Monty Python’s Flying Circus wasn’t an immediate hit with viewers, as just 1.5M people saw the first episode (3% of the population) and ratings only modestly improved over course of Series 1. The BBC was also in two minds about its quality, with some executives labelling it “disgusting and nihilistic”, which rankled John Cleese in particular. But they’d also been surprised to see public appreciation building once viewers started to understand what Python was about, and some fans even sent sketch ideas into the BBC. A second series was therefore commissioned, although Cleese was already thinking it would be his swansong, and Series 2 duly launched in the autumn of 1970…
“Face the Press (or: Dinsdale)”
Eight months after the first series, Monty Python’s Flying Circus returned on 15 September 1970 for “Face the Press (or: “Dinsdale)”, and it was business as usual. There isn’t much to distinguish this episode from those that came the year before, except how the role of Michael Palin’s “It’s…” tramp is being shared by John Cleese’s “and now for something completely different” newsman. It’s the usual hit-and-miss bag, although I have a soft spot the Python sketches where bureaucracy or a lack of common sense makes life difficult for ordinary folk, here exemplified by the “New Cooker Sketch” when a housewife (Terry Jones) struggles to take delivery of the titular domestic item from two jobsworth deliverymen (Cleese and Palin) who have a different name on their invoice. The climactic “Piranha Brothers” sketch isn’t widely talked about these days, but it’s certainly a grower, as a current affairs programme delves into the criminal activities of two brothers called Doug and Dinsdale Piranha (modelled on infamous gangster twins ‘the Krays’, who ran the East End of London in the 1950s and ’60s). Only these siblings intimidated people with “violence and sarcasm”. But the standout here is “The Ministry of Silly Walks”, written by Palin and Jones, which relies entirely on the physical amusement of Cleese—wearing a bowler hat, carrying a briefcase, using his long limbs to delight the studio audience. Many supporting actors are also required to walk funny, but nobody gets close to what gangly Cleese is capable of. It’s undeniably one of Python’s enduring visuals and often ranks highly on best-of lists.
“The Spanish Inquisition”
A far better episode is the second instalment, which also has the rare distinction of being named after the best sketch contained within. “The Spanish Inquisition” is another prime piece of Python (written by Palin and Jones) where a trio of cardinals in red robes—Ximénez (Palin), Biggles (Jones), and Fang (Terry Gilliam)— interrupt a sketch whenever a character innocuously mentions they “didn’t expect the Spanish Inquisition”. It’s exactly the kind of nonsense Python became famous for, with a wonderful visual of the three crazy Cardinals (one dressed in aviator helmet and goggles) exploding into rooms and ineptly trying to complete their introductory speech. Ximénez’s tic that he can’t count, their methods of torture involve prodding with soft cushions and a comfy chair… it’s all delightfully mad and helps keep the episode together.
Other sketches are less famous, but I giggled at “The Semaphore Version of Wuthering Heights” (which is exactly as it sounds) and rather enjoyed the “Court Charades” sketch when the judge (Graham Chapman) and a jury member (Palin) can’t help having a quick game of charades over what they want to say. What makes it work is the sheer stupidity of everyone, as they struggle to guess “knot-gill-tea” and end up with a defendant being awarded his freedom as “knot-gill-cup”. The pacing is good for the half-hour and it felt more experimental, with a better version of a Series 1 idea when one sketch character gets recruited by a BBC exec to travel across town to participate in another sketch as a man who answers a door. Even the ending has meta fun with the format, as the Cardinals race against the rolling credits to make their belated debut in the courtroom sketch.
“Déjà Vu (or: Show 5)”
There isn’t too much to recommend in the third episode, as it doesn’t contain any classic sketches or any unsung gems. I quite enjoyed the “Flying Lessons” sketch where Graham Chapman (suspended on a wire) berates Terry Jones for enquiring about flying lessons in an aeroplane, as he believes to have conquered human flight and intends to prove he’s not suspended from the ceiling “with an ‘oop”. It segued into a “Hijacked Plane” sketch that also raised a few chuckles, as Michael Palin’s hijacker gets caught up in the strict meaning of his own words when asking the pilots not to move. One of the better ideas wasn’t explored as thoroughly as I’d have liked, with “The Poet Ewan McTeagle” clearly being a Scotsman who writes innocuous notes everyone around his mistake as high-quality poetry. And I was beginning to wonder why the episode’s called “Déjà Vu” until the last five minutes, with the titular sketch involving Michael Palin as the host of a science programme investigating déjà vu who finds himself stuck in a time-loop that sends him crazy. One imagines Python could have worked wonders with this idea, over an entire episode, but perhaps the troupe weren’t yet at the height of their powers… so the chance for an ahead-of-its-time Groundhog Day-style sketch show sadly wasn’t to be.
“The Buzz Aldrin Show (or: An Apology)”
There aren’t any standout classics in this episode, either, but that doesn’t really matter because the creativity levels seem higher. The way Gilliam’s animations interact with the live-action is becoming more experimental, with actors chromakeyed into the cartoons, or actors photographed into the animations. There’s even a fake opening credits sequence for an action-packed crime drama called “The Bishop” which is genuinely good, helped by using Henry Mancini’s ‘Peter Gunn Theme’.
The way sketches flow from one to the other is markedly interesting in this episode, which certainly helps with the pace. There’s also just a lot more material here, so the half-hour felt more packed and interesting to watch. The enjoyed the “Architects Sketch” where two inept architects pitch their ideas for new buildings (Cleese’s wants to butcher the residents like it’s an abattoir, while Eric Idle’s is to bad even his model breaks and bursts into flame), although the “Chemist Sketch” was more enjoyable because of how it toyed with its own nature (Idle’s customer breaking the fourth wall to reveal the artifice of what viewers are watching happen). The title also seemed totally random until Buzz Aldrin is mentioned towards the end, and it’s strange to realise the Moon Landing only happened the year before—so he was a new American celebrity with a strange name at the time this aired.
“Live from the Grill-O-Mat”
After some decent enough episodes, this fifth one felt more cohesive and interesting. I liked how the show was presented by Cleese from a dirty cafe (the Grill-O-Mat) and occasionally returned to him to set up the next batch of sketches, and even ended with Cleese on the bus home having a mental breakdown. And while there are no gold-standard classic moments, there are plenty of amusing and silly ideas that kept the time flowing along; from the excellent spoof quiz show “Blackmail” with Palin (where he plays a host threatening viewers with revealing dirty secrets) to Idle’s butcher who is alternately rude and polite to a customer. The weaving of live-action with Gilliam’s animation also continued, and several running gags returned… giving the impression the Python’s knew they had a loyal audience who would enjoy spotting recurring characters and jokes. Cleese’s character from the famous Parrot Sketch also pops up in a different sketch, so the show as a whole is developing a “world” of catchphrases and characters it can recycle and play to attentive fans with.
“It’s a Living (or: School Prizes)”
Only one classic this half-hour, but the sense of silliness and wordplay is hitting a sweet spot. Mr Dibley’s low-budget interpretations of “if…”, “Rear Window”, and “Finian’s Rainbow” are good for an easy giggle, but I was most taken with the ridiculousness of Michael Palin’s dinner party being interrupted by “Free Dung from the Book of the Month Club” and the agonising misunderstanding of Terry Jones trying to ask Eric Idle to “marry him” in the context of a registrar and not as a proposal. The “Timmy Williams Interview” created gales of laughter in the studio audience, but Idle’s parody of David Frost no longer works and I had to research exactly what he was poking fun at with his admittedly “super” performance. The lone classic sketch is the concluding “Election Night Special”, although the target is now overfamiliar with the Python’s parodying BBC’s 1970 election night coverage between the Sensible Part and Silly Party. But it’s exactly what they’re best at, with lots of mad costumes and ludicrous candidate names like Tarquin Fin-tim-lin-bin-whin-bim-lim-bus-stop-F’tang-F’tang-Olé-Biscuitbarrel. It’s a sketch that would be remade in 1974’s Monty Python Live at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane album.
“The Attila the Hun Show”
A parody of The Debbie Reynolds Show opens the episode, with barbaric Atilla the Hun (Cleese) the star of a studio-based multi-camera sitcom with canned laughter erupting after every lame joke, but I was perturbed by the sight of Idle in blackface as Atilla’s manservant ‘Uncle Tom’. A reminder 1970 was a less enlightened time, as Cleese himself also appears in blackface as a lost cricketer from the West Indies! Let’s move on. This episode is another so-so instalment, really—the image of Jones performing a striptease as the Secretary of State has become a memorable one, but the only genuinely amusing idea is “The Idiot in the Rural Society” with Cleese as an articulate man who pretends to be stupid in his role as a village idiot. Other ideas like “The News for Parrots” (then Gibbons and Wombats) aren’t especially good, although I giggled at last sketch “Spot the Braincell” (a spoof of Take Your Pick!) because of Cleese’s rictus grins as a smarmy gameshow host having to deal with Jones’s spectacularly dumb Mrs Scum.
The sketch that gave this episode its title starts promisingly, with Michael Palin interviewing two archaeologists (Cleese and Jones) and revealing he’s more interested in their respective heights and starts worshipping 6’5″ Cleese, but it’s returned to later on at an archaeological excavation with Cleese bursting into song and Palin fighting him with two people balanced on his shoulders—which is certainly silly, just not that funny. A reminder that Python was always hit-and-miss, even for a sketch show rated amongst the best ever made. The “Registrar” sketch with Idle trying to exchange his wife is amusing because of Idle’s performance, and a role reversal of an earlier episode’s sketch where Idle was the registrar and Jones the customer. Australian hunters Roy (Chapman) and Hank Spim (Idle) going after tiny prey, like mosquitoes and moths, with heavy artillery, also caused some chuckles… while it’s interesting to see Cleese reprise playing Beethoven in a sketch for the second time in the show’s history. (Although this version’s much less relaxed and is having a terrible time trying to compose at home.) The “Poofy Judges” sketch is nothing more than Idle and Palin playing camp as judges gossiping after a day in court, but it’s nicely played. Also interesting is Gilliam’s animation that includes a cameo from the giant hedgehog from the premiere that bellows “Dinsdale”, which gets the biggest reaction from the studio audience of the entire half-hour—suggesting those watching are committed fans and Flying Circus is definitely making its mark on pop culture around this time.
“How to Recognise Different Parts of the Body”
Series 2 is finding its groove, helped by the studio audience ‘sweetening’ some of the material because they seem more aware of what the show is and appreciate what it’s doing. “How to Recognise Different Parts of the Body” also benefits from a good way of linking sketches, basically improving on Series 1’s “How to Recognise Different Types of Trees From Quite a Long Way Away”—as human body parts are funnier than tree species. The episode also recycles the Aussie hunter costumes from the last episode, for minor classic the “Bruce Sketch” (by Cleese and Idle), where a bunch of ‘ocker’ Australians conform to stereotype for easy laughs. The sketch was redone numerous times on-stage, including Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl in 1982. The scale of Gilliam’s animations also continues to bloom, with a “Killer Cars” sequence that comes to involve a giant cat and hand essentially its own entity and not a means to link disparate ideas. Indeed, the audience laughed incredibly hard at a Gilliam moment when an old lady trips up a bus, just highlighting how much the animations were being appreciated at this point in the show’s history. A few of the sketches feel repetitive (like “There’s Been a Murder” again using whodunnit conventions as a backdrop, and the “Batley Townswomen’s Guild Presents the First Heart Transplant” being a sequel to Series 1’s “Batley Townswomen’s Guild Presents the Battle of Pearl Harbour”), but there’s generally a pleasing vibe to this instalment.
“Scott of the Antarctic”
Quite a strange episode, this one. It opens with a bizarre “French Subtitled Film” where Jones chats up a woman with long blonde hair sat in a rubbish tip holding a cabbage—poking fun at pretentious arthouse French cinema but without many laughs. And then we spend the majority of the episode on a “Scott of the Antarctic” sketch where a terrible American film producer (Idle) tries to shoot a South Pole historical epic at Paignton beach with Scott (Palin) stood on boxes while his co-star Mrs Evans (Carol Cleveland) stands on boxes inside a trench due to a non-existent height discrepancy the mad Scottish director (Cleese) insists is there. We’re almost 18-minutes into the episode before this sketch ends, after segueing into “Scott of the Sahara” (with a Palin vs. costumed-lion fight sequence), which is unusual for the show. We’ve had the occasional sketch that’s lasted a long time, but they’re usually long narratives ideas—like the tennis-playing blancmange invasion from Series 1. And when we do finally leave the Scott sketches, the ensuing “Fish Licence” sketch with a “looney” (Cleese) trying to license his halibut Eric isn’t exactly short and sweet either. Incidentally, this fish license sketch was altered to a “bee license” in the 1972 album Monty Python’s Previous Record and resulted in the “Eric the Half-a-Bee” song. An intriguing but largely unfunny episode that must have been torture for the studio audience, as nothing appears to have been recorded live (apart from Palin’s closing comment before he’s squished by a 16-tonne weight).
“How Not to Be Seen”
More to my comedic taste is “How Not to Be Seen”, which contains a number of amusing sketches; a “Conquistador Coffee Campaign” salesman (Idle) who makes outrageously bad marketing decisions; another “Agatha Christie” spoof where all the suspects have an encyclopedic knowledge of railway timetables that interests them more than a murder; and the titular running joke where seemingly empty vistas contains camouflaged folk who are executed once they make their whereabouts known. It’s also fun to see three old characters appear in vox pops: Arthur Name (Idle) from the classic “Nudge Nudge” sketch and Arthur Shabby—who are now Archbishops!—and the nude pianist (now played by Gilliam instead of Jones). There are lots of sketches in-between that work nicely, too, my favourite being an interview with a film director called Martin Curry (Chapman) who has incredibly length front teeth and only casts actors with the same deformity he doesn’t recognise in himself. It’s particularly amusing whenever the interviewers (Palin, Jones) keep accidentally saying dental words, as they’re so transfixed by Curry’s tusk-like appendages. A good all-rounder sort of episode.
One of Python’s legendary sketches ends the penultimate episode, with Jones playing a female café owner whose dishes always include spam. One tends to forget most of her customers are Vikings and the Idle and Chapman are lowered into the scene on wires, both for no clear reason. Or that Cleese’s character from the earlier “Dirty Hungarian Phrasebook” sketch gets involved in the scene. It’s a little surprising “Spam” caught on, really—maybe because it’s just a funny word? Or there was lingering amusement over the foodstuff, which wasn’t rationed during WWII so Brits of the era had a love-hate relationship with it. The sketch’s cultural impact was such that even the term for unsolicited e-mails came from this one sketch decades before. Quite remarkable. The rest of the episode’s fairly average, with something of an emphasis on epic scenarios—as we open with a “Black Eagle” sequence of pirates coming ashore, made to look like a 1950s historical movie (complete with scrolling legend), and later there’s a sketch called “Ypres 1914” that involves WWI soldiers preparing for certain death. The latter’s the comedic highlight, as Chapman essentially reprises his Army General character and the joke involves him trying to dodge being randomly chosen to die. I also found it interesting that one sketch, “Art Gallery Strikes”, is almost like a live-action version of a Gilliam animation, with characters from famous paintings ‘popping out’ from the canvas and having chats with each, to the bemusement of two gallery visitors. “Spam, spam, spam, spam…”
“Royal Episode 13 (or: The Queen Will Be Watching)”
A strong finish for Series 2, underpinned by the amusing conceit everyone’s aware the Queen will be watching at some point—so the “Liberty Bell” opening credits sequence is replaced with “Pomp and Circumstances March №1”, and during the “Insurance Sketch” Cleese and Idle stand to attention when word arrives HRH has tuned in. Some of the underlying jokes in this half-hour are variations on ideas we’ve seen before—like the working class having unexpectedly deep knowledge (Welsh miners arguing over when the Utrecht peace treaty was signed)—but it’s fast-paced and amusing nonetheless. I always giggle over the wordplay sketches, such as “The Man Who Says Things in a Roundabout Way” segueing into three interviewees who only say the beginning, middle, and ends of words. And there’s something of a sequel to Cleese’s loudmouthed gym instructor who teaches self-defence against fruit, in a funny sketch where he’s putting hospital patients through a military-style training regime despite them being on crutches and swaddled in bandages. A few of the sketches don’t quite land, like the final “Undertaker’s Sketch” where the live audience themselves start booing and eventually storm the set in anger, but it’s otherwise a decent end to a more consistent series.
Blu-ray Special Features:
My previous assessment of the picture and audio for these 13 episodes remains the same as my review of Series 1, so I won’t bore everyone by reiterating my points. It’s essentially a good upgrade thanks to Network’s restoration process that doesn’t remove the sense of watching something that’s now 50 years old.
- The Buzz Aldrin Show: Extended and Unused Filmed Material (HD, 3 mins.)
- Live from the Grill-O-Matic: Extended Kean Clean-Air System (HD, 9 mins.)
- It’s a Living: Extended Election Night Special (HD, 7 mins.)
- It’s a Living: Extended School Prizes (HD, 4 mins.)
- It’s a Living: Censored Audio (HD, 1 min.)
- How to Recognise Different Parts of the Body: Censored Audio (HD, 2 mins.)
- Scott of the Antarctic: Extended Filmed Material (HD, 16 mins.)
- How Not to Be Seen: Extended Conquistador Coffee (HD, 3 mins.)
- How Not to Be Seen: Unused Filmed Material (HD, 2 mins.)
- And Now for Something Completely Different (SD, 12 mins.) In 1970, Vic Jamison shot a student film about the making of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, featuring an on-set interview with John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Eric Idle and Michael Palin (in a break from the sketch with the hospital patients being given drill). It’s an interesting contemporaneous look at the show without the distance and acclaim the show now has, being more of an immediate response and interest in a comedy that was catching on with younger people.
- Interview with Ian MacNaughton (29 mins.) The director of the vast majority of Flying Circus in an audio interview recorded at Imperial College London in 1971, with an assortment of great behind-the-scenes photos shown over.
This Series 2 box-set review was being written when news of Terry Jones’ passing broke on 22 January 2020, so it seems only fitting to single out his contribution to Monty Python as a founding member. Jones often played characters that were more serious-minded but always innocent and charming, while having a tendency to strip down to his underwear (and even go nude) for an easy laugh. Jones is credited with insisting Python develop a stream-of-conscious style that became integral to how episodes were put together and segued into the next sketch—quite unlike most other sketch shows of the period.
And, for me, Terry Jones was the best Python when it came to dressing in drag to portray screechy-voiced battleaxe women—best exemplified by his role in the subsequent Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979) where he played Brian’s mum Mandy (“he’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy!”) Jones also directed that outing for the team, which was Python’s best in terms of performances and storytelling. It’s often a serious contender on lists of the best comedy movies ever made, and Terry Jones deserves much of the credit for how well it worked.
Cast & Crew
writers: John Cleese, Michael Palin, Graham Chapman, Terry Jones, Eric Idle & Terry Gilliam.
director: Ian MacNaughton.
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.