Well, as with all reversals in life, the great personality switch of 1982 seems to have reversed itself back again, although permanent gains seem to have been made by Eric Idle.
John Cleese is back to his old, demanding, ways, arguing for greater artistic merit in the writing of “The Meaning of Life”, and Eric Idle, while struggling very hard to maintain quality on “Live at the Hollywood Bowl”, seems more concerned that “The Meaning of Life” is dominated by his version of songs, rather than by Terry Jones’s, and TJ’s version of “Every Sperm is Sacred” is only saved by the miraculous and unexpected support of his arch-enemy, Cleese.
The politics in the group are as strong as ever. The Oxford vs. Cambridge competition on the script is intense, and egos are large as hot air balloons, and, sadly, filled with Hydrogen — a room full of Hindenburgs about to flame up at any second.
And then, suddenly, the script is done and the horses are off!
The race to shoot “The Meaning of Life” has begun, and the final cut on “The Missionary” is not even out of the door. Our hero, Michael Palin, has a couple of disastrous showings of “The Missionary” in America. Test audiences came expecting “Porky’s”, not a sensitive, if humorous, portrait of turn-of-the-century Englishman. Soon the film distributor, Columbia, is back pedaling, trying to get out of the contract. When they can’t do that, they start reducing the number of prints from 1000 to 800 to 600 to, at last, “three to four hundred”.
I wondered why I had never heard of “The Missionary”, and now I know.
The shooting of “The Meaning of Life” is full of classic THE SHOW MUST GO ON moments. Cleese is so sick from food poising (due to a batch of bad crayfish the night before) during the Zulu attack scene that he is constantly farting and burping and, at one point, vomits for a long period of time right up against the battlements. Also, when the black actors hired in Glasgow find out they are portraying Zulus, and wearing loin-cloths and not suits. no amount of argument about a historical setting can convince them that this is not racist. There is a full walk-out.
This, I fear, was a mistake — I think the scene would have been wonderful with three hundred Zulus in war paint and pinstriped suits, a wonderful callback to the accountant/pirate segment at the beginning. It would have even been better if the British army were in pith helmets and loincloths, a clever send-up of their supposed “civilization”.
Anyway, the 100 black Glaswegians are replaced with 100 white Glaswegians in blackface makeup the next day, which is probably the biggest racefail in Python history, but, it being 1982, this only increased the notoriety of the film.