12 July, 2008
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.
Graham 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, 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.
Chapman and Cleese 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.
1969 Chapman and Cleese joined Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Eric Idle and American artist Terry Gilliam for 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 often 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.
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.
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 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, and included in the letter 25 sheets of prayers that might perhaps still save him if he repented and said these prayers every day for the rest of his life. With fellow Pythons already aware of his sexual orientation, Eric Idle replied, "We've found out who it was and we've had him killed."
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.
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 October 1, 1989. Present when he died in a Maidstone Hospice on the evening of October 4, 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. 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 December 6, 1989 in the Great Hall at St Bartholomew's Hospital. Cleese delivered the eulogy; after his initial remarks, which parodied the "Dead Parrot" sketch, he said of his former colleague: “…good riddance to him, the freeloading bastard, I hope he fries!”, and then pointed out that Chapman would have been disappointed if Cleese passed on the opportunity to scandalize the audience. He explained that Chapman would have been offended had Cleese, the first person to say "shit" on British television, not used Chapman's own funeral as an opportunity to also become the first person at a British memorial service to use the word "fuck". Afterward, Cleese joined Gilliam, Jones, and Palin along with Chapman's other friends as Idle led them 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'".