by Allan Fish
(UK 1969-1974 1,479m) DVD1/2
p John Howard Davies d Ian McNaughton w Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin animation Terry Gilliam m “Liberty Bell” by John Philip Sousa
Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, Carol Cleveland, Connie Booth,
Can it be nearly forty years since Python first burst onto our screens? And when I say burst, I mean just that, because it really was like an explosion. What is perhaps ironic is that Python was rather one of the hybrids of various creative mixtures from a few years before. Palin, Idle and Jones came from Do Not Adjust Your Set, Cleese and Chapman from At Last the 1948 Show (the latter immortalised for the original ‘Four Yorkshiremen’ sketch), and with the animations of Gilliam and the spirit of The Goons and Beyond the Fringe, a legend was born. Whether introduced by Palin as a Ben Gunn-like shipwreckee or a tuxedoed Cleese from behind an old-fashioned BBC news desk, Python and its Sousa signature theme came to embody a whole comic generation. It remains the granddaddy of all sketch shows, still peerless to this day. It was a sketch show of the most difficult kind, in that it consisted of sketches with nearly exclusively new characters, as compared say to The Fast Show or plat du jour Little Britain, which took the easier way out of getting laughs out of recurring characters in different situations, relatively easy laughs once you’ve invented the characters. There’s no doubt which type of show is the most ingenious, and Python still stands head and shoulders above everything that has followed.
What is perhaps most remarkable about Python is that familiarity doesn’t breed contempt. For any sitcom like Fawlty Towers, Blackadder or The Honeymooners to stay so fresh and stand up to multiple viewings is miracle enough, but for a sketch show it’s truly awe-inspiring. Certainly the first series was the richest, with whole portions embedded deep in the subconscious; Flying Sheep, Musical Mice, The Mouse Problem, Bicycle Repair Man, Nudge Nudge, The Whizzo Quality Assortment, 20th Century Vole, Dead Parrot, The Lumberjack Song, The First Man to Jump the Channel, The Upper-Class Twit of the Year, Ken Shabby, and so many others. Series two and three may not quite have been up to the standard, but with portions such as the Spanish Inquisition, The Argument Bureau, The Ministry of Silly Walks, The Bishop, World Hide and Seek, Blackmail, The All-England Summarising Proust Competition, The Cheese Shop, Ken Clean-Air Systems, How Not to be Seen, Spam, and Spot the Looney, how can one complain? How to forget the discussions on the Norwegian blue, the request for Venezuelan beaver cheese, such delicacies as the Cockroach Cluster and the Spring Surprise, the tea serving of Mrs Two Lumps, eating Chichester cathedral, the recognition of the Larch, Giant Hedgehogs searching for Dinsdale Piranha, protecting yourself against men armed with bananas, eating one’s parents, being told that baked beans are off and, my own favourite, arguing in one’s spare time. To the uninitiated, it’s enough to leave much head-scratching, but for those in on the joke, instant joy.
Of course such things were always going to come to an end, and by the end of the third series the ingenuity started to run thin. Cleese made the decision to quit as performer and, largely, as writer, at the beginning of the fourth abortive series, and they concentrated instead on movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail and such individual enterprises as Fawlty Towers and Ripping Yarns. What is sad is that Python seems to have lost its place to many British TV commentators, and it’s probably better appreciated and fêted in the States than at home. Even John Cleese has been quoted as saying that a lot of Python was awful. Certainly there were ordinary sketches that fell rather horizontal, but many rose to unparalleled, dizzying heights of surreal insanity, with enough famous catchphrases to sink a dozen other sketch shows. And how can one not love a series whose original credits featured Cardinal Richelieu on wheels?