A Liar's Autobiography: The Untrue Story of Monty Python's Graham Chapman


Written by Alison Potter
21 Monday 21st January 2013

Three years before he died in 1989, Chapman wrote his memoirs with a little help from his partner David Sherlock, Douglas Adams of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy fame, David Yallop and Alex Martin. For some reason or another, he recorded himself reading them and it’s this which provides the audio backbone of the film, with the other voices provided by his Python cohorts – John Cleese, Terry Jones, Michael Palin and Terry Gilliam who play themselves and other characters. There are a few other voice contributors, notably Python regular Carol Cleveland, Tom Hollander and Stephen Fry. There’s also a bizarre cameo from Cameron Diaz as Sigmund Freud, but frankly the less said about that the better.

Co-directors Bill Jones (Terry’s son) and Ben Timlett recount every noteworthy milestone in an irreverent series of anarchic sketches, from the moment of Chapman’s birth to John Cleese’s infamous eulogy at his funeral. The film encompasses his childhood as a bookish, precocious kid, to his time at Cambridge where he met Cleese and became an open homosexual and closet alcoholic. The hedonistic Python highs are tempered by the later lows as his career stalled and his alcoholism got out of hand. The bone-dry mock seriousness that made Monty Python such an iconoclastic force in comedy permeates every part of the narrative in A Liar’s Autobiography.

As Chapman’s biography is so factually incorrect, it seems only fitting that the filmmakers have chosen to use animation, as it gives them much more creative license to faithfully render this unorthodox retelling of his life. It might be considered greedy to have more than one – indeed there are actually 14 independent studios involved using 17 different animation techniques – but it’s appropriate that the life of this mental individual is presented in such a frenetic fashion. In terms of the styles presented, it’s less of the Terry Gillam stop-motion animation in favour of cartoon styles reminiscent of Charlie Brown, Ren and Stimpy, Daria and many, many others.

Chapman wrote his life story purely for entertainment purposes and the interweaving of fantasy and reality means that the viewer never really knows where they stand. But then it is a life story recounted by a self-proclaimed “liar”.  There have been criticisms levelled at the film’s jumpy narrative and rapid change of animation style. The episodic structure and Chapman’s wry detachment means that there’s little explanation, social context or depth in terms of events in his life – such as his homosexuality – but that isn’t the point of the film. A Liar’s Autobiography isn’t a self-reflective Hollywood memoir; it’s a fast-paced, wildly tongue-in-cheek, beyond-the-grave bioportrait.

Although the people behind A Liar’s Autobiography are keen to stress that “this is not a Monty Python film, it’s a Graham Chapman film”, the label is ultimately problematic. Unlike all of the other members of the iconic comedy collective, Chapman's success outside of the franchise was pretty minimal, especially as he died less than six years after they made The Meaning Of Life. As one of the comedy troupe’s main writers, everything about the film oozes with the Python sensibility and humour.

Certainly there are frustrating elements of A Liar’s Autobiography, but much to love for long-time aficionados of both Chapman and Python. The animations are outstanding and a lot of time and energy went into faithfully presenting Graham Chapman's story as he wanted it portrayed. Like Chapman himself, A Liar's Autobiography is flawed, enigmatic, but ultimately entertaining. It’s a fitting swansong for one of the most pioneering forces in comedy from the last century. And most importantly, it’s completely in bad taste.

A Liar's Autobiography: The Untrue Story of Monty Python's Graham Chapman is out 8 February

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