In Thespian Praise of: Graham Chapman
The first is Graeme Garden, erstwhile Goodie who lived in the same village as us once. It was a bit bizzare bumping into him a few years ago at Paddington Station (myself having not, as far as I know, met him before, being very young at the time) and having a brief conversation about my Dad!
The other Graham was Graham Chapman. Deceased Python, member of the Dangerous Sports Club, qualified doctor, gay-rights campaigner, writer, one-time boozing pal of Keith Moon and Ringo Starr, recovering alcoholic, and the man who was accused by many as being a chap called Brian Cohen when he was just a very naughty boy.
So how in the midst of all this unconventionality did my parents know him! Well they knew him as a quiet lad who was two-three years above them at the King EdwardVI Grammar School in Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire. His Dad being a policeman, being a prefect (I think he was Head Boy), and the most outlandish thing being his organising the sixth form revues (which Mum says were somewhat pythonesque), and a string of female admirers, so some of the above antics that Chapman was involved with when he became famous was a bit of a shock for my parents, as you can imagine. But I think it shows how self-contradictorary Chapman could be! This is the man who would cause embarrassment amongst his friends when accepting awards by doing something silly like squaking like a parrot, and yet when it came to treating people with various illnesses or ailments, his manner was quiet and serious.
Chapman's career started to divert from comedy to medicine when he was at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, when he was accepted as a member of the Footlights revue, before writing for David Frost and being an in-house comedy writer for the BBC. He then wrote and performed in the comedy sketch series At Last the 1948 Show, before Chapman and writing collaborator, John Cleese , helped start up Monty Python's Flying Circus with four guys from the children's sketch show Do Not Adjust Your Set. A show which included an unknown comedian called David Jason.
It goes without saying that Python was a runaway success, but it is also worth noting that Chapman's contribution to the series, and especially to the films, was crucial. Aside from being the creative force behind some of the most memorable sketches (He co-wrote "The Dead Parrot sketch", and was partly responsible for the "Live Organ Transplants/Galaxy Song" sketch in The Meaning of Life), he also brought a good deal of quiet dignity to his roles. I doubt none of the other Python's could have given that sense of angst and restraint that Chapman gave to King Arthur in The Holy Grail, or Brian in Life of Brian, but Chapman managed it.
It may also be to do with the fact that, for all his outrageousness, Chapman could be a very shy person and this is what led him to alcohol dependency, from which he managed to quit and stay sober for the last decade of his life. Eventually he gave up smoking heavily as well, although it is likely that this may have caused the throat cancer which killed him.
He was also brave in standing up for equal rights, in particular the victimisation of the gay community. Chapman mentioned his homosexuality shortly after it was legalised, and was quick to use his name to help others. Like his public confession of being a recovering alcoholic, he was not frightened of hiding areas of his life where many have felt, and some still feel, highly vulnerable.
For all of this, Chapman was never really succesful as an actor or writer outside Monty Python. That said, his death has left a void within the group which has made reunions somewhat muted, and there was a quality to his work which made him a linch-pin to the team.