Well, legendary comedy group Monty Python shocked a lot of people when they announced that they will reunite for a few shows next year. The announcement came last week and was met with great surprise and enthusiasm (the reunion was originally only to be for 1 show but it sold out the minute tickets went on sale so the Pythons added more dates).
Most people are shocked due to the fact that the Pythons had been dismissing any talk of a reunion for over 10 years. They had been offered many attractive deals to reunite (1 promoter offered them 10 million to do a show in Las Vegas) but had turned them all down.
There are some personal differences amongst the surviving members of the group (Graham Chapman died in 1989) which had to be sorted out. Also, some members cited their advanced age (they’re all now at least 70) which would make performing skits and touring quite difficult (though the Rolling Stones are still going). Ironically, age was cited as a barrier to reuniting nearly 15 years ago, so obviously the members are much older now!
Still, the fact that the first new show sold out is proof that Monty Python still has many fans out there. The group has been one of the most successful and inspirational (in terms of inspiring future comedians) comedy teams in history and have being often referred to as ‘the Beatles’ of comedy (by no greater source than George Harrison, who became friendly with some of the Pythons and actually financed their iconic film, Life of Brian!).
In fact, all 4 Beatles were fans of the group. John Lennon attended their award-winning stage show at the Hollywood Bowl, Paul McCartney used to stop his recordings whenever the original sketch show was on and Ringo Starr used to raise hell with Graham Chapman in the 1970’s.
While it’s true to say that some of the Pythons will be now better known for stuff they did outside the group (John Cleese will probably be best known for Basil Fawlty; Michael Palin is recognised more now for his travel programmes), the Python name itself is still an iconic one. But where did it all come from?
Monty Python comprises of Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin. All bar Gilliam were born in Britain during the years of the 2nd World War (Gilliam was born in America in that same era), between 1939 (Cleese) and 1943 (Palin).
While they were too young to really remember the war itself, most of the group were affected in some way by the conflict (Terry Jones’s father was in the RAF, as was Eric Idle’s father, who sadly had been decommissioned from the force and was heading home to his family when he was run down by a lorry and killed).
They grew up in a time where rationing was still in affect and all came from lower middle class backgrounds. These years were to influence a lot of their comedy as the deferential society of the past was slowly being eroded away.
Gone was the time where institutions such as the royal family, politicians, religious figures, etc were seen as being above ridicule. Now, nothing was sacred and everything became a target. There were 2 main comedians and comedy groups that were influential in this changing world, Spike Milligan and Peter Cook. Both were adored by the Pythons when they were growing up and both helped pave the way for their style of comedy.
Milligan had fought in the war himself (indeed, he suffered from horrible manic depression for the rest of his life, by incidents caused during his tour of duty) and in the 1950’s, he joined up with 2 fellow former service-men, Harry Secombe and Peter Sellers to form the legendary Goons! Milligan’s mania helped him to write the most incredible scripts filled with ridiculous lunacy, which became a favourite of the nation (Prince Charles was a fan). As were the teenage Beatles. In fact, future Beatles producer, George Martin, produced the recordings of the Goon Show.
The young Pythons were avid listeners. As they grew older, the started to become fond of another comedy group called Beyond the Fringe. This group comprised 2 students from Oxford (Dudley Moore and Alan Bennett) with 2 from Cambridge (Peter Cook and Jonathan Miller). The Pythons would have their own ‘Oxbridge’ balance.
The Fringe team were more traditional in their style of comedy than the Goons (much less zany) and were one of the originators of satire, attacking sacred institutions, Cook being at the forefront of this (Cook is almost the godfather of British comedy. He once had 2 west-end shows running simultaneously, which he had written all the material for, while still only 20! ).
Graham Chapman was almost directly influenced by the Fringe team in his choice of career paths. While watching the comedy team perform, he discovered that Jonathan Miller had studied Medicine at Cambridge, while being a member of the famous Footlights team. Chapman had already decided he wanted to be a doctor (like his brother) so he decided to study medicine at Cambridge (while spending most of his time performing with the Footlights).
While auditioning for the Footlights he met another student, also auditioning. A law student whose name was John Cleese. The 2 got on well together and soon decided that they’d like to write sketches together. In a few years they would be joined by and English student called Eric Idle.
Over in Oxford, History student, Terry Jones was becoming friendly with English student, Michael Palin and they soon started writing together. While Oxford doesn’t have an equivalent to the Footlights they had a great comedy pedigree and sent up shows to the Edinburgh Comedy Festival. The future Pythons would see each other perform on stage.
(Oxford and Cambridge have given the world some of the most famous British comedians. As well as the aforementioned ‘Fringe and Pythons there’s also, Rowan Atkinson, Richard Curtis, Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie).
While each of the Pythons were leaving college they had a wish to continue in comedy. Chapman and Cleese’s Footlights group were commissioned to do a tour of New Zealand and later America (Graham Chapman had a story where he had left Cambridge and started as a intern in a hospital. One day the Queen Mother came to open a new wing of the hospital and Chapman got talking to her. He told her that he’d being offered a chance to go to New Zealand and the Queen Mother told him he should go. Forever after he told people he’d been ordered into comedy by Royal Proclamation!)
The producers of Cambridge Circus (Chapman and Cleese’s comedy team, which also included future Yes Minister co-writer Jonathan Lynn), were hoping that the show would be a hit like Beyond the Fringe (which had taken America by storm). It didn’t really work out like that, but one American was a big fan of the show and he went backstage to introduce himself, Terry Gilliam.
Cleese, especially, became friendly with Gilliam and decided to stay in New York after the others had gone back to England and work as a journalist, after a chance meeting with a newspaper editor in a subway station.
Terry Gilliam was working at a satirical magazine where he mainly did comic strips. He had had an idea for a strip where a man becomes infatuated with his daughter’s Barbie doll! He thought Cleese would be perfect for the role of the man!
Cleese’s time in New York didn’t work out very well but he managed to meet a young woman called Connie Booth and returned home to England with a fiancé and work in a solicitor’s firm. He was about to start in the firm when he got a call from another Cambridge alumnus who had developed a new comedy show for the BBC and wanted Cleese to write and perform in it. The law firm had offered Cleese £12 a week, while the BBC offered him £30. He took the job with the producer, whose name was David Frost.
Frost had done a show in the early ’60’s called That Was the Week That Was which was 1 of the first satirical shows broadcast on television. The show didn’t last for very long but he had gotten an idea for a show which he thought might be more successful, the Frost Report.
On the Frost Report, Cleese would also be joined by 2 young comedians called Ronnie Corbett and Ronnie Barker (who would later become famous as the 2 Ronnies). Frost also got in some new writers for the show, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, Eric Idle and Graham Chapman.
5 sixths of the Python team were now all gathered together in the same place. The writers found the process of working on the show very frustrating as they would have their material often misrepresented or cut. They realised that the only way to be completely happy with a sketch they had written being shown on TV was to perform the sketch themselves!
Eric Idle, Michael Palin and Terry Jones soon left the Frost Report to star/write in their own show, Do Not Adjust Your Set. They were joined by future Del-Boy (and Danger Mouse) David Jason. The producer of the show, Barry Took, wanted to have animated links between the sketches and John Cleese put him in touch with Terry Gilliam. Also on the show were the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, with Neil Innes. Innes would later collaborate with the Pyhons.
Graham Chapman and John Cleese, meanwhile, also left the Frost Report to work on their own show, At Last the 1948 Show, where they were joined by Tim-Brooke Taylor (who had been in the Cambrige Circus, along with Bill Oddie) and Marty Feldman.
While separate, the 2 shows would see early signs of what would become known as Python humour. In the late-60’s, Cleese and Chapman put together a TV special called How to Irritate People. They invited Michael Palin to be on the show. Barry Took was producing the show and thought the 3 worked very well together. He decided to commission a show involving those 3 and bring in the 3 from Do Not Adjust Your Set and thought the 6 comedians would be able to put a pretty good show together.
The group were now complete (though they didn’t have a name) and they set about creating what would become possibly the most iconic comedy sketch show ever. They decided that they would all have equal billing and would have no leader and would include material in the show as long as all 6 found it funny.
Graham Chapman and John Cleese stayed writing together, as did Michael Palin and Terry Jones. Eric Idle would write alone (often humorous monologues) while Terry Gilliam would animate the links between sketches. They had come up with a sort of format, basically anything goes. They wouldn’t worry about finishing sketches in the traditional sense, they would break all known comedy rules.
Just before broadcasting started they finally decided on a name. Around the halls of the BBC, their producer, Barry Took was likened to Manfredd Von Richtoven, aka the famous German World War 1 flying ace, the ‘Red Baron’. The directors of the BBC started to refer to his new comedy team as Barry Von Took’s Flying Circus.
The Pythons liked the sound of Flying Circus but decided to change the identity of the person. They came up with the idea of a seedy agent and thought the animal most like an agent was a slimy snake (Python). Monty was a sort of nod to the British WW2 commander and decorated general, Lord Montgomery.
The show, now christened Monty Python’s Flying Circus, was first broadcast in 1969 and was received with somewhat mixed reviews owing to its scatological nature. It soon gained a huge and devoted following, though, that grew to know the sketches better than the Python’s themselves. Certain sketches became iconic, much like a rock group’s favourite hits, and became institutions of their own.
There would soon be fans throughout the world who could recite such sketches as; the Parrot Sketch, Spanish Inquisition, Ministry of Silly Walks, Nudge, Nudge, the Cheese Shop, the Argument Sketch and the Lumberjack Song.
The Pythons often dressed up as women themselves for some of the sketches (the Battley Towns-womens guild re-enact the Battle of Pearl Harbour being a personal favourite) but whenever they needed an attractive women to play the part they turned to Carol Cleveland, who would become known as the Python Girl, or 7th Python.
The Pythons would perform many musical numbers on their shows and they started to make records which became best-sellers (this was before video recorders so the records would be the only chance for fans to listen to sketches again and again). The records became a hit in the U.S. and the Pythons embarked on a tour there.
It was during the Canadian part of the tour that John Cleese announced that he was leaving the group. He had had enough after 3 series and he had felt confined by the group format and wanted to branch out with his own material. He had come up with a great idea for a comedy show, which would be situated in a small sea side hotel, based on a character the Pythons had encountered while on location filming. This would become Fawlty Towers.
The other Pythons decided to continue on but only for 1 more series and reduce the number of show to 6 (the previous series had contained 13 episodes each). The reduced group would also get rid of the Flying Circus part of the name and simply refer to themselves as Monty Python.
After the last series, the group broke up to pursue different interests; Cleese was writing Fawlty Towers with his wife, Connie Booth (who would play the maid, Polly); Graham Chapman collaborated with Douglas Adams, who would later write the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series (a trilogy in 5 parts); Terry Jones and Michael Palin collaborated on a series called Ripping Yarns, which satirised different types of storytelling (a murder mystery where each of the characters turned out to have a motive) but they all had a wish to collaborate on a film together.
Terry Jones had written historical books and he thought a great idea for a film would be for the Pythons to spoof the Arthurian legends. Why not give a modern-day perspective to characters that lived around the time of the Knight of the Round Table?
While Cleese was adamant about not doing another television series he was perfectly happy to work on a film with the other Pythons, so the 6 members soon began working on a storyline that would become, the Quest for the Holy Grail.
It was decided within the group that Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones would co-direct, again feeling that the best way to be true to the material they’d written was to produce it themselves. This led to a number of arguments with the 2 Terry’s constantly at odds about shooting scenes, but the film ended up getting made and becoming one of the greatest comedy films in history.
The film almost never got off the ground, though. The Pythons had been keen on location filming (filming a scene set in a forest, in a forest, rather in a studio set up to look like a forest) while making their sketch show and wanted to do the same on the film so the 2 directors did a reconnaissance tour of Scotland and picked a few castles which would be perfect for the film.
They were just about to start filming when they were informed by the Department of Heritage for Scotland (who owned the castles) that they couldn’t use the castles due to the disrespectful nature of the movie, so they picked some privately owned castles to stand in for the different scenes.
They also had a problem with funding the movie, but got help from an unlikely source. They had picked up a lot of fans in the music industry and several touring bands offered to lend them some money. Bands like Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd co-financed the film (the budget would end up being around £200,000, which is pittance in Hollywood. Ironic, given Terry Gilliams’ later association with huge-budget films)
The film survived all the different problems (including lead Graham Chapman’s problems with alcohol getting out of control. They had often had to reshoot sketches in the original series due to Chapman’s inability to remember lines and stand upright) and gained many accolades and numerous fans (including King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley, who used to bore wife Priscilla by endlessly quoting the movie).
It was while the Pythons were promoting the film that they were asked the title of their next movie. Eric Idle jokingly remarked: ‘Jesus Christ: Lust for Glory’! This got a huge laugh with the crowd and got the creative juices flowing in the other Pythons.
Their idea was to repeat the style of the Holy Grail, instead setting it in Biblical times, rather than 9th Century AD (one of the opening scenes in Life of Brian states that the film is set in Judea, 33 AD, around lunch-time).
The Pythons did a lot of research into Jesus and the Bibles and came away with the idea that, while Jesus had made a lot of sense in his preaching and wasn’t really a target for ridicule himself, the people who had gone on after him and done terrible things in his name, were certainly fair game.
They came up against another hurdle when they tried to get funding to produce the film. As Holy Grail had been such a success, producers were lining up to get the rights to the next ‘Monty Python film’. When they read the script, though and saw it as blasphemous, they backed away from the whole thing.
It was former Beatle, George Harrison, who came to the Python’s aide. He had been a fan of the Pythons and wanted to see their newest project, so he set up his own production company, Handmade Films and financed the film. Handmade would later produce some of the best British comedies of the ’80’s.
They decided to base the film on a character who lives side-by-side with Jesus (so close that the 3 Wise Men visit his manger first). He later grows up and attends the Sermon on the Mount (though so far back that he can’t hear what’s being said: ‘blessed are the Greek? The Cheese-makers?’); joins a terrorist organisation which refers to itself by its initials (and can’t remember what the initials stands for and hate the other Judaen terrorist groups more than the conquering Roman Empire); is commissioned to write revolutionary slogans (and is corrected on his Latin spelling by a passing centurion), gets caught, sentenced to death by a lisping Pontius Pilate (‘Bwian, you say!’) escapes, gets mistaken for the Messiah, despite his repeated denials (‘I am not the Messiah!’…’Only the true Messiah denies his divinity!’) sentenced again and is eventually led away to be crucified, but not before engaging in a jolly song and dancer number with his fellow crucifees, encouraging people to ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’.
The film was soon the target of religious organisations and fanatics who claimed that Pythons were attacking Jesus and his teachings. The Pythons countered this, stating that they were actually attacking the fanatics and organisations themselves. Many people wanted the film to be banned, not having seen it in the first place.
The situation grew to almost farcical proportions in England where county councils banned the film from being shown in their local cinema, overlooking the fact that they didn’t even have a cinema to show it in the 1st place! Other cinemas that did show it would be visited by busloads of cinemagoers who couldn’t attend it in their own towns.
While protesting against the film (Life of Brian was banned in Ireland for 10 years and the Church made it a sin to attend a screening of the film (there’s no hope for me. I know it off by heart) actually backfired on the protestors as it helped gain publicity for the film (John Cleese used to joke that the Pythons should send the protestors some champagne to thank them for making the film such a success!).
(This irony was brilliantly lampooned in a Father Ted episode, where the bishop orders Ted and Dougal to boycott a blasphemous film being shown on Craggy Island. Their protests make it the most popular film ever show on the island, with Father Jack being the most frequent viewer! The church wouldn’t really learn their lesson, later making a best-seller out of Dan Brown’s, the Da Vinci Code).
John Cleese and Michal Palin went on television to defend the film (and themselves and the other Pythons) and were debated by a Bishop and Malcolm Muggeridge, neither of whom had even seen the film. The 2 ignored the Pythons arguments that they weren’t attacking Christ and at 1 point referred to the money they had made from the film as amounting to ’30 pieces of silver’!
Eventually the furore died down and Monty Python’s Life of Brian has since been voted as the greatest comedy film ever made. The Pythons returned to individual projects but still remained keen to work together. In 1980 they brought their award-winning stage show to the Hollywood Bowl, in Los Angeles, where they entertained a celebrity audience for a few nights.
Another film remained in the works, but they couldn’t really agree on a theme or a narrative. They eventually settled on a film containing sketches which dealt with different aspects of living in the world and called it the Meaning of Life.
The film contained some great sketches in it but failed to reach the heights of Life of Brian (though it did win an award at Cannes) and Meaning of Life would be the last time that the 6 members of Monty Python worked on a film together.
In the 1980’s the Pythons produced individual projects, before ending the decade with their 20th anniversary (they had formed in 1969). Graham Chapman had been diagnosed with cancer around 1988 and had finally succumbed to it around the time of their celebrations (Chapman had been a lifelong smoker, every picture or video clip taken of him showing him smoking a pipe).
(When Chapman was a teenager he wanted to play rugby but his school didn’t have a rugby team so he joined the local rugby club. His team-mates would go for a beer after matches/training and as he was only in his early teens at the time, he needed to make himself look older to be allowed in and served. He took to smoking a pipe. Drinking would almost end his life before smoking finished him off.)
With 1 member deceased the Pythons could never have a full reunion but the surviving members would work on different projects together. They reunited for the Aspen Comedy Festival in 1998, where they were jointly interviewed on stage and were given an award by the Festival organisers. Palin, Cleese, Jones and Gilliam appeared on screen together in 1999, as BBC celebrated the 30 birthday of Monty Python.
Since then, the 5 haven’t worked together on a project. Eric Idle, who is the most business savvy of the group has being trying to organise different reunion shows, becoming annoyed when various members back out at the last minute.
He worked on a musical sequel to the Holy Grail, called Spamalot, which the others were happy to give their blessing to but didn’t have anything to do with. There was also an opera tribute to Life of Brian, called He’s Not the Messiah, which Palin, Jones and Gilliam, along with Idle, all appeared in
Cleese, Jones, Palin and Gilliam worked together on an animated biography of Graham Chapman, based on a book Chapman himself had wrote (and recorded for) before he died. Now we come to 2013 and the Pythons will now collaborate on new material, for the first time in 30 years!