Monty Python and the Holy Grail star Carol Cleveland | BFI Q&A


– Before we talk about The Holy Grail, I wonder if you can just
share with us a little bit about getting kind of the
Python job in the first place, how that came about, and
how you first met the guys. – Ooh, well– Can you hear me all right? Yes? Good, all right. Well, I was, at the
time, doing quite a lot of work at the BBC, working with just about
every comedian there was, Roy Hudd, Ronnie Barker,
Ronnie Corbett, Spike Milligan, all of them, Charlie Drake. And I was, well, I guess, and apparently, this is
my own invention, this, I didn’t know that, but
apparently, it’s mine, I always felt that I was a
bit of just a glamour stooge because I didn’t have a great deal to do, but I was there, looking pretty, and just helping them get the laughs, but I was working with all
these comedians at the BBC. So I got a call one day to go upstairs to the person who was
producing a new series, and he called me up and said, “We are putting together a new series, “and there’s going to be 13 episodes, “but we’ve got six, and we would like you “to be in four of them, “and it’s called Monty
Python’s Flying Circus,” which didn’t mean anything
to me at all, of course. – Not to anybody, did it? – Anybody, and they said, “We want you to be in four episodes,” so I said, “Well, thank you very much,” and that’s how it started, basically because all my work with all these various
comedians at the BBC. – And how was it when you first met– I mean, ’cause obviously,
your relationship with the Pythons has
lasted such a long time, right up into the 02
shows, quite recently, and I wonder if you just
remember the first time you actually kinda met them, either kinda collectively or individually? – Well, the first time was the first day of rehearsals for the first episode. Now, I have to say,
preempt that with (laughs) I was sent a script,
’cause I was only gonna be in four of the six episodes
that they were originally doing, and so I was sent the script of, certainly, the first
episode I was going to be in, and I was reading the script, and the joke, there was no end to it. It just sort of tailed off, and I read it again, read it again, and felt, uh, I don’t get it. I don’t get it. What does it– And I read this whole
script, and I thought, well, this doesn’t seem very funny to me. What bizarre sketches they have wrote. Course, I didn’t know,
I didn’t know, did I? Until the first day of
rehearsals when I discovered that lovely Terry G., was
all gonna be filled in with this wonderful animation, but when you read the script, which had no beginning,
no end, no punchline, what the hell is this all about? And I can remember saying
to my partner at the time, I thought, well, I don’t know about this. I can’t see this is gonna work very well. It has no beginning, it
doesn’t make any sense. And I was none the wiser, actually, the first day of rehearsals when they were just playing
around a great deal. The first day of
rehearsals were just manic. They were just having a lot of fun, and I still didn’t know, I still didn’t know about
the animations, you see. I still didn’t know. I hadn’t been told. – And bearing in mind, they’d come from different sort of back– In terms of At Last the 1948 Show and Do Not Adjust Your Set, which brought out some
different groups of them, but this was the first time they’d all actually kinda worked together as one kind of group. Did they feel kind of quite cohesive? – Well, yes, they all seemed
quite relaxed together. It was just me who felt
a little bit not sure, a little bit not sure. I do remember saying to my then partner when I saw this first script, I said, “You know, I’m not sure “this is gonna last more than one episode. “Makes no sense whatsoever.” – And here we are, 50
years later, celebrating. – 50 years later, my
goodness, I was wrong. But no, the first day of rehearsals, they were all very sweet,
they were all very sweet. They were very inviting, and made me feel very much at ease, but they were mucking
about something awful on the first day of rehearsal, just having a jolly good laugh, and I do remember, it still
didn’t make any sense to me when I got home, and I said
to my partner at the time, “Well, I don’t think “this is gonna last more than one episode. “It doesn’t make any sense to me at all.” – And so, there are a lot of
female characters in Python, but a lot of them are actually played by the guys themselves. – Yes, they are, and they did
that much better than I could. I mean, let’s face it. No, I think the Pythons in drag was one of the best things that they did. You know, the Americans love that. When it was shown in America, I remember– I’m half American, by
the way, in case you– I’m hawf and half, hawf and half, or half and hawf, depending on which side of the big pond I’m on. So when I was in America,
people were saying, oh, yeah, we love Monty Python, oh, Monty Python, he is so funny. He is so funny, Monty Python. And they were talking about John. They thought John was Monty
Python, but they did think, the Americans particularly really loved it when the men were in drag because there wasn’t
much of that in America. They didn’t do men in drag. – On screen anyway. – Not on screen, no. (Justin laughs) So they loved that. – And we had Neil Innes on
stage here on Friday night, and we were talking to him about the fact that there is this kind of label that goes between a number of people, which is kind of The seventh Python, and he was saying on stage here, he said, “That is definitely Carol.” – [Carol] Did he? – Yeah, he did, he said, “The seventh Python is absolutely 100% “Carol Cleveland.”
– Aw, that’s so sweet. – Do you feel like that? The fact you’re kinda, you
are part of the Python, but you’re also the seventh Python. Is that how you feel?
– Yes, I definitely feel like that, he was right,
I am the seventh Python. (Justin laughs) No, it’s lovely, because I know this– That is so sweet, that
is lovely to hear that, because we have had this thing where he’s been called the seventh Python, I’ve been called the seventh Py– We were doing, some years back, when they were bringing out various stuff on DVD and whatever, and it was just Neil and I doing a little thing together, and somebody came on
and asked the question, which one of you is the seventh Python? And I remember then that
Neil was very sweet, and he looked at me, and I looked at him, and we both answered
together, “We both are.” And yes, he was lovely. But I’m the seventh Python. – We’re not gonna forget that. – Okay. – So, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, which, obviously, we’ve just watched, so, the character of Zoot, first of all, and bearing in mind, I mean, in terms of sort of having speaking roles, in The Holy Grail, I mean, that’s quite a good, meaty part to get actually into, isn’t it? ‘Cause a lot of the
time, there were sketches where you’re just kind of wandering on, and doing something or other, whereas, actually, you know, it was a nice role, actually, wasn’t it? You must’ve been pleased
when you received the script. – It was very nice. I enjoyed doing it. And of course, the
lovely thing about it is that, unlike all the other Pythons, now that you’ve seen the film, they suffered terribly with awful weather, and oh dear, poor them, out in the mud, and the cold, and the wet, and you know, these chain mail outfits they had to wear, when it got wet, they would get all itchy. I mean, they had a terrible time. They were all itchy, and wet,
and the mud and whatever. They were miserable, but I was fine because all my bits were
indoors, which was lovely. I didn’t get wet, I didn’t get itchy, I just had a very nice time. – And were you around on the set for other times as well, or did you just come in to do your own bit?
– Yes, well, when I arrived, as I say, you know, they only
had three and a half weeks or something to do this film.
– It was a very quick shoot. – So I arrived to do my bit on the day that it was raining, blah, blah, blah, and I looked around, everybody
looked a bit miserable. As I told you earlier, there
were a few problems on the set, and they were doing this wonderful sketch, the bit, not sketch, sorry, the bit I love where the knights
are dancing on the table, and that’s what they
were doing at the time. I thought, “Oh, I love that, I love that.” – How would they do it? Would they have the music playing through a speaker or something that they would have to act to? How would that work?
– Yes, yes. I mean, they were actually
filming that thing, so the music would go, and they’re actually doing the dance. It was lovely, and I thought, “Oh, this is gonna be such fun. “This is gonna be such fun.” But I did wonder why everybody
looked a little bit gloomy, and it was because, well, the problem was having two directors. – So Terry Jones and
Terry Gilliam both went on to direct their own films
afterwards, didn’t they? But at this point, it’s just their–
– And they did, but this was the first time either of them had every directed a full-length feature film, and they had very different views of how the film should be. Terry G. was very much concerned with the look of it, with
the look, how it looked, and Terry Jones was more
concerned with the feel of it, so there were loggerheads quite a bit, and I sensed that the day I arrived. I thought, “Well,
something’s not right here,” and in fact, I heard that the
film crew were on the verge of downing tools because they
were getting a bit frustrated because one Terry would
come along in the morning and fix up a scene, do the
lighting, get everything right, and then the other Terry would
come along later and say, “No, no, no, that’s all wrong, change it.” So the film crew were like (grumbles) What brought it all together in the end, because no one had seen the film yet, no one had seen the outtakes… Not outtakes, what am I saying? – [Justin] The rushes. – The rushes, thank you
very much for the word. (hums) One up by– – One up by two. – No one had seen the rushes, so the film crew, you
know, were just thinking, what the hell’s going on here? We’re working with amateurs. What are they doing? And the day I arrived was the same day that we were called in that evening, the hotel, to see the
rushes for the first time. So the film crew were a bit grumpy, but we all arrived, and
Graham, very good start, he just said to everybody,
“Right, drinks on me,” so that helped, the whole
film crew had a drink, and we all went in, watched
the rushes for the first time, and they looked so
wonderful, so wonderful. And so, when we came out of the rushes, the film crew felt much happier, and actually agreed to
continue working at half rate. – Do you remember how
the other Pythons felt being directed by the two Terrys? ‘Cause they were kinda quite sort of strong individuals
in their own right. Did they just kind of accept the fact that that’s where it was?
– Oh, yes, I think. Well, you know, they’d all agreed on what parts they were going to play, and who was better at doing what. I mean, everybody thought
that Graham would be better, you know, at what he was doing, and no, I think they’re all quite happy. – And Graham is incredible,
actually, in the role. I mean, it’s a really strong
acting performance as well, isn’t it?
– Yes, as King Arthur, he’s wonderful, but he was chosen to be King Arthur ’cause
he would be the best, and he did it very well. I mean, there were little problems there. Apparently, one of the
first things they did was the crossing the bridge, and there was, apparently, a few problems because it was very windy that day, and nobody, none of the Pythons, particularly wanted to cross that bridge, which, who can blame them? Particularly John, he
definitely didn’t want to cross the bridge because, I’m told that, the day
before, they’d been filming another scene with John
when he was playing the– What was it? Who was it? He was all clothed in black now. I can’t remember, he was playing this role where he had to stand right on top– Oh, something the Enchanter. – Oh, yes, yep. – Tim the Enchanter. – Tim the Enchanter. – Tim the Enchanter, and he had to stand on this very high hill with the wind apparently blowing, blowing, and he was nearly blown off this hill. He was a bit worried. So when, the next day, they said, right, you know, cross the bridge, everybody said, no, no,
no, I’m not gonna do that, and a couple of the
others were not too keen, so apparently, one of
the crew, the film crew, he was the one that kept
crossing the bridge, crossing the bridge, crossing the bridge. – And one of the scenes that has really lasted the test
of time is the Black Knight and the whole scene where, you know, the limbs being kind of hacked off and all that sort of stuff. Wonder if you could just
share a few memories around that, for example.
– Well, yeah. I mean, I wasn’t there
when they were filming it, but apparently, it is John, obviously, the first, we know, but when you see him having his first leg chopped
off, that’s not John. Obviously, it’s not,
obviously, it’s not John, but they got a local guy who had one leg, a one-legged man, so they
got this one-legged man when they chopped the leg off, right? And then, when both legs are chopped off, this poor guy, they dug a hole, so he’s in the hole, a deep
hole up to there, right? And the filming went on
for quite a long time, and eventually, this chap complained of getting pins and needles in his leg, and he couldn’t feel it anymore, and they all panicked. Well, get him out of there quick. So dig, dig, dig, get him out. They were worried they might
have to chop the other leg off. – But it would’ve been
a great special effect if they had done it there, wouldn’t it? – It would’ve been, it would’ve been. – Did you keep any kind of
like souvenirs from the set? – I did, and I think I might’ve been, you know, one of the only ones that did, because, you know, a few years back, there was talk of having an exhibition, and I was asked what I might have, and I kept the nails,
the crucifixion nails. – From Life of Brian. – From Life of Brian. I said, “I’ve got those,” and they thought, woo, wonderful. I also kept, at the same time
we were doing Life of Brian, we all went out for dinner one evening, and went to this, you know,
very simple restaurant with a paper tablecloth, and
I asked everybody to sign it, so I’ve got this wonderful
tablecloth, everybody, Terry Gilliam’s, bits
and bobs on it, whatever, and in the film The Meaning of Life, when I played the
receptionist in the hotel, welcoming everybody to heaven, I think that was my line. “Hello, welcome to heaven.” And there’s something which, you know, in films, there’s all sorts of things that the audience will never see, the film-goers will never see, little props that you’ll never see, and there was this one which
was for the people coming up to the hotel to fill out, you know? And it was lovely. It has, “Welcome to heaven,” on the top, and it says date of
birth, and place of birth, then, underneath it, date of
death, and place of death, and it’s got all this stuff on it, which nobody ever saw,
nobody ever saw except me, so I’ve got that. – And obviously, the relationship with the Pythons has
continued all the way through, ’cause obviously, they
sort of I guess disbanded after The Meaning of Life effectively, but there have been various points where they’ve kind of
re- sort of joined up to, you know, celebrate
anniversaries and so forth, but they’ve kept involving you in that. I wonder if you’d just talk a little bit about sort of how it’s
been on those occasions, coming back, and then obviously, with the 02 as well. – The 02 was wonderful. How many people here were at the 02 arena? Hands up. – [Justin] Oh, quite a few. – Ooh, yeah, it was good, wasn’t it? Yes? It was good. Yes, it was good. Well, for me, it was like, wow. Never imagined, never imagined. I mean, prior to that, well, the first time we all, the big one, how many years ago, was when we appeared at the Hollywood Bowl, and I
was pretty excited about that, especially as I’m a Californian girl, and you know, I was coming
home, which was lovely, and then the next one was
when we were, you know, the Royal Albert Hall,
and that was pretty good, but then, to hear we were going to be at the 02 arena, like, wow. It was amazing. For me, it was absolutely amazing. I don’t know, it was the pinnacle for me. It was so exciting, it was so exciting. – I know that the Python
association has been very successful for you
over a lot of years, 50 years, in fact, but as
a kind of trained actress who has, I know, obviously,
performed in lots of other roles in a sort of non-Python way, but do you ever wonder
whether that association with the Pythons actually
kind of hindered some of the roles you might’ve got? – That’s a good question, and yes, I think it has, I think it has. I’m a trained actress, I went to RADA, and I’ve always considered
myself to be an all-arounder. I’ve done a lot of stage work, a lot of, you know, straight
plays, dramas, thrillers, a lot of touring, and I’ve
always considered myself, yes, to be an all-arounder, not necessarily a comedian, and I think the Python thing
has sort of taken over, and I hate to say this,
I hate to say this, because, don’t get me wrong,
I’ve loved every single moment of my work with Python,
every single moment, it’s been such a joy,
but in a way, in a way, it has been a bit of a ball and chain because it has kept me from being taken seriously as an actress, and I think, because of Python, that’s how I’m known
now, as the Python lady. Yes, there’s things that I
might’ve been doing otherwise, but please don’t get me wrong, I’ve loved every second of it.
– At the end of the day, it’s an incredible association, and the Pythons are gonna live on, I mean, there’s gonna
be a 100th celebration, 150th celebration, you know, long after we’re all no longer here. – The Python sketches were all done in front of a live audience, yes. Yes, we had five days of rehearsal, and then we went into the studio, and we had a live audience. And we were all introduced
first, one by one. We’d come out, being introduced, and then we had a live audience, and sometimes, it went very well, sometimes, we had to redo things, but yeah, always alive audience. – In terms of the location sketches, would they play those to the live audience to get their laughter and so forth? – Um, I’m trying to think about that. No, I don’t think so. I think, when we were
doing just the sketches, yeah, it wouldn’t include that, no. – I don’t know, are we
gonna put you on the spot? – No, I don’t have a favourite Python. I can only say, when I first met them all, and I didn’t know any of them, well, at least, let’s put it this way, I didn’t think I’d met any of them all, but it turns out that I had, and I didn’t remember. It was John, who reminded
me one day during rehearsals that we had met at the Westside
Health Club in Kensington. I used to go there to work out
and thing, and so did John, and I didn’t remember that we’d met there, but he reminded me we had, so as far as I was concerned, I’d never met any of them. And so, to begin with, I think I got on, in the early days, probably, I felt a bit more relaxed with John. He was a bit flirty,
and I was a bit flirty. We’re both married, so don’t get me wrong, but we were both a bit
flirty, so that was nice. I got on very well with Terry Gilliam because we’re both American, so we had that little thing together. – During the TV series, Terry was doing those
all himself, wasn’t he? – Yes, when we were in the studio down the BBC, rehearsing downstairs, doing our sketches, Terry
G. would be upstairs in his own little room
doing all his stuff, and what would happen
is, every now and then, he’d come down and call one of us. Like, he’d come up to me and say, “Carol, are you needed for a bit?” I’d say, “No, I think I’m all right.” “Okay, come up.” So we go upstairs, and I’d be asked to do some strange voice
for some animation, which, of course, I didn’t
know what I was doing. So that’s how it worked,
that’s how it worked. – As far as I know,
that certainly continued for the first few films, I
think, wasn’t it, in terms of, he was animating those
sequences himself on his own. – On his own, oh, totally. He was upstairs all by
himself doing his thing. – Right, a big, big thank you for Celebration of Python
50 to Carol Cleveland. (audience claps) – Oh, thank you.

6 thoughts on “Monty Python and the Holy Grail star Carol Cleveland | BFI Q&A

  1. Carol was the perfect real lady for the Pythons – she was sexy but she got their humour. It must have been fantastic to work with them but I understand her being a bit miffed that she was typecast and lost out on other work. I saw her the other day in Father Dear Father, a comedy from 1969 but she had a fairly straight role – she was very good.

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