Enter — and exit — the Seventh Python

Enter — and exit — the Seventh Python

For the Times of Israel posted March 17 2016

LONDON — To the great irritation of the five surviving members of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Mark Forstater has become known as the “Seventh Python.”

And in that capacity, Forstater, a Philadelphia-born Jew, won a High Court case in London in 2013 for royalty rights to the stage show, “Spamalot.” Forty years ago, in one of his first professional jobs, Forstater was the producer of the classic comedy film, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”

He had been receiving merchandising royalties – calculated as equal to shares received by Eric Idle, John Cleese, Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam, and the estate of the late Graham Chapman – ever since.

But when “Spamalot” – based on the “Holy Grail” film – became a huge hit, Forstater realized that the Pythons’ new management no longer accepted the validity of the original agreement. Instead, it was suggested, Forstater was only entitled to one-fourteenth of the revenues from the show, rather than the previous one-seventh which he had been getting.

“Spamalot” premiered on Broadway in 2005, taking $1m in its opening week and went on to win three Tony Awards.

Now, in a new book, “The Seventh Python – A Twat’s Tale,” Forstater reveals the story behind taking the Pythons to court, publishing, for the first time, evidence given by Palin and Idle. (“Twat” is the abusive name given to Forstater by Eric Idle when he heard of his determination to sue.)

Though he won the case – and it forced the Pythons to go back on stage in order to pay the court costs – Forstater did not recoup the financial rewards he had hoped for. In fact, the legal fees wiped him out.

Forstater is not what one might think of when compared with the larger-than-life characters of the Pythons. Soft-spoken and mild-mannered, he comes across as a man more sinned against than sinning, shrugging his shoulders in disappointment at losing the friendship of the Pythons.

But despite his financial loss, he has no regrets at suing his former friends and colleagues. It was the right thing to do, he says.

“If I hadn’t taken action I wouldn’t have been happy with myself,” he says.

Just the same, the process of suing the Pythons took seven years – and, says Forstater, there were at least three occasions when the comedy troupe could have settled without going to court.

But it seems that once legal proceedings had begun, the Pythons – particularly Eric Idle, who had written and devised “Spamalot” without the others – were set to dig their heels in.

Idle, in a documentary for the BBC after the conclusion of the case, observed, “We’ve been involved with this idiot who was one of the producers on the ‘Holy Grail’ and he has spent seven years suing us. So what it meant was, it cost us a million quid to defend ourselves.”

A crucial part of the evidence in court rested on testimony given by lawyer Simon Olswang, who had drawn up the original merchandising royalty agreement. Like Forstater and the Pythons, Olswang was, in 1975, at the beginning of his career. He went on to become one of Britain’s best-known media and entertainment lawyers, and now lives most of the year in Israel, in a mango fruit farm overlooking the Sea of Galilee.

Olswang’s court testimony is reproduced in full in Forstater’s book and reads like a terrible comedy sketch. He was supposed to be giving evidence by video link from Tel Aviv, but technology kept letting him down: at times the London court could see him but not hear him, at other times Olswang could not hear the London barristers.

Eventually the lawyers were reduced to phoning Olswang on his mobile phone, to the great amusement of everyone – even the judge. There was a great deal of, “Can you hear me?” before Olswang finally uttered the killing testimony.

“What I now recall is the situation, and the situation was, as I understood it, that Mark Forstater was regarded as, for business purposes, the Seventh Python. I clearly recall that it was the intention of the parties that Mr. Forstater would be treated the same as all the other members of Monty Python… where they were to be entitled to deduct their 50% off the top [of the revenues from the film], he was entitled to one-seventh of this,” said Olswang.

Mark Forstater was born in Philadelphia in 1943 to relatively non-observant parents. His father, who came from Poland, died aged 49 when Forstater was ten, and thereafter he and his brothers were brought up by their mother. When he was accepted to study at CCNY (City College of New York), Forstater met the future Python Terry Gilliam. They eventually shared an apartment in New York.

By the early 1960s, anxious to avoid the draft, Forstater applied for a place at university in the UK. He was just 20 – and newly married to the daughter of a Japanese woman and an American soldier, who had been adopted by an American couple. He was very anxious about breaking the news of his impending marriage to his mother and his Grandfather Chiel, who lived in a Jewish retirement home.

“I’m crying as I write this,” Forstater recalls years later. “He told us, in his still heavily accented English, that when he made the decision to leave Poland and come to America, that it was to a new land, and all the old ways would have to change. So if I wanted to marry a non-Jewish girl, that was not a problem for him.”

The Forstaters set up home in Britain and Mark went to film school, learning to produce and edit.

“I didn’t have the confidence to be a director,” he says. “I had a kind of romantic idea of wanting to be Irving Thalberg, the great Hollywood producer of the 30s. A good producer has to have artistic sensibility and commercial sense, and that’s what I wanted to do.”

Forstater was working as an independent producer in Britain when by chance, in 1970, he saw Terry Gilliam’s name on the credits of a cult children’s TV show, “Do Not Adjust Your Set.” Three of the future Pythons — Jones, Palin and Idle — were in the show.

Forstater made contact with his former roommate and soon met the others. He made two commercial short films with them and in 1973 was invited to produce the second Monty Python film, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”

His account of raising the finance for the film and how the original financial agreement was devised is gone into in forensic — almost obsessive — detail in the book. Forty years later brash remarks made by Forstater about the fact that the film had two directors — Jones and Gilliam — came back to haunt him in court. Terry Jones recalled in “The Pythons’ Autobiography” that, “The worst thing was that our producer, Mark Forstater, tended to go around saying, ‘Oh, it’s a disaster, and what can you expect when you’ve got two directors. So the main tension was with our producer.”

Today, with a wry grin, Forstater admits that he would have told his 32-year-old self to shut up and get on with being a producer — but Eric Idle’s obvious dislike of Forstater then became overwhelmingly evident in Idle’s refusal to settle the case.

Even the judge, Mr. Justice Norris, noted, “Eric Idle was frank enough to acknowledge that he… disliked Mr. Forstater, but he expressed the hope that, in his evidence, he was being honest and that his dislike did not affect his honesty. I think he largely achieved that aim, so far as conscious effort could take him. He undoubtedly regarded Mr Forstater as ungrateful.”

Not just ungrateful, but opportunist, to judge by Idle’s denunciation: the suggestion that Forstater was “a seventh Python” was “laughable.”

It is certainly true is that Forstater never worked with the Pythons again after the Holy Grail film — though he has made 30 other feature films, some documentaries, and written several books.

“Nothing I have done in the 40 years since then has been as successful as Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” he willingly concedes.

In fact the book reads like a bitter tragedy. Chapter headings alternate between quotes from Dickens’ Bleak House, whose set-piece story is of a never-ending court case, Jarndyce versus Jarndyce, and appropriately miserable Jewish sayings. Example: “When things don’t get better, don’t worry — they may get worse.”

Forstater believes he has been airbrushed out of Python history.

“I feel like Trotsky to their Stalin,” he complains, citing a recent TV documentary celebrating the Python success in which he is not named as a producer, and when a picture appears of him and another Python, his name is not given.

A new blow came this week when the impresario Michael White died, aged 80. Every obituary credited White, who was also Jewish, as the producer of “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”

In vain Forstater explains that White was the film’s executive producer and not the role which he held.

“He liked to claim that he was a producer, and since he was a friend I never bothered to contradict him,” he says. He adds, gloomily, “As the showbusiness saying goes, Success has many fathers, while failure is an orphan.”

  • 17 March, 2016