Eric Idle has written a Christmas musical for BBC2 – but, as you might imagine, the Monty Pythonman’s contribution is not typical of the genre. Sure, there are dancing girls in waist-coats and white gloves. Yes, there are singalong songs and high kicks. And – it is Christmas after all – even Morecambe and Wise get a look-in.
But this is a high-kicking extravaganza like no other. For a start, the main star is (an initially bamboozled) Brian Cox. And he’s supported – rather against his will, as it happens – by Albert Einstein on a bike and some familiar faces attempting to answer life’s biggest mysteries, such as: is it possible to have sex in space?
Welcome to The Entire Universe– the story of our universe, all 100 trillion years of it from start to finish – told in 60 minutes. Who said the licence fee wasn’t value for money?
“The fact is that in an hour you learn everything about the entire universe,” says Idle. “But in a musical. With singing and dancing and funny people.” Including Idle himself, of course.
Noel Fielding, Hannah Waddingham and Warwick Davis in The Entire Universe
It’d be pointless to describe The Entire Universe in any more detail, save to say that if you enjoyed Spamalot, the hit stage musical Idle created a decade ago, you’ll probably enjoy this. Indeed, Idle and his Spamalotco-writer, John Du Prez, originally wrote this new show as a theatre production – until the BBC stepped in and offered to make it for TV.
The most surprising thing? That there’s quite a lot of science in the show. That’s largely because Idle and Cox are friends in real life.
The pair met after Cox went to see Idle in a show about four years ago. “He just popped up and immediately we started talking about the universe. We became friends from there. We’d get several bottles of Ruinart [champagne], go and eat some Chinese food and solve the universe.”
Idle says it’s a subject he’s always been fascinated by. “We don’t really know much about it. We don’t know how or why the universe came into existence, but we know when – and that all the energy everywhere, and everything that exists, was packed into this tiny, dense pinprick of time and moment.”
Is there, I ask, a God who made this all happen?
Idle is emphatic. “No, don’t be stupid. That’s insane. You don’t have to invent anything new to explain what you’re understanding.”
He quotes Pierre-Simon Laplace, the 18th-century French physicist, “who was once asked by the king: ‘Where is God in all this?’ and he replied: ‘Sire, I have no need of that concept.’ You don’t need to have an inventor to have things evolve. Evolution doesn’t need an inventor.”
In any case, Idle says, Richard Dawkins correctly pointed out that if you needed a grand designer to design the universe, wouldn’t you also – by the same logic – need a designer to design that very designer? And so on, for ever…
“The thing I love about science is everything is testable. What we’re saying in the show has been measured, tested and backed up by thousands of scientists – and, thanks to things like the Hubble telescope, our knowledge of the universe has increased so much, since even the 1990s. There’s no need to go into fiction.”
The Hubble Space Telescope was launched into low Earth orbit in 1990, and remains in operation
So why do so many people think God answers their questions about the universe?
“Because they need a father. They’re insecure and they want somebody to look after them.” He says that religion “is more human than it is divine. I think man created God in his own image.”
That said, Idle – who shies away from the term “atheist” (“I don’t like that word, it implies that there’s a God not to believe in”) – isn’t on a mission to persuade people out of their faith. “I think people can absolutely believe what the hell they want. It’s like believing in Tottenham Hotspur if you want to. Go ahead.”
God or no God, Idle knows as much as anybody that we’re not all dealt the same set of cards in life. As he lives out a sunny life in Los Angeles, his old friend and Monty Python colleague Terry Jones faces a gloomy future back home in the UK.
Jones let it be known earlier this year that he is suffering from a rare form of dementia, one that begins by attacking the patient’s ability to use language and gets progressively worse.
Terry Gilliam, Michael Palin, John Cleese, Eric Idle, John Oliver, and Terry Jones pose for a photo backstage at the Monty Python And The Holy Grail special screening in 2015
“It’s very sad. It’s been coming on for about five or six years and we’ve all known about it. And it gets worse. I was only happy that we managed to do the Monty Pythonshows at the O2 [in 2014] while we could still get him through it.”
Even then, Jones knew he was unwell, and struggled to remember his lines. Idle reveals that, behind the scenes, the other Pythons let Jones know they were there to support him.
“We said, ‘Look, Terry, don’t worry, we’re going to get you through this. We’re all in this together. You’re not to blame.’ It’s like people who have bipolar disorder or something, it’s not their fault. These are genes and things that have got into our systems and we are now at the mercy of them.”
Has he seen Jones recently? Michael Palin, who lives in London, sees Jones most often – “They go over to the pub,” says Idle – but he saw him a few months ago at one of the Python team’s regular business meetings.
“You know, you can sit and have a drink with him, a bottle of wine. And we went to New York I think last year and he was on stage there, but he was having trouble stringing sentences together and it was becoming noticeable – so I’m glad they came out with it and acknowledged his illness in public.”
How are his friend’s spirits?
“It doesn’t seem to me that he’s unhappy. I think it’s harder for people around them than for the person themselves.
“But he hasn’t forgotten who he is, yet. It hasn’t got to that point. Terry’s still here. He’s not gone.”
The Entire Universe is on BBC2 at 9.30pm