Is there a comedy troupe as beloved and influential as Monty Python? It’s hard to remember many before them (except The Goons), and those who followed in their footsteps are always compared to the Pythons. It’s been 50 years since their acclaimed BBC sketch show Monty Python’s Flying Circus was first transmitted in 1969, and the six Pythons remain the doyens of this particular style of comedy.
As university students, Terry Jones and Michael Palin were part of the Oxford Revue, whereas Graham Chapman, John Cleese, and Eric Idle had joined the Cambridge Footlights. Terry Gilliam (the lone American of the group) met Cleese in New York City when the Footlights were on tour overseas, staging their ‘Cambridge Circus’ 1964 revue on Broadway. The Pythons were separately involved in many comedy TV shows and satirical programmes of the 1960s (most famously appearing on the BBC’s The Frost Report), but it was Do Not Adjust Your Set (1967–69) on ITV that was the true precursor to Flying Circus. It assembled Idle, Jones and Palin on-screen, with surreal cartoons created by American animator Gilliam for the later episodes. Cleese was a big fan of this short-lived series (he even attended a studio recording) and so, when the BBC expressed interest in giving him and Chapman their own show, he invited Palin to join them… who in turn roped in Idle, Jones, and Gilliam.
The Pythons officially formed over a meal in a tandoori restaurant in Hampstead on 11 May 1969, before retiring to Cleese’s apartment to discuss ideas for their new group project.
While Flying Circus is hailed as a pioneering comedy, in truth its constituent parts existed in the work of their peers—particularly Spike Milligan’s short-lived series Q… (1969), which was just as irreverent as Python and likewise toyed with the conventions of television itself. Indeed, Ian MacNaughton was hired to direct Flying Circus specifically because he’d directed Q…—although he wasn’t available for the first four episodes, which were handled by John Howard Davies.
Flying Circus effectively found a way to knit many pre-existing ideas and influences together, its machinery greased by Gilliam’s absurdist animations. Jones was particularly keen to ensure each episode flowed from one sketch to the next, nudged along by Gilliam’s cartoons—which helped them to segue from one idea to the next without everything feeling too random and hard to follow.
The Pythons wrote in pairs (Cleese/Chapman, Jones/Palin) with the exception of Idle and Gilliam—who worked alone. Their process was always democratic when they came together to review each other’s work, with only sketches the majority found funny being included in the finished product. Typically, Palin and Jones had a passion for writing the more visual and zany material, whereas Cleese and Chapman specialised in dense verbal sketches (often with a confrontational undercurrent), and Idle was apparently adept at extensive wordplay.
Before Monty Python’s Flying Circus took to the air, the troupe toyed with a number of ridiculous-sounding titles for the show—ranging from Owl Stretching Time and The Toad Elevating Movement to Vaseline Review and Bun, Wackett, Buzzard, Stubble and Boot. Monty Python’s Flying Circus was eventually arrived at because their BBC bosses described them as a “circus” wandering the corridors of Television Centre, “Flying” was added because it suggested a link to World War I (the famous Red Baron’s squadron was known as ‘the Flying Circus’), “Monty” was suggested by Idle in reference to WWII general Lord Montgomery, and Cleese thought “Python” would make an amusing surname because it evoked the image of a slimy theatrical agent. But they only settled on this now-iconic title because the BBC called a halt to their indecision after printing the title ‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus‘ title in TV schedules it was now impossible to reverse.
On 5 October 1969, Monty Python’s Flying Circus broadcast its first episode, “Whither Canada?” (an unused title for the show itself). Five decades later, it’s fascinating to watch this fledgeling half-hour, knowing this was the beginning of a world-dominating comedy that led to beloved movies and launched the careers of six men who became household names (and a national treasure in the case of Palin). The studio audience doesn’t seem to be sure of what to make of it, at least until the “It’s the Arts” sketch when Cleese’s interviewer wastes valuable time obsessing over the correct way to address Sir Edward “I don’t like being called Eddie-baby” Ross (Chapman). By design, there’s surrealism and unexplained weirdness floating around from the start, like the accidental deaths of various pigs, which only becomes funny once the gag’s had time to settle in. It’s not until halfway through that the episode’s rhythm has become apparent, and the episode ends on an early classic—“The Funniest Joke in the World.” This is a beautifully simple and amusing idea, that a man called Ernest Scribbler (Palin) has written a joke so hilarious that anyone hearing it dies of laughter. But rather than leave it there, the Pythons take the concept to imaginative heights others wouldn’t have bothered to explore, with WWII soldiers using the gag as a deadly weapon after it’s been safely translated into German and can slaughter Nazis on the battlefield just by being spoken aloud.
“Sex and Violence”
What’s remarkable about Flying Circus’s first series is how immediately watchable and fully-formed it is, only requiring a bit of tightening as things progressed. The Pythons themselves already slot neatly into the “types” of characters they’d often play to best effect, while the sense of absurdity is rampant from the start and trusts viewers to go with it. “Sex and Violence”, the second episode, isn’t as strong as the first, although it introduces the famous “and now for something completely different” phrase. And it at least has the always gigglesome “Marriage Guidance Counsellor” sketch (written by Idle), where a married couple—Arthur Pewtey (Palin) and Deirdre (Carol Cleveland, the troupe’s go-to “real woman”)—seek advice about their marriage from Idle’s counsellor, who’s instantly besotted with Deidre and blatantly wants to have sex with her, knowing Arthur’s too much of a cuckold to object. There’s a long British tradition of racy sexual comedy and so, while this sketch would be rewritten today to make Deidre more than just an eyelash-fluttering sex object, it’s funny how charming and harmless it feels. The joke’s not at the expense of Deirdre committing open adultery, or the shocking unprofessionalism of the counsellor, it’s on nerdy Arthur and his chronic wimpishness. He’s the caricatured Englishman with no spine, whose equable politeness is taken advantage of.
“How to Recognise Different Types of Trees From Quite a Long Way Away”
This feels about as long as its title, not helped by a courtroom sketch that outstays its welcome and a running gag about identifying a larch that’s irritating set up for an end-credits punchline not worth the bother. But there’s also the escalating mania of the “Restaurant Sketch” (where a minor complaint about a dirty fork is treated as a cardinal sin by the staff), which is a joy because of how calmly Chapman’s diner tries to deescalate matters and regrets ever mentioning unclean cutlery. Amusingly, that sketch ends with a traditional punchline the show draws attention to out of ironic embarrassment —as if ending sketches with a neat bow are beneath Python. And yet the “Seduced Milkman” sketch that immediately follows is arguably even more traditional, as a milkman (Palin) is seduced on the doorstep of a sexy woman (Donna Reading, not Carol Cleveland) and finds himself locked in an upstairs room with other milkmen she’s enticed indoors. Almost every Flying Circus episode contains at least one classic, and here it’s Idle’s famous “Nudge Nudge” (wink, wink) sketch; his innuendo-loving spiv the mould for all the ‘cheeky chappy’ Idle would be called upon to portray.
“Owl Stretching Time”
There isn’t much that stands out about “Owl Stretching Time”, alas, beyond a return for the premiere’s ‘The Colonel’ (Chapman) —who interrupts sketches that dare paraphrase the British Army’s slogan “It’s a man’s life in the Modern Army” (that’s not one you’d hear today). It also provides further evidence for a theory of mine that Idle wrote sketches that involve him canoodling with beautiful women, as he’s licked and fondled in a linking sketch here of him singing “Jerusalem (And Did Those Feet)” while strumming a guitar. The standout for Python fans is the “Self Defence Against Fresh Fruit” sketch - with Cleese at his hoppiest and shoutiest as a gym instructor pointlessly teaching a class how to defend themselves against bananas, orange, apples, etc. It’s not a favourite of mine, as I think it’s a half-amusing idea that goes on too long. This also tarnishes the final sketch, “Secret Service Dentists”, which is less fondly remembered but good cartoonish fun.
“Man’s Crisis of Identity in the Latter Half of the 20th Century”
There isn’t much that stands out about this one either, although the madcap theatrics of the “Confuse-a-Cat” team raised a few smiles—mostly because of how sloppy and obvious the camera editing is! The best sketch of a weak bunch is the “Silly Job Interview”, where Cleese asks Chapman a variety of bewildering questions with no rhyme-or-reason. It was actually written and performed on the 1968 TV series How to Irritate People (with Cleese interviewing Tim Brooke-Taylor, who later formed one-third of the post-Python comedy team The Goodies). There’s a slightly tedious reliance on vox pops in this instalment, too, as if to distract us from the lack of sketch creativity elsewhere. The “Newsreader Arrested” sketch could have developed into something special, as it presents a bizarre scenario where a news anchor (Idle) is unaware his own doppelganger is wanted for questioning by the police (in scenes playing out behind him on a big screen). But it’s doesn’t go anywhere interesting and feels like a malformed idea. I guess it’s mildly interesting that a sketch where sex is insinuated by suggestive footage (of phallic objects rising or entering holes) was probably the inspiration for the same joke in The Naked Gun 2 1/2: The Smell of Fear (1991) decades later.
“It’s the Arts (or: The BBC Entry to the Zinc Stoat of Budapest)”
The surprisingly famous “Crunchy Frog” sketch appears during this instalment, but I was more taken with “The Dull Life of a City Stockbroker”, where a boring suburbanite (Palin) travels to work, oblivious to all the exciting things happening around him (from a spear-throwing neighbour to bombs detonating around his double-decker bus). It’s not the cleverest of sketches, but I appreciated the visuals —and no, that doesn’t specifically mean the topless woman (something it’s hard to imagine seeing in a modern sketch show). We certainly wouldn’t see someone in brownface today, which happens when Idle plays a Red Indian for another sketch; a clear sign of how times have changed since 1969. The rest of the episode’s a little lacking for memorable moments, although I enjoyed the lunacy of the closing “20th Century Vole” sketch (written by Cleese and Chapman) about a loud American film studio executive who can’t be pleased by his fawning underlings (one of whom is played by Gilliam in a more overt on-camera appearance). And I didn’t even mention “Herr Gambolputty de von Ausfern- schplenden- schlitter- crasscrenbon- fried- digger- dingle- dangle- dongle- dungle- burstein- von- knacker- thrasher- apple- banger- horowitz- ticolensic- grander- knotty- spelltinkle- grandlich- grumblemeyer- spelterwasser- kurstlich- himbleeisen- bahnwagen- gutenabend- bitte- ein- nürnburger- bratwustle- gerspurten- mitz- weimache- luber- hundsfut- gumberaber- shönedanker- kalbsfleisch- mittler- aucher von Hautkopft of Ulm.” Sorry.
“You’re No Fun Anymore”
If one thing’s characterised the season thus far, it’s the randomness, as most sketch shows tend to be. That changes with “You’re No Fun Anymore”, as the opening salvo of sketches (most linked by the titular line of dialogue being used to end them) give way to a longer wheeze that spoofs alien invasion B Movies. It’s here the seeds for Python’s big-screen films were possibly sewn, with a story about alien blancmanges turning Englishmen into kilted ginger Scotsmen. The Scots are immediately drawn back to their homeland, causing a terrible case of overpopulation above Hadrian’s Wall (three Scots to a caber!), while England becomes a ghost town with a low populace keeping things running as best they can (one-man football matches, a commuter driving his own bus, etc.) It’s ultimately about extra-terrestrial blancmanges wanting to win Wimbledon because Scots are notoriously bad tennis players (how times change—eh, Andy Murray?), and this mad idea gives the Python’s an extended narrative to play with. It makes for a welcome change of pace, even if some of its ideas aren’t especially funny or have dated badly—like Chapman’s imperious scientist twice whacking his sexy assistant (Donna Reading) over the head for being a vain dimwit. But seeing this again did make me wonder why the Python’s never made a sci-fi comedy film. One can only assume they didn’t have a passion for the genre, unlike medieval legend and organised religion.
“Full Frontal Nudity”
Entering the second half of Series 1 and it’s clear Flying Circus is hitting its stride. “Full Frontal Nudity” brings back Chapman’s Colonel, who I find oddly hysterical whenever he interrupts sketches to reprimand the performers for letting things get “too silly”. It’s a brilliant way for the writers to effectively stop themselves from taking things too far, by having a literal disciplinarian step in to save them from themselves. The Colonel first appears in his own sketch, “Army Protection Racket”, being threatened by two cliched gangsters in pinstripe suits (“you’ve got a nice army base here, Colonel… we wouldn’t want anything to happen to it”), before going on patrol of all the other sketches to keep them in order. I’d be remiss not to mention the “Dead Parrot Sketch”, of course—inarguably the most famous thing Flying Circus produced over four series. It became one of sketch comedy’s most enduring skits. But while it’s an undoubted classic, everyone willfully forgets it begins with a clunker (Cleese’s complainant mistaking Palin’s petshop owner as a woman?!) and continues on for minutes past its peak. Everyone only remembers the sublime middle, peaking with Cleese’s euphemism-filled rant (“‘E’s expired and gone to meet ‘is maker! ‘E’s a stiff! Bereft of life, ‘e rests in peace! If you hadn’t nailed ‘im to the perch ‘e’d be pushing up the daisies!”) This is a cornerstone of Python. And this mid-series episode even has “Hell’s Grannies” to follow, and the less famous but still amusing “Buying a Bed” sketch, where each salesman has a peculiar quirk—like exaggerating numbers by ten, or putting a paper bag over their heads if anyone says “mattress”.
“The Ant, An Introduction”
Flying Circus had been on-air a few months by the time “The Ant, An Introduction” was shown, and in 1969 there wasn’t much competition for viewers, so one can sense the team getting more confident. There’s now an edgier sketch called “Homicidal Barber” (written and performed by Palin and Jones) that concerns a hairdresser frightened to give haircuts because he may be tempted to kill customers with razors and scissors, for instance. This segues into the famous “Lumberjack Song”, the first of many ditties Python would weave into their work, adding another strand of appreciation for their talents. (And yes, that’s Cleese’s then-wife Connie Booth as the wannabe lumberjack’s gal, who’d later co-create Fawlty Towers with her husband.) There’s also the first appearance of another bit of Python iconography, the ‘Gumby’ (a monumentally stupid man wearing a tank top and knotted handkerchief on their head), and one of my favourite lesser-remembered sketches called “The Visitors” where Chapman’s romantic night in gets rudely interrupted by all manner of boorish people - including Idle’s “Nudge Nudge” character, amusingly, here known as Arthur Name. While not the greatest of episodes, the nods to running gags and characters from previous sketches help give this half-hour a feeling of belonging to a series that’s rapidly developing and improving.
After the soaring highs of the preceding episode, it’s down to earth with a bump for “Untitled”, the weakest episode thus far. I liked the meta-comedy of a sketch where someone gets invited by the BBC to appear in the next sketch, but the “Bank Robber in a Lingerie Shop” sketch itself isn’t funny. The only entertaining sketch is “Ron Obvious” (Jones), where an ordinary man is exploited by an immoral manager (Palin, almost reprising the Sicilian gangster from the “Army Protection Racket” sketch) into undertaking impossible tasks: jumping the English Channel, eating Chichester Cathedral, tunnelling to Java, etc. The only other noteworthy thing is seeing Palin’s crooked pet shop owner return from the “Dead Parrot Sketch”, but for a much less amusing and tedious sequel-of-sorts. A poor episode that’s best forgotten.
“The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra Goes to the Bathroom”
Disappointingly, the downward spiral gets worse with “The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra Goes to the Bathroom”, as it only has a loose smattering of half-decent sketches— the best being an Agatha Christie spoof where various sleuths keep getting murdered while trying to deduce the culprit of a non-existent murder. There’s a bit of a dark streak to this episode, actually, as there’s also a recurring “Undertakers Film” with pallbearers offloading a corpse to lighten the load of a heavy coffin. There isn’t much else here that stands out, and no classics to make the mediocrity go down better, making one wonder if the Pythons were creatively spent and should have stopped after six or seven.
“The Naked Ant”
The penultimate episode isn’t a return to form, but it’s somehow interesting to me to see depictions of Adolf Hitler so close to the end of World War II, as they haven’t changed all that much in decades. Cleese plays “Mr Hilter” in the “Visitors from Coventry” sketch that segues into “Mr Hitler and the Minehead by-election”, and on some level that’s always good for a laugh, or just to see Palin’s obvious bald cap as “Bimmler”. But really, the only thing in this half-hour that registers is the “Upper-Class Twit of the Year” sketch, with an assortment of posh idiots performing various easy or ludicrous tasks like it’s an Olympic sport. Quite fun, if a touch too long. I also like the image of Chapman dangling upside-down in an underground cave in the “How Far Can a Minister Fall?” sketch, where his character has to keep a Party Political Broadcast going through extreme circumstances. But, truthfully, this was only a mediocre episode at best.
“Intermission (or: It’s the Arts)”
We mercifully end the first series on a positive note, although there are few classic sketches or memorable moments (with the exception of Cleese in “Albatross” selling said bird as a cinema snack). But it does have a better sense of sustained absurdity and good visuals, like a policeman inflating a criminal in a striped shirt and mask in “Probe-Around on Crime” —which leads to a foot chase and, unexpectedly, the use of magic wands. I also liked the oddity of the “Psychiatry” sketch (by Cleese and Chapman), which breaks down the conventions of sketch comedy writing as it goes along. The “Operating Theatre” sketch is also amusing for the ridiculous visual of Idle playing a spaced-out hippy who’s been squatting inside Palin’s stomach, causing him auditory hallucinations. There are quite a few crackpot ideas, as one might expect, but nothing gains enough cohesion to rise above their brief spurts of inspiration.
Blu-ray Special Features:
Network Distributing have remastered series 1 from its original elements, in celebration of Monty Python’s Flying Circus’s 50th anniversary. The result is the show’s first high-definition release on 1080p/AVC-encoded Blu-ray presented in 1.33:1 aspect ratio. (It’s also available on a new DVD again).
Flying Circus, like most British TV shows of the era, was filmed on videotape for the studio-based footage and they used 16mm film for everything shot outdoors. This means Network’s remastering is at its best with the scenes filmed outside, as there’s more visual information being captured for a more pleasing upgrade to the modern eye. But the videotaped sketches, which make up the majority of each episode, aren’t an eyesore in comparison.
It’s impossible to make a show from 1969 look like it was made yesterday (certainly a low-budget BBC sketch show), but colours are certainly more vibrant and the footage less grotty looking. The 2-inch videotape masters and surviving negative prints have been scanned in 2K and cleaned up, scene-by-scene, utilising the careful application of noise reduction to remove distracting levels of grain and print damage. The results are pleasing to the eye without betraying its vintage status, as episodes are still a little rough around the edges, but everything’s far crisper and less muddy. There’s no doubt the show has never looked better than here.
Here’s a nice video of Terry Gilliam being shown the fruits of Network’s labour, with particular attention on his famous animations (which arguably benefit the most from having their colours restored properly). He’s clearly delighted by what’s been achieved.
Given the effort that’s gone into restoring this classic and debuting it on Blu-ray, it’s a shame the menu screens don’t take advantage of what the Python iconography could deliver. Animated menus aren’t as popular these days, so anyone hoping for Gilliamesque animations inspired by the episodes will be sorely disappointed. The menu screen is a boringly orange and static, but also functional and fast-loading. It gets the job done, I suppose. But I’d have loved something more creative and fun. Imagine if Network had commissioned Gilliam to make some new animations!
The sound presented is a lossless Linear PCM 2.0 mono track and it’s not going to wow anyone, but it’s a faithful rendering of what audiences in ’69 would have heard. Only we now have better speakers to enjoy it! There are no hisses or pops with the audio, which again makes this restoration a treat for fans.
- “Sex and Violence” Studio Outtakes (HD, 10 mins.) This is exactly what it sounds like; quality footage of the Pythons filming various sketches from the second episode, but fluffing lines, corpsing, or having problems on-set (like Palin’s moustache falling off while dressed as a Frenchman). It’s always fun to get a peek behind-the-scenes, and this also gives an insight into the working relationship of the Pythons and their rapport around each other. There are also some unused Gilliam animations, which is a treat.
- “Full Frontal Nudity” Studio Outtakes (HD, 7 mins.) More of the above, for a different episode.
- “The Ant, An Introduction” Studio Outtakes (HD, 5 mins.) More of the above, for a different episode, with a focus on a missing element of the “Homicidal Barber” sketch.
- “Untitled”—Extended Ron Obvious Material and Clean End Titles (HD, 9 mins.) This is an elongated version of the “Ron Obvious” sketch, sometimes absent sound (but subtitled). It’s not substantially different (no new challenges for Ron), just less edited. The End Titles for the episode also appear but without the credits rolling over them.
Cast & Crew
writers: John Cleese, Michael Palin, Graham Chapman, Terry Jones, Eric Idle & Terry Gilliam.
directors: Ian MacNaughton & John Howard Davies.
starring: John Cleese, Michael Palin, Graham Chapman, Terry Jones, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam & Carol Cleveland.
All video-captures were taken directly from the 1080p Blu-ray source of this review, to help illustrate the success of the new restoration undertaken by Network Distributing.