Monty Python’s Graham Chapman’s curious, courageous, poignant video op-ed, 1984

Among his other gifts, Graham Chapman may have been the Python most capable of eliciting feelings of pathos in the audience. Chapman arguably had the least range of the Python troupe but there was always something “realer” about his performances. It’s no coincidence that, even though he was the least reliable of the Python troupe due to his heavy drinking (this is well documented), he played the lead role in both of the two Monty Python narrative features, Holy Grail and Life of Brian. The world would later learn of his alcoholism and his homosexuality, and, for the millions of Python fans, his death in 1989 came as a true shock.

In 1984 Chapman participated in a Channel 4 program called Opinions in which, every week, a different person would make a case on some topic, direct to the camera like a newscaster. Chapman’s entry, which aired on November 16, 1984, is a remarkable blend of Pythonesque madness and brazenly unfiltered confessional of a type that utterly absent from, say, the Flying Circus run—nakedly autobiographical was the one thing the Circus never was. As a result, Chapman’s Opinions piece, from the viewpoint of 2013, feels distinctly modern. In tone, It’s not far off from one of Stephen Colbert’s “The Word” segments, although far more dangerous in more or less dispensing with the use of a “persona” outright.

Similar to a TED Talk in length and scope, Chapman dedicates his allotted time to a discussion of the role of peer pressure in fueling overpopulation—the subject is a clear proxy for a subject close to Chapman’s heart, the feelings of alienation that a gay man experiences; Chapman alludes to this aspect a couple of times directly, as does the voiceover intro. Watching it, you have the distinct feeling of Chapman finally getting something off his chest, and at times his actorly anger seems entirely synonymous with his own actual anger—the contempt and pain that mention of his “neighbors” elicits seems wholly unfeigned. In the years of Thatcher and AIDS, such a talk must have seemed bold indeed. Towards the end of the program, Chapman talks quite frankly about sex, links repression and substance abuse, and even addresses the proper attitude towards death.

What the show isn’t, particularly, is funny, although I’d presume it was a good deal more amusing than the other Opinions pieces. Full of a kind of enraged whimsy and complete with the engagingly “meta” device of onscreen graphics tallying his use of various tropes, it fits comfortably in the impressive Python gallery of silly talking heads on telly. It’s a fascinating, risky document—one that will definitely leave you with more insight into the “real” Graham Chapman—as much as a produced television program can, anyway.