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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3 Winters (National Theatre), John Cleese – So Anyway (Cadogan Hall)

Last weekend was a double theatre visit, first to the new Croatian-set play ‘3 Winters’, which I admit I left at the interval, so perhaps cannot give a balanced review.  Suffice to say I thought the sets were excellent, moving between the three eras (1945, 1990, 2011) in the same house, although I would personally have dated the video projections.  The characterizations were spread too thinly for us to really care about them, although the actors did their best.  Just not my thing.

John Cleese has had a busy couple of years with his Alimony Tour, the Python reunion at the O2, and now the tour in support of his autobiography (up to 1969) called ‘So Anyway’.  The small and intimate Cadogan Hall was the perfect venue for his conversation with David Walliams, in which he came across as funny, personable, and surprisingly not as arrogant as he has sometimes come across in interviews.  OK, we have heard some of the anecdotes before (Graham Chapman going to a debate at the Oxford Union dressed as a carrot), but they remain amusing enough.  I now look forward to reading the book, which we got as part of the ticket price.  One side note on the Cadogan Hall show, in Cleese’s book he notes his good friend the actor Nicky Henson has a funny laugh which he likes to provoke, and as Mr Henson was in the row in front of us I can confirm that yes, he does indeed have a distinct barking cackle which appeared throughout the show.

Monty Python Live (Mostly), 2014

Watched on Sunday July 20, 2014.

Vía Letterboxd – loureviews

We elected to watch this final show from the now septuagenarian Python team at Vue cinemas, where proceedings were unfortunately transmitted with a weird yellow hue throughout (but kudos to the cinema, who gave everyone in the audience a voucher to come back to a screening for free).

However, on making that choice we got to see the ‘naughty’ song and dance number snipped from the live TV broadcast, which was replaced by Palin in drag wittering on about sheep. What the TV audience missed was a glorious celebration of naughty bits (but why slang names for female genitalia could not be broadcast and slang names for male ones could is a bit of a mystery, as it would have been simple enough to bleep the offending c-word).

The show begins with orchestral overture with John Du Prez, long time musical collaborator with Eric Idle, conducting, before we see a headshot of the late and much-missed Python member Dr Graham Chapman kicked like a football into space to welcome a ‘re-tardis’ holding the five remaining members of the team. ‘One Down – Five To Go’ is the nominal title of the show.

All the classic sketches are present and correct – Parrot/Cheese Shop crop up in the second half with Nudge, Nudge (which turns into a sleazy hip-hop number leading into the ‘Blackmail’ show), and we have the Spanish Inquisition, The Death of Mary Queen of Scots, The Argument, and a reboot of the Silly Walks idea with the song ‘money is the root of evil’ (ironic given the Pythons are all millionaires who will make another cool £2.5m each from these shows).

First up though was Four Yorkshiremen, perhaps a little creaky now but still funny, and a queerly poignant Lumberjack song (probably Palin’s last hurrah in this role, and he did it well). Whizzo Chocolates was a blast, especially Gilliam’s ailing policeman, despite a bit of corpsing and losing the thread of the sketch. Anne Elk, not performed on stage before, suffered from the absence of Graham Chapman IMO, although Cleese’s spluttering theorist was amusing.

This show sometimes felt like it was ‘Eric Idle and friends’. He’s clearly in good form and has the bulk of the songs (The Galaxy Song, I Like Chinese, etc.), and of course ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’. Terry Gilliam has more to do than usual and seemed to be enjoying himself, although Terry Jones was muted and his line deliveries were not what they were at his peak – John Cleese though was better than I expected, growing into the rhythm of the sketches and especially good in the Michelangelo sketch: ‘what in God’s name possessed you to paint three Christs?’ – a sketch which segues into the Roman Catholic/Every Sperm is Sacred piece from ‘The Meaning of Life’.

The energy of the young singers and dancers give this show the life which might be missing had we simply been watching a quintet of pensioners reliving their greatest hits, although all the team have their chance to shine, as well as rib each other (Palin and Idle’s camp judges discuss ‘the Cleese divorces’; the two Mary Queen of Scots pepperpots talk about Palin’s travel programmes, suppressing yawns).

Carol Cleveland was here, too, and for a while it almost felt as if we were back in the 1970s at the peak of the show. The team were on fine and cheeky form, from the Bruces song through to the final ‘piss off’ slide letting the audience know it was over. Nice reference to Graham too in the Parrot sketch, accompanied by thumbs up to heaven from Palin and Cleese for their absent colleague.

I enjoyed this. I was in two minds about whether it would work, but Idle’s decision to stage this as a huge spectacle was inspired, as was Arlene Phillips’ choreography (for those who missed it on GOLD, the sailor’s dance had British Sign Language accompanying the naughty words). What a lovely and fitting way to say goodbye – my only change would be to run the ‘Christmas in Heaven’ film in its entirety as a tribute to Graham, whose presence was felt throughout this show even though he was not physically there.

Classic comedy: Fawlty Towers – The Hotel Inspectors

This episode is the one where Basil is notified of the impending visit of a hotel inspector, and of course immediately goes out of his way to please the wrong person.  A lovely guest appearance from Bernard Cribbins (‘I’m not a violent man, Mr Fawlty’), a bit of farce with Polly over an omelette and a request to shut up, and a finely timed scream at the end. 

John Cleese undoubtedly found the role of his life in the bossy and unhinged hotelier, trapped in an awful Torquay hotel with his fussy and domineering wife Sybil (Prunella Scales).  Their waiter/dogsbody Manuel (‘from Barcelona’) may be a stereotype from a time when an international mix of neighbours was very rare, but as a comic creation he is so well drawn he remains amusing.

The Hotel Inspectors is one of the best of the series, tightly written, memorable, and doesn’t have a misplaced or unnecessary word in the scripts.  Just don’t choose that particular place of repose for your seaside holiday!