Graham Chapman’s opinion

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The announcement this week that the surviving members of the Monty Python team were getting back together has caused an understandable flurry of excitement. This isn’t something I share despite having the entire run of the Python films and TV series on DVD. I usually feel the same way about band reunions: rather than revisit past glories I prefer to see people doing something new. That said, it would be nice if Eric Idle would allow a DVD release of his Rutland Weekend Television series. His low-budget Python spin-off was broadcast once in the 1970s and hasn’t been seen since, to the continual annoyance of co-star and collaborator Neil Innes.

Graham Chapman will be absent from the reunion, of course. His polemic for Channel 4’s Opinions has nothing to do with Monty Python beyond his presence but it’s something I’ve always remembered so it’s good to find it on YouTube. Opinions was a run of half-hour pieces-to-camera by a different person each week; I saw this one when it was broadcast in 1984 but don’t recall any of the others. Chapman’s contribution was memorable at the time for his talking directly and unapologetically about alternatives to heterosexual relations, and what we’d now call hetero-normativity. This would hardly raise an eyebrow today but in 1984 attitudes towards gay people in the UK were growing increasingly harsh under a right-wing government, a virulent press, and the beginning of the AIDS crisis. Chapman’s plea for universal tolerance wouldn’t have made much of an impression but it was good to hear someone talking this way, even if only for 30 minutes on the channel with the least amount of viewers. Chapman was the first person I saw talking on TV about being gay at a time (the 1970s) when few people in public life dared to admit such a thing. His cheerful example was a great riposte to an atmosphere of widespread fear and loathing. His Opinions piece is witty, silly, over-exuberant (as his acting often was), and self-reflexive in the manner the Pythons made their own. You also get to see his partner, David Sherlock, in a variety of background roles. Watch it here.

Alice in Wonderland by Jonathan Miller

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I said, “Girl, you drank a lot of Drink Me,
But you ain’t in a Wonderland
You know I might-a be there to greet you, child,
When your trippin’ ship touches sand.”

Donovan, The Trip (1966)

Most of the key texts of the psychedelic period tend to be either non-fiction—Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception, Timothy Leary’s The Psychedelic Experience—or spiritual works such as The Tibetan Book of the Dead, the volume upon which Leary’s book is based and which subsequently provided John Lennon with lines for Tomorrow Never Knows. The key fictional work of the era has to be Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, a fact that would no doubt have surprised the book’s legions of enthusiastic Victorian readers, never mind its author. Grace Slick created the definitive Alice song with White Rabbit in 1965, written while she was with the Great Society but only recorded properly in 1967 after she’d joined Jefferson Airplane. But Alice’s adventures run a rich seam of Victorian whimsy through the music of 1966 to ’69, especially among the British bands whose lyrics tend to be far more childish and frivolous than their American counterparts. Donovan probably got there first among the Brits with The Trip on his Sunshine Superman album. Among the profusion of later references can be found one-off singles such as Alice in Wonderland (1967) by the Dave Heenan Set (who recorded songs for the Barbarella soundtrack as The Glitterhouse) and Jabberwock/Which Dreamed It? (1968) by Boeing Duveen & The Beautiful Soup, a band whose songwriter is better known today as Hank Wangford.

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