Terry Gilliam: And Now for Something Completely Different

terry-gilliamIf there’s one thing that Monty Python’s Flying Circus has taught us, it’s that nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.

And when you’re reading a memoir, you don’t expect it to be festooned with the deliciously bizarre artwork that was the hallmark of the comedy troupe’s legendary run, either. Unless, of course, that memoir is written by the group’s illustrator, animator and highly influential (if not frequently seen) member, Terry Gilliam.

Gilliamesque coverThat memoir is Gilliamesque: A Pre-Posthumous Memoir (Harper Design; October 20, 2015), and it’s filled not only with the comedy legend’s life story, but with a collection of his distinctive artwork, some of which has never before been seen. The book traces the life and career of the celebrated screenwriter, director, artist and actor, the only member of the Python troupe not born in Great Britain (he became a naturalized British citizen in 1968 and formally renounced his American citizenship in 2006).

Gilliam was born in Minnesota and raised in Los Angeles, but moved to the U.K. after graduating from college, having become politically disillusioned with the United States during the social upheaval of the 1960s. In England, Gilliam started his career as an animator and strip cartoonist and met future Python partners Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin while working on the children’s TV series Do Not Adjust Your Set. In his memoir, he recalls that his early dealings with his future partners didn’t exactly go swimmingly.

“Eric [Idle] is the one of us who has always been the most drawn to the new and the exotic and the flamboyant, so he was my buddy right from the off,” Gilliam writes, “but Terry Jones and Michael Palin—those two little Oxfordians in the corner with their nasty rodent faces—took more convincing. Now, 45 years later, Mike, Terry J. and I all live within five minutes of each other, so I must have made some progress in the intervening decades, and to be fair, it was Terry J. who established the initial template for my contribution to the group that eventually became Monty Python.”

In addition to providing the show’s signature animation, Gilliam occasionally was seen on-screen. He played bit parts including Cardinal Fang of the Spanish Inquisition and Patsy, King Arthur’s coconut-wielding servant in the classic Monty Python and the Holy Grail, a film he co-directed with Jones. Fans of the film will enjoy Gilliam’s behind-the-scenes tales of the movie’s production, such as when they had to launch the body of a dead sheep over a castle wall—or the trouble they had finding castles in the first place.

 

“The most urgent problem we had to face came when we discovered that the castles we’d chosen with such care—most of which were owned by the National Trust—wouldn’t allow filming,” he writes. “We finally found a privately owned alternative—the one that’s out in the water at the end of the film—and on the day we were supposed to be shooting, a guy with the key (who was the son of the owner) had to fly up from London to let us in.”

He also lets the reader in on the reasons behind some of the movie’s wackier moments. Remember when the knights arrive at Camelot, and Patsy spoils the moment by grumbling “It’s only a model”? Again, castle problems.

“We only ended up doing that ridiculous thing with the cut-out because we got banished from the real castle, so come on, let’s comment on it and admit it’s only a model,” he writes, “There’s no point in pretending this is anything other than what it is. The same thing happened with the Black Beast, when the animator suffers a fatal heart attack—I just didn’t know how the hell else to get out of that situation in narrative terms, other than to break the whole thing apart and step outside it.”

Over the years, Gilliam (who turns 75 in November) has directed 12 feature films, including such cult classics as Time Bandits (1981), Brazil (1985), The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), Twelve Monkeys (1995), Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009). But through this colorful, eye-popping tour through the mind of one of the most imaginative artists of his time, Gilliam makes clear to the reader how he sees himself.

Gilliam confession

“You see, that Gilliam doesn’t want the responsibility of having to please all of the people all of the time,” he writes. “He’s delighted when a film or show does well critically and financially, but he doesn’t want that to be the measure of success. It’s the object, it’s the thing he made, that counts, not the applause. The applause fades away, he will be gone, but the thing he made will remain.”

 

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Michael Ruscoe is a writer, teacher, and musician living in Southern Connecticut. He is the author of the novel, “From the Stray Cat Files: You’ll Do Anything,” the anthology, “Baseball: A Treasury of Art and Literature,” and numerous educational texts. An instructor at Southern Connecticut State University, Ruscoe is also lead singer and songwriter for the indie band Save the Androids! In his spare time he earns karma for his next life by ardently following the New York Mets. The proud father of two children, Ruscoe also cares for and supports a pair of goldfish, who, in all honesty, are not very good conversationalists.