The Point
Last updated: 14 June 2018.

...red sky thinking for an open and diverse left

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And Now For Something Completely Different...

 

 

The news that the Pythons are doing a Stones, Zep or Who and reforming for a series of gigs at London's O2 arena (stuck up London-centric bastards! - Ed) has divided the nation. Near civil war has broken out and there is abject, terrible slaughter in the streets - although Eamonn says that 'Der is some hope of a constitutional settlement.' Whether you think it's just a bunch of cynical old septuagenarians up for one last payday, a glorious chance to revisit those fuzzy, warm blue remembered school playground recitals of the seventies, or almost as good as the Annual All-England Summarise Proust Competition, Graeme MacIver, fondly, nay reverently, but with an acute critical eye, looks back to the halycon days of 'The Beatles of Comedy' (as someone said, somewhere, apparently).

 

Michael Palin as "Denis" lecturing Graham Chapman's King Arthur in "The Holy Grail."

 

By any measure 1969 was a significant year.

The Cold War was at its height, man first walked on the moon, the Vietnam war increased in its ferocity, Richard Milhous Nixon became the 37th President of The USA, the Northern Irish "troubles" escalated and in New York the modern gay rights movement was born following the Stonewall riots.

In the midst of these momentous events a new BBC comedy series that was aired for the first time on October the 5th of that year might seem trivial and unimportant. Yet in terms of popular culture and comedy in particular, the world would never quite be the same again.

The first of forty-five episodes of the comedy classic Monty Python's Flying Circus burst onto the nations TV screens on that October evening. By the time the Pythons collaborated for the final time on the 1983 film "The Meaning of Life", they were firmly established as arguably the most influential comedians of all time.

From the high pitched squawking of the "pepperpots" to Eric Idles's grinning "nudge, nudge, wink, wink, say no more". From "nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition" to "we are the Knights who say Ni" the characters and catch phrases that the Python's created have left an indelible mark on the cultural psyche of much of the Western world. From the original sketch shows, to films, comic songs and now even theatrical musicals, (Spamalot!) the team have created some of the best known and loved comic moments.

They have a following normally associated with music stars or football teams rather than comedians. When they played the Hollywood Bowl in 1982, sketches like "The Four Yorkshire Men" and the "Dead Parrot sketch" were greeted as if they were the highlights of a rock band's greatest hits tour. Films like The Holy Grail, shot mainly in Scotland at locations like Doune Castle and Glencoe, have generated armies of devout followers who attend conventions banging coconuts together and pretending that they Knights of Camelot (it's only a model) whilst hurling insults at each other in "outrageous" French accents!

John Cleese has had a species of lemur named after him in Madagascar and a team of Swedish astronomers working in Chile in 1997 named six new asteroids after the six members of the comedy team.

The phrase "Pythonesque" has passed into popular culture (and the OED - Ed) as a way of defining or describing new comedy.

The team had met over a period of years both at University and as they worked as writers and performers on a variety of shows throughout the early 1960's. Michael Palin and Terry Jones had been performing for the Oxford Revue. John Cleese, Graham Chapman and Eric Idle had met at Cambridge and had built a reputation performing and writing in the Footlights Company. It was on a Footlights tour that John Cleese first met artist Terry Gilliam in New York.

Contemporaries at Cambridge Footlights included Tim Brooke Taylor, Bill Oddie and Graham Garden of The Goodies and the feminist radical writer Germaine Greer.

On a number of shows, including the critically acclaimed Frost Report, Do Not Adjust Your Set and The Complete and Utter History of Britain, (best remembered for Palin's William the Conqueror celebrating like a footballer in the bath after the Battle of Hastings) the team began the process of working and performing together.

The Pythons have always acknowledged that their own work was highly influenced by the comic genius of Spike Milligan. It was his seminal Q5 series that broke the mold for comedy sketch shows and provided a platform for the Monty Python team to push the boundaries of comedy writing even further. Prior to Milligan and the Pythons it was unheard of on TV comedy shows to have sketches that did not end in punch lines. They are also credited with pioneering the "cold intro", where the show began without opening credits. Added to this fresh and radically different style was the injection of a new type of visual comedy provided by the surrealism of Terry Gilliam's animation sequences. The six were also revolutionary in that they worked as a self contained unit, writing and performing their own work. The way comedy was produced was never to be the same again.

Early working titles for the show had included names such as;

Arthur Buzzard's Flying School,
Bob Python's Flying Circus,
Ow...it's Colin Plint,
Bum, Whackett, Buzzard and Boot,
A Toad Elevating Moment

Before the six finally settled on Monty Python's Flying Circus.

The early episodes were anything but a success and the studio audience barely laughed during the entire first episode. The whole of series one was beset with scheduling problems due to over running cricket and snooker matches and at any point it looked as though the BBC might cancel the show. However, as audience figures grew and critics began to praise the programme the BBC agreed to commission a second series and the Python team began the road to comic immortality.

 

"Why don't we ask Mrs. Jean-Paul Sartre?"

 

Successful as the four series of shows were, it is the films made by the team (and two in particular) that are best remembered.

The Holy Grail and Life of Brian regularly finish at the top of any poll for the funniest film of all time.

The Holy Grail...reputed to be Elvis's favourite film, see the Python's take a surrealist romp through Arthurian legend in their quest of the Grail on a mission from God himself. (Oh, don't grovel! If there's one thing I can't stand, it's people groveling.)

Arthur's quest is hampered by insulting Frenchmen (your mother was a hamster and your father smelled of elderberries), anarcho syndicalist filth collectors, The Knights of Ni who demand a shrubbery and eventually, the police who arrest Arthur and his surviving knights as suspects in a murder investigation.

It is in 1979's The Life of Brian however, that perhaps the Python's reach their finest hour. (And a half!). The film, still controversial to this day tells the story of Brian, born in a stable, yards from Jesus himself!

Met with hysteria in some quarters the film was accused of being blasphemous. Screenings were picketed by Christian groups and local town councils banned it's showing. (Even...in a deliciously ironic Pythonesque way...by those local councils who did not have cinemas!) Mary Whitehouse, a self appointed moral crusader campaigned vigorously against the film and also clashed with the openly gay Graham Chapman when she brought a private prosecution for blasphemous libel against "Gay News", a paper Chapman had co-founded.

In an infamous TV debate that pitted John Cleese and Michael Palin against Beeb Elder Statesman Malcolm Muggeridge and Mervyn Stockwood the Bishop of Southwark, Muggeridge's commented that it was "Such a tenth-rate film that it couldn't possibly destroy anyone's genuine faith." However, in 2000, readers of Total Film Magazine voted the film the funniest ever whilst in 2004 Channel 4 viewers voted it the best comedy movie of all time.

"How shall we fuck off, Master...?"

It would be remiss however, in a left wing magazine such as The Point not to focus on the brilliant politcal satire at the heart of Life of Brian.

Inspired by the teams contact with small revolutionary left wing sects at University, the film has at it's heart the conflicts and sectarinism that exist on the left. When Brian innocently asks if John Cleese's character Reg is a member of the Judean People's Front he is told to "fuck off...we're the People's Front of Judea!"

A conversation between Reg and one of his followers Stan ends with Stan's statement that he wishes to become a woman. Not wishing to appear prejudiced against their comrades' request most of the group go along with it and rename him Loretta. An argument ensues over Lorretta's ability to have babies which ends;

REG:
What's the point of fighting for his right to have babies when he can't have babies?!
FRANCIS:
It is symbolic of our struggle against oppression.
REG:
Symbolic of his struggle against reality.

Although the Pythons worked sporadically together on film projects following the end of their forth series in 1974, the finally hung up their lumberjack shirts and knotted handkerchief hats following the completion their final film The Meaning of Life in 1983.

"...the school cormorant was gifted to us by the people of Sudbury to remember all those who died trying to keep China British."

Graham Chapman died in 1989.

Each one of the remaining five has gone on to have a hugely successful solo careers in their own right. Cleese wrote and stared in Fawlty Towers and is a highly regarded comic actor. After co-writing and staring in shows like Ripping Yarns, Palin has gone on to carve a niche as a travel reporter. Terry Gilliam is held in high esteem as a film director with films such as The Fisher King, Brazil and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Terry Jones continues to write, has produced various history documentaries and directed films such as Erik the Viking and Wind in the Willows. Eric Idle created Rutland Weekend Television and the cult film The Rutles as well as staring in a number of comedy films.

However, despite their undoubted success after Python it is as characters such as Gumby, the naked organist, the Ministry of Silly Walks, Brian, Mr. Creosote, or when they appear in the re-enactment of The Battle of Pearl Harbour by The Batley Women's Guild that they will be remembered with most affection and fondness.

So finally...just what was it that that Python's did for us?

Well there was...

"They look just like my dad..."

 

 

 

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