Always Look on the Bright Side of Life by Eric Idle (Weidenfeld and Nicholson)

Monty Python’s Flying Circus remains a towering icon of British comedy.

Its sketches are known by heart by many and phrases from the shows have become common parlance.

Its stars were a group of university-educated writers, who cut their teeth on satirical shows in the late sixties.

John Cleese, probably the most popular the time, went on to record arguably the best sit com ever – Fawlty Towers; Michael Palin became the man to turn to if you want a genial travel show host, while cartoonist Terry Gilliam became an acclaimed movie director.

Eric Idle always seemed a bit different to the others, partly because he tended to write alone and not part of the Cleese and Graham Chapman or Palin and Terry Jones partnerships.

If not necessarily the most well-known at the time he arguably has proved the most successful in that his Spamalot musical theatre show has brought huge riches and critical acclaim.

His ‘Sortabiography’, as he calls it, is a fun read.

For someone who brought so much laughter to people, it was somewhat surprising to hear of his difficult upbringing. As he puts it: ‘If one of the best ways to appreciate life is to have an unhappy childhood, I was very fortunate.”

His father survived years as a rear gunner in a Wellington bomber but died in a road accident while hitchhiking back from Europ e at the end of the war.

Eric ended up in a tough RAF boarding school, where he was forced to become head of the Combined Cadet Force – which was not ideal for someone who very quickly became strongly pacifist.

But his upbringing did give him a healthy scepticism about authority – and that leaning was reinforced when he watched Beyond The Fringe and realised you ‘could laugh at the Prime Minister and the Army and the war and the Royal Family’. A true Python was born.

His description of life as a writer and with the Pythons is fascinating for anyone who loved the show.

And, of course, he went on to great success with Rutland Weekend Television and his spoof Beatles movie, The Rutles.

Idle became the Hollywood Python and was soon mixing it with an enviable circle of friends, including George Harrrison, David Bowie, Paul Simon, Billy Connolly and Robin Williams.

The descriptions of the times he hangs out with his celebrity friends can grow a little dull after a while. But Idle’s endlesss optimism and his frank awareness of his own shortcomings, such as the womanising of his early years, is disarming.

This is a hugely enjoyable work from a man who, inevitably, will be remembered for his ‘nudge, nudge, wink, wink, say no more’ phrase in a classic Python sketch and that wonderful ode to positivity, sung by a man being crucified in Jerusalem in AD 33 – ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’.