A series of crucial importance in the development of comedy, not just on British TV but on a global scale and in various media. But although Monty Python's Flying Circus is the most analysed comedy programme of all time it remains difficult to convey in print the sheer bombastic vitality of a show that seemed to break all the rules and then establish completely new ones. Quite simply, the Pythons (as the team's six members became known) invented a new genre.
Brought together by Barry Took (then a comedy adviser at the BBC), who had seen the various players in At Last The 1948 Show and Do Not Adjust Your Set, the Python team had many strengths but perhaps none more important than their understanding of continuity and symmetry, which meant that their seemingly aimless, stream-of-consciousness ideas and sketches were prevented from dissolving into anti-climax by being contained within a rigid, but flamboyant, structure. Once the Pythons decided to virtually do away with the traditional idea of using punchlines to finish a sketch - instead preferring to segue from one segment to the next - they unleashed their full writing potential, since ideas that were funny yet would hitherto have been rejected because of having a weak ending could now be joyously accommodated. Spike Milligan had also trod this route in his Q... show but less successfully, although it was no surprise that his producer, the former actor Ian MacNaughton, kept his hand on the tiller during Python's run. Further, it is impossible to overestimate the value of Terry Gilliam's animation to the show's successful use of the segue technique. An American who had first met John Cleese in New York and then worked on Do Not Adjust Your Set, Gilliam provided simple cut-out animations that tended to feature grotesque characters and situations which, as often as not, were used as linking devices to move the show from one area to another. Because of the nature of animation, Gilliam's inspired work made it possible to link two bizarrely different ideas without spoiling the continuous flow that gave the show its strength.
All of the Monty Python team wrote their own material and were their own fiercest critics, ensuring a very high standard for the finished product, and their different writing approaches meant that a wide variety of material was featured, subverting the genre well away from the standard 'two men at a desk' sketch format much in evidence elsewhere on television. They also toyed with the established structure of TV, sometimes running the closing credits of the show half-way through, or being announced as a completely different programme altogether and starting with a mocked-up false title sequence. This did not mean that they completely rejected the traditional styles, however, indeed some of Python's most memorable sketches (like 'The Argument Sketch', wherein a man pays to argue; 'The Dead Parrot Sketch', where a dissatisfied customer seeks recompense from the pet-shop dealer who sold him a deceased feathered-friend; and 'The Cheese Shop Sketch', where a man tries to buy cheese from a dedicated store that is nonetheless entirely devoid of the stuff), all featuring Michael Palin and John Cleese, are classic 'two men at a desk' sketches.
Mostly, however, the show ranged far further afield, with sketches taking place on the top deck of a moving double-decker bus, in the sea, in forests and so on. The series even spawned a collection of catchphrases which belied its innovative style, the most famous being the link line 'And now for something completely different', and others including 'My brain hurts' (delivered by Mr Gumby, a brain-challenged individual with a knotted handkerchief on his head) and lines associated with individual sketches like 'Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!' and 'Nudge-nudge, wink-wink, say no more!' All told, the programmes featured a fantastically oddball set of characters: manic game-show hosts, homosexual brigadiers, exaggerated stereotyped Australians, aspirant lumberjacks, men with tape recorders up their noses, lecherous virgins, heroic bicycle repairmen, extra-terrestrial tennis-playing blancmanges and many more of that wonderfully inventive ilk. And then there were the female characters, who (with the honourable exception of resident glamorous woman Carol Cleveland, who portrayed the sexier females in the scripts - especially for kissing scenes) were played by the all-male Pythons: the awful shrill-voiced, bigoted Pepperpots (Cleese, Graham Chapman, Eric Idle); the dinosaur theorist Anne Elk (Cleese); mother figures (Terry Jones); housewives (Idle or Chapman); gangster's moll (Cleese); coy young women (Palin, Idle) and so on.
Ticket to a Python recording from 1969
The first series began quietly enough, late on Sunday nights, with no indication of what it was to become. The title, Monty Python's Flying Circus, revealed and meant nothing. (Other ideas for the title had included Gwen Dibley's Flying Circus, Vaseline Review, Owl-Stretching Time and Arthur Megapode's Cheap Show.) The series soon built up a cult following, however, appealing to a youthful audience hitherto more interested in rock music than TV comedy. As its popularity grew so too did the controversy surrounding much of the material, which was often of an adult nature. (This led to clashes within the BBC itself and the Pythons, although probably the last people to prosper from the liberal attitudes of one-time BBC director-general Sir Hugh Greene, were also the first to suffer from the more rigid regime that followed. Having noted this, however, it is germane to point out that the Pythons won most of their battles over script content and it remains doubtful that they would have been given as much freedom on ITV or anywhere else in the world.) Following the second series, the Pythons made their first feature film, the modestly successful And Now For Something Completely Different (1971, directed by Ian MacNaughton) which was filmed on a minuscule budget in a disused milk depot in north London and consisted of newly shot versions of their favourite TV sketches. By the third TV series the show had amassed a huge following and won the coveted Silver Rose at the Montreux Festival. Anticipation and expectations were now running very high but the Pythons managed to maintain their ultra high standards, even if, below the surface, cracks within the unit were beginning to show and John Cleese, becoming dissatisfied with the production, was keen to move on to something completely different.
A hint of Python's future international popularity came when the team were asked to make two shows for West German TV, the first actually performed in (phonetic) German, the second dubbed from a British-made show. The former (Monty Python In Deutschland, WDR 1971) has not been shown on terrestrial British TV to the present time but the latter (Monty Python's Fliegende Zirkus, aka Monty Python Blodeln Fur Deutschland, WDR 1972) first aired on BBC2 on 6 October 1973 and features Cleese's last TV work with the group. A short fourth BBC series, screened under the reduced title of Monty Python, was made without Cleese and for the first time there was a lack of consistency within the production, although it finished on a high with the last ever edition featuring one of Python's most memorable creations, the horrible Garibaldi clan, living a disgusting life in a grotesque parody of the BBC2 fly-on-the-wall documentary series The Family, with Gilliam particularly unpleasant as the Garibaldis' baked-beans-obsessed son Kevin. The hard-hitting, loud, over-the-top style of this sketch was a precursor of the next groundbreaking British comedy series, The Young Ones which followed in 1982. Thus, after 45 UK editions the TV show, Monty Python's Flying Circus ended...but for the six Python players the story had only just begun.
In July 1974, while the Pythons were working on the scripts for the final series, Monty Python's Flying Circus was shown for the first time on American television (in Dallas, on local public broadcasting station KERA). From this humble beginning a monster grew, the series quickly becoming the most popular programme on the channel, which in turn alerted programmers at other stations. Popular UK belief that the 'Britishness' of Python would bemuse and possibly even alienate US audiences proved groundless and a cult began to build in a similar way, and with a similar audience, to the way it had blossomed in the UK in 1969 and 1970. Back in Britain, meanwhile, the Pythons (with a returned John Cleese) completed their second feature film, Monty Python And The Holy Grail (1975, directors Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones), which featured all-new material woven around the single theme of King Arthur's quest for the Holy Grail. Made on a slightly bigger budget than their first movie, Grail was a huge hit and when it was released in America added to the interest that was building up around the TV show. By the summer of 1975 the BBC series were airing on 130 public broadcasting stations and even on a couple of local commercial stations in Las Vegas and Houston. The US networks, never slow to pick up on a trend, wanted a piece of the action too and ABC acquired Python from the BBC's US distribution agent Time-Life Films. When ABC ran the series in its Wide World Of Entertainment slot in October 1975 the Pythons were horrified that the shows had been haphazardly re-edited, thus losing the essential continuity. When ABC refused to stop treating the series in this manner the Pythons, in an unprecedented move, took them to the US courts in a battle for artistic rights. The historic court case ended in mixed fortunes for the Pythons when the judge agreed that their artistic rights had been violated but refused to halt the ABC broadcasts owing to the complex nature of the BBC's US distribution rights. The Pythons then won on appeal which - although too late to stop ABC's original broadcasts - meant that they gained control over subsequent US broadcasting of the programmes. They also won back the rights to the series from the BBC once their original contract with the Corporation expired, so from 31 December 1980 the Pythons themselves became owners of their series - a groundbreaking arrangement.
Although they all took time out to pursue individual endeavours, the team reunited once more in the late 1970s to make easily their most controversial big-screen outing, a spoof on organised religion set in biblical times and concerning an ordinary bloke who is mistaken for the Messiah. Monty Python's Life Of Brian (1979, directed by Terry Jones) was a massive success and probably represents the Python team at the height of their collaborative creative powers. Most noticeable is the improved acting skills of the troupe, making them, as if it were not already clear, the only true interpreters of their own dazzling writing. In the ten years since they formed their partnership, the Pythons had become by far the most important and influential comedy team in the world. (While making the movie, the members of Monty Python were interviewed on location in Tunisia for a special BBC1 programme marking their tenth anniversary - screened as The Pythons on 20 June 1979.)
Throughout the 1970s Monty Python records and spin-off books had been selling in abundance, and the team was also gaining a reputation for their stage presentations of the TV sketches. The Pythons first performed their TV material in theatres as early as 1971 (in Coventry) and went on to play full British tours. But they became an attraction of rock star magnitude in the USA, culminating in a four-night performance at the Hollywood Bowl (26-29 September 1980) in Los Angeles. The shows were videotaped and certain segments transferred to film and released as a movie in America (Monty Python Live At The Hollywood Bowl, 1982, director Terry Hughes). The Pythons agreed to perform these shows as a break from writing the script for their next and (to date) last film, Monty Python's The Meaning Of Life (1983, directed by Terry Jones). This feature film, like their first, was a collection of sketches, but unlike And Now For Something Completely Different all these pieces were especially written for the big screen and slotted together with the group's usual structural skills. Once again, controversy surrounded the production, with two particular sketches ('Every Sperm Is Sacred', a satire on the Catholic church's attitude to birth control; and 'The Restaurant Sketch', in which a constantly vomiting glutton finally explodes, showering restaurant diners with entrails) meriting the most attention. This was the last time that the Pythons worked together creatively as a full team, although the members reunited to film segments for a twentieth-anniversary tribute, Parrot Sketch Not Included (a Tiger Television production for Python (Monty) Pictures, screened by BBC1 on 18 November 1989) that was hosted by the US comedian Steve Martin. On 4 October 1989, shortly after filming these segments, and one day before the actual anniversary of the first Python programme, Graham Chapman died of cancer, aged 48. The others praised his impeccable timing.
On 9 October 1999 BBC2 presented Python Night, a themed evening celebrating 30 years of the show, compassing It's...The Monty Python Story, a documentary with the five surviving Pythons charting the history of the show; Pythonland, in which Michael Palin revisited some of the locations used by the team; a screening of Monty Python's Life Of Brian; Lost Python, a few minutes of sketches made for a 1971 European spoof of midsummer celebrations; From Spam To Sperm: Monty Python's Greatest Hits, a look at the musical side of Python conducted by rock star Meat Loaf; and finally a 'one joke' interview with the team by Peter Sissons. But most remarkable was the short collection of specially shot new sketches from the team - the first genuine new Python material since Monty Python's The Meaning Of Life - a true milestone moment.
Individually, the Pythons have continued to wield a huge influence in the worlds of comedy and beyond, creating a number of memorable TV or film projects: Fawlty Towers (Cleese); Rutland Weekend Television, Nearly Departed, The Rutles, Nuns On The Run (Idle); Around The World In 80 Days, Pole To Pole, Full Circle, The Missionary, The American Friend (Palin); Eric The Viking (Jones); Time Bandits, Brazil, The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen, The Fisher King, Twelve Monkeys (Gilliam). Occasionally, individual Pythons have combined for projects too: Cleese and Idle (Splitting Heirs); Palin and Jones (Ripping Yarns); and, perhaps most notably, Cleese and Palin for the feature films A Fish Called Wanda and Fierce Creatures.
In essence, the Monty Python team are the comedy equivalent of the Beatles. Both started off in the UK, but refused to bow to the conventions of, or be limited by, the constraints of a then-staid British organisation (for the Beatles it was EMI, for the Pythons the BBC). Both were resolutely and uncompromisingly British yet became internationally famous and managed the previously unattainable task of conquering the USA in their respective spheres. Like the Beatles, the Pythons moved individually into a number of diverse creative areas after the collective was disbanded. Like the Beatles, despite whatever contemporary successes they enjoy, the Pythons are always referred to by the media in terms of the original group (ie, 'ex-Beatle George Harrison' and 'ex-Python John Cleese'). Like the Beatles, the Pythons are often the subject of 'reunion' rumours. Like the Beatles, Monty Python continues to entertain and influence new generations and inspire emerging creative talents. Like the Beatles, the Pythons have been able wrest control over their artistic output and do not hesitate to use the courts to justify their legal rights. And, like the Beatles in the field of music, while other new acts come along and temporarily grab the headlines, none can challenge Monty Python's everlasting supremacy in the field of TV comedy.
Researched and written by Mark Lewisohn.