Python at 50: BBC delves into its archive to share rarely seen Monty Python moments

FILM. 'Monty Python and The Holy Grail' Terry Jones, Eric Idle, Graham Chapman and Michael Palin Distributed by Twentieth Century Fox (UK): Twentieth Century Fox
FILM. 'Monty Python and The Holy Grail' Terry Jones, Eric Idle, Graham Chapman and Michael Palin Distributed by Twentieth Century Fox (UK): Twentieth Century Fox

In an interview with the Radio Times to promote tomorrow’s Python night, John Cleese observes that the BBC, “for reasons that I’m not very clear about”, has not broadcast Monty Python’s Flying Circus for almost 20 years.

No doubt they have their reasons but if they are not contractual, it does seem peculiar that the Corporation hasn’t made more of one of the treasures of its archive.

Python at 50 has a go, though it’s essentially a clips show with one of those bewilderingly inclusive voiceovers (by Doon Mackichan). “Sick, surreal, or just plain silly?” it asks, ignoring the possibility that these qualities are compatible.

The Python story is told more conventionally in the 2009 documentary, which screens at 9pm. This film gives the story a tangential frisk, employing vintage interview footage, much of it very funny, some of it surprisingly revealing.

(Alan Howard/Getty Images)
(Alan Howard/Getty Images)

What do we learn? The Python team was a matter of group chemistry. Like the Beatles, they were individually talented but the key to their work can be located in the way their foibles reacted together.

Also, when you analyse why their routines worked, the magic disappears. Cleese, whose comedy is rooted in a subversion of uptight Englishness, has little time for The Ministry of Silly Walks, though the way he wallops Michael Palin in the face with a fish displays an instinctive grasp of slapstick. Cleese is also self-satirising, showing off the tender shoots of his 1979 hair transplant, while noting — half-jokingly — that it was tax-deductible. The same for the teeth. And the knees.

(Dave J Hogan/Getty Images)
(Dave J Hogan/Getty Images)

The Python whose reputation is most enhanced is Terry Gilliam, whose stop-motion surrealism provided an absurd frame for the sickness and the silliness. Terry Jones comes across as the Python who got things done, laughing off accusations of blasphemy in The Life Of Brian (“we didn’t have much quarrel with Christ”), while the professionally outraged Malcolm Muggeridge plays the prize pranny by refusing to look on the bright side of life.

“All you’ve done is make a lot of people on a cross sing a music hall song,” he complains. Your point, caller? Those televised interrogations would never happen now, and neither, sadly, do the intelligent talk shows, such as Parkinson, on which the least-remembered Python, Graham Chapman, discusses his alcoholism and his fear of “coming out of the closet”.

Python at 50: Silly Talks and Holy Grails airs on BBC Two on September 7 at 10pm.

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