And Now For Something Completely Familiar…Monty Python

August 31, 2014 12:19 pm

News that the fabled Monty Python team were re-assembling for a final assault on our funny bones for one last hurrah sent me scurrying for my collection of old Python albums.

Naturally, at two million quid per ticket (I’m exaggerating for comedic effect) I didn’t attend any of their performances, but, no doubt, we’ll all be able to watch the inevitable DVD when it comes out. To be truthful, I’d rather remember them in their prime, at their peak, rather than the senior citizens they’ve become as they’ll trot out some of their ‘greatest hit’ sketches: ‘Five Yorkshiremen’; ‘The Ministry of Silly Walks’ (below);  ‘Argument’; ‘The Cheese Shop’ and ‘Dead Parrot’ sketches; and ‘The Lumberjack Song’.

They’d be the first to agree that this series of gigs are very much, yes, some sort of ‘celebration’ of part of our national heritage before they ‘shuffle off the mortal coil’ and become  ‘ex-parrots, bereft of life and resting in peace’. But also they’re in it for the lucre, the moolah. It was all due to a recent claim on a share of their profits from one of their films – ‘The Holy Grail’ (1975) – they had to pay out more than a million pounds. As a company, they decided to re-coup their losses, and, if they could help pay off John Cleese’s exorbitant divorce bill (total: $22 million) then they were more than willing to pass the hat around.

It’s easy to forget – if you’re younger than forty anyway – where, and how, the Pythons came about, and the impact they had on comedy. If you like the bizarre world of ‘The League of Gentlemen’, where do you think the influence came from? If you like the anarchic breaking down of convention like ‘The Young Ones’, you can bet Rik Mayall and Co. were looking over their shoulders at the Pythons. Surrealistic sketches and wordplay like Eddie Izzard or Noel Fielding? Yep, you got it, thank the Pythons. But who exactly were ‘the Pythons’? Well, come with me, if you will, through the mists of time. Take my hand and I’ll lead you through the dreamy landscape of laughter and mirth. We must go back…back…back…

Ying Tong Tiddle Aye Poo

You have to go back even further to post-war, austerity Britain (that’s right, David Cameron and George Osborne didn’t invent austerity). In 1950, five years after WWII, they still had ration books, and EVERYTHING was in black and white. Teenagers hadn’t been invented yet (although Professor Barnes-Wallis was working on a prototype at Bletchley Park). Yes, life was pretty grim, not just ‘oop north’ either. After the bloodletting of the world war, people were in the mood for a right old laugh and I’m afraid George Formby, with his gormless grin and ukelele, just wasn’t going to cut it anymore – enter wounded war veteran Spike Milligan.

Now Spike – real name Terence – had a quirky line in madness. That is, he had suffered from severe mental breakdown as a direct result of ‘combat fatigue’, or ‘shell shock’, post traumatic syndrome we’d call it today and was given to bouts of depression, paranoia, but also streaks of pure comedic, anarchic genius.

The genius that was Milligan

Together with other ex-servicemen who looked towards breaking into show business – Michael Bentine, Harry Secombe and Peter Sellars – he wrote half hour radio scripts based in a fantastical, surreal world that lampooned officialdom, tradition, authority mercilessly. They were known as ‘The Goons’, and ‘The Goon Show’ ran on BBC Radio from 1950-1960. The strain of producing regular half hour scripts and performing in them took its toll on Milligan, but millions tuned in to listen to the madcap characters making their way through a myriad of nonsensical, illogical, themed stories that taught ‘Britain’ to laugh at itself. And Britain had a lot to laugh at as it had been forced to quickly relinquish its global real estate that had been its empire and live in hock to the new kids on the block – the USA and the power of the dollar, while sheltering under their nuclear umbrella.

Many a young person spent hours beneath their bedsheets listening to the Sunday night show, reveling in the weekly quota of  ‘Goonery’. Across the land, a  new generation couldn’t wait to get to school and try out the ‘funny voices’ of their heroes – ‘Bluebottle’, ‘Major Bloodnok’, ‘Neddy Seagoon’ and the idiot ‘Eccles’ et al.

The Pythons – John Cleese, Terry Jones, Eric Idle, Michael Palin, Graham Chapman – all acknowledged their debt to ‘The Goons’, they were the ‘Godfathers of Modern British Comedy’.

Pre-Python, Cleese, Jones, Idle etc made their way through performances at ‘Oxbridge’ universities, following in the wake of the likes of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore and their ‘Beyond the Fringe’ success and, individually, or as pairs, turned their backs on conventional careers as lawyers, barristers, doctors and broke into TV sketch writing for the likes of David Frost and Marty Feldman shows.

In time, they were offered chances to showcase material for their own shows – ‘At Last, the 1948 Show!’, ‘History of the World Part One’, and ‘Do Not Adjust Your Set’, all of which met with some noted success. But it was their coming together as a team of writers/performers AND adding the American animator, Terry Gilliam, that founded ‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus’ and the first series was tentatively ‘launched’ in 1969, tucked away on the then minority channel BBC2, 11.30 on a Sunday evening.

Lemon Curry?

The first series was as shaky as the flimsy studio scenery – overwritten and under  rehearsed. They strung together a series of sketches that tore into TV formats like the chat show (‘It’s the Arts’), the game show (‘Spot the Braincell’ and ‘Blackmail’) often linked with short films and Gilliam’s striking animations. Often, they would ignore the convention of providing a traditional ‘punchline’ and wander from one sketch straight into another or an ‘army colonel’ (Graham Chapman) would come in and tell everyone it was ‘all too silly’ and ordered them to begin the next sketch. But it caught on. It was like nothing else on TV – apart from Spike Milligan’s ‘Q’.

By the second series, they had been granted prime time at 8.30pm, they were in business, just as they were hitting their stride. No target was safe – the housewife, government ministers,  high court judges, the military, the police, the architects, the po-faced earnest TV documentary-makers.

By the fourth series, the restless Cleese decided to leave, but the Pythons stuck around for another, final series. Cleese re-joined them for theatre tours and their first film ‘The Holy Grail’, and they put out albums of their sketch shows. Cleese had his own show to do – the classic ‘Fawlty Towers’. Other Pythons struck out on their own. Michael Palin created a series of mock ‘boys own’ adventure stories ‘Ripping Yarns’.  Eric Idle came out with ‘Rutland TV’ a fictitious, low budget TV station which led to a single one-off pastiche of The Beatles’ career – ‘The Rutles’.

Graham Chapman as ‘King Arthur’ in search of ‘The Holy Grail’

Beatle George Harrison provided backing when they formed the ‘Handmade Film Company’ and they made another huge international (and controversial) hit ‘Life of Brian’ – a satirical look at religion based in biblical times, paralleling the life of Jesus. The Pythons had made the mainstream.

This is an ex-Parrot

After the roaring success of ‘Life of Brian’ – the many Christian pickets of the bible belts notwithstanding – the Pythons were big business. Their follow-up film – ‘The Meaning of Life’ – though worthy, did not have the same impact. But Handmade Films became pretty much a mainstay of the 1980s British cinema revival producing a brace of worthwhile, popular films such as ‘Time Bandits’, ‘A Private Function’, ‘The Missionary’ not necessarily providing vehicles for the Pythons, though individual members did appear in them. Cleese and Palin hit the jackpot with ‘A Fish Called Wanda’ but, as a performing combo, the Pythons were at an end save for their collective business projects.

‘Always look on the bright side of life’

While they each took on their respective solo careers – Palin established himself making TV travelogues, while Cleese continued film-making, Gilliam became a respected film director, Terry Jones made documentaries and Eric Idle found a new career in musical theatre. Graham Chapman, for long plagued with alcoholism, died. But, coming up behind them were a new generation of writer/comic actor groups – ‘Not the Nine O’Clock News’; the aforementioned ‘The Young Ones’; ‘The Comic Strip’, all in one way or another, indebted to the trail blazed by the Pythons. Even Eric Idle recently devised his hit musical ‘Spamalot’ based on and ‘lovingly ripped off from Python’s Holy Grail’.

Where would we have been without, first Milligan and his ‘goonery’ and the Pythons? Possibly at the mercy of the bland leading the bland, staid, pedestrian sitcoms or the dead-end of clubland stand-up ‘comedy’ of a Bernard Manning? Probably not. If the Pythons hadn’t have done it, somebody would have.

But they appeared at the right time, the end of the radicalised 1960s when we were ripe for them. We were ready to mock our elders and betters. We’d already been doing it in the alternative music counter-culture, and in the cinema. David Frost with his ‘Frost Report’ had provided the showcase that brought the individual Pythons together (with the ‘Two Ronnies’, let’s not forget), and our TV screens were ready for the same treatment, the mass audience of TVland was ready, and we’ve never been the same since.

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  • Ben Acton

    When I was a child, their films used to make me laugh and laugh. Now as an adult, I have the exact same reaction and if anything I understand the constant undertone of irony all the better. Smashing article with some very true points!!!! Thanks.

    • Chris Robinson

      Thanks, Ben. Yes, they were/are a hoot, to be sure. I surely didn’t do them full justice but we’re restricted very much by space. I love ’em.

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