Dead Parrots, Funny Walks And Lumberjacks
Tripwire’s senior editor Andrew Colman takes a look at a major culture touchmark, the 50th anniversary of Monty Python’s Flying Circus…
For those of us who were around when Python episodes were first transmitted, the fact that the show is still being talked about is bizarre indeed. There’s long been a contradictory attitude towards Monty Python by the English – long labelled a dinosaur replete with dated mores, it is still namechecked by so many since as their main influence – from Steve Martin, Eddie Izzard and Vic Reeves to sitcoms such as The Young Ones, Father Ted and The IT Crowd, to countless sketch shows like Absolutely, Mitchell and Webb and Big Train, the Python DNA is present.
And yet it is now very old indeed, and also, lest we forget, not the progenitor of surreal comedy – that would’ve been The Goons and Beyond the Fringe (there’s a case for Olsen and Johnson’s Hellzapoppin’, or even The Marx Brothers, but we’ll stay with these two). Both were immensely important, providing key elements of post-war English humour that managed to hark back to the classic eccentricity of the country’s past – weirdness, irreverence, the desire to break down barriers, whimsy and anarchic subversion. So why are Cleese, Chapman, Idle, Jones, Palin and Gilliam far better known than Dud and Pete, or Milligan, Bentine and Secombe (Sellers is obviously the exception here), especially in countries that weren’t meant to get such parochial oddness, like America?
The Goons were a 1950s radio phenomenon, broadcast at a time when very few people in England had television sets. Beyond the Fringe, ushering in as it did the satire boom of the early 1960s, was a brief yet catalytic moment in theatre that had segments broadcast on T.V. in grainy black and white, which consequently meant it never entered the nation’s consciousness. Undeniable genius he might’ve been, but Goons lynchpin Spike Milligan was prone to write material that simply dissipated into space, his early television series (Q5 onwards) very odd as opposed to funny, his self-indulgence and lack of discipline at times very wearing. Peter Cook, the other comedy pioneer, had too narrow a range, his humour far too dry, diffident and self-contained to really strike a chord, despite the brilliance. Even Not Only but Also was more about Dudley Moore, with Cook more often than not the straight man.
But what made the Pythons was that they were a team of disparate souls all sharing similar trajectories, from small towns to Oxbridge and then Footlights and Revue (typical for the Beeb!). All had some kind of previous before they joined forces, with Cleese and Chapman doing At Last, the 1948 Show, while Palin, Jones and Idle did Do Not Adjust Your Set, a kid’s program that didn’t seemed aimed at children at all. Nevertheless, all five had only left university five years before Barry Took brought them together (with Terry Gilliam), and as provenance and serendipity would have it, colour television had arrived by 1969, making their zany madcap humour far more accessible. Even more remarkably, they were generally given free rein to do what they liked, but unlike Milligan understood the need for structure, while allowing their misanthropy to be the key to their material.
Growing up in the 1970s, Python was essentially the only alternative to the fading variety, music hall style sketch shows and antediluvian stand-up that hallmarked BBC and ITV output (Dave Allen being a notable exception, but he was a different kettle of fish altogether). Yes, there was the Goodies, but Python was considered avant-garde, even by then cutting edge magazines like Oz, It and Time Out. Python was a constant at my secondary school, with sketches and lines from it repeated ad nauseam on a daily basis – the program had time to not only enter pop culture but ensconce itself in it at the head of the table for the long term, and wouldn’t be dethroned for a decade (when the “Alternative Comedy” movement took off).
Of course, this was only because the shows were, despite the odd clunker, generally of a very high standard, and picked up on by (mostly, I assume) boys my age who had never heard that style of humour before. I can never forget hearing Monty Python’s Previous Record for the first time, laughing myself silly at the travel agent sketch, which (in the classic Python tradition) started in a fairly low-key manner before Idle’s extended, hysterical rant about package holidays threw if off at such a tangent that I could scarcely believe what I was listening to.
There had been comedy records before but the Pythons took merchandising and enhancing their profile far further, with two books (both still the best spin-off tomes of any comedy show, which are even more bizarre than anything else they did) and many other albums. With Terry Gilliam’s cartoons providing their vital visual edge, the Pythons had achieved brand status, the word “Pythonesque” entering the lexicon. To their credit there was plenty of new material in those albums, with some old sketches rejigged, while the packaging was always excellent.
Even the BBC took notice – loathe as they were to preserve anything (broadcast standard videotape then was prohibitively expensive) they ensured the Python legacy by rescreening episodes, albeit occasionally. By the third series, broadcast in 1972, things had nevertheless altered within the group – John Cleese was tiring of the sketch format, claiming that there was too much repetition involved, while his erstwhile writing partner Graham Chapman was struggling with worsening alcoholism. Cleese’s contribution in that run diminished considerably towards the end, and he chose not to participate in the final series, which was shown in 1974. The humour from the third series onwards had become noticeably weirder rather than funny, and by the time the fourth series rolled around, the remaining members baulked at doing 13 episodes, managing only six before calling it a day – which in hindsight was the correct move.
However Python wasn’t done yet, of course – there were the two programs made for Bavarian television (only ever screened once by the BBC) and of course the films, which coaxed Cleese back into the fold. 1974’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail, made on a shoestring in difficult conditions was a resounding success – broadening its scope while retaining many elements of the original show. It also gave Terry Gilliam the opportunity to kick start his career as a director. Monty Python’s Life of Brian however was a digression from the usual form, and for many was the high point of the team’s output, at least partly due to the controversy surrounding it. For a linear movie that focused on satirising people’s attitude to religion (and left-wing politics) rather than the religion itself, it garnered considerable praise but was also banned in Ireland and other countries, the guardians of the nation’s morals both outraged by the movie while being delighted to point out the alleged moral turpitude and blasphemy of the Pythons – step forward Malcolm Muggeridge and the Bishop of Southwark. The two Pythons (Cleese and Palin) handled the two Christians very well in a televised debate, their stock and relevance to the zeitgeist now at its zenith – they were no longer just apolitical surreal humourists, they were dangerous and subversive rock stars now as well.
But it was all downhill from there. Of course there had been a sea change across the pond regarding Python due to PBS showing clips of the shows, allowing the group to gain cult status from the mid-70s onwards in America. This word of mouth fandom culminated in 1982’s “concert” movie Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl, which featured classic sketches and footage from the Bavarian shows. It was massively successful, and extended the brand for far longer, but it did allow the team to rest on their laurels. The following year saw their swansong, Monty Python’s Meaning of Life – brimming with black humour and gross-out comedy, it had some worthwhile moments but was mostly mediocre and lazy, with little to say. This was the last time that all six Pythons were together for the same project.
If anything, the Python directive has been to retain interest and remain in the public eye since that last film – there have been so many retrospective programs, cash-in books, biographies, retrospectives and rehashes (notably the mystifyingly lauded yet utterly dire Spamalot) – some of them good, but many increasingly superfluous (did anyone really need the complete script books?) that even the most diehard Python nerd like myself grew tired of this cottage industry.
After 1983, the Pythons more or less went their separate ways, apart from the odd Amnesty gig – Cleese, who had already achieved even greater fame with Fawlty Towers, went on to write and star in movies that again obeyed the law of diminishing returns, with only A Fish Called Wanda a return to form. Idle followed suit, but the less said about his films, the better. Jones moved into historical programs and books, mainly focusing on his love of Arthurian legend, while Palin became a serious, and really very good actor – his best work being 1991’s GBH, where he played a troubled yet thoroughly decent everyman battling political mob rule. Terry Gilliam’s post-Python career was inarguably the most pre-eminent in terms of its ambition, with many surreal or dystopian films to his credit (notably the envelope-pushing Time Bandits, Brazil, and The Fisher King) but before long his reach also exceeded his grasp, his later projects becoming monumental follies and curios.
Like the Beatles before them (excuse the analogy) they were regularly asked about reunions, but that effectively ended with Graham Chapman’s death in 1989. Chapman had always been the most wigged-out, intense and naturalistic of the Pythons, and the one member of the troupe who was prepared to perform with complete abandon. In this respect the group lost its soul, although it didn’t stop the Python train from trundling along. Although the rest of the team have somewhat faded (the dreaded Spamalot aside), Palin has continued being a television regular with his travel shows, which despite their considerable charm still feel like he’s treading water. In the end, due to various lawsuits and Cleese’s umpteenth divorce, the Pythons finally decided to cash in on their oeuvre, with all five surviving members doing ten sold out (and bloody expensive) shows at the O2 Arena – as with aging rock stars, they were essentially a tribute act to their younger selves, and it showed. But it was still very gratifying to see them team-up again, even if they did frequently fluff their lines.
So what of that fifty year legacy? It’s incredible how they are still discussed and obsessed over even now, even though their omnipresence and relevance have long since passed into history (a Time Bandits T.V. series is currently in development, for example). Cleese and Palin have become national treasures, and so many phrases, lines, quotes, tics and skits from the Python canon have entered the argot and general consciousness, whether you’re aware of it or not. In that respect they are up there with forebears such as Hogarth or Lewis Carroll in terms of their effect on the British psyche – and although the key element of their humour was silliness, nothing for the team was beyond parody. And maybe some of their work is perennial and timeless – I played the Previous Record album to my daughter, who at 13 was the same age that I was when I first heard it. She laughed like a drain, especially when she listened to Idle’s bilious screed about the English on holiday. Clichéd it may have become (and the less said about dead parrots, cross-dressing lumberjacks or cheese-free cheese emporiums the better) but some of the Python’s work isn’t just classic – it’s still genuinely funny. And thanks to them, I know who Henri Bergson is.
Right, I’m off for a dog turd and tonic. Here’s to another fifty years (sorry, sorry, I had to write that).
Here’s Watchmojo’s Top 10 Flying Circus Moments too from YouTube