Neil Innes — Python and beyond
Neil Innes endured British Rail Eastern Region for some riverside repartee with Paul Coster.
Of the many artists who justify the title 'innovator', Neil Innes is perhaps the most deserved. Throughout his career, which spans more than a decade, he has consistently delighted TV audiences with a unique style and talent. So, it was with a certain unashamed excitement that I arranged a meeting. And around midday outside the National Theatre restaurant, Mr Innes duly arrived for a spot of banter.
The commonest association which springs to mind when talking about Neil Innes is with the Monty Python team. However, Neil had previously become somewhat of a celebrity as one member of the Bonzo Dog Doo Da Band on the TV show 'Do Not Adjust Your Set'. "It was while we were at art school (Neil gained a degree in Fine Arts from Goldsmith's college), the band formed as sort of an amateur jolly pasttime and then as a sort of money-spinner. We played in pubs and passed the hat round and it sort of grew and grew." The band met Humphrey Barclay, who thought they were likely characters for the show. So they joined the team of Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, David Jason and Denise Coffey.
There were 26 episodes in that series and then The Bonzo's went over to America. Unfortunately, a bad time was had by all, so the next nine months were spent tying up loose ends. For the man who wrote 'Urban Spaceman', which sold over a quarter of a million copies, an era seemed to come to an end. "The Bonzo's had finished and I'd had a little flourish with my own band which didn't really work and I'd had a little flourish with McGuinness Flint and then Eric rang me up out of the blue and said that their warm up man had got a cold and couldn't turn up and would I do a warm up for them at the Television Centre for one of the Monty Python shows. So, I said, I don't do warm ups and he said well it's twenty-five quid — so I did warm ups!"
Neil went on and did a few warm ups — perplexing everybody present — which led to the meeting with John Cleese and Graham Chapman. "They all said after the show: Well, do you fancy doing some music for the album — and I said: Yes, why not. That started the relationship — I never really joined Python, I was seconded to it."
The Python shows were not, however, the precursor to Neil's successful solo TV series. First there was Rutland Weekend Television, which spawned The Rutles — or as they became known, the pre-fab four. Neil had written a spoof of "Hard days Night" in visual terms and composed 'I Must Be In Love' to complement it. Then Eric went over to The States with the idea of promoting the 'Rutles thing'. "At that time, somebody was offering millions of dollars and a killer whale to anybody who could get the Beatles together again." Well, obviously Eric Idle's powers of persuasion were not quite sufficient to bring The Beatles back together, but The Rutles were another matter. "It got such a response — people were sending in Beatles albums with Rutles written on the top. So, somebody thought, why don't we do the whole story and the next thing is I'm being asked to write 14 or 15 Beatles parodies — it was that one thing that made me known as a parodist."
After RWT had grown, flown and expired, everything was accelerated. Neil was asked to do 13 half hours which became The Innes Book Of Records. There were three series in all, though the third did get slightly lost amongst the weird and wonderful workings of the BBC. "When it first came out, they took it off for a week for snooker — I thought that was appalling. I mean, they have treated me appallingly badly (especially, considering that the second series had been watched by about four million viewers). The third series was put back to ten past ten one week and 20 past ten another week, check with British Rail and regions to see when it's on." To be fair to the Beeb, somebody did phone Neil to apologise and promise better treatment for the repeats. However, after two years without a sign, fulfilment was no nearer and Neil's disenchantment was increased when the powers that be decided to make the repeats span a single week — is this show business?
Not surprisingly, Neil turned away from Video after the third series. "I wanted to do something else, so I wrote something with a story but still using songs. Not really a musical, but something I'd been looking for, for years — to get a song with pictures, linked to a storyline (Viva Las Bogus)." Yet again, after having commissioned the work, the BBC shelved it for a year — perhaps somebody could tell us why.
Having descended to the depths in our discourse about BBC2's scheduling system(!), I switched the subject to what equipment Neil uses, and quite a revelation it was too. No expensive Fairlights or digital machines, just a four track Teac, Roland Drum Machine, "lots of guitars", a Korg, a Juno — plus various echo and other effects. "I like the Juno because you can make a new sound for each job — it's like an adventure everytime." Even more interesting were Neil's opinions about music. "I don't think there are any laws about music... well, there shouldn't be anyway. You see I think people ought to be allowed to do different styles — I'm not saying I'm Shakespeare, but he was allowed to do comedies and tragedies. I'm sure there's other people in the business who'd love to do something else, but their managers and everyone else are saying to them — Oh no, you've got to stick to the image. I mean, does everyone have to be a MacDonalds!"
Neil's future plans include another album, not related to anything he's done so far, and two forthcoming TV events. It's anyone's guess as to when we'll see them, but no doubt they'll be worth the wait.
Interview by Paul Coster
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