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Books: Python star's childhood in a grim Midland.


ERIC Idle found fame and fortune as one of Monty Python's Flying Circus but he still has nightmares about being back in... Wolverhampton.

Or, more precisely, at the grim boarding school that he knew as the 'Ophney.'

It was, he says 'a physically abusive, bullying, harsh environment for a kid to grow up in.'

Idle's father had survived the Second World War as a rear gunner in the RAF only to die in a car crash just months after hostilities ended.

'I suppose it was difficult for my mother to cope with a growing son and a full-time job,' he says. 'So at the age of seven she put me into a boarding school in Wolverhampton. 'It used to be called the Royal Orphanage but it dropped the orphan bit just before I got there. However we still called it the 'Ophney',' he adds.

They also referred to it as Colditz and he says 'it was a very grim Midlands orphanage. I was cold until I was nineteen.'

On the other hand, he admits: 'I got used to dealing with groups of boys and getting on with life in unpleasant circumstances and being smart and funny and subversive at the expense of authority.

'All perfect training for Python.'

All of this is revealed in The Pythons Autobiography of the Pythons (Orion, pounds 30) in which the five surviving members of the team tell their own story.

Idle insists that two things made life worth living when he was enduring the school. One was listening to Elvis Presley and Little Richard on Radio Luxembourg under the bedcovers.

The other was watching the Wolves in their heyday.

The school sportsmaster had connections with the club and could get tickets for the Molineux, so Idle saw the very first European games against Honved and Barcelona, Moscow Dynamo and Red Star Belgrade.

'Here suddenly were these strange foreigners coming over playing our game, wearing tiny, shiny little shorts and super-cool shirts while the Wolves still wore baggy shorts and long sleeves and they looked really untrendy,' he recalls.

But Wolves were also England's finest, the league leaders and cup winners in the Stan Cullis-Billy Wright era.

Idle paints his self-portrait as a schoolboy rebel, albeit one who ended up as head boy and went on to Cambridge. Though he insists that the only reason he worked hard was because there was nothing else to do.

Here there are tales of sneaking out to meet the girls in the middle of the night and stealing exam papers.

Not liking sports he would skive off every Thursday afternoon, simply putting on his school cap and marching out the front door to head for the local cinema.

'I learnt very early on that if you are brazen nobody challenges you,' he says.

When he was eventually caught watching Butterfield 8 starring Elizabeth Taylor, it was the fact that it was an X-rated movie that got him into trouble.

Denounced in front of the whole school and stripped of his prefectship, he became an instant hero.

As a dedicated rebel he preferred to go off on the CND Aldermaston March rather than be senior boy in the school cadet force.

By then he had already been smitten by showbusiness after seeing the famous revue Beyond the Fringe.

Idle, along with the late Graham Chapman, who was the son of a Leicester policeman, were the Midlands contribution to the Python phenomenon that burst on to television in 1969.

A long with John Cleese, Michael Palin, Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam, they have been credited with re-writing the comedy handbook and are seminal figures in the '60s generation.

In this 'autobiography' to celebrate the upcoming 35th anniversary of the show they have got together with journalist Bob McCabe to tell the whole story - or as 'whole' as you can ever hope to expect from such a crazy bunch.

It includes extracts from Palin's diaries, Gilliam's artwork and many photographs from their own collections.

They also give an insight into how they worked as a collaborative and sometimes combative team to produce a surreal, mad, insanely funny, often vulgar, macabre, grotesque and frequently silly brand of comedy the like of which had not been seen before.

To this day there are people who can recite the whole of the Dead Parrot sketch, sing the Lumberjack Song and imitate the Ministry of Silly Walks.

The fan club spread worldwide with the Python movies, of which the controversial Life of Brian turns out to be their favourite.

Devotees will want to examine every line of this book - and also read between them - in a bid to understand what makes the Pythons tick.

The problem is that you can never be quite sure whether they're pulling your leg or telling the truth about themselves.


BOARDING SCHOOL... Eric Idle as a youngster (far right) and (above) after his boarding school days in Wolverhampton and the beginning of the Monty Python legend
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Sunday Mercury (Birmingham, England)
Date:Sep 28, 2003
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