Lone Wolf Sullivan is a writer, songwriter, and studio musician.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Monty Python's Flying Circus (1969 - 1974) * * *

MONTY PYTHON'S FLYING CIRCUS was a group of six comedians who created a British television comedy sketch show that first aired on the BBC on October 5, 1969. The troupe included John Cleese, Eric Idle, Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam, and Graham Chapman. Forty-five episodes were made over four series with their distinctive brand of irreverent and often surreal comedy and satire on BBC-1 from 1969 through 1973 and on BBC-2, without Cleese, for the last few months of 1974--plus 2 episodes for German TV, both entitled "Monty Python's Fliegender Zirkus". The final episode of Series 4 was recorded on November 16 and broadcast on December 5, 1974.

BBC Announcer: We interrupt this program to annoy you and make things generally irritating.
Hermit: It's...

The first three series contained 13 episodes each, but the fourth ended after six. MONTY PYTHON offered savage broadsides against the pomposity and repression of the British establishment, spoofs of European history, satires of leading intellectual and cultural figures, and lots of cross-dressing men in drag. These ugly "women" were referred to as pepperpots, and usually Carol Cleveland appears for sexy female roles. The show is noted for its surreality, risqué or innuendo-laden humour, sight gags, and sketches without punchlines. It also features the animations of Terry Gilliam, which are often sequenced or merged with live action.

Announcer: And now for something completely different.

Loosely structured as a sketch show but with an innovative stream-of-consciousness approach, it pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable in style and content on TV. The irreverent skits are often surreal, baudy, uncompromising, tasteless, but inevitably hilarious. The troupe wrote and performed their work, changing the way performers entertained audiences. Monty Pythons' creative control allowed them to experiment with form and content, discarding rules of television comedy. Their influence on comedy has been overwhelming in the UK and in North America, influencing shows such as SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE.

The members of Monty Python were highly educated. Terry Jones and Michael Palin are Oxford graduates. Eric Idle, John Cleese and Graham Chapman are Cambridge graduates, and American-born member Terry Gilliam is an Occidental College graduate, with their comedy often pointedly intellectual by way of numerous references to philosophers and literary figures.

Graham Chapman was born in Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire, England on January 8, 1941. He was originally a medical student, but changed to theater when he joined Footlights at Cambridge. He completed his medical training and was legally entitled to practice as a doctor. Chapman was well known for his roles as straight-faced men of any age or class, frequently an authority figure such as a military officer, policeman or doctor, who could, at any moment, engage in "Pythonesque" maniacal behavior and then return to their former sobriety. Some of his sketches include "An Appeal from the Vicar of St. Loony-up-the-Cream-Bun-and-Jam", "The One-Man Wrestling Match", "Johann Gambolputty" and “The Argument Clinic". He was also skilled in abuse, which he used in sketches such as "The Argument Clinic" and "Flying Lessons". Chapman died of spinal and throat cancer on October 4, 1989. He is now lovingly referred to by the surviving Pythons as "the dead one."

Mr Barnard: What do you want?
Man: Well I was told outside that...
Mr Barnard: Don't give me that, you snotty faced heap of parrot droppings!
Man: What?
Mr Barnard: Shut your festering gob, you tit! Your type really makes me puke you vacuous, toffy-nosed, malodorous pervert!
Man: What? I came in here for an argument.
Mr Barnard: Oh, oh, oh, I'm sorry, this is "abuse'. You want Room 12-A just along the corridor.
Man: Oh sorry. Thank you very much, sorry, thank you.

John Cleese was born on October 27, 1939 in Weston-super-Mare, North Somerset, England, making him the oldest Python. Cleese’s surname was originally Cheese, but his father changed it to Cleese when he joined the army during World War I. John Cleese usually played ridiculous authority figures. Gilliam claims that Cleese is the funniest of the Pythons in drag, as he barely needs to be dressed up to look hilarious. Cleese is also well known for playing very intimidating maniacs. His character of Eric Praline, the put-upon consumer, is featured in some of the most popular sketches, most famously in "Dead Parrot". One skit that proved very memorable was the "Ministry of Silly Walks", where he worked for the eponymous government department. Another Cleese trademark is his over-the-top delivery of abuse, particularly his screaming "You bastard!" Having considered the possibility at the end of the second series, Cleese left the Flying Circus at the end of the third. He later explained that he felt he no longer had anything fresh to offer the show.

Doctor: Now I know some hospitals where you get the patients lying around in beds.
(man whispers into Doctor's ear)
Blood Bank Doctor: No. I'm sorry, but, no.
(man whispers again)
Blood Bank Doctor: No, you may not give urine instead of blood.

Terry Gilliam was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA, on November 22, 1940. He is the only member of the troupe of non-British origin, though he married a British citizen, makeup and costume designer Maggie Weston, and held dual American-British citizenship for 38 years before renouncing the former. Gilliam's unique visual style is characterized by sudden and dramatic movements and errors of scale set in surrealist landscapes populated by engravings of large buildings with elaborate architecture, grotesque Victorian gadgets, machinery, and people cut from famous pieces of art. All of these elements are combined in incongruous ways to obtain new and humorous meanings in surrealist collage assemblies. Initially only hired to be the animator of the series, Gilliam was not considered as an on-screen performer at first. However, the others felt they owed him something and so he sometimes appeared before the camera, generally in the parts that no one else wanted to play. Gilliam has gone on to become a celebrated and imaginative film director of such notable titles as TIME BANDITS (1981), BRAZIL (1985), THE FISHER KING (1991), TWELVE MONEYS (1995), and FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS (1998).

Eric Idle was born on March 29, 1943 in South Shields, Tyne and Wear, England. When Monty Python was first formed, two writing partnerships were already in place: Cleese and Chapman, Jones and Palin. That left two in their own corners: Gilliam, operating solo due to the nature of his work, and Idle. Regular themes in his contributions were elaborate wordplay and musical numbers. Younger than his colleagues and not from an already-established writing partnership prior to Python, Eric Idle is perhaps best remembered for his roles as a cheeky, suggestive, slightly perverted, upper middle class "playboy" in sketches such as "Nudge Nudge", and a crafty, slick and the shop keeper who loves to haggle in MONTY PYTHON'S LIFE OF BRIAN (1979). He is acknowledged as "the master of the one-liner" by the other Pythons, and is also considered the best singer/songwriter in the group, for example writing and performing "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" from THE LIFE OF BRIAN. Unlike Jones' high level in drag, he often plays female characters in a more straight-forward way. His appearances as upper-class, middle-aged females are his most notable.

Alan: Well last week, we showed you how to become a gynaecologist. And this week on "How to Do It" we're going to show you how to play the flute, how to split an atom, how to construct a box girder bridge, how to irrigate the Sahara Desert and make vast new areas of land cultivatable, but first, here's Jackie to tell you all how to rid the world of all known diseases.
Jackie: Hello, Alan.
Alan: Hello, Jackie.
Jackie: Well, first of all, become a doctor and discover a marvellous cure for something, and then, when the medical profession really starts to take notice of you, you can jolly well tell them what to do and make sure they get everything right so there'll never be any diseases ever again.
Alan: Thanks, Jackie, great idea. How to play the flute.
(produces a flute)
Alan: Well here we are. You blow there and you move your fingers up and down here.
Noel: Great, great, Alan. Well, next week we'll be showing you how black and white people can live together in peace and harmony, and Alan will be over in Moscow showing us how to reconcile the Russians and the Chinese. So until next week, cheerio!
All: Bye!

Terry Jones was born on February 1, 1942 in Colwyn Bay, Conwy, Wales. He has rarely received the same attention as his colleagues, but has been described by other members of the team as the "heart" of the operation. Recent Python literature has highlighted his lead role in maintaining the group's unity and creative independence. Python biographer George Perry has commented that should you "speak to him on subjects as diverse as fossil fuels, or Rupert Bear, or mercenaries in the Middle Ages or Modern China... in a moment you will find yourself hopelessly out of your depth, floored by his knowledge." Renowned by the rest to be "The best Rat-Bag woman in the business", his portrayal of a middle-aged housewife was louder, shriller and more disheveled than that of any of the others. He also often plays upper-class reserved men, such as in the famous "Nudge, Nudge" sketch and the "It's A Man's Life" sketch, and incompetent authority figures. Generally, he deferred to the others as a performer, but proved himself behind the scenes, where he would eventually end up pulling most of the strings.

Hungarian: If I said you had beautiful body, vould you hold it against me? I... I am no longer infected.
Milkman: Don't you shout at me, madam, don't use that tone. Now then, I must ask you to accompany me down to the dairy and do some aptitude tests.
Mrs. Pim: I've got better things to do than come down to the dairy!
Milkman: Mrs. Ratbag! If you don't mind my saying so, you are badly in need of an expensive course of psychiatric treatment. Now I'm not going to say that a trip down to our dairy will cure you, but it will give hundreds of lower-paid workers a good laugh.
Mrs. Pim: All right... but how am I going to get home?
Milkman: I'll run you there and back in my psychiatrist's float.
Mrs. Pim: ...All right.

Michael Palin was born on May 5, 1943 in Sheffield, South Yorkshire, England. The youngest Python by a matter of weeks, Palin is often referred to as "the nice one". He attended Oxford, where he met his Python writing partner Jones. Michael Palin was regarded by the other members of the troupe as the one with the widest range, equally adept as a straight man or wildly over the top character. He portrays many working-class northerners, often portrayed in a disgusting light. On the one hand, he plays weak-willed, put-upon men such as the husband in the Marriage Guidance Counsellor sketch, or the boring accountant in the "Lion Tamer" sketch. However, he is equally at home as the indefatigable Cardinal Ximinez of Spain in The Spanish Inquisition sketch. Another high-energy character that Palin portrays is the slick TV show host, constantly smacking his lips together and generally being over-enthusiastic. Palin eventually announced his retirement from comedy in the late 1990s and has written books and produced travel documentaries. His book "Michael Palin Diaries 1969-1979", published in 2007, gives a remarkable, and extremely amusing, inside view of the Python years.

Michael Palin: Mount Everest: forbiding, aloof, terrifying. The mountain with the biggest tits in the world.
Cardinal Ximinez: Nobody expects the Sp -
("THE END" appears on screen)
Cardinal Ximinez: Oh, bugger!

Writing started at 9 am and finished at 5 pm. Typically, Cleese and Chapman worked as one pair isolated from the others, as did Jones and Palin, while Idle wrote alone. After a few days, they would join together with Gilliam, critique their scripts, and exchange ideas. Their approach to writing was democratic. If the majority found an idea humorous, it was included in the show. The casting of roles for the sketches was a similarly unselfish process, since each member viewed himself primarily as a writer, rather than an actor desperate for screen time. When the themes for sketches were chosen, Gilliam had carte blanche to decide how to bridge them with animations, using a camera, scissors, and airbrush.

The usual Flying Circus opening began without the traditional opening titles or announcements. An example of this is the "It's" man: Palin in Robinson Crusoe garb, making a tortuous journey across various terrains, before finally approaching the camera to state, "It's...", only to be then cut off by the title sequence and the Liberty Bell theme song. The Liberty Bell, a march by John Philip Sousa, was chosen partly because the composition is in the public domain.

Many sketches are well-known and widely quoted, such as: "Dead Parrot", "The Lumberjack Song", "Spam", "Nudge Nudge", "The Spanish Inquisition", "Upper Class Twit of the Year", "Cheese Shop" and "The Ministry of Silly Walks". The Pythons play the majority of the series characters themselves, including the majority of the female characters, but occasionally they required regular supporting cast members including Carol Cleveland, referred to by the team as the unofficial "Seventh Python", Connie Booth (Cleese's then-Wife), Series Director Ian MacNaughton, Neil Innes (in the 4th series) and The Fred Tomlinson Singers for musical numbers.

The title Monty Python's Flying Circus was partly the result of the group's reputation at the BBC. Michael Mills, BBC's Head of Comedy, wanted their name to include the word circus because the BBC referred to the six members wandering around the building as a "circus". The group added flying to make it sound less like an actual circus and more like something from World War I. Monty Python was added because they claimed it sounded like a really bad theatrical agent, the sort of person who would have brought them together. A title considered instead of MONTY PYTHON'S FLYING CIRCUS was "Baron Von Took’s Flying Circus". "It’s" was also an early candidate for the title of the series.

The cast also includes: Carol Cleveland (Various in 34 episodes, 1969-1974), Ian Davidson (Algy Braithwaite in 8 episodes, 1969-1970), The Fred Tomlinson Singers (Amantillado Chorus in 7 episodes, 1969-1973), Connie Booth (Animated mother in 6 episodes, 1969-1974), Bob Raymond (Dad in 5 episodes, 1974), Lyn Ashley (Algon Girl in 5 episodes, 1970-1972), John Hughman (Alfred, Lord Tennyson in 5 episodes, 1970-1974), Rita Davies (The Black Spot Narrator in 4 episodes, 1969-1972), Stanley Mason (Clapper Man in 4 episodes, 1970-1971), David Ballantyne (Ivan the Terrible in 3 episodes, 1970-1971), Peter Brett (Door-to-Door Martial Arts Salesman in2 episodes, 1974), Flanagan (Anona Winn in 2 episodes, 1969-1970), Frank Lester (The Late Professor Thynne in 2 episodes, 1972-1974), Katya Wyeth (Elsie in 2 episodes, 1969), Richard Baker (Himself as BBC News Anchor in 2 episodes, 1972), Douglas Adams (Dr. Emile Koning, Surgeon in2 episodes, 1974), and Neil Innes (Hesitant guitarist in2 episodes, 1974). The script writers were: Graham Chapman (46 episodes, 1969-1974), Eric Idle (46 episodes, 1969-1974), Terry Jones (46 episodes, 1969-1974), Michael Palin (46 episodes, 1969-1974), Terry Gilliam (44 episodes, 1969-1974), John Cleese (43 episodes, 1969-1974), and Neil Innes (2 episodes, 1974). The series was directed by Ian MacNaughton (46 episodes, 1969-1974) and John Howard Davies (5 episodes, 1969).

In 2005 The Complete Monty Python's Flying Circus 16-Ton Megaset was released as a 14-DVD set with the two-disc Monty Python Live in space-saving Thinpaks. Some fans may want to pick and choose among the previously released individual volumes of Monty Python for their collection, but many will want to own this definitive megaset that contains all 45 episodes of MONTY PYTHON'S FLYING CIRCUS. This "persistently silly" collection encompasses three-and-a-half seasons of dead parrots, cross-dressing lumberjacks, loonies, upper class twits, baked beans, spam, spam, and spam. You get every episode put out on the BBC, and the extras give some insight into the making of the series through some written blurbs about each episode. They have spliced together some thematic skits and animations, you can test your trivial knowledge of the Pythons, and learn some history of the players. Also, some of the skits that they later performed live are available in the extras. The menu is also well done using Terry Gilliam's animations.

There is also the MONTY PYTHON Movie Box set that contains all 4 Python movies: AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT (1971), MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL (1974), the 2 disc set MONTY PYTHON'S LIFE OF BRIAN (1979) including a 50 minute documentary, and MONTY PYTHON'S MEANING OF LIFE (1983).

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