Monty Python’s Flying Circus – 1970 Rehearsal Pictures

701015B10MontyPython

A lovely gallery of candid shots of the Monty Python team from October 1970 (during rehearsals for the last show of series 2) can be found here.

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Two episodes of At Last The 1948 Show found

at last

The news that two episodes of At Last The 1948 Show have been discovered in David Frost’s personal archive is, of course, very welcome news – as is the fact that they will receive a public screening in December as part of the BFI’s annual Missing Believed Wiped celebration.

Although At Last has sometimes been considered chiefly notable for being a clear precursor to Monty Python, it stands up extremely well in its own right. Written by and starring John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Tim Brooke-Taylor and Marty Feldman, the series also featured Aimi Macdonald.

Some of the already existing material, such as the four Yorkeshiremen sketch, would be instally familiar to Monty Python fans as it remained a staple of their live sets, right up to their farewell gigs at the O2 earlier this year.

The question now is, will these episodes together with the rest of the series, finally receive a worthy DVD release? The previously existing material surfaced on this DVD nearly a decade ago. Since it’s the only commercial way to own the series it was a must buy, although there are several problems with it.

Firstly, the picture quality is very poor. This is because the episodes have been sourced from very ropey looking teleecordings. Restoration could clean them up nicely, but the issue seems to be that whilst a company called Archbuild now owns the copyright of the Rediffusion archive, they don’t actually own the physical recordings.

Ideally, it would be wonderful for a company like Network to issue a release, such as their Incomplete and Utter History Of Britain. Maybe, thanks to the publicity generated by these two rediscovered episodes, the tangled question of copyright and ownership can be resolved and we’ll finally get the DVD the series deserves. One interesting point is that the BFI press release (link at bottom of the post) mentions they have been restoring the material of At Last which they hold. For a possible DVD release maybe?

The other major problem with the existing DVD is that it’s compiled from a series of Swedish compilations and therefore doesn’t flow in the way the original programmes would have done. The following list was compiled by Matthew K. Sharp and it shows what material was used to source the episodes on the DVD –

Episode One
2.5 choir won’t sing hymns
2.5 psychiatrist
2.5 secret service cleaner
??? the nasty way
2.1 reptile keeper swallowed by snake
2.6 chartered accountant dance
2.6 four yorkshiremen

Episode Two
1.6 televisione italiano presenta – let’s speak english
1.5 top of the form
2.1 doctor trying to sell things
2.1 thief hiding in public library
2.1 come dancing

Episode Three
??? musical item
1.4 someone has stolen the news
2.4 topic – freedom of speech
2.7 railway carriage
2.4 repeats report
2.4 tour through a live programme

Episode Four
1.2 opening
1.2 foggy spain link
1.2 four sydney lotterbys
1.3 visitors for the use of
1.3 sleep starvation
1.3 mice laugh softly, charlotte
1.4 jack the ripper
1.4 plain clothes police(wo)men

Episode Five
2.2 opening
2.2 shirt shop
2.2 the nosmo claphanger show
2.2 insurance
2.4 uncooperative burglars
2.2 rowdy scottish ballet supporters

Ideally, any future DVD would present the sketches in the correct order. This would mean some episodes would run short since various episodes are incomplete, but that would be better than the somewhat random nature of the above compilations.

Time will tell on that score, but at the very least it’s to be hoped that these two episodes will make their way into the public domain, as finding archive gems like these does seem somewhat pointless if they’re then locked away from public view.

PDF of the BFI press release concerning the rediscovery.

Update Sep 2015 – Another two episodes have been found which means that we’re getting close to having a complete run of the series (series one episode one only has about five minutes of footage in existence whilst a couple of other episodes have small amounts of material missing).  Radio Times article on the new discoveries here.

Monty Python’s Flying Circus – Series One – Episodes One to Four

python

As I pulled Monty Python’s Flying Circus Series One down from the shelf for a rewatch, I was thinking about this recent article in the Guardian which examined ten comedy shows and asked were they still funny?   The verdict on Monty Python was a resounding no – because it was the typical sort of unfunny self-indulgent stuff dreamt up by university types, apparently.

Although it’s easy to dismiss this as the usual Guardian space-filler, it’s true that Monty Python is very much a marmite show, you either seem to love it or hate it.  Me?  I love it, particularly the first series.  This is probably because I taped the first thirteen episodes when they were repeated in 1989 (to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Python) and I did tend to rewatch them an awful lot during the 1990’s.

Looking back at the earliest episodes, the muted studio audience response is quite noticeable.  According to legend, the first audiences for Python were bus-loads of pensioners who were disappointed that it wasn’t an real circus.  Whether this is true or just a story that’s grown in the telling is debatable, but some sketches (which during their later stage shows would be greeted with rapturous approval) are played to near silence, with the odd laugh occurring every so often.

A typical Monty Python audience
A typical Monty Python audience

As word of mouth concerning Python grew, the audiences for later series became much more vocal and appreciative.  This isn’t always a good thing though – the somewhat boisterous and sycophantic audience on I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again didn’t necessarily add to the quality of the programme, for example.

The other notable thing about these episodes is that they’re somewhat rough around the edges.  The numerous film inserts are fine, since they could be edited at leisure, but the studio footage does have a rawer feel, with the odd missed cue or wonky camera angle.  Retakes could be done, although like all programmes of this era there was a strict timescale allocated to record the studio material and over-runs wouldn’t have been appreciated by the BBC management.

So is there anything funny in the first four episodes?  Let’s find out.

Episode One – Wither Canada?

After Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart introduces some famous deaths (to a rather nonplussed studio audience) we move to a more traditional sketch, featuring Terry Jones as the tutor of an Italian language evening course.  The simple comedy device used here (and in many other Python sketches) is one of reversal – as all of his class (with the exception of Helmut) are Italian.

Terry Jones attempts to take coals to Newcastle
Terry Jones attempts to take coals to Newcastle

Teacher: Well, now, this week we’re going to learn some useful phrases to help us open a conversation with an Italian. Now first of all try telling him where you come from. For example, I would say: ‘Sono Inglese di Gerrard’s Cross’, I am an Englishman from Gerrard’s Cross. Shall we all try that together?
All: Sono Inglese di Gerrard’s Cross.
Teacher: Not too bad, now let’s try it with somebody else. Er… Mr… ?
Mariolini: Mariolini.
Teacher: Ah, Mr Mariolini, and where are you from?
Mariolini: Napoli, signor.
Teacher: Ah … you’re an Italian.
Mariolini: Si, si signor!
Teacher Well in that case you would say: ‘Sono Italiano di Napoli’.
Mariolini: Ah, capisco, mile grazie signor…
Francesco: Per favore, signor!
Teacher: Yes?
Francesco: Non conosgeve parliamente, signor devo me parlo sono Italiano di Napoli quando il habitare de Milano.
Teacher: I’m sorry … I don’t understand!

Like the majority of early Python it’s quite short and compact.  Although some of the shows do have longer sketches (The Funniest Joke In The World, The Mouse Problem) it’s surprising how much is packed into each thirty minutes at this point in the series’ history

The good stuff keeps on coming – Whizzo Butter (“You know, we find that nine out of ten British housewives can’t tell the difference between Whizzo butter and a dead crab”) and Sir Edward Ross/Arthur “Two Sheds” Jackson.  The Ross/Jackson sketches are essentially the same and playing them back to back is an early mission statement that the series wouldn’t be as linear as some of the Python team’s earlier efforts.

Next up is my favourite sketch from episode one, the Picasso cycling race.  For those who view the Pythons as elitist, it’s probably the sort of thing they detest, particularity when John Cleese, in the guise of a reporter, gives a breathless summary of the group of cycling painters zooming past him.

It’s Kandinsky. Wassily Kandinsky, and who’s this here with him? It’s Braque. Georges Braque, the Cubist, painting a bird in flight over a cornfield and going very fast down the hill towards Kingston and… Piet Mondrian – just behind, Piet Mondrian the Neo-Plasticist, and then a gap, then the main bunch, here they come, Chagall, Max Ernst, Miro, Dufy, Ben Nicholson, Jackson Pollock and Bernard Buffet making a break on the outside here, Brancusi’s going with him, so is Gericault, Ferdinand Leger, Delaunay, De Kooning, Kokoschka’s dropping back here by the look of it, and so’s Paul Klee dropping back a bit and, right at the back of this group, our very own Kurt Schwitters.

Some Terry Gilliam animations and The Funniest Joke in the World bring the first episode to a satisfying conclusion.  Well, so far it all seems funny to me.

Episode Two – Sex and Violence

There’s slightly less here that appeals, but Terry Jones with two large mallets encouraging his trained mice to squeak “The Bells of St Marys” is an appealing little throwaway.  Cleese and Palin’s French aviation experts who demonstrate how sheep can fly is another nice sketch which doesn’t outstay its welcome.

Buried in the middle of this episode is a real gem, the Working-Class Playwright.  It gives Graham Chapman the chance to do a little bit of acting (no real surprise he took the lead in both Holy Grail and Life of Brian as he was always the Python who seemed the best suited to being, as it were, a straight actor).  Terry Jones drags up well, as he would so many times in the future, as the mother, and Eric Idle is suitably wide-eyed as the son unable to convince his playwright father that coal-mining is a wonderful and worthy job.  Another simple inversion sketch, which works a treat.

Another long sketch closes proceedings, this time it’s The Mouse Problem (“Well, we psychiatrist have found that over 8% of the population will always be mice, I mean, after all, there’s something of the mouse in all of us. I mean, how many of us can honestly say that at one time or another he hasn’t felt sexually attracted to mice. I know I have. I mean, most normal adolescents go through a stage of squeaking two or three times a day.”)

Episode Three – How To Recognise Different Types of Tree From Quite A Long Way Away

The linking device of the trees (“Number One.  The Larch.  The Larch”) is probably the sort of thing that those who dislike Python would sieze upon.  It’s not funny in itself, but then the question should be whether every single moment in each episode should contain a rib-tickling gag.  But the device helps to bind the episode together.

This episode has a couple of good shorter sketches, Michael Palin as the modest Bicycle Repair Man and Eric Idle as a children’s story-teller, totally unable to find a tale that doesn’t descend into filth (“One day Ricky the magic Pixie went to visit Daisy Bumble in her tumbledown cottage. He found her in the bedroom. Roughly he gabbed her heavy shoulders pulling her down on to the bed and ripping off her…”).

It's all in a days work for Bicycle Repair Man
It’s all in a days work for Bicycle Repair Man

The episode is dominated by three sketches, one of which would become an ever-present regular favourite in their stage shows.

We open with a courtroom sketch. This is the longest single sketch we’ve seen so far (running for about ten minutes) but it doesn’t feel drawn out. Although Harold Larch is only charged with a parking offence, his counsel has lined up an impressive list of character witnesses, including the late Arthur Aldridge (complete with coffin) and Cardinal de Richelieu.

Counsel: Er, you are Cardinal Armand du Piessis de Richelieu, First Minister of Louis XIII?
Cardinal: Oui.
Counsel: Cardinal, would it be fair to say that you not only built up the centralized monarchy in France but also perpetuated the religious schism in Europe?
Cardinal: (modestly) That’s what they say.
Counsel: Did you persecute the Huguenots?
Cardinal: Oui.
Counsel: And did you take even sterner measures against the great Catholic nobles who made common cause with foreign foes in defence of their feudal independence?
Cardinal: I sure did that thing.
Counsel Cardinal. Are you acquainted with the defendant, Harold Larch?
Cardinal: Since I was so high (indicated how high).
Counsel: Speaking as a Cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church, as First Minister of Louis XIII, and as one of the architects of the modern world already – would you say that Harold Larch was a man of good character?
Cardinal: Listen. Harry is a very wonderful human being.

Dirty Fork has a familiar comedy construction, as from a mundane start (a slightly dirty fork) it escalates into a major crisis as each subsequent member of the restaurant staff becomes more and more frantic – “You bastards! You vicious, heartless bastards! Look what you’ve done to him! He’s worked his fingers to the bone to make this place what it is, and you come in with your petty feeble quibbling and you grind him into the dirt, this fine, honourable man, whose boots you are not worthy to kiss. Oh… it makes me mad… mad!”

One of Python’s most famous principles was the abandonment of the punch-line (although Spike Milligan in his “Q” series had beaten them to it).  There weren’t adverse to the odd punch-line though, particularly when it could be used for additional comic effect.  Here, the upcoming punch-line is advertised with a caption and after Chapman has delivered it – “Lucky we didn’t say anything about the dirty knife” – the audience is free to register their disapproval.

The show ends with Nudge Nudge, which is probably something that many people can repeat, virtually verbatim.

Episode Four – Owl-Stretching Time

I love the Pepperpots at the Art Gallery sketch.  A typical clash between two types of culture that shouldn’t co-exist, which is probably the reason why it appeals.

Janet: ‘Allo, Marge!
Marge: Oh hello, Janet, how are you love?
Janet: Fancy seeing you! How’s little Ralph?
Marge: Oh, don’t ask me! He’s been nothing but trouble all morning. Stop it Ralph! (she slaps at unseen infant) Stop it!
Janet: Same as my Kevin.
Marge: Really?
Janet: Nothing but trouble … leave it alone! He’s just been in the Florentine Room and smeared tomato ketchup all over Raphael’s Baby Jesus. (shouting off sharply) Put that Baroque masterpiece down!
Marge: Well, we’ve just come from the Courtauld and Ralph smashed every exhibit but one in the Danish Contemporary Sculpture Exhibition.
Janet: Just like my Kevin. Show him an exhibition of early eighteenth-century Dresden Pottery and he goes berserk. No, I said no, and I meant no! (smacks unseen infant again) This morning we were viewing the early Flemish Masters of the Renaissance and Mannerist Schools, when he gets out his black aerosol and squirts Vermeer’s Lady At A Window!
Marge: Still it’s not as bad as spitting is it?
Janet: (firmly) No, well Kevin knows (slaps the infant) that if he spits at a painting I’ll never take him to an exhibition again.
Marge: Ralph used to spit – he could hit a Van Gogh at thirty yards. But he knows now it’s wrong – don’t you Ralph? (she looks down) Ralph! Stop it! Stop it! Stop chewing that Turner! You are … (she disappears from shot) You are a naughty, naughty, vicious little boy. (smack; she comes back into shot holding a copy of Turner’s Fighting Temeraire in a lovely gilt frame but all tattered) Oh, look at that! The Fighting Temeraire – ruined! What shall I do?

Terry Jones gets to undress in public, or at least he attempts to do so.  This is an odd one, a purely visual sketch (unlike the usual verbal fare) which is full of seaside humour and could have easily turned up in an episode of Benny Hill.  And there’s not many Python sketches you can say that about!

Some sights just linger in the memory
Some sights just linger in the memory

Self Defence Against Fresh Fruit is another of my favourite Python sketches, principally for Cleese’s full-throated self defence instructor who’s keen to defend himself and his class against the dangers that fresh fruit can bring.  Not one of the most famous sketches maybe, but it’s good fun.

Secret Service Dentists is a slightly rambling way to close the show (and maybe a sign of the self-indulgence to come) but it still has some good moments, espcially the catchy Lemming of the BDA song.

Monty Python’s Flying Circus – Series One, Episode Five – Man’s crisis of identity in the latter half of the twentieth century

confuse a cat

The long opening sketch, Confuse a Cat, seems to be an excuse for a sequence of frankly bizarre images, such as a penguin on a pogo stick (not a sentence that tends to get typed very often!).

Before this though, Graham Chapman’s vet is able to put his finger exactly on the cat’s problem.

You see …. your cat is suffering from what we vets haven’t found a word for. His condition is typified by total physical inertia, absence of interest in its ambiance – what we Vets call environment – failure to respond to the conventional external stimuli – a ball of string, a nice juicy mouse, a bird. To be blunt, your cat is in a rut. It’s the old stockbroker syndrome, the suburban fin de siecle ennui, angst, weltschmertz, call it what you will.

The rest of the episode contains shorter sketches linked by a series of vox-pops.  The Cleese/Palin sketch with Palin as the world’s most inept smuggler and Cleese as the customs officer is probably the best of the bunch, although as it features a punch-line it feels a little out of place as a Python sketch.  Possibly, like some of the other early sketches, it predated the series?

After this, Terry Jones attempts to chair a discussion on the points raised with a duck, a cat and a lizard.  Since all are stuffed, this doesn’t generate a great deal of debate.  Luckily though, there are plenty of men in the street who are able to offer an opinion, such as this stockbroker (played by John Cleese).

Well I think they should attack the lower classes, first with bombs and rockets, destroying their homes and then when they run helpless into the streets, mowing them down with machine guns. Ad then of course releasing the vultures. I know these views aren’t popular, but I have never courted popularity.

A Cleese/Chapman sketch featuring Cleese as a bizarre interviewer and Chapman as a bewildered interviewee doesn’t really go anywhere – there would be better examples of the domineering Cleese to come in future episodes.

Like a lot of Man’s crisis etc, the Encyclopedia Salesman sketch is a throwaway, but I’ve always rather liked it.

Next up – Episode Six – It’s The Arts

Monty Python’s Flying Circus – Series One, Episode Six – It’s The Arts

frog

After some silly captions (Python always loved captions) we move to It’s The Arts, which is designed to see how many times the name of a forgotten composer can be recited before it becomes incredibly irritating.  His name?  Johann Gambolputty de von Ausfern-schplenden-schlitter-crass-cren-bon-fried-digger-dingle-dangle-dongle-dungle-burstein-von-knacker-thrasher-apple-banger-horowitz-ticolensic-grander-knotty-spelltinkle-grandlich-grumblemeyer-spelter-wasser-kurstlich-himble-eisen-bahnwagen-guten-abend-bitte-ein-nürnburger-bratwürstel-gerspurten-mitz-weimache-luber-hundsfut-gumberaber-shönedanker-kalbsfleisch-mittleraucher-von-Hautkopft of Ulm.  Terry Jones is his only surviving relative who pegs out halfway through reciting his name.  Interviewee John Cleese doesn’t seem too concerned about this and pops off to grab a shovel to dig him a makeshift grave!

Michael Palin is very good as the boss of a crime syndicate that never actually breaks the law.

Right … this is the plan then. At 10:45 .. you, Reg, collect me and Ken in the van, and take us round to the British Jewellery Centre in the High Street. We will arrive outside the British Jewellery Centre at 10:50.  I shall then get out of the car, you Reg, take it and park it back here in Denver Street, right? At 10:51, I shall enter the British Jewellery Centre, where you, Vic, disguised as a customer, will meet me and hand me £5.18.3d. At 10:52, I shall approach the counter and purchase a watch costing £5.18.3d. I shall then give the watch to you, Vic. You’ll go straight to Norman’s Garage in East Street. You lads continue back up here at 10:56 and we rendezvous in the back room at the Cow and Sickle, at 11:15. All right, any questions?

It fits into a familiar pattern for Python – visually they look and sound like criminals, so the reveal that they aren’t is the key.  It maybe should have been more of a throw-away, but it’s worth it for Palin’s hysterical reaction when he discovers that one of his gang has left their car five minutes overdue on a parking meter.

Five minutes overdue. You fool! You fool! All right … we’ve no time to lose. Ken – shave all your hair off, get your passport and meet me at this address in Rio de Janeiro Tuesday night. Vic – go to East Africa, have plastic surgery and meet me there. Reg – go to Canada and work your way south to Nicaragua by July. Larry – you stay here as front man. Give us fifteen minutes then blow the building up. All right, make it fast.

Crunchy Frog is one of Python’s stand-out sketches – which is no doubt reinforced since it featured during most of their live performances, up to and including the O2 gigs earlier this year.  It’s possible to imagine it being performed by Cleese/Palin with Palin acting shifty and defensive as the Whizzo Chocolates boss (like the Dead Parrott/Chesse Shop sketches) but whilst that would have worked quite well, what we actually had was even better.  Terry Jones is proud of his confectioneries and puzzled as to why anybody could find them at all problematic.  Add in John Cleese’s pernickety high-pitched policeman and you have a classic sketch.

Most members of Python faced the possibility of a life in a dead-end job after they left University, so it’s not really a surprise that so many of their sketches feature grey little men who tend to be either Stockbrokers or Chartered Accountants.  One of these is Michael Palin in The Dull Life of a City Stockbroker who blithely ignores all the excitement around him (a wonderfully made-up John Cleese as Frankenstein’s monster killing people at the bus-stop and a topless lady in the newsagents, for example) and instead retreats into the excitement of his DC-style comic.  This leads into some nice Gilliam animation which then segues into the theatre sketch.

Graham Chapman is an inoffensive chap waiting for the curtain up and Eric Idle is a Red Indian who sits next to him.  This bizarre culture clash (“Me heap big fan Cicely Courtneidge. She fine actress … she make interpretation heap subtle … she heap good diction and timing … she make part really live for Indian brave. My father – Chief Running Stag – leader of mighty Redfoot tribe – him heap keen on Michael Denison and Dulcie Gray”) is the motor which drives the sketch. It’s also of interest, since Chapman and Idle appear to be sitting in the Python audience which allows us a quick look at the people who came to these early recordings.

Graham Chapman (as in the Theatre sketch) tended to play the more normal, grounded characters (see The Holy Grail and The Life of Brian for further examples of this).  So Twentieth Century Vole allows him a more grotesque character – the despotic film producer Irving C. Saltzberg.  This sketch allows us to see all six Pythons together (as well allowing Terry Gilliam his most lines to date) plus guest Ian Davidson.  The premise is simple – Saltzberg is a tyrant and his employees are all frightened yes-men who attempt to interpret their boss’ whims and provide him with the answer they think he wants.

Twentieth Century Vole has some good moments, although once you understand the premise of the sketch there’s no real surprises and it doesn’t spin off into an unexpected direction.  But it’s worthwhile for Saltzberg’s increasingly bizarre story ideas and, of course, “Splunge”!

Well now we’re getting somewhere. No, wait. A new angle! In the snow, instead of the tree, I see Rock Hudson, and instead of the dog I see Doris Day and, gentlemen, Doris Day goes up to Rock Hudson and she kisses him. A love story. Intercourse Italian style. David Hemmings as a hippy Gestapo officer. Frontal nudity. A family picture. A comedy. And then when Doris Day’s kissed Rock Hudson she says something funny like…

Next Up – Episode Seven – You’re No Fun Anymore

Monty Python’s Flying Circus – Series One, Episode Seven – You’re No Fun Anymore

scifi

Although the first six episodes of Python had spun about in various different ways, You’re No Fun Anymore is a departure from the norm.  The first five minutes or so seem to be operating in the usual way but the remainder is devoted to a single sketch – that of the tennis-playing blancmanges from outer-space.

We open with Eric Idle as a camel-spotter.

Interviewer: Well, now tell me, what do you do when you spot a camel?
Spotter: Er, I take its number.
Interviewer: Camels don’t have numbers.
Spotter: Ah, well you’ve got to know where to look. Er, they’re on the side of the engine above the piston box.
Interviewer: What?
Spotter: Ah – of course you’ve got to make sure it’s not a dromedary. ‘Cos if it’s a dromedary it goes in the dromedary book.
Interviewer: Well how do you tell if it’s a dromedary?
Spotter: Ah well, a dromedary has one hump and a camel has a refreshment car, buffet, and ticket collector.

The sketch terminates with Idle declaring “You’re no fun anymore” which leads into several other sketches where we only see the shots of the same punch-line – much to Idle’s chagrin who’s peeved that everybody else has pinched his line.

After the accountant sketch and a very worthwhile public-service announcement (“And now here is a reminder about leaving your radio on during the night. Leave your radio on during the night“) we’re into the heart of the episode, introduced by Michael Palin’s creepy redcoat.

Now we’ve got some science fiction for you, some sci-fi, something to send the shivers up your spine, send the creepy crawlies down your lager and limes. All the lads have contributed to it, it’s a little number entitled, Science Fiction Sketch.

Englishmen (and women and babies) are being transformed into stereotypical Scotsmen (complete with kilt, bushy red beard and bagpipe accompaniment).  The establishment are baffled, but luckily for us Graham Chapman is an expert in why people change from one nationality to the other and Donna Reading is his incredibly dumb (but pretty) girlfriend who asks all the questions you would expect someone to ask in this type of story.

reading and chapman

At this point in time the team don’t seem to have settled on Carol Cleveland as their default female performer which is reputably because director Ian McNaughton wanted to hire various different actresses in order to have a variety of pretty faces in the episodes.  Reading is fine but she lacks the sense of comedy timing that Cleveland would have brought to the part.

The sketch can be broken down into various smaller sketches, some of which would have worked well by themselves.  Probably the best of the bunch is John Cleese’s police Sergeant who simply can’t understand how Eric Idle and four friends can play a game of doubles.

Sergeant: A blancmange, eh?
Girl: Yes, that’s right. I was just having a game of doubles with Sandra and Jocasta, Alec and David…
Sergeant: Hang on!
Girl: What?
Sergeant: There’s five.
Girl: What?
Sergeant: Five people . . . how do you play doubles with five people?
Girl: Ah, well … we were…
Sergeant: Sounds a bit funny if you ask me … playing doubles with five people…
Girl: Well we often play like that… Jocasta plays on the side receiving service…
Sergeant: Oh yes?
Girl: Yes. It helps to speed the game up and make it a lot faster, and it means Jocasta isn’t left out.
Sergeant: Look, are you asking me to believe that the five of you was playing doubles, when on the very next court there was a blancmange playing by itself?.
Girl: That’s right, yes.
Sergeant: Well answer me this then – why didn’t Jocasta play the blancmange at singles, while you and Sandra and Alec and David had a proper game of doubles with four people?
Girl: Because Jocasta always plays with us. She’s a friend of ours.
Sergeant: Call that friendship? Messing up a perfectly good game of doubles?
Girl: It’s not messing it up, officer, we like to play with five.
Sergeant: Look it’s your affair if you want to play with five people … but don’t go calling it doubles. Look at Wimbledon, right? If Fred Stolle and Tony Roche played Charlie Pasarell and Cliff Drysdale and Peaches Bartcowitz… they wouldn’t go calling it doubles.
Girl: But what about the blancmange?
Sergeant: That could play Ann Haydon-Jones and her husband Pip.

There’s a certain wonky logic to the story.  The blancmanges are desperate to win Wimbledon and believe that if they turn all Englishmen into Scotsmen (as it’s well known that the Scots can’t play tennis) then they’ll have a clear run to the title.  This rather ignores all the other countries that are good at tennis, but this is a story about blancmange’s playing tennis so I’m not going to argue points of logic.

There are some (I assume) deliberately wobbly effects (an unconvincing flying saucer and the blancmanges themselves) which add to the general 1950’s b-movie feel.  Although the science fiction sketch isn’t wall-to-wall hilarity, there’s enough good stuff to hold the interest although it would be a long time before the Pythons would attempt something similar.

Next up – Episode Eight – Full Frontal Nudity

Monty Python’s Flying Circus – Series One, Episode Eight – Full Frontal Nudity

merely resting

I’ve previously touched upon how the Pythons generally eschewed punch-lines in favour of a style described by them as a “stream of consciousness”.  So the sketches could be linked by Terry Gilliam’s animations, vox pops from the man and woman in the street or, as in Full Frontal Nudity, a single character interrupting the sketches to complain that everything had got “too silly”.

Full Frontal Nudity treads a difficult path – not only do we have the Colonel bringing the majority of the sketches to an abrupt end with his complaints and criticisms, the Pythons also seem to delight in highlighting the inadequacy of their material.  Two sketches are terminated after the line delivered by the token female is criticized – with her wailing that “It’s my only line”.  When the Colonel curtails the opening sketch and orders the telecine to be run, Terry Jones comments that “The general public’s not going to understand this, are they?”.  And again it’s Jones (towards the end of the Dead Parrot sketch) who is apologetic for the sketch spluttering to an end, since “Oh yeah, it’s not easy to pad these out to thirty minutes”.

If you continually mock your own efforts, then there’s a real danger that the audience will agree – but by dropping this show eighth into the run it works much better than if it appeared earlier.  However, the Pythons weren’t the first to play with the format of the sketch show, it was Spike Milligan’s Q5 that really opened their eyes, as Terry Jones explains.

(Spike) made it so clear that we’d been writing in cliches, where we either did three minute sketches with a beginning, middle and end, or we did one joke with a blackout.

Once they found they were free from such self-imposed restrictions, the Pythons were able to experiment even further.  Full Frontal Nudity is one of more successful examples of this from the first series.

After a few vox pops on the merits of full frontal nudity, there’s a voice-over played over stock footage from WW2 – “In 1943, a group of British Army Officers working deep behind enemy lines, carried out one of the most dangerous and heroic raids in the history of warfare. But that’s as maybe. And now . . .”

This is the first wrong-footing moment as we jump to unoccupied Britain 1970 and Watkins (Idle) who’s a solider who wants to leave the Army because it’s dangerous (“A bloke was telling me, if you’re in the army and there’s a war you have to go and fight. I mean, blimey, I mean if it was a big war somebody could be hurt”). This is a nice, silly idea and it doesn’t go on too long.

We then meet Luigi and Dino (Palin and Jones), two Italians who are keen to offer the Colonel the benefits of their protection (“You’ve got a nice army base here, colonel. We wouldn’t want anything to happen to it”). The fact that they’re running a protection racket becomes clear very quickly, but the sketch continues for a while longer – possibly it was extended so that when the Colonel brings it to a halt (“No, the whole premise is silly and it’s very badly written. I’m the senior officer here and I haven’t had a funny line yet. So I’m stopping it”) it has a little more impact.

My favourite sketch in this episode is Buying a Bed.  Terry Jones and Carol Cleveland are newlyweds keen to buy a bed.  The problem is that Mr Verity (Idle) multiplies every figure by ten whilst Mr Lambert (Chapman) divides every figure by three.  At the start of the sketch you can’t help making mental calculations to follow the discussion of bed sizes, but this is fairly irrelevant as once Mr Lambert hears the word “mattress” he places a paper bag on his head and Mr Verity has to step into a tea-chest and sing Jerusalem to snap him out of it.  Yes, there’s only a illogical logic to this, but it works (I don’t know why, but it does).  And presumably the names of the two salesman were deliberately chosen to pay tribute to a certain well-known female television producer.

There’s also a sketch about a dead parrot, which has become quite well known.  The Dead Parrot is, of course, one of Python’s greatest hits, although like a lot of the material from the first series it’s received politely, but without wild enthusiasm, by the studio audience.  But they do warm up a little as Cleese gets to the end of his rant.

It’s not pining, it’s passed on. This parrot is no more! It has ceased to be. It’s expired and gone to meet its maker.This is a late parrot. It’s a stiff. Bereft of life, it rests in peace. If you hadn’t nailed it to the perch it would be pushing up the daisies. It’s rung down the curtain and joined the choir invisible. This is an ex-parrot.

When performed live it was no surprise that it tended to end after Cleese’s line “If you want to get anything done in this country you’ve got to complain till you’re blue in the mouth” as it meanders on for a few minutes more with the odd nice moment (arguing that the palindrome of Bolton would be Notlob rather than Ipswich) but this may be another sketch that’s been allowed to run on longer in order to justify bringing on the Colonel to stop it.

Hell’s Grannies and the even more bizarre follow-ups (baby snatchers and vicious gangs of keep left signs) end what is probably the best show from the first series of Python and one the strongest from all four series.  Others might have equally good sketches, but Full Frontal Nudity flows well from sketch to sketch with very little filler.

Next Up – Episode Nine – The ant, an introduction