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Talking about corrupting the young, let's talk about Do Not Adjust Your Set. Was that where you first met Eric Idle and some of the Pythons? Or did you know them already?
"No, that's exactly how we met. Humphrey Barclay had been tasked with making a children's program. He came from Cambridge so he knew Eric [Idle], and he's also seen the work of Michael [Palin] and Terry Jones. They were already in children's television writing stuff, and he liked them so he got those three together. He found David Jason, so he was quite a talent spotter. We circled each other a little in suspicion, but in the end we made 26 programs which are still legendary in many ways.
"And they were the test run if you like for Python. In the second series, Terry Gilliam joined us, so if there was ever a demo of what Python was going to become... They knew they didn't have to end a sketch in the normal way, they could suddenly go into animation and then, now for something completely different! And that's refreshing. That's all the Bonzos ever wanted to do, to say that there's another way! It doesn't have to be corny and the same old all the time. Python was in a similar mode. And Eric is on record as saying that the Bonzos taught them anarchy!"
"Did you know that in Japan there's a magazine called Strange Days? All it's about is The Beatles, The Bonzos, Python and The Rutles. God knows what they find to write about, but they've found a connection there, and there is a connection. George [Harrison] is on record as saying that what should have happened is that The Beatles should have got together with The Bonzos and the Pythons and The Rutles and had a good time."
The sense of humour and the anarchy in the way that you approached your creativity is certainly the link there. As you moved forward and worked with Python, especially with your songwriting, how did you retain that sense of freedom?
"When they were thinking about making a record, I was first choice because we knew each other well. I hadn't met John [Cleese], so I met John and Graham [Chapman] after one of their shows. We went for a meal, and they said they were making a record and would I help them out with the music? I said 'what sort of songs have you written?' and Eric said 'well, Michael's written a thing about agrarian reform in the middle ages.' Oh, alright, ok! Get in there before Motown!
"And John Cleese, who wants to know what's what, said 'what sort of music for that then, Neil?' I said I don't know, what about reggae”? It was exactly like going into the Bonzos again. It was lucky. You can't plan these things. The Bonzos had wonderful chemistry, Python had wonderful chemistry. It was irresistible. We did records, then we did tours, and it was such great fun."
Some of your stuff with Python is just great – the Hollywood Bowl for example. What are your memories of performing there?
"I have wonderful memories of it. The first thing was that I didn't have my duck for my head for How Sweet To Be An Idiot. Air Canada lost it. You can't write this stuff! I bought it in Woolworths, and we were on the phone to the head of Woolworths in New York to find this duck. They were called Quacksies, and when you took the wheels off they made a hat. It was just ridiculous. Somebody got to hear about this, and there was a cartoonist from Pittsburgh called Wayne Olaf, I'll never forget. He'd got one, he'd made his own, and he sent me his. I've still got it. So Hollywood Bowl, didn't have my duck.
Neil Innes performs How Sweet To Be An Idiot, sans Duck.
"But what was the naughty thing, I did the Protest Song, which you never saw. Every night in the stadium the whole audience was lit up as I was doing it. All four nights, the bastards were using my song to do cutaways of the audience laughing! That was the sort of stuff that went on."
You also appeared in Monty Python And The Holy Grail, what was it like to shoot that?
"It's a wonderful film. A lot of the songs of mine are still in there, the little medieval things. Terry Gilliam and I used to share dressing rooms, because we were from the art world as opposed to the word world. Cleese used to say Terry was subhuman because he was American and couldn't talk properly. 'What do you mean, a whole bunch of water?'
"I felt that the basic insecurity of these literary people meant that every time anything heavy was lobbed out of a castle, it landed on me. The cow, the wooden rabbit. When I was up on the battlements and keys turns round to tell me to get the cow, he says to me 'fetchez la vache.' I was just supposed to get up and go, so I said 'Quoi?' So I built the part! And all the better for it – 'fetchez'? Ha! It was a blast.
"The tragic thing was I wrote really good tunes for King Arthur, for two french horns and about eight violins, because that's all we could afford. The budget was £3000 for the music for the movie. It was heroic, but it sounded really weedy on such a small line up. In the end Terry rang me up and said that with the coconuts and everything else, they couldn't have weedy music.
"They tried this library music with 140 people banging and scraping any old thing, and it really works because it's a big noise. It's a counterpoint to people with coconuts. And he was absolutely right. I didn't mind, but I was a little bit sad my tunes didn't make it because of money."
Neil sings one of the more memorable songs from Monty Python And The Holy Grail.
But you're all over the film anyway.
"Terry Gilliam is such a great film maker. Filth, smoke, everything. When Michael had his 60th birthday, Terry Jones said this wonderful thing. He said 'he's such a nice chap, but he has lost his temper on two occasions. One was in Paris when we were promoting the Holy Grail. We were walking round and Terry kept saying that there might be a better restaurant elsewhere, and after two hours Michael said 'for God's sake this is Paris, they're all good!' And the other time was in Holy Grail.
"They all mucked in and did every job, and Michael was playing a peasant with a basket on his bottom. He was going around eating mud, and they'd put all this chocolate down for him. They kept doing it again and again, and there was all this smoke, and finally the dirt got mixed with the chocolate. There's a lovely photograph of him somewhere with his face covered in chocolate. He was there at the rushes, and they showed him the shot, and you couldn't see his face or him eating the chocolate, and he lost it. Understandably!"