To be exact, 2019 marks the fiftieth anniversary of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the fortieth anniversary of The Life of Brian, the thirtieth anniversary of the death of Graham Chapman, and the eightieth anniversary of the birth of John Cleese.
The Flying Circus ran for 45 episodes on the BBC: 13 episodes in each of series 1-3, and 6 episodes in series 4 following the departure of Cleese. These were supplemented by two episodes for the German market: one made in German and subtitled in English, and one made in English.
Python also made films together. In 1971 their successful foray into the American market started with a compilation of sketches from the Circus, re-recorded for film and entitled And Now For Something Completely Different.
In 1974, back with Cleese, Monty Python and the Holy Grail was released, utilising the story of King Arthur’s quest. In 1979 there was considerable controversy at the release of The Life of Brian, which opened with the Wise Men visiting the wrong stable to celebrate the birth of Christ.
Finally, in 1983, in a loosely-connected series of sketches, the team attempted to explain The Meaning of Life. Including expensive musical numbers, and teetering on the edge of bad taste throughout, this film remains their most polarising work.
My first experience of the Pythons came in 1987, when the BBC repeated series 2 of the Flying Circus. Not only were there men in dresses with screechy voices, wild and unusual animated links, and silly walks, but also songs, allusions to art and politics and much more. It wasn’t exactly laugh out loud hilarous, but it was something different.
Then we were shown The Life of Brian on VHS in an RE class at school, and I got my own copies of that and Holy Grail shortly afterwards, with And Now For Something … showing up on TV. The books The Big Red Bok and the Papperbok followed (still to this day in the wraparound poster that mentions masturbation).
The Pythons were very naughty boys. Educated, but juvenile. Of the establishment as Oxbridge graduates (except the American one), but kicking against convention. Taboos removed, they couldn’t care less. And that was most of the fun. They even made records like I’m So Worried (“about the baggage retrieval system they’ve got at Heathrow”).
They appeared live at the Hollywood Bowl. They had great roles for women in their work, including Carol Cleveland, Connie Booth, Rita Webb, and others. They taught us about history, philosophy, the space race, TV programme planners, literature, blancmanges, law, religion and the police.
At their twentieth anniversary in 1989, there was a tinge of sadness as Graham Chapman (my favourite of the six) died the day before, aged just 48. He’d taken part, briefly, in the BBC”s compilation of Circus sketches called Parrot Sketch Not Included. He remains a much-missed part of the jigsaw, and rightly received his own cheer at the One Down, Five To Go run of live shows at the O2 Arena in 2014.
Several books later, including Michael Palin’s perceptive diaries Monty Python at Work, and John Cleese’s memoir of his early years, So Anyway, we find ourselves at the half-century point. Now, as you may be aware, there were projects pre-Python like Incomplete History of Britain, How to Irritate People, At Last the 1948 Show and Do Not Adjust Your Set – the last two about to enjoy a brand new DVD release from BFI – so all the team were working on TV prior to 1969, but it was the Flying Circus that brought them together.
These days John Cleese (after three divorces still touring to pay alimony), Michael Palin (well-travelled, voice of The Clangers, recently knighted), Eric Idle (king of Spamalot, the stage musical of the Holy Grail, and Not the Messiah, the oratorio based on Brian), and Terry Gilliam (maverick film director) show little sign of slowly down in their twilight years.
Terry Jones (my second favourite Python, cheeky, funny, and Welsh) is sadly stricken with dementia, and out of public circulation. Sad though this is, I wish him well for the future and hope he can continue to enjoy his legacy.
Look out for the Python season at the BFI, the Network Blu Ray release of the remastered Flying Circus, film screenings and more, and do pick up the Radio Times special celebratory magazine, Monty Python at 50.
Enjoy again the dead parrot, cheese shop, Spanish inquisition, singing policemen, lumberjacks, the new gas cooker, the dirty fork, the pepperpots, lemon curry, the bishop, the Piranha brothers, the Hell’s Grannies, edible art, the Bruces, Reg Pither, the Wood Party, the vocational guidance and marriage guidance counsellors, Dim of the Yard, Teddy Salad, sleazy clubs, parts of the body, the other Cole Porter, the Oscar Wilde skit, the Amazing Kargol and Janet, Wuthering Heights in Semaphore, the man with three buttocks, Two Sheds Jackson, Dennis Moore, molluscs and much, much more.
Happy anniversary, you bad boys. All photos courtesy of Monty Python’s official website.