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John Cleese to share 'Holy' spirit in South Florida

No film comedy of the past 50 years has left a deeper mark on popular culture than “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” the British comedy troupe’s absurdly epic spoof of Arthurian knights — and big-screen epics themselves — powered by the ridiculous clop-clop of two halves of a coconut.

Released in 1975, as the British TV series “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” was making public-television stars of Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin and American animator Terry Gilliam, “Holy Grail” was an unrelenting stream of erudite subversion and lowbrow clowning that introduced the Knights Who Say Ni, a blood-thirsty bunny, cow catapults and snooty Frenchmen anxious to “fart in your general direction.”

If there is a center holding the mirth and mayhem of “Holy Grail,” it is the quixotic wanderer Arthur, King of the Britons, played with priggish officiousness by Chapman. This portrayal is one of Cleese’s favorite things about the film, and is among many subjects likely to be discussed when he takes part in an audience discussion after “Holy Grail” screenings on Nov. 1 at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach and Nov. 3 at the Broward Center in Fort Lauderdale.

The appearances come on a popular tour, now 2 years old, that celebrates the 40th anniversary of “Holy Grail,” in August ranked at No. 15 on a list of best comedies of all time in a BBC poll of more than 250 critics around the world.

Speaking by phone from a train near London, Cleese says the audience discussions are typically freewheeling affairs that in their best moments venture far beyond Monty Python and the film. He can tell you the true airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow, but don’t feel limited to that.

“It doesn’t matter what people ask,” he says. “I am perfectly happy to provide answers, because I’m honest. I think if you’re honest about something, it’s usually interesting.”

Cleese, who turns 78 on Oct. 27, says he appreciates “Holy Grail” in different ways now, something he’d rather wait to divulge when he’s in front of his South Florida audiences. But he remains in awe of the performance by Chapman, his friend and writing partner since they met in the late 1950s at the University of Cambridge.

“It was an extraordinary performance, because he was very much in the grip of alcoholism at that time and was having a terrible battle with it,” Cleese says.

Chapman, who claimed to have been drinking more than two quarts of gin a day at one point, told interviewer Dick Cavett in 1981 that witnessing the fatal spiral of friend and drinking partner Keith Moon of the Who persuaded him to give up alcohol. Chapman died in 1989 of spine and throat cancer.

“He’d be terribly shaky, and some days he was having trouble with his lines. But he somehow managed to turn in a really good performance, as he did as Brian [in Monty Python’s 1979 satire ‘The Life of Brian’]. That was a very different performance, but he was always a very, very good actor,” Cleese says.

Versatility was critical for the members of Monty Python, whether assuming a woman’s identity or adopting accents and mannerisms to satirize class distinctions in Britain. Cleese says Chapman was probably better than the material he was working with. Among his favorite Chapman roles was the belligerent playwright who berates his son (Eric Idle) for turning his back on a rough life at a typewriter to become a coal miner: “You had to go poncing off to Barnsley, you and your coal-mining friends!” Chapman bellows.

“I remember thinking how good it was,” Cleese says. “He was tremendously funny when he was playing somebody scared or scatty, but he could also come across as very powerful.”

Cleese was studying constitutional law at Cambridge when he was introduced to Chapman, a medical student who cut quite the dashing figure on campus.

“When I met him he was archetypal,” Cleese says. “He wore tweed jackets and corduroy trousers and he smoked a pipe and he played rugby football and he was a medical student. He did a lot of climbing and he wore brogue shoes. I mean, everything about him did not shout ‘gay,’ unless, of course, he’d been a girl.”

The politics of class and repression are a rich vein of comedy gold in “Holy Grail,” but the satire plays no favorites. In one memorable scene, Arthur, confronted by a pair of skeptical peasants, justifies his position as king by invoking the legend of Excalibur and the divine providence of the Lady of the Lake. Which peasant Dennis, explaining that he lives in “an anarcho-syndicalist commune,” rejects in a series of rebuttals.

“Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony,” Dennis says. “You can't expect to wield supreme executive power just ’cause some watery tart threw a sword at you!”

Cleese says he and Chapman were a writing team, but that he took the lead on this scene.

“I was very tickled at that time about the language that was used by extreme left-wing groups, who always spent more time fighting each other than they did fighting the right-wing groups. Which is why we had all that People’s Front of Judea stuff in ‘The Life of Brian,’ ” Cleese says. “I certainly wrote it with Graham, but I think I wrote most of that because I was very interested in constitutional law. It was one of the few things in my law degree that I was very interested in. I just wish Mr. Donald Trump, or President Trump, was as interested in constitutional law as I am.”

John Cleese will take part in an audience Q and A after a screening of “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 1, at the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts, 701 Okeechobee Blvd., in West Palm Beach. Tickets start at $40. Call 561-832-7469 or go to Kravis.org. Cleese will continue the conversation following a screening at 8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 3, at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., in Fort Lauderdale. Tickets start at $50. Call 954-462-0222 or go for BrowardCenter.org.

bcrandell@sun-sentinel.com

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