Thursday, 16 December 2010

The Crests and the Breaks - The Highs and Lows of a Career in Comedy - by Luke Garratt

Above - (left to right) Graham Chapman, Bernard McKenna, Terry Jones and John Cleese

Bernard McKenna, in person, is imposing. His stature and his demeanor is one of a person who clearly knows many things. This does not mean that he is rude, or boastful. The first thing he does when he sees me sitting in the cafe where we have agreed to meet is offer me a cup of tea. This is not the first time that I have spoken to Bernard before, he has taught me, but it is the first time we have spent any time together in a professional capacity. He seems
keenly aware.

"his beard, as always, bushy. Same as it was in the 1970's"

We sit in the university bar, where he proceeds to leisurely and confidently lean back on his seat, his scarf draped around his neck, his beard, as always, bushy, the same as it was in the 1970s.

Born in Scotland, he grew up in Wales and Southsea before moving back to Scotland. “It played havoc with my accent. I ended up with an English accent, and my parents were very broad Scots.” Fortunately this gave him an ear for accents “I got very good at pulling out an accent when I had to”. This, and seeing Richard Burton on stage, was what gave him “the bug for acting”.

In his teenage years, Bernard went on an exchange trip to France, discovering French wine, French women, and an appetite for adventure. Formal educationwas not his thing, and a 15 year old Bernard would travel to Glasgow every day instead of school on a forged train ticket and go to museums, art galleries, cinemas and libraries, educating himself.

Of course, nowadays the work that Bernard is most known for is with film and television comedy. He got his start on through a stint of deception, saying that he had worked on many previous films and television shows, and with a ballsy move when being asked to edit a script, he instead wrote completely new scenes, and was soon following hot on the heels of writers like John Cleese, Graham Chapman, and Peter Cook, writing and finding sketches for Ronnie Barker, further getting to know the future members of the Monty Python troupe whilst working on the series Doctor in the House.

This relationship with his friends
would result in a few parts in Life of Brian.The Pythons atthe time preferred Bernard to actualactors, who would “overact”.

Above - Bernard McKenna and Eric Idle sharing a laugh on the set of The Life of Brian

However, whilst every career has highs, every career inevitably has lows. This came in the form of a film that would come to be called Yellowbeard.

“I used to hang out with a very well behaved young man named Keith Moon,” Bernard recalls with a hint of irony “and Graham (Chapman) and I were out once with Keith and he said “I want to make a film, and I want you to write it. I’ll give you some development money.”” This was in the early 1970s, and Bernard was given £1000 for an idea, and he moved toLos Angeles. However, this was the early 1970s, which in LA, meant cocaine.

“Graham had stopped drinking, but he had started to use coke quite heavily”. The conversation turns dark as Bernard looks down. “I’d been in LA, got an apartment there, and Isuddenly realized one day that I had been there for 2 or 3 weeks and had coke every day”.

On cocaine - "LA in those days, you would get in cabs and people would say 'Hey man, you want a toot?' "

“This is not good, I thought, so I decided to stop...which is hard to do in LA in those days, because everybody offered it to you. You would get in cabs and people would be saying “You want a toot, man?”

The writing took a long time, with Graham and Bernard falling out, and with the first draft finished, Bernard washed his hands of the writing duties, despite calls from producers asking him to save the project for an “extraordinary amount of money”.

“Eric Idle, John Cleese, James Mason, Cheech and Chong, Martin Feldman, who died during the making of the film...The film had an extraordinary cast, and was extraordinarily bad.”
Despite this description, Bernard seems to speak of his friends and colleagues fondly. He expresses a disdain for Ronnie Barker’s predilection for “bum and tit” jokes, but says he “deeply admires him as a performer”. He may speak of Graham Chapman jetting off to Australia, leaving him alone in LA, but he also talks of their love of writing, and being “chuffed” when Chapman mentioned that the only part of a Ronnie Barker movie he found funny was “a part that I wrote”.

It is clear that Bernard is from a different of show business, and perhaps takes today’s efforts from executives with a pinch of salt;

“This is not an anti-youth statement” he assures me “but a lot of the young producers and directors have less respect for the medium, have less respect for people working in the business. You get fed up with it”

“In the past we tended to be a bit more matey about it all, we’re all in this together, because making a movie is pretty much a team effort...young producers are often incredibly ambitions, and they’ll try and pull on anybody.”

Bernard started teaching at the University of Winchester through his wife, and currently sees his job as a way of “putting something back”.

“Not every student I lecture in scriptwriting is going to be a scriptwriter, but i try to teach them to understand scripts, because if they want to produce, direct, location manage, or even be a cateringmanager, they need to understand where it comes from, how a script functions.”

“There are a few (students) who show promise” He says, smiling at me, “can’t remember if you were one of them.”

Bernard is a proud but humble man. He may tell his stories, often, and with gusto, but he still remains, at heart, the same lad he was in his early life; fascinated with culture, a powerful imagination, and a sense that bigger things are always waiting over the horizon.

Further links:

- Yellowbeard info:
- Bernard McKenna IMDB profile:
- Life of Brian info:
- University of Winchester:

Pictures provided, with permission, by Bernard McKenna


arildto said...

Isn't that Peter Cook on the left, rather than Graham Chapman?

arildto said...

...and perhaps Dudley Moore rather than Terry Jones...?