The truth was that even if some way of adding extra layers of nuance had presented itself, I wouldn’t have wanted to develop it. Partly because I lacked the patience, but largely because it felt like the brutal directness of what I’d done had been integral to its efficacy. It’s the same with certain kinds of music that resist additional ornamentation – why would you want to get more complicated than Chuck Berry or the Sex Pistols? So once I’d got bored of working within the restrictions that stopped my mind wandering, there was no option but for me to do something else.
This was how The Crimson Permanent Assurance – my segment of The Meaning of Life – started out as an idea for an animation, but then became a live-action short. Perhaps partly as a result of this formative shape-shifting, it also ended up being my first experience of going over-budget. I don’t really know what the numbers were, but shortly after selflessly renouncing my directorial ambitions with regard to the film as a whole, I was deemed by the others to be totally out of control – drunk with power in charge of a limitless budget that no one had ever actually specified to me.
The basic story concerned a group of accountants who get angry with their new corporate masters of the universe and decide to become pirates on the high seas of international finance. If any amateur psychoanalysts out there wish to discern a subliminal echo of my own need to break out of my restricted role within Monty Python, I suppose it would be churlish of me to deny them this pleasure, but I don’t remember that line of thought surfacing consciously at the time. And rather than being a product of anxieties about my own advancing years (I had by this point reached the grand old age of forty-two) the decision to use eighty-year-old actors reflected my determination to do for the elderly what Time Bandits had done for dwarves, i.e. dramatically expand their employment opportunities. I’m that guy who’s all about helping the minorities…so long as they stay minorities of course – once they start becoming powerful, then it’s a different matter.
The tone and feel of The Crimson Permanent Assurance were so different to the rest of the film that we had to remove it from its original slot in the middle of The Meaning of Life and run it as a separate mini-feature at the beginning, where it functioned like a sumptuous illustrated letter at the start of one of those medieval manuscripts I’m always banging on about, at the same time bearing witness to my increasingly marginal status within the group and growing willingness to fly the coop. Up on the big screens at the Cannes Film Festival, it looked fucking great – a real spectacle with genuine scale to it. Then when the actual film came on, it felt like you were watching TV, which given that this was how most people would ultimately end up seeing it, was probably for the best.
Gilliamesque is available in bookstores starting today.