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Monty Python: Something completely different

As a new book is published celebrating this comedy institution, Greg Mattocks-Evans looks at what made the Pythons so special

FOUR YEARS ago the Monty Python comedy troupe lost a legal case regarding royalties from the musical Spamalot, leaving them with in excess of £800,000 in legal fees.

However, their loss turned out to be a dream come true for comedy fans. To foot the bill the remaining Pythons decided to reunite for a live one-off show (later extended to ten) at the O2 arena in 2014.

Long-time fans of the group had despaired of ever seeing the Pythons reunite, but there they were on stage, older and perhaps a little frailer, but just as funny as ever.

The show featured cameo appearances from such luminaries as Stephen Fry and Eddie Izzard as well as scientists Brian Cox and Professor Stephen Hawking, a reminder of just how deep Monty Python has sunk into the public consciousness. Not a bad achievement for what started as a whacky and surreal late night comedy programme made by a cohort of ex-Oxbridge students and an American animator.

With the sad news that Terry Jones is suffering from dementia it is safe to say the surviving Pythons will never share a stage together again, but there is still much to celebrate. A new book Monty Python’s Flying Circus: Hidden Treasures (Carlton, £30) provides a useful history of the group from its foundation up to the 2014 O2 shows, with rare and unseen photographs, artwork and facsimile replicas of scripts – including several unused sketches – posters, programmes, flyers and tickets. There is even a cut-out ‘create your own show’ – but you really wouldn’t want to ruin this sumptuous book.

Although the films are omitted, there are some fascinating features on such Python arcana as the shows made specially for German television, the four-week run at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in 1974 and the Pythons’ first venture Stateside.

The book also looks at how the show came together. All of the Pythons, bar Terry Gilliam, had worked on the same programme before – the David Frost-fronted Frost Report – but it was an offer from John Cleese that first brought the team together.

In 1968 Michael Palin, Terry Jones and Eric Idle were all working on the ITV children’s programme Do Not Adjust Your Set, with As a new book is published celebrating this comedy institution, Greg Mattocks-Evans looks at what made the Pythons so special Terry Gilliam contributing several animations for the show.

Cleese said: “Graham and I used to watch Do Not Adjust Your Set. It was our treat on a Thursday afternoon. We would finish early and watch that because it was the funniest thing on television. I said to Graham, ‘why don’t we ring the guys and see if they want to do a show with us.’ “

Palin, Jones and Idle were, similarly, admirers of At Last! The 1948 Show, which starred Cleese and Chapman alongside Marty Feldman and Tim Brooke Taylor and when the five of them ended up writing for Feldman’s show Marty, it seemed perfectly natural to join forces.

Amazingly, the BBC approved an CHOICE APRIL 2017 Nostalgia initial episode run of 13 despite the Pythons not having a clear idea of what form the show would take.

The TV show would end up running from 1969 through to 1974, but its life continued well beyond that into four feature films, albums, stage shows and the 2014 reunion shows.

Today the Dead Parrot Sketch and the Lumberjack Song have become part of our national fabric, so familiar that it is easy to forget just how strikingly new and anarchic Python was at the time.

Speaking to Time Out in 1973 Graham Chapman said: “Our biggest thing really was getting rid of the punchline. The producer would look quite blank if there wasn’t a punchline because how can he end if he can’t cue the audience to applaud, you’ve got to have something there.” Throughout the series sketches start and stop abruptly, often with no punchline, the only link being Terry Gilliam’s funny, bizarre and occasionally disturbing animations.

Gilliam said: “A lot of the stuff, maybe the majority of it in the end, came from them saying, ‘well the sketch goes to here, Gilliam takes it over, gets us to here.’ Two disconnected ideas, which to me was just the greatest freedom imaginable, to have a start and an end and I could go anywhere in between.”

The anarchic style of the show owed a large debt to the group’s surrealist godfather Spike Milligan and his Q show, but the addition of animation gave Monty Python a distinctive visual identity.

After four series the troupe called it a day on the small screen – John Cleese having already left before the fourth, curtailed, series – but in 1975 the group would return for their first feature film.

With a budget of just over £200,000, Monty Python and the Holy Grail successfully transferred the group’s success to the big screen, in a daft take on the Arthurian legend. Graham Chapman proved himself to be a particularly effective leading man, taking the role of King Arthur in the search for the Holy Grail.

The film, released in 1975, received substantial backing from many rock stars of the day including Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd and for their next project Eric Idle’s pal, ex-Beatle George Harrison, stepped into to provide the necessary finance after EMI took fright. Harrison’s motive was especially laudable; he paid for the movie just because he wanted to see it, what John Cleese described as the most expensive cinema ticket in history.

The Life of Brian, released in 1979, was the Pythons’ masterpiece and the group’s most ambitious and controversial project to date. It was lambasted at the time for being an anti-Christian film (despite the fact that Jesus himself is never belittled or lampooned) with critics choosing to miss the real targets of the film, the closed minds engendered by organised religion and political dogma. “You’ve got to think for yourself,” says Brian (another memorable leading role for Chapman), and indeed if there’s an underlying meaning to Python it is this willingness to mock closed systems and closed minds wherever they occur.

The Life of Brian has since gone on to be regarded as one of the greatest comedy films of all time, and it was followed up by a live film of the Pythons performance at the Hollywood Bowl, released in 1982.

The Pythons would reunite one more time, for the film The Meaning of Life a year later. Whilst some of the material was weak, at least in comparison with the previous two films, The Meaning of Life proved the Pythons had not mellowed with age, quite the reverse in fact.

The film is especially memorable for the excellent songs Every Sperm is Sacred and The Galaxy Song, while the grotesquery of the gluttonous Mr Creosote also stayed long in the memory.

Plans for more films came to nothing, but in 1989 the team came together for a 20th anniversary TV special Parrot Sketch Not Included. When Graham Chapman died on the eve of the broadcast it ended any lingering hopes of a full reunion.

As it turned out the remaining Pythons would not fully reunite until the 2014 O2 shows – with Chapman present in spirit and on film – but by then their place in comedy history had been assured.

What was your favourite Monty Python moment? 

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