Graham Chapman PDF Print E-mail
Wednesday, 26 November 2008 20:54

[ image: Python founder Graham Chapman died in 1989]Graham Arthur Chapman

Born: 8 January 1941 Leicester, Leicestershire, England

Died: 4 October 1989 Maidstone, Kent, England

Age: 48

Cause of death: Rare spinal cancer.

Notable because: Medical doctor whose passion for comedic acting led him to be the first person on British TV to say 'shit' and the first person at whose funeral John Cleese could claim to be the first at a memorial to say 'fuck. A 6'2" tall gay alcoholic with a passion for rugby. One of the first celebritys to 'come out'.


Graham Chapman was an English comedian, actor, writer, physician and one of the six members of the Monty Python comedy troupe. He was also the lead actor in their two narrative films, playing King Arthur in Monty Python and the Holy Grail and the title character in Monty Python's Life of Brian. He co-authored and starred in the film Yellowbeard.

Chapman was educated at Melton Mowbray Grammar School and studied medicine at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where he began writing comedy sketches with John Cleese, who was also a Cambridge student. Chapman qualified as a medical doctor at the Barts Hospital Medical College, but never practised medicine professionally.

While at Cambridge, Chapman joined Footlights. His fellow members included Cleese, Tim Brooke-Taylor, Bill Oddie, Tony Hendra, David Hatch, Jonathan Lynn, Humphrey Barclay, and Jo Kendall. Their revue A Clump of Plinths was so successful at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival that they renamed it Cambridge Circus, and took the revue to the West End in London and later New Zealand and Broadway in September 1964. The revue appeared in October 1964 on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Cleese and Chapman wrote professionally for the BBC during the 1960s, primarily for David Frost, but also for Marty Feldman. Chapman also contributed sketches to the BBC radio series I'm Sorry, I'll Read That Again and television programmes such as The Illustrated Weekly Hudd (starring Roy Hudd), Cilla Black, This is Petula Clark, and This is Tom Jones. Chapman, Cleese, and Tim Brooke-Taylor then joined Feldman in the television comedy series At Last the 1948 Show. Chapman, and on occasion Cleese, also wrote for the long-running television comedy series Doctor in the House. Chapman also co-wrote several episodes with Bernard McKenna and David Sherlock.

Graham Chapman as The Colonel in Monty Python's Flying Circus

In 1969 Chapman and Cleese joined Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Eric Idle and American artist Terry Gilliam for the BBC television comedy series Monty Python's Flying Circus. Cleese and Chapman's classic Python sketches include "Raymond Luxury Yacht", and "Dead Parrot". These were largely straight roles, but in the Flying Circus, he had tended to specialise in characters closer to his own personality: outwardly calm, authoritative figures barely concealing a manic unpredictability.

In David Morgan's 1999 book Monty Python Speaks, Cleese asserted that Chapman - although officially his co-writer for many of their sketches - contributed comparatively little in the way of direct writing. Rather, the Pythons have said that his biggest contribution in the writing room was an uncanny intuition as to what was funny. Although often small, his contributions were frequently the spice that gave the sketch its flavour. In the classic "Dead Parrot Sketch", written mostly by Cleese, the frustrated customer was initially trying to return a faulty toaster to a shop. Chapman would ask "How can we make this madder?", and then came up with the idea that returning a dead parrot to a pet shop might make a more interesting subject than a toaster.

In the late 1970s, Chapman moved to Los Angeles, where he guest-starred on many US television shows, including The Hollywood Squares, Still Crazy Like a Fox, and the NBC sketch series The Big Show. Upon returning to England he became involved with the Dangerous Sports Club (an extreme sports club which introduced bungee jumping to a wide audience). He began a lengthy series of US college tours in the 1980s, where he would tell the audience anecdotes on Monty Python, the Dangerous Sports Club, Keith Moon, and other subjects. His memoir, A Liar's Autobiography, was published in 1980 and, unusually for an autobiography, had five authors: Chapman, his partner David Sherlock, Alex Martin, David Yallop and Douglas Adams, who in 1977 was virtually unknown as a recent graduate fresh from Cambridge. Together they wrote a pilot for a TV series, Out of the Trees; it was aired in 1975, but never became a series. They also wrote a show for Ringo Starr, which was never made. Adams was mentored by Chapman, but they later had a falling out and did not speak for several years. It took years of planning and rewriting before the funds to create Yellowbeard were secured, the movie finally being released in 1983.

Chapman's last project was to have been a TV series called Jake's Journey. Although the pilot episode was made, there were difficulties selling the project. Following Chapman's death, there was no interest. Chapman was also to have played a guest role as a television presenter in the Red Dwarf episode "Timeslides", but died before filming was to have started.

In the years since Chapman's death, despite the existence of the "Graham Chapman Archive", only a few of his projects have actually been released. One such that has, is a play entitled O Happy Day, brought to life in 2000 by Dad's Garage Theatre Company in Atlanta, Georgia. Michael Palin and John Cleese assisted the theatre company in adapting the play. He also appeared in the Iron Maiden video, Can I Play with Madness.

In many ways, Chapman was the epitome of public-school respectability, a tall (6'2"), craggy pipe-smoker who enjoyed mountaineering and playing rugby. At the same time, he was proudly gay and highly eccentric (Douglas Adams recalled in an interview that Chapman had told Adams he had once tired of slow service in his local pub, and had taken to slapping his penis against the bar to attract the attention of the bar staff).

Chapman was an alcoholic from his time in medical school. His drinking affected his performance on the TV recording set as well as on the set of Holy Grail, where he suffered from withdrawal symptoms including delirium tremens. He finally stopped drinking on Boxing Day 1977, having just irritated the other Pythons with an outspoken (and drunken) interview with the New Musical Express.

Chapman kept his homosexuality a secret until the mid 1970s when he famously came out on a chat show hosted by British jazz musician George Melly, becoming one of the first celebrities to do so. Several days later, he came out to a group of friends at a party held at his home in Belsize Park where he officially introduced them to his partner, David Sherlock, whom he had met in Ibiza in 1966. Chapman later told a story in his college tour that when he made his homosexuality public, a member of the television audience wrote to the Pythons to complain that she had heard a member of the team was gay, adding that the Bible said any man that lies with a man should be taken out and stoned. With fellow Pythons already aware of his sexual orientation, Eric Idle replied, "We've found out who it was and we've had him shot."

Chapman was a vocal spokesman for gay rights, and in 1972 he lent his support to the fledgling newspaper Gay News, which publicly acknowledged his financial and editorial support by listing him as one of its "special friends".

Among Chapman's closest friends were Keith Moon of The Who, singer Harry Nilsson, and Beatle Ringo Starr.

During his 'drinking days', Chapman jokingly referred to himself as the British actress Betty Marsden, possibly because of Marsden's oft-quoted desire to die with a glass of gin in her hand.

In 1971, Chapman and Sherlock adopted John Tomiczek as their son. Chapman met Tomicczek when the teenager was a runaway from Liverpool. After discussions with Tomiczek's father, it was agreed that Chapman would become Tomiczek's legal guardian. John later became Chapman's business manager. He died in 1992.

Chapman died of a rare spinal cancer. It was diagnosed in November 1988 after Chapman's dentist found a growth on his tonsils. By September 1989 the cancer was declared incurable. He filmed scenes for the 20th anniversary of Monty Python that month, but was taken ill again on 1 October. Present when he died in a Maidstone Hospice on the evening of 4 October 1989 were John Cleese, Michael Palin, David Sherlock, his brother John, and John's wife, although Cleese had to be led out of the room to deal with his grief.[2] Terry Jones and Peter Cook had visited earlier that day. Chapman's death occurred one day before the 20th anniversary of the first broadcast of Flying Circus; Terry Jones called it “the worst case of party-pooping in all history."

A memorial service was held for Graham Chapman on the evening of 6 December in the Great Hall at St Bartholomew's Hospital. Cleese delivered the eulogy:

Graham Chapman, co-author of the Parrot Sketch, is no more. He has ceased to be. Bereft of life, he rests in peace. He's kicked the bucket, hopped the twig, bit the dust, snuffed it, breathed his last, and gone to meet the great Head of Light Entertainment in the sky. And I guess that we're all thinking how sad it is that a man of such talent, of such capability for kindness, of such unusual intelligence, should now so suddenly be spirited away at the age of only forty-eight, before he'd achieved many of the things of which he was capable, and before he'd had enough fun. Well, I feel that I should say: nonsense. Good riddance to him, the freeloading bastard, I hope he fries. And the reason I feel I should say this is he would never forgive me if I didn't, if I threw -- threw away this glorious opportunity to shock you all on his behalf. Anything for him but mindless good taste. I could hear him whispering in my ear last night as I was writing this. "All right, Cleese," he was saying, "you're very proud of being the very first person ever to say 'shit' on British television; if this service is really for me, just for starters, I want you to become the first person ever, at a British memorial service, to say 'fuck'".

Michael Palin also spoke and said that he liked to think that Chapman was there with them all that day -- "or rather, he will be in about twenty-five minutes," a joke in reference to Chapman's habitual lateness when they were all working together.

Afterward, Cleese, Gilliam, Jones, and Palin along with Chapman's other friends were led by Idle in a rendition of "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" from the film Monty Python's Life of Brian (not to be outdone by Cleese, Idle was heard to say during the song's close, "I'd like to be the last person here to say "'fuck'").

On 31 December 1999 Chapman's ashes were rumoured to have been "blasted into the skies in a rocket", though actually, Sherlock scattered Chapman's ashes on Snowdon, North Wales on 18 June 2005.

The remaining Python members have acknowledged that Chapman was difficult to work with. After his death, speculation of a Python revival inevitably faded, with Idle saying, "we would only do a reunion if Chapman came back from the dead. So we're negotiating with his agent". Subsequent gatherings of the Pythons have actually been accompanied by an urn, said to contain Chapman's ashes. At the 1998 Aspen Comedy Arts festival, the urn was 'accidentally' knocked over by Terry Gilliam, spilling the 'ashes' on-stage. The cremains were then removed with a dust-buster.

Asteroid 9617 Grahamchapman, named in Chapman's honour, is the first in a series of six asteroids carrying the names of members of the Monty Python comedy troupe.

In 1997, David Sherlock allowed Jim Yoakum to start the Graham Chapman Archives. Later that year, the novel Graham Crackers: Fuzzy Memories, Silly Bits, and Outright Lies was released. It is a semi-sequel to A Liar's Autobiography, with Chapman works compiled by Yoakum. A collection of unpublished material has been released in 1999, Ojril: The Completely Incomplete Graham Chapman, containing scripts Graham wrote with Douglas Adams and others, such as "Our show for Ringo Starr, a.k.a. Goodnight Vienna". And in 2005 Calcium Made Interesting: Sketches, Letters, Essays & Gondolas was published. At one time, the script for "Out of the trees", written by Chapman and Adams in 1975 (and later extensively rewritten by Chapman with Bernard McKenna), was online, but Jim Yoakum had it removed, to the disappointment of the fans of Monty Python and also of co-writer Douglas Adams, who had made no objections to it being there. The debate that followed did nothing to promote the legacy of Graham Chapman, and cast some doubt about the erratic way in which Jim Yoakum, who had only known Graham Chapman superficially, was handling his literary estate. Jim did however start his own website, called the Graham Chapman Archives, demanding people to turn in any rare recordings featuring Graham Chapman they might have, but the site never offered any real biographical information or other materials, and it has since disappeared from the web.

Graham Chapman's college tours in the 1980s had been recorded and these were released over the years by Yoakum. The CD A Liar Live was delayed several times, but was released as A Six Pack of Lies in 1997. Other, almost identical, college tours also came out on CD, such as Spot the Loony in 2001. A DVD of the tours (Looks Like a Brown Trouser Job) was released in 2005. The single episodes for "Out of the trees", which was wiped but later recovered on an early home video system, and "Jake's Journey" still remain to be released.

In 2004 there was talk of a movie about the life of Graham Chapman, to be called "Gin and Tonic", by Hippofilms in cooperation with Jim Yoakum. Auditions were held in march 2004 in California, but since then the project died silently, it isn't clear when exactly it has been officially abandoned. Its website is no longer online and the IMDB page has been deleted; the website for the Graham Chapman Archive has disappeared as well.


Last Updated on Tuesday, 02 December 2008 16:19

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