Ever since their experience on And Now for Something Completely Different, the Pythons had thought about making a second film themselves. Both Terrys were interested in directing, and they wanted to have greater artistic control over the new film. A first draft script was written, and their manager at the time – John Gledhill – tried to raise the money to make it. But the industry was conservative, and the project seemed to them like turning the asylum over to the inmates. Other than the two short corporate films, neither of the two Terrys had directed anything. Tony Stratton Smith, who ran Charisma Records, the Pythons’ record label, promised that he could find the money for the new film. Unfortunately for John Gledhill, Strat failed to deliver and this failure came at a time when the Pythons were increasingly unhappy with Gledhill’s managerial efforts. According to Michael Palin’s diaries, it seemed as if John was being shown the exit.
In the summer of 1973 Terry Gilliam gave me a copy of the first draft script and asked me if I wanted to produce it. Of course I said yes, since it would be great to work with a group I admired. As the Pythons were popular, the film could happen but I felt the script did not really work. It was set both in the present day and in medieval times, and featured two parallel stories, one about King Arthur and his Knights and another, a contemporary story, about a man (an accountant?) called Arthur King. The medieval story had much more potential for laughs and for cinematic pastiche.
Terry offered the project to me on behalf of himself, Terry Jones and Michael Palin since they were close friends and allies in the group. Eric was a loner who wrote on his own, while Graham Chapman partnered with John Cleese, but the latter three were less focussed it seems on the fate of Python.
The problem was one that was familiar to producers. There was nothing in the kitty. The Pythons asked me to collaborate initially with Jill Foster who was Michael and Terry’s literary agent, to see if we could find some independent finance. We worked well together, and Palin acknowledged in his diary entry of 28 October 1973 that meetings took place, results started to happen, and the Pythons were kept informed of what we were doing. Palin notes that he respected my honesty and that I had claimed credit for bringing in both the NFFC deal as well as Michael White.
Michael and the two Terrys realised they had to let John Cleese, Graham and Eric know about my involvement. Michael Palin explained in his diary on Saturday September 22, 1973 how this came about. At the end of a Python meeting to review their new album material Terry Jones told them that I would be acting as the producer of the new film. John Cleese exploded, asking who I was and what I had done. He was not at all happy that no one he knew was being given the job, and Terry Jones had to sneak off to avoid responding in kind,
I had to go face-to-face with ‘headmaster’ Cleese to seek his approval. At the time Cleese was living with his wife Connie Booth in a modern house in Kensington’s Addison Road furnished with contemporary Scandinavian furniture. We met in his study. After an awkward start we had some drinks and chatted about the film. I explained to them that the problem with their first film was that they did not control the copyright; that is, they didn’t own the film but were working for someone else. To really have control of the second film, besides directing it, they would also have to own the copyright. The plan I put forward made that central. I would attempt to raise finance for the film on that basis. This plan, idealistic in that the people who created the film owned it, worked perfectly for them, so perfectly that they used it against me 30 years later.
Michael Palin’s diary entry of Thursday November 1 1973 shows that he was surprised at how relaxed and constructive the meeting went. I suppose he expected Cleese to give me a rough ride, but all was cordial.
At this time the Pythons decided to look again at the script. Although they vehemently deny that I ever had any ‘artistic’ involvement, I recall a script meeting where I said that King Arthur was much funnier than Arthur King. I’m sure this must have been obvious to all of them, and no doubt without my two cents the script would have gone the way it did, but I did express an opinion and it was listened to.
While the script was being re-written, Jill and I were chasing the money. Almost all industry people were sceptical about the Pythons directing, but I went to see Sir John Terry at the National Film Finance Corporation, a government backed film fund (which no longer exists). Sir John thought the project of interest, was not afraid of the two Terrys directing, and asked me to send him the new script. After reading it, he expressed interest in funding 50% of the film, if I could find the other half.
Michael White was a theatre producer who had worked with Eric Idle and John Cleese. I went to his office in Duke St. in St. James to see him and his associate John Goldstone. Michael liked the Pythons and thought the idea amusing. Depending on the script and budget he might be able to raise 50% of the finance if I could find the other 50%.
It was then that John Gledhill, their manager, did a bizarre and foolhardy thing. On the same day that I had received Headmaster’s Cleese’s blessing, that night the Pythons were at a party to launch their latest book, the Brand New Bok. As Palin explains in his diary, Gledhill told them all that there was now a deal offered between the NFFC and Michael White to fund the film. He had a Heads of Agreement that he wanted them to sign, which they all did. Palin thought the document was to get hold of £ 6000 of development money to write the script.
Without telling me, John Gledhill had gone ahead and tried to conclude a deal with Michael White and John Goldstone to produce the film with their company. That deal depended on bringing in 50% of the budget from the NFFC. Since I had introduced the NFFC into the project, and had led the discussions with Michael White and John Goldstone, I did not appreciate these attempts. It was also not very clever to get the Pythons to sign an agreement at a drinks party. Palin’s diary records the aftermath on the following Monday November 5, 1973. The Pythons, myself and John Gledhill met at Cleese’s house, where the atmosphere resembled a morgue. Gledhill was clearly uncomfortable. We went to Tethers Restaurant for lunch and to talk over the document that the Pythons had signed. Terry Jones asked me to discuss the clauses, and as I did so, the Pythons understood that they were once again being asked to assign their copyright in the film to the investors, which would have lost them the key issues of control and copyright. At the end they asked me to draft a new agreement to present to John Goldstone.