Remembering Neil Innes – Python, Rutle and songwriter – with words from the man himself

Featuring archive material and previously unpublished extracts from our interview with him last summer, Radio Times pays tribute to a humble man, a respected musician and a comedy giant

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The entertainment world seemed to stop just after Christmas when it was announced that Neil Innes had died at the age of 75.

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For comedy and music aficionados, this was and is a huge loss. Innes was a member of the surrealist ensemble the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band (and wrote their top-five hit, I’m the Urban Spaceman) as well as Monty Python and the spoof group the Rutles. A sage wit and a gifted musician, he contributed sketches and songs to Python projects and released many memorable albums of his own.

Sir Michael Palin tells Radio Times, “Some called him the seventh Python but I prefer to think of him as the first Neil Innes. He could turn his hand to anything. Songwriting, painting, acting design, bons mots – the folk singer who introduces himself with the line: ‘I’ve suffered for my art, now it’s your turn.’

“It all seemed to come naturally and effortlessly to him. Neil had an original mind, and a subversive one, too. Roger McGough described him as ‘the quiet revolutionary’. This made him a perfect fit for Python. He stepped in to help us many times and we loved having him around when filming or on tour, as he was the best company you could wish for during the long hours of doing nothing. Or showbiz as it’s called.”

A spokesperson for the family – his wife Yvonne and their sons Miles, Luke and Barney – described him as “a beautiful kind, gentle soul whose music and songs touched the heart of everyone”.

Among the fans to pay their respects on Twitter were Danny Baker, Mark Gatiss, the Cavern Club and Diane Morgan.

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I had the good fortune to interview Innes when Monty Python was celebrating its 50th anniversary in summer 2019, when I also asked him about his pre- and post-Python career.

Am I right in thinking your links with Python go back to the late-60s ITV series Do Not Adjust Your Set?
Yes indeed, the Bonzos, Eric Idle, Michael Palin and Terry Jones, Denise Coffey and David Jason were thrown together by [comedy executive] Humphrey Barclay – we were all aged about 12!

So Monty Python’s Flying Circus began in October 1969. Were you a fan of the show in those early days?
Flying Circus came a little later in the scheme of things – the Bonzos went to America in 1969, so I didn’t see much of the first series, but I loved the ones I saw!

Who first contacted you to come into the Python fold?
Eric rang and asked me to come up to TV Centre – their Warm-Up Man was ill. I said, “I don’t do warm-ups.” He said, “It pays £25 quid.” I said “Done!”

And what did you write for that final season of Flying Circus in 1974? 
I wrote “The Most Awful Family in Britain” with Graham Chapman, and an “An Appeal on the Behalf of the Very Rich” on my own. Graham performed it beautifully, I thought…

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A script meeting for the final series of Monty Python’s Flying Circus in 1974: from left, producer Ian McNaughton, Michael Palin, Terry Jones, producer’s assistant Margaret Stott, Graham Chapman and Neil Innes. “Top beret modelling,” said Innes on being shown RT’s archive pictures in 2019

In 1975 you hooked up with Eric Idle on Rutland Weekend Television, which ran for two series. What were your highlights from working on that?
Being dressed as an American sailor – along with choreographer Gillian Gregory, similarly garbed – and being abandoned by the film crew somewhere in Brighton. We had no money, nothing in our pockets, and thanks to a very friendly pub nearby, we had a couple of drinks and waited for the production team to find us!

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Rutland Weekend Television, a sketch show coming from “Britain’s smallest television network”, was written by Eric Idle, and featured songs by Innes. Its launch made the cover of Radio Times, with Idle telling us, “Neil Innes is superb. I must be his biggest fan.”

Innes’s musical gifts had first come to public attention in the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band (the avant-garde outfit that guested on the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour film and ITV’s Do Not Adjust Your Set), but also in the last series of Flying Circus and the big-screen outing Monty Python and the Holy Grail. However, Rutland Weekend Television showed what a brilliant knack for pastiche Innes had, in songs such as this gentle but brilliantly written Elton John send-up.

Innes’s association with Idle in RWT yielded a music video for Rutland’s answer to the Beatles. One thing led to another and it was soon a feature-length mockumentary called The Rutles (in the States, where it was funded, the film was entitled All You Need Is Cash). It was a career highlight for both of them, and is loved by fans to this day.

In September, during a season at the BFI Southbank celebrating all things Python, Innes agreed to a Q&A for a screening of The Rutles, where he recalled his initial sketch for Rutland Weekend Television, and his conversation with Idle… “I said, ‘I’ve got a great cheap idea for doing a spoof of A Hard Day’s Night, because it’s a black and white, speeded-up film, Benny Hill-type thing, with four guys in tight trousers and wigs… it’s got to be cheap!’ So Eric said, ‘That’s good, because I’ve got this idea for a documentary-maker who’s so dull, the camera runs away from him.’ So that’s how The Rutles started up.”

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The Rutles, which first aired on Easter Monday 1978, starred Neil Innes as Ron Nasty, Eric Idle as Dirk McQuickly, Ricky Fataar as Stig O’Hara and John Halsey as Barry Wom

You must be very proud to have been involved?
The Rutles was a wonderful project. Everyone knew what to do. It was probably the most fun thing I’ve ever been involved with.

By 1979, Innes was flying solo, and was granted three series of his song-and-comedy series for the BBC, The Innes Book of Records. “It’s songs and pictures about people and things,” the typically modest Innes explained to RT at the time. “For the sake of change it is worth trying. Any new programme is a risk, and it would be a lot easier to stick to a format-type show.”

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Two of the characters seen in The Innes Book of Records. The duck hat, and Innes’s song associated with it, How Sweet to Be an Idiot, were a popular feature of the Python stage shows.

Helping to publicise the modest star of The Innes Book of Records in 1979, Michael Palin told RT about the times they appeared together on tour with Monty Python: “Neil’s songs are the only things that go down unequivocally well wherever we play. He’s very versatile…. No, I’ll tell you the truth. He has a shameless love of dressing up, that’s what he loves … the panstick, the lights, all that!”

And what about the plastic duck that Innes wore on his head on stage ? “I saw the duck in Woolworth’s,” he told RT in 1979. “I thought, if I cut the wheels off it would make a hat. Later, when we took Monty Python to New York there were two people waiting for me at the stage door who were wearing them!”

Is there any possibility of The Innes Book of Records ever getting a DVD/streaming release?
The BBC agreed to let us put out a DVD – on the proviso we got clearance from Equity and the Musicians Union. This has proved impossible because of prohibitive costs. Sad really…

Looking back on your Python days, is there any one moment that makes you laugh every time you recall it?
The day the script for Holy Grail came through the letter box. I lay down on the sofa to read it. When I got to the Black Knight duel, I suddenly realised I was rolling around the floor and slapping it with laughter. No other script has had this effect.

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We’ll leave the final words on Innes and his remarkable legacy to Sir Michael Palin: “Neil and the Pythons had some very good times together.  We shall miss him hugely. His work, though, lives on. Seek it out wherever you can.”