I was at a grand party a few years ago when John Cleese joined us on the dance-floor. It was a fancy-dress event, he was wearing a toga, and I instinctively expected him to begin doing thumbs-down gestures or barking orders about massacring babies. Trying not to look was like averting one's eyes from Stonehenge. The guy is a national monument.
Cleese was at the centre of the most memorable sketches of Monty Python's Flying Circus (Dead Parrot, Silly Walks). And who can forget from The Life of Brian the marvellous sequence when Reg, the self-important leader of the People's Front of Judea who reminds us of idealogues everywhere, was being driven into a corner by unhelpful answers to his rhetorical questions? "All right... all right... but apart from better sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health... what have the Romans ever done for us?" Cleese was also a creator and star of Fawlty Towers, which may well be watched long after the Pythons are forgotten.
Cleese is in the news because Monty Python is reforming after 30 years for aLondon live show. There were photographs from the news conference of wrinkly Pythons striking silly attitudes, making jibes at each other's expense and producing famous Python one-liners, as when asked questions by a Spanish journalist, Michael Palin (who has reinvented himself triumphantly as a TV traveller) said: "We didn't expect the Spanish Inquisition."
Of the original cast of six, only Graham Chapman was missing on Thursday, but he had the excuse of being dead. The lead in the two best Python films, Monty Python and the Holy Grail and The Life of Brian, he was an alcoholic who succumbed to cancer in 1989 at the age of 48, but he had achieved much as a writer, performer and campaigner for gay rights, not least by coming out on TV as early as 1967. He claimed later that a member of the audience wrote to tell the Pythons that the Bible said any man who lies with a man should be taken out and stoned and had a letter from Eric Idle(composer of Always Look on the Bright Side of Life and of Spamalot, the massively successful Holy-Grail stage show): "We've found out who it was and we've taken him out and had him killed."
Along with Cleese, 74, Palin, 70, and Idle, 70, were Terry Gilliam, 73, the anarchic animator and co-director of Brian who has had a directing career of extreme ups-and-downs, and Terry Jones, 71, fiercely left-wing political commentator and historian, documentary presenter and film director, who bragged that Ireland banned three of his films including Brian and Monty Python's Meaning of Life. There was also – as ever, mostly in the background – Carol Cleveland, 71, who was sometimes called the seventh Python, but who used to refer to herself as their "glamour stooge", since the men hogged all the female parts other than that of blonde bombshell.
So why, after years of assuring their obsessive fans they would never do another show, did they change their minds? Overwhelmingly, the motive seems to be money, a commodity acutely needed by a few of them, particularly Cleese, who was rich until his third wife took him for enormous sums in the divorce court.
Despite going on the road with the "Alimony Tour", he's still in trouble, and now he has a fourth wife (32 years his junior) to support. Jones abandoned his wife of more than 40 years for a student 41 years his junior, by whom he has a four-year-old daughter, and Gilliam's career is in a bad patch. Though Idle is rich, he loves performing, and while Palin is doing fine, he's an obliging bloke who wouldn't hold the rest back.
At base, though, is their feeling that they've lost out compared to modern comedians, who with their production companies and canny managers make fortunes from live performances, DVDs, books and spin-offs. In the past two years, Peter Kay and Michael McIntyre, who top the British comedy rich list, made profits respectively of £33m and £21m. Their US equivalents are even richer.
After a lifetime of silly feuds with each other, can the Pythons – who specialised in undergraduate humour – reinvent themselves three decades on?
Well, as their former producer, Mark Forstater – who recently successfully sued them over unpaid royalties and is owed costs of more than a million – put it: "They are all very professional and they know what they're up to ... There's obviously enough money on the table to make them try." Even the legend that is John Cleese – who once loftily said he thought the Pythons had "flogged this horse to death" – is getting to work with the resuscitator.