Cult Movie: Celebrating the life and work of 'seventh Python' Neil Innes
WHEN Neil Innes died suddenly at the age of 75 this week many, myself included, were taken by surprise.
The much loved musician, actor and songwriter's hit-making glory days with the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band may have been many decades in the past, much like his status as the unofficial 'seventh Python' who added musical magic to that comedy troupe's movies and live performances, but Neil's creative candle still seemed to be burning very nicely as the last decade lurched to a conclusion.
In my most magnificently meta moment of 2019, I'd seen him perform with The Rutles, that merry band of Beatlesque bods who'd been paying homage to the music of the Fab 4 in their own melodious way since the mid 70s, at The Cavern in Liverpool back in June, and I had been fortunate enough to sit down with the great man around the same time for a career-spanning chat.
In person, Neil was affable, entertaining and self-deprecating to a fault, looking back on his big successes – from picking up an Ivor Novello award for I'm The Urban Spaceman and working with The Beatles on their Magical Mystery Tour extravaganza, to those hugely significant Monty Python contributions, including providing the whistling refrain to Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life – and significant set-backs, like getting sued successfully by the Fab 4's publishers for the entire Rutles back catalogue and falling out spectacularly with his old Python pal Eric Idle over songwriting royalties for the Spamalot musical, with equal wit and candour.
He admitted himself that perhaps he just wasn't cut out for the nastier side of the music business and that his "elbows just weren't sharp enough" to muscle his way up to the top table of TV and film comedy, but his passion for his art remained undimmed.
His cult CV speaks for itself. He both penned the songs for and took the starring role of Ron Nasty in The Rutles, which made the transition from small screen spoof on Eric Idle's Rutle Weekend Television series to the full TV movie All You Need Is Cash in 1978. Idle may hoover up much of the credit for that still pretty much note-perfect mockumentary, but without Neil's pristine songs like I Must Be In Love and Cheese And Onions it simply wouldn't cut the cultural custard.
His songs on Monty Python's The Holy Grail (1975) are the best thing about it. He later gifted us the theme tunes and performed in fondly remembered kids TV like The Raggy Dolls and Puddle Lane, while his sublime series The Innes Book Of Records, that ran on BBC 2 from 1979 to 1981, was crammed with beautifully crafted little stories and heartfelt songs.
He doubtless had a whole lot more to give us but sadly, it wasn't to be. Neil Innes may not have had the sharpest of elbows, but he certainly had the fullest of hearts.
:: You can hear Ralph's interview with Neil Innes on BBC Radio Ulster on Wednesday January 29 at 9.30pm