It’s … fifty years of Monty Python

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 Pythons

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.

The Pythons

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

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.

The Pythons in 2014

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.

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Remember Me (BBC1)

Those of you who can remember the tradition of the television Ghost Story for Christmas might well welcome this three-part chiller which represents Michael Palin’s first acting appearance since GBH back in 1991.

Tom Parfitt is leaving his home after a tumble down the stairs to live in a care home, and quickly events start to unravel around him when his friendly social worker, Alison, takes a tumble from his bedroom window.  He has brought no luggage but has an old photograph which over the first two episodes becomes pivotal in breaking through a mystery which cannot possibly be true.

In depicting a man who is ’80-odd’ on the surface but far older, it transpires, Palin does well throughout the two episodes in which he takes centre stage (the first and the last).  The other main parts are a policeman, Rob, who has recovered from a breakdown following the collapse of his marriage, and who starts to doubt his instincts (played by Mark Addy) and a young girl, Hannah, who finds some focus in the attention she can pay to the old man and his songs of Scarborough which intrigue her (played by Jodie Comer).

Hannah and her young brother Sean (Jamie Rooney-West) are neglected by their mother (an almost unrecognizable Julia Sawalha) and she only finds a weird purpose when she starts to be pulled into the mystery of what really happened in the past of the mysterious Mr Parfitt.

Remember Me is an atmospheric piece with superior cinematography and great sound balance with water drips, ghostly singing, and echoes of dialogue.  Ashley Pearce directs Gwyneth Hughes’ screenplay, and Noreen Kershaw, Rebekah Staton, Sheila Hancock, Mayuri Boonhamn and Eileen Davies are amongst a good cast.

You need a certain suspension of belief to swallow the twists in this tale, especially those which hark back to Imperial India, but that was the same in the days of the old MR James adaptations.  This doesn’t quite reach their heights, but I liked the watery ending, and the final singing of Scarborough Fair by Palin over the credits.  That is, I would have done, had the BBC announcer not jumped in straight away to tell us about the next programme.

The Musketeers

The BBC have offered up a new Musketeers on Sunday evenings,  inspired by the characters, and some situations, of the Dumas novel (by coincidence, I have just started to re-read it).

We have seen Athos, Porthos, Aramis and D’Artagnan before on the screen of course – the silent swashbuckle of Fairbanks, the clunky RKO cheapo of 1935, Gene Kelly’s joyously energetic D’Artagnan, Oliver Reed and co in the Lester triple, Kiefer Sutherland’s boyish swordsmen, Jeremy Brett’s brazen Gascon.

Even as old men they have made a showing – let’s set aside the embarrassment of a quartet of great actors (Irons, Malkovich, Depardieu, Byrne) misfiring and think of Warren William’s oily Gascon protecting the Man in the Iron Mask.

As you can see, I know my musketeers!  This new series shows promise, and Tom Burke’s Athos caught my eye.  Already we know his secret, and D’Artagnan has met the sweet Constance.  Casting Peter Capaldi as a very nasty Cardinal will get his face a familiar sight to a Doctor Who audience ready to see him take on the role.

There’s a bit of sex in the Musketeers,  but not as much as we saw in Camelot.  A family audience, and Dumas purists,  may well enjoy.

Vanity Fair, 1967 – ★★★½

Vanity Fair was the BBC’s first colour serial, made in 1967 with Susan Hampshire and Roy Marsden, both looking impossibly young, as Becky Sharp and George Osborne.

Thackaray’s novel is set in the Napoleonic Wars and cries out for colour and life, both of which this five parter delivers. From the opening with a puppet show to lovely performances, largely from actors now forgotten, this adaptation is very good and wears its age well.

As Becky, Susan Hampshire isn’t as obviously scheming as Eve Matheson was twenty years later, but she radiates charm with a knowing smile. It is an interpretation of the character which works well.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews

Archive TV review: Greek tragedy on the small screen #3, BFI Southbank

The third instalment in the ‘Classics on TV: Greek Tragedy on the Small Screen” season at the BFI Southbank teamed a serious piece with a parody, to very good effect. First, the opening instalment of ‘The Serpent Son’, called ‘Agamemnon'(starring Diana Rigg at Klymenestra, Denis Quilley as Agamemnon, Helen Mirren as Kassandra, Nickolas Grace as a messenger, and a chorus including Alfred Burke, John Welsh and Geoffrey Toone; directed by Bill Hays); then a comic piece called ‘Of Mycenae and Men’ (starring Diana Dors as Helen of Troy, Freddie Jones as Menelaus, Annette Crosbie as Kassandra, and Bob Hoskins as the delightfully named Mr Taramasalataopoulos; directed by Hugh David).

In 1979 ‘The Serpent Son’ presented the whole of the Oresteia trilogy by Aeschylus across three weeks, which were then followed by the parody. Frederic Raphael and Kenneth McLeish translated the Oresteia and wrote ‘Of Mycenae and Men’. The opening part of ‘The Serpent Son’ includes some outlandish costumes (Kassandra isn’t very covered up, the armour worn by Agamemnon is ridiculous, and the chorus have oddly painted faces) and sets, but the basic story survives – Klymenestra swears revenge on her husband on his return from war because he sacrificed their daughter Iphegenia to the Gods. Diana Rigg shows an affinity with this material and is very good, but the acting honours here go to Nickolas Grace, who proves he doesn’t always have to roll his eyes and overact.

To move from such serious fare to comedy may seem odd, but for those who know the story of the fall of Troy, ‘Of Mycenae and Men’ is a lost delight. Hoskins’ slave puts us in the picture about his loud-voiced master Menelaus retrieving his busty wife Helen from the Trojans and bringing her back for a second honeymoon, but it is clear when they arrive that the ‘face which launched a thousand ships’ is simply bored with her husband and given to sly asides to the camera, while he stares with frustration into her bosoms. A dull messenger (Derek Godfrey) and an endearingly batty Kassandra (Crosbie) help push this sitcom of Ancient Greece (which has a telephone ‘to save time’ and a Swedish au pair) along with many wonderful in-jokes and saucy double endentres.

Archive TV review: Greek tragedy on the small screen #1, BFI Southbank

The BFI Southbank has a new series showing during June 2012 showcasing productions of Greek tragedies made for television, and this is the first screening in that ‘Classics on TV: Greek Tragedy on the Small Screen’ season, curated by Amanda Wrigley.

Two productions of the first Theban play by Sophocles, Oedipus Rex, opened the season last night. First up, a BBC Play of the Month from 1972 entitled ‘King Oedipus’, in a translation by E.F. Watling (the same one which is used in the Penguin Classics Theban Plays collection); and following that, a production for the Open University in 1977 called ‘Oedipus Tyrannus’, which abridges the play to the closing act only, in a translation which is rather more up-to-date (notably where Oedipus states he was told he was a ‘bastard’ rather than ‘not his father’s son’.

‘King Oedipus’, then, is a modern dress production – which is timely, given the National Theatre’s current stage production of another of the Theban plays, Antigone, which also has a modern setting – and stars Ian Holm as the central character, Anthony Bate as Creon, and Sheila Allen as Jocasta. All are excellent but I was especially impressed with Holm, who is perhaps underrated these days as an actor.

In the early scenes he invests the king with quiet military dignity, but becomes more troubled and disturbed as the play progresses until, finally, in one deep exhaled breath, all his world comes crashing down. It is a tour de force performance. The play as produced here also doesn’t flinch from the scenes which Sophocles originally intended to be ‘off-stage’ (the suicide of Jocasta, the blinding of Oedipus), and in a modern depiction of the chorus uses recurring musical motifs in different settings to show the increasing chaos in Oedipus’ adopted land. Also of note within this case are Alan Webb as blind prophet Teiresias, wheelchair bound and with thick dark sunglasses denoting his blindness, Alan Rowe as a Corinthian ambassador who seeks to do good but brings calamity and destruction, and George Coulouris as the shepherd frightened to reveal the secrets only hinted at by the Gods.

I was familiar with the play from studying it at school, and from the film with Christopher Plummer (Oedipus the King, 1968) and the television production with Michael Pennington (Oedipus the King, 1986). I cannot therefore comment on whether the play would make sense to a new observer; however, the modern setting works well, with the marches and dancing of the soldiers standing in for a more traditional chorus, and the contrast between Creon as the king’s brother-in-law, content with a quiet life, and later as the military leader, calm in uniform and following the rules in condemning the now blinded Oedipus to exclusion and eventual exile (‘I do not come to mock’).

This production, now almost entirely unknown, is a superb version of a play which can now seem ridiculous with all its coincidences and oracles, but in the expert hands of director Alan Bridges and producer Cedric Messina, never becomes so.

The second screening of the OU’s ‘Oedipus Tyrannus’ could have been more problematic – Patrick Stewart is the king, Rosalie Crutchley the queen, Ronald Radd the man from Corinth, John Citroen the shepherd, and John Forbes-Robertson Creon. There is also an early appearance from Roy Marsden as a herald. But all are half masked and wearing woollen wigs, and there is a simple set of a door, a walkway, fronted by a chorus who perform as the Ancient Greek theatre would require, with measured words and fluid movement. For all the traditional look, the translation is more akin to contemporary speech in places, and undoubtedly the sight of blinded Oedipus with red mask, painted stripes on his neck, and flowing red ribbons, is touching indeed. I felt that Stewart shouted the part rather than inhabited it though; Crutchley did better, more suited to the mounting frustration and desperation of a Queen who simply wishes to snatch at happiness in ignorance, whatever the cost.

There is no denying that the staging is distracting and the wigs and masks not needed; however, the play survives undamaged, albeit with the first scene-setting act missing. The production clearly has a much smaller budget that the 1972 ‘King Oedipus’, but was aiming at a different auidence, one who pored over the text rather than sitting down for an evening’s entertainment. It was directed by Richard Callanan with music by Judith Bingham.

A pair worth watching then (although I suspect this play may be on school syllabuses again judging by some of the audience, especially the one who could not quite suppress the urge to text and email throughout!), although opportunities to do so will probably be slim, given the BBC’s track record for commercially releasing their treasure trove of television dramas.

A companion website including this season can be found at http://screenplaystv.wordpress.com/, which features John Wyver’s project on televised plays from 1930 to the present day on British television, which is based at the University of Westminster and funded by the AHRC.

Archive TV review: The Winter’s Tale (1962), UnLOCked, BFI Southbank

As part of both the World Shakespeare Festival (for the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad) and the UnLOCked season (showcasing material thought lost from the archives which was located in the Library of Congress in 2010), this adaptation of Shakespeare’s 1623 play ‘The Winter’s Tale’ was the first done for television, transmitted on Good Friday, 1962, on the BBC.

Running 144 minutes, there is little pruning of the original play, which centres on the kingdom of Sicilia, where the jealous King, Leontes (Robert Shaw), accuses his Queen, Hermione (Rosalie Crutchley) of adultery with his good friend and neighbouring monarch, Polixenes (Patrick Macnee). In his murderous hate he attempts to have Polixenes murdered by his faithful servant Camillo (Nigel Stock), and casts Hermione’s baby daughter into the wilderness to die as he is convinced she is not his. As for Hermione, when she comes to trial her innocence and piety causes her to expire in front of the court, sending a penitent Leontes into a sixteen year period of repentance and sorrow.

Don Taylor directs this sparse version of the play, which employs minimal settings, close-ups, and a set of excellent performances to put across a play which has its difficulties (coincidences, Apollo, statues, and a bear). As well as the principals, there are comic turns from Ron Moody (Autolicus), Norman Rossington (Clown), and a measured performance from Brenda Bruce as Hermoine’s faithful maid, Paulina. Other memorable turns include an Antigonus from Geoffrey Bayldon and a Perdita from Sarah Badel which fit the next perfectly, and there is an early appearance from William Gaunt in a minor role.

Although Crutchley might not be everyone’s first choice as the wronged Queen Hermoine, she does well here and convinces, especially in her trial scene – less so in her early, flirty scenes with Macnee (perhaps because he doesn’t really go well with Shakespeare). And despite being missing from screen for a whole act of the play, Robert Shaw is an excellent Leontes, with his Northern grit and desperation adding to the portrait of a King possessed, and finally, (‘O, she’s warm …’) lost for words and emotion.

These BBC recoveries are real gems, and another restored piece in the history of Shakespeare on screen. With only one other production of this play having been made for television (during the BBC Shakespeare season of the 1970s-80s), this is surely a valuable and fascinating recovery. A pity, then, that there were so few to watch it in the BFI Southbank cinema last night – audiences are missing a treat.

Archive TV review: The Samaritan + The Ballad of Ben Bagot

Two plays by Peter Terson showed at the BFI Southbank this week as part of their season of his work (entitled ‘The Artisan Playwright’). The first example was from Granada Television in 1972, and the second from the BBC in 1973, so we are looking at television material from four decades ago, when there were only three channels and the amount of single drama available on the small screen was much more than today.

First up we had ‘The Samaritan’, a three-hander running just over an hour which starred Tom Bell, Martin Jarvis, and Kenneth Cranham (Cranham gave a brief introduction to the piece where he recalled this play as one of his first appearances on television). Jarvis plays Godfrey, a Samaritan who seems to live to listen and do good to others. Bell plays Vic, a hard drinking neurotic poet who is given to flowery speeches and impulsive gestures, while Cranham plays Terry, a nervy young man who is recovering from some trauma which we never quite identify. Wordy and clever, this play moves between character viewpoints and therefore leaves the viewer torn between what they originally saw and what they see by the end of the piece. Although all the cast are excellent, it is Bell who really dominates the play and shows us what a great actor he was.

The second play was ‘The Ballad of Ben Bagot’, which was written for the Scene strand of plays aimed at difficult teenagers, and it runs a sparse twenty-five minutes. Director Ronald Smedley recalled in his introduction to this his unease at receiving a script which was simply poetry which he had to shape into a narrative which worked using music and locations. Peter Firth, then eighteen years old, shows what a talented young performer he was in the pivotal role of Bagot, who has chosen to leave school early and get a job to support his pregnant girlfriend, but in-between the mundane parts of his life he dreams a fantasy life not unreminiscent of Billy Liar, where he triumphs with his shoehorn sword, beats a path through the jungle, and repurposes classic poems for his own heroics (‘Ben Bagot, may his tribe increase, awoke one day from a deep dream of peace ..’). His English Lit teacher (played by a twitchy Jack Shepherd) despairs of his charge while Bags sets fire to his school uniform and aches for a freedom where he can be a pop star or a great business brain.

An interesting pairing, perhaps linked together by the common theme of the poetic soul, and of course the words of Peter Terson, who was a writer of style, wit, and quirkiness, the type of playwright who would never get a platform on commercial television today. The season continues throughout May, and a future entry on LouReviews will cover another pair of plays showing next week.