- Gillian Evans
Chapman, Graham (1941–1989), comedian and writer, was born on 8 January 1941 at the Stoneygate Nursing Home, Stoneygate, Leicester, the second son of Walter Chapman, policeman, and his wife, Edith Towers. He was educated at several Leicestershire schools, including Melton Mowbray grammar school, at which he appeared in various dramatic productions. He was also an avid fan of radio comedy from an early age, becoming especially drawn to that of the revolutionary Goon Show. In 1959 he entered Emmanuel College, Cambridge, to study medicine. An initial attempt to join the renowned Cambridge Footlights Dramatic Club was turned down by the then club secretary, David Frost, but, having gained recognition at a private ‘smoker’ concert, Chapman was elected to the Footlights committee in the following year, and there met his long-term writing partner, John Cleese.
Following in the footsteps of his elder brother, John, in 1962 Chapman began the clinical years of his medical training at St Bartholomew's Hospital, London. He was, however, soon performing with the Footlights once again, when he was invited to join the group's revue of 1963 when it transferred to London as Cambridge Circus. Chapman subsequently took a year out of medicine to tour New Zealand and America with the show and, although he completed his studies upon his return to England, he was by this time increasingly attracted to a career in scriptwriting and performing. Initially working alongside John Cleese again, he featured as both writer and performer on the long-running BBC radio show I'm Sorry I'll Read That Again. This was swiftly followed by a move into television when he joined Cleese and, among others, Marty Feldman and Barry Cryer, on the team of David Frost's widely acclaimed The Frost Report. He subsequently worked on the show's successor At Last the 1948 Show, which afforded him more creative freedom and prominence as an actor.
In 1969 came perhaps the most crucial event of Chapman's early career when, at the suggestion of the BBC producer Barry Took, he and Cleese joined forces with Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Eric Idle, and Terry Gilliam to work on a new television project. The outcome was Monty Python's Flying Circus, one of the most groundbreaking shows in the history of British television comedy. The Monty Python team generated a peculiarly British fusion of the absurd with the satirical, the surreal with the sometimes downright schoolboyish. Between 1969 and 1982 Python produced some forty-five television shows (running from 1969 to 1974) and five films, as well as numerous stage shows, books, and records.
Chapman's contribution to them all was indispensable and charismatic. Six foot four inches in height, and with striking patrician features and a penchant for pipe-smoking, he excelled at playing aristocrats and authority figures; but these characteristics were combined with an air of unpredictability and awkwardness which made him an adaptable and sensitive actor, and enhanced the roles he played, perhaps the most notable being King Arthur in the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) and the Christ figure, Brian, in The Life of Brian (1979).
Like his co-stars Chapman remained busy with other creative commitments and in 1978 made a solo cinematic attempt in the form of The Odd Job. Although not a conspicuous success, the film marked an inclination towards a solo career and, having completed The Life of Brian in 1979, Chapman spent some months in Los Angeles, during which he appeared on several popular US television shows. In 1980 he published an account of his life entitled A Liar's Autobiography, Volume VI. It was, as one might expect, a comically unorthodox example of the genre, full of extravagant untruths, quips, and flights of fancy, and was presented by Chapman as a collaborative effort involving numerous friends, including the writer Douglas Adams. In publicizing the Autobiography, Chapman came to devise a highly successful series of one-man campus lectures and stand-up presentations with which he toured America and Australia throughout the 1980s. While he saw the Python phenomenon through to its conclusion—which came with the release in 1983 of the hugely popular film Monty Python's the Meaning of Life—Chapman's individual interests went on to diversify as the decade progressed.
The year 1983 also saw the execution of Chapman's most ambitious creative project, the swashbuckler spoof Yellowbeard; in this, as with The Odd Job, he wrote, produced, and starred. The film was conceived on a grand scale and boasted a star-studded cast but, perhaps largely due to the constraints of time and budget, Chapman himself found the outcome rather disappointing. The very existence of his elaborate pirate romp, however, points to an adventuring spirit which prompted his subsequent involvement with the Dangerous Sports Club. His affiliation with the club enabled him to combine an obvious adrenaline addiction with an oft-demonstrated love of the absurd: he was once seen tobogganing down a St Moritz slope in a gondola, and in May 1986 he was, with true Pythonesque lunacy, catapulted through Hyde Park, London, as part of a charity benefit. During the following year he presented a television series of bizarre film excerpts, entitled The Dangerous Film Club, and in 1988 he began work on a documentary film devoted to the exploits of dangerous-sports fanatics everywhere.
The desire to escape the conventional and the quotidian had earlier threatened to damage Chapman's private life. A keen drinker in his college days, he suffered from an increasing alcohol dependence over the following decades, consuming as much as 4 pints of gin a day when his addiction was at its worst. Towards the end of the 1970s such excess was seriously damaging Chapman's health, but fortunately the rational, and perhaps the medically aware, side of his character prevailed. With immense willpower he overcame his alcoholism, a struggle which he recounted in frank detail at the beginning of the Autobiography. He proved similarly candid with regard to the matter of his sexuality. Initially an uncertain heterosexual, he became romantically involved with the writer David Sherlock during the mid-1960s. Sherlock became Chapman's lifelong partner and creative collaborator, and the two became legal guardians to a teenage runaway, John Tomiczek, in 1971. Having finally established his homosexuality, Chapman became a vociferous campaigner for gay rights, and in 1972 he co-founded, and lent considerable financial support to, the Gay News.
By 1988 Chapman's creative talents and enthusiasm were at an all-time high, and he was involved in a number of projects, perhaps most notably Jake's Journey, a time-travelling comedy which he had written for America's CBS. In November of that year, however, he was diagnosed with cancer of the throat. The disease had spread to his spine, and despite extensive hospital treatment and his characteristically positive attitude the condition worsened in September 1989. Graham Chapman died on 4 October 1989 at Maidstone General Hospital in Kent, just one day short of the twentieth anniversary of the first broadcast of Monty Python's Flying Circus. The funeral at his cremation was attended only by family, but a memorial service arranged by friends and colleagues was held two months later at St Bartholomew's Hospital. In 1999 it was rumoured by the press that to mark the onset of the new millennium Chapman's ashes were to be fired into space from the top of a Welsh mountain. Although such a spectacularly strange finale would no doubt have appealed to Chapman himself, the rumour was spurious.
- The Guardian (6 Oct 1989)
- The Times (8 Oct 1989)
- G. Chapman and others, A liar's autobiography, volume VI (1980)
- K. Johnson, Life before and after Monty Python: the solo flights of the Flying Circus (1993)
- K. Johnson, The first 200 years of Monty Python (1990)
- D. Morgan, Monty Python speaks! (1999)
- R. Ross, Monty Python encyclopedia (1997)
- G. C. Perry, Life of Python (1983)
- D. L. McCall, Monty Python: a chronological listing of the troupe's creative output (1991)
- R. Hewison, Monty Python: the case against (1981)
- G. Chapman and others, The completely incomplete Graham Chapman (1999)
- G. Chapman and others, Graham crackers (1998)
- private information (2004)
- b. cert.
- CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1990)
Wealth at Death
£393,113: probate, 22 May 1990, CGPLA Eng. & Wales