaw who had been their manager when I did my deal on Monty Python and the Holy Grail in 1974. I specifically said that she knew what the original deal had been, and I requested that he ask her frankly to confirm the true situation. I didn’t hear back from him but assumed that he at least would make the effort to ask her. I knew that she was still involved with Michael on his broadcasting ventures and she had been his manager for a number of years after she ceased being the Pythons’ manager. I was very surprised to discover (at the trial) that he never bothered to ask her. This was his testimony in court:

Tom Weisselberg (my barrister): Did you discuss your evidence with Mrs. Henshaw?
Palin: No.
Weisselberg: You have never discussed the issues relating to this case with Mrs. Henshaw?
Palin: No.
Weisselberg: Why not, Mr. Palin?
Palin: There was no reason to.
Weisselberg: So even though Mr. Forstater says that there was an agreement between you and other of the Pythons in relation to his share of the top half, that Anne Henshaw was at a meeting with you, you have never discussed his claim with Mrs. Henshaw at all?
Palin: I cannot remember that meeting, if that meeting ever took place, whether we discussed it.
Weisselberg: My question was you have never discussed it with Mrs. Henshaw at all?
Palin: Not to my recollection.

Later Weisselberg returned to Anne Henshaw’s role:

Weisselberg: You are still a director of two companies with Mrs. Henshaw. When did you last see her?
Palin: I should think probably a year ago.
Weisselberg: You said that you have not talked about Mr. Forstater’s claim to her at all. Is that right?
Palin: I have avoided talking to her about it because I felt it was a Python matter and not something I personally wanted to get into.
Weisselberg: So you did not ask her to give evidence in these proceedings?
Palin: I might have asked her if she had any views on what was going on. That was all. That may have been a long time ago, but I always insisted that if she had anything she wanted to say she should go through the normal process and talk to our solicitor. I recollect that only came up once.

In the end, Anne Henshaw (now Anne James) did not appear as a witness for the Pythons. This is what Justice Norris had to say about it:

“I turn to consider what (if anything) should be made of the absence of Anne Henshaw at the trial of the action. She herself fell out with the Pythons as a group in an acrimonious split in 1997. But she remained a friend of Michael Palin and of Terry Jones, and a Director of two of Mr Palin’s companies. No real account was given as to why PMP did not call her to give evidence, given her continued friendship with Michael Palin and Terry Jones.

That she may have relevant evidence to give was apparent from the original pleaded case, but a challenge to call her had been squarely put in correspondence by Mr Forstater himself, and I must examine the consequences of PMP choosing to duck that challenge.”

One point that he then made was that “The failure to call her also means that there is no evidence-based challenge to Mr Forstater’s assertion that he was told by Anne Henshaw that his request for a one seventh share of the Top Half had been approved by the Pythons; and that also strengthens his case.”

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November 25, 2015 at 8:21 am Leave a comment

Why I Wrote the 7th Python – Part 2

Reading my journals from 2005-2013 also reminded me of the impact that these 7 years had on my health, my finances, and on my relationships. Going to court is never a cheap option, and the fact that I had to pursue this claim for so long meant that my finances not only were stretched, but finally gave out. These financial worries in turn affected my health, and I had some stress related symptoms that were difficult to control. My stomach kind of rebelled, and my blood pressure and cholesterol levels both increased. I really didn’t need this kind of change in my health at this late stage of life. I’m sure the Pythons never thought about what I had to endure. I am a follower of the Tao, and I have been meditating for about 20 years, so when this struggle was at its worst, I had some tools of self-cultivation to use in order to stay sane and balanced under duress. The journals capture these times.

The legal battle was a bit lop-sided. After all, there were 5 of them (plus Graham’s estate) against me, and their money, fame and influence far outweighed my limited resources. I was suing them for £ 300,000, which is a significant amount of money, but given there were six of them this worked out to only £ 50k each. Given that the money I was owed was revenue from Spamalot, it was not even coming out of their pockets, but was derived from the box office. In this sense, the amount of money (for them) was insignificant. Why did they persist in pursuing it? I still don’t know.

But I knew that I had to pursue this case, partly for financial reasons, and partly for personal ones. I believe in standing up for myself, and not letting others cheat me. This was a wrong done to me, and I just couldn’t let it go. This attitude was instilled into me by my mother. For this reason I have dedicated the book to her for the lessons she taught me.

I thought my saga could be of interest to other people so I decided to write it up. Interestingly, I found that all of the puzzling unanswered questions that had disturbed me at the beginning of the dispute remained to the end. I wanted to share these questions with other people, since I think they offer revealing insights into contemporary celebrity. But I could also see a disturbing pattern in the behaviour of the Pythons during this 7 year struggle. During this entire period, not one Python rang or emailed me wanting to discuss the problem. I was forced to deal only with their lawyers and managers. And when I did reach out to Michael Palin and Terry Jones by letter, it didn’t make any difference.

The only way I could manage to get this kind of overview of the 7 year long ‘little life’ was by working my way through the legal events from start to finish, while charting my own reactions to them. This is what the book does. Along the way it reveals a lot about the Law, about celebrity culture, about Taoism, and about my character and that of the Pythons. As I thought about this legal/personal story, I realised that I would need to fill in quite a few areas that form the context of my time with the Pythons. One was the making of the film in 1973-5 and another was how I got to be the producer of the film. Lastly I realised that some people who bought the book might not know about the Pythons’ history, so I had to tell their own stories as well as the state of British comedy on film and TV in the early 70s. So the book is a mixture of many elements, which I think hold together and illuminate a specific area of contemporary culture.

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November 16, 2015 at 10:48 am Leave a comment


The Blog That Fell From The Sky

Reflections on an age of anxiety.

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