Newly-discovered Monty Python scripts? There’s a reason these finds are lost – they’re usually not very good

The British Library has taken possession of Michael Palin’s archive – and it includes unperformed Python scripts. Should fans be excited?

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 24:  (L-R)  Terry Gilliam, Michael Palin, John Cleese, Eric Idle, John Oliver, and Terry Jones pose for a photo backstage at the "Monty Python And The Holy Grail" special screening during the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival at Beacon Theatre on April 24, 2015 in New York City.  (Photo by Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images for the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival)

Wow! New Monty Python scripts have been found in Michael Palin’s archive! Lots of scribbled down ideas and two sketches that never made the classic 1975 film Monty Python and The Holy Grail have been handed over to the British Library and may go on public display.

Advertisement

But don’t get out the bunting comedy fans – the trawl, showcased in great length in the papers this Wednesday, reveals why they have been gathering dust in Palin’s loft for so long.

Like all these things tend to be, they’re just not very good.

The Python material contains dozens of unused script ideas and two sketches for the troupe’s grail film which spoofed the Arthur story with wit and élan. The missing sketches include one about a Wild West bookshop and another about an amorous – and gay – Pink Knight.

Pardon me if I don’t feel the need to hold my sides but I didn’t find them enormously funny, and could well understand why they were not used. And I love Monty Python.

The bookshop scene has a character approaching a Wild West town, parched with thirst because it’s 192 degrees. But he cannot get a drink because the town’s only shop sells books.

The other sketch sees King Arthur (played by Graham Chapman in the film) meeting a Pink Knight with a “camp pose” who will only allow Arthur to pass if he gives him a kiss.

The film as we know it is famous for a sketch involving the Black Knight, played by John Cleese, who has his limbs hacked off by Arthur and still carries on fighting. “’Tis but a scratch” he says. Watching it again you can see why the brilliant scene was included – and why the Pink Knight idea was jettisoned.

The Times in its report of the find suggested that the Pink Knight material was “risqué” and wouldn’t be filmed today. A note in the Palin archive explains that Arthur is “defensive” toward the Pink Knight because of his “very old-fashioned and defensive attitude to pooves”.

All I can say is that I am glad this decision was made. As Palin himself tells the paper: “Nowadays that may not be as funny because we’ve changed a lot in our attitudes since then.”

It is often the way with these stories about long lost material. Whether it’s a new-found poem by Sylvia Plath, a lost recording from great bands, newly discovered letters from famous authors or an early draft of a novel, there’s always someone heralding the find as if it will change the world or alter our perception of a great artist or great work. But it very rarely does any of these things.

Usually the reason we know about new discoveries is that they make good news stories – not because the find is any good. In the case of the Python find, it’s hardly surprising that a film script contained extensive notes for ideas that weren’t used.

When I worked for the Sunday Times many years ago I fondly remember a BBC press officer who openly told journalists on Sunday newspapers that he could help them out in fallow periods.

The man, who I will call Donald because that was his name, would tell us with a knowing wink that maybe a “long lost script” will “magically turn up in the BBC’s archive.”

Now I have great regard for Donald who was doing his job brilliantly. He was helping journalists and getting favourable coverage for the Beeb.

Advertisement

But, when all’s said and done, it was a confected load of nonsense and I never took him up on his offer. Because, as in so many areas of life, great new discoveries are much rarer than we’d like to believe.