April, 2012. An interview with Carol Cleveland, the ‘glamour stooge’ (her phrase) from Monty Python’s Flying Circus. This piece was written to coincide with the Blu-ray release of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. A much shorter version went into Empire.
Carol Cleveland is the seventh member of the Monty Python team. It’s official: she wrestled Neil Innes for the title and won. Her career spans six decades of film, classic television, stage work and several one-woman shows, so it almost seems a shame that the occasion for this interview is the Blu-ray release of Monty Python and the Holy Grail : she’s barely in it! It’s a memorable turn though, as naughty twin sisters Zoot and Dingo, priestesses of the dreaded Castle Anthrax…
I realise you’re only in Holy Grail for five minutes…
Is it that long?
Before we get there, can you tell us a bit about your career pre-Monty Python? You were kind of collecting all the coolest TV shows…
Oh yes, all that cult stuff. I did The Saint and The Avengers, The Persuaders, Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased), Man in a Suitcase… I was in all of them! That was the beginning of my television career really, playing leading ladies in those sorts of things. I never anticipated being a comedienne. In fact, I didn’t even know I was a comedienne until recently! I had a look at my Wikipedia page not long ago, just to see what they had to say about me (most of it’s absolute rubbish) and the first thing it said was “Carol Cleveland, actress and comedienne.” I thought, “Oh, gosh, am I really?”
I always thought I’d be a big movie star, but that didn’t quite go according to plan. I saw myself as a straight actress. I went to RADA and did theatre. I never thought of myself as funny at all; it was quite a while before I even did anything funny. As I said, I played leading ladies in all those old shows. The first major thing I did was called The Sentimental Agent, and in those days one would be “introduced” in the opening credits, so it said, “And introducing Carol Cleveland!” Practically all my roles in those days were Americans. I still had a very broad American accent when I came over, so that was my in: there was a lot of work for Americans and Canadians on television in Britain.
So where did Monty Python come in?
It wasn’t until 1969 I think, that I did my very first comedy role with the BBC, and it was on Roy Hudd’s show. That then led to another BBC comedy role, and then another and another, and I found myself fast becoming what I’ve always described as a “glamour stooge”, working with people like Ronnie Barker, Charlie Drake, Spike Milligan and all the rest. That’s not exactly how I had seen myself but that’s sort of where I was at the time the Pythons came along and were looking for a female to be in four of the first five episodes. There were going to be twelve or thirteen episodes, I think, but they’d written five of them at this point, and I was cast in four.
By the time we got to the second or third episode, the guys decided that they really liked me. I fitted in very well and somehow managed to just about understand it! Certainly the first day of rehearsals I was thinking, “What am I doing here?” The rehearsal scripts didn’t include Terry Gilliam’s animations , so you had a sketch that had no beginning or no end, or neither! The sketches seemed to go nowhere, and I couldn’t understand what it was all about. There was a lot of giggling and larking about and being silly, and I do remember telling my husband after the first day that I didn’t think it was going to last any time at all. I thought it was just a load of nonsense!
Can you remember what your first sketch was?
Yes, I can. The very first sketch I was involved in, I wasn’t actually a human: I was a lamb. It was a sketch that takes place in the country, with Terry Jones and Graham Chapman, I think. Graham was this yokel, and Terry was a city gent, and they’re standing at this fence discussing these sheep that are nesting in the trees. And the sheep are trying to fly, so every now and again you hear them go, “Bahhhhh… thump! Bahhhhh… thump!” And every now and again you hear a little, “Mehhh” sort of bleating, and that’s me! That was the first sound I uttered for them: a little lamb attempting to fly from a tree.
Anyway, as I was saying, by the third episode the guys had decided that I fitted in beautifully, and I was prepared to be as silly as they wanted me to be and do whatever they asked of me. But I was only contracted for these four episodes. They’d all already apologised to me for not having more for me to do. Michael Palin had said that it was just that they didn’t write very well for women, which they didn’t. Not for young women anyway. Old women – the little pepperpots that they did themselves – they wrote beautifully, but when it came to young women, they just wrote silly pretty things.
So on my last day Michael came running up to me saying they’d written a lovely part for me in episode seven or eight or something. So I said, “I’m not in episode seven!” And Michael went away and told everyone, and they all came over and said that, as far as they were concerned, I was in the series. The guys made a deal with the director Ian McNaughton that if there was ever a female character that was anybody who was going to have a proper scene, they always wanted me.
So I was there for all the series, all the films, all the records, and nearly all the stage shows. We toured all around England and Canada, and I was at the Hollywood Bowl . The only one I missed out on was Drury Lane, because I was doing another play, but that was the only time.
At what point did the films start happening? Holy Grail was filmed between two of the series – is that right?
Yes, they were concurrent with the television series. Or at least, the first one was And Now For Something Completely Different, and that was just the sketches, done additionally for America – it was never meant to be shown here. I think Holy Grail was 1974, and I think we had the final series that we did without John [Cleese], still to do.
And you’ve just got the one scene in Holy Grail – was that still on the same location as everyone else, or was it a studio at a different time?
No, it was the same location. I think I probably enjoyed that filming a lot more than the rest of them did. I didn’t have to endure the unpleasantness that they did! They had to put up with dreadful weather conditions, constant rain and cold and misery, wearing what were apparently these very itchy suits of chain mail that were made of wool and got very wet and smelly and heavy. And then there was the problem of having two directors – Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam – who didn’t always see eye to eye. That caused a few dramas, both with the Pythons and with the crew. The day I arrived on set, there was talk of a mutiny! The crew was just getting so frustrated with these two directors. One would come on set and set up a scene, and then the other Terry would come along and change it all! Everyone was literally on the verge of downing tools – they were all pretty grumpy. But they hadn’t seen any of the rushes at this stage, so nobody knew what the film looked like.
I think it was either the first or second day I was there that we saw the rushes for the first time. Graham set the scene at the hotel, trying to cheer everybody up. He announced that drinks were on him that evening, so of course the crew immediately charged to the bar, and by the time we actually went in to watch the rushes everyone had had a few drinks and were jollier than they were when they came in anyway. And then we watched the rushes, and it just looked so good! It looked amazing, and when everybody saw it was all working and looking great, my understanding is that after that the crew all agreed to work for half the wages! They realised it was actually going to be quite good!
You’re more covered up in Holy Grail than you often are in Python…
Yes, I was fine! I was wearing a nice, warm, long white dress, and I wasn’t working outdoors so I didn’t get wet. I enjoyed doing my bit. It was good fun. Nothing to complain about at all. Just turned up, did all my lines about spanking and oral sex, and then went home!
Did you ever roll your eyes or get embarrassed at any of the things they gave you to say? Was there a line you wouldn’t cross?
Oh no, never! Actually, there’s only one thing I ever refused to do, and that goes right back to the beginning of the series, when we were doing location filming. We were filming the Scott of the Sahara sketch, where I play Vanilla Hoare, and there’s a bit where I’m being chased along a beach by a man-eating roll-top desk, and then three different cacti appear one-by-one, and each time I pass one, a bit of my clothing comes off. Finally my bra was supposed to come off, and all the time I’m running towards camera, but the beach was packed with people! So I said no, I didn’t want to be running towards the camera with bare breasts in front of a lot of tourists! So that’s the bit where you see me running away from the camera, towards the water instead. Other than that, I never refused to do anything. They never asked me to do any nudity again afterwards.
A lot of people think it’s me in the sex education scene with John Cleese as the schoolmaster in The Meaning of Life, but it isn’t. It’s Patricia Quinn, who doesn’t look anything like me!
What have you been doing recently?
I’ve done some lecture tours on cruise ships, although not as many as I’d like – it’s a free holiday! I love ship travel, so I’ve done talks on the QE2 and the SAGA Rose. I do a Python talk, and I have a solo show called Pom-Poms Up! It’s a semi-autobiographical, humorous, slightly outrageous look at the glamour business, and I present it as a glamour master-class for all. It’s got a few songs in it, and basically I’m teaching my class how to become a glamour girl, and what happens when you become an ageing glamour girl! I did that on the QE2 to a very bemused audience of very elderly ladies at teatime. It was very funny! The entertainment people on the ship weren’t quite sure where to put me: in what room or at what time of day and all that. And so they decided to do it at teatime in the Grand Lounge, and there I had all these old dears… They did seem to enjoy it though! There’s a bit in the show when I do an exercise in pom-pom dancing, and I actually had all these old dears doing it. On one occasion there were these two officers strolling past the lounge and they sort of did this triple-take, at all these little old ladies doing these silly things!
So that keeps me going. I’ve done that show several times very recently in Brighton, and I’m looking to take it on the road. It does fill the gaps, and I have to say that unfortunately there are more gaps now than there used to be!
But are you in the animated Graham Chapman biopic [the upcoming film based on Chapman’s book A Liar’s Autobiography, Volume VI]?
Oh yes, I’m included in that! I’ve done some voices for that, yes. I’m really looking forward to seeing what all these silly voices will be attached to. I didn’t see any of the rest of the Pythons, sadly, apart from Terry Gilliam. They just had me in for the day and I did my own bit. Terry popped in while I was there, but otherwise everyone was there separately. I didn’t do any characters that you’d know. They’re all out of Graham’s book, so it was various different females that he encountered. One bit I had to do was a scene at David Frost’s birthday party, which took place in Los Angeles, and I play the voice of a singing telegram, who is tap-dancing on roller-skates. I had to make all the noises in the studio as well as singing! I can’t wait to see it.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail is out now on Blu-ray, from Sony. Portrait at top of page by Amelia Shepherd; used with kind permission.