Comedian Marcus Brigstocke and impressionist Jon Culshaw chat to Dan Frost about their starring roles in a new West End production of Monty Python-inspired musical Spamalot
“I count myself a massive Python fan, and that means I can say this confidently and be understood: a huge amount of Monty Python’s sketch show was utterly s**t – not funny, not clever, just s**t.”
Believe it or not, Marcus Brigstocke is trying to promote the new West End production of Spamalot – the theatrical musical comedy by Python member Eric Idle and John Du Prez.
“Lovingly ripped off” from classic Python film The Holy Grail, and including many of the funniest moments from the troupe’s other work, the production features celebrated stand-up Brigstocke in the leading role of King Arthur. And, though it might not sound like it, he is building up to pay the 70s comedy rule-breakers a substantial compliment.
“The reason so much of their work was s**t is because they were pushing themselves and trying to work outside the parameters of what there was before, so some of that stuff had to fail – it was inevitable. But, in order to reach sublime moments like the fish-slapping dance, the dead parrot sketch, the ‘I’ve come here for an argument’, you have to try things and some of them won’t work.
“But we’re really lucky, in that what we’ve been handed with Spamalot all works perfectly – it’s all the best bits.”
Indeed, the Tony Award-winning show is something of a Python greatest hits compilation. It uses the framework of the King Arthur legend that the Holy Grail mocked to such hilarious effect, but also weaves in classic segments from The Life Of Brian (including Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life) and some of the most memorable moments from their sketch show, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, plus a few new songs, jokes and general silliness.
Crucially, however, it isn’t quite the same show that previously played in the West End. According to Brigstocke, the initial Spamalot was “written for Broadway”, and had much higher production values that didn’t necessarily suit the material.
“This one is more of a review show – stripped down to what Monty Python does best and truer to the spirit of The Holy Grail,” he says. “And, point for point, I think this one is much funnier.”
Dead Ringers star Jon Culshaw will take over the lead role from Brigstocke next month, and is similarly ringing in his endorsement: “I have always loved the Python films and sketches, and Spamalot brings them together in a really nice way. It’s like an all-year-round panto.”
Culshaw is new to Spamalot. But Brigstocke spent seven months in the role when the show toured the UK in 2010 – a stretch that he extended from his originally-contracted three months because he enjoyed it so much.
“It’s an absolute joy to perform,” he says. “We actually have to be careful not to ruin it with too much exuberance, because it’s just so much fun.”
And even next to his much-loved stints on radio and TV, including The Now Show and Have I Got News For You, Brigstocke cites Spamalot as “the most fun I have had since I started working”.
“In terms of individual experience, there have been bigger individual highlights,” he says. “But as an overall piece of work, Spamalot has been the best.”
That, however, doesn’t extend to dealing with the Python purists.
“A huge number of people come to the show and then say, ‘I will be honest, I’ve never liked Python, but that was hilarious’,” he says. “The ones that are hardest to convince are the die-hard Python fans, because they can’t get over the fact that I’m not Graham Chapman, or that Kit Orton isn’t John Cleese. And we change it a bit, which they often don’t like.”
So presumably they wouldn’t take kindly to his earlier assessment of the Flying Circus?
“Absolutely not,” he laughs. “But I promise you, parts of this are actually funnier than the film. But you can’t win an argument with extremists, and I actually think anti-terror legislation should cover Python extremists.”
Spamalot, until September 9, Harold Pinter Theatre, spamalotontour.co.uk
Marcus Brigstocke will play Arthur until August 1 and then from September 4-9. Jon Culshaw will play Arthur from August 2 – September 2.