At 10.55pm on Sunday 5 October 1969 on BBC1, an old, bedraggled man staggered out of the sea, crawled up a sandy beach, fell down in front of the camera, and with a gargantuan effort, croaked the famous introduction, “It’s…”
As spoken by Michael Palin, that opening doesn’t sound like the stuff of TV immortality, and what followed may well have mystified and entertained viewers in equal measure, with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart presenting Famous Deaths, composer Arthur “Two Sheds” Jackson finding it impossible to discuss his music seriously, and a joke being explored for its military potential.
But what Palin and the cast of Monty Python’s Flying Circus were doing was ripping up the rulebook of comedy, as Terry Gilliam explains today: “Our big thing was to get rid of the punchline and that made a difference because then the sketch was about what was going on within it.”
The team of John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam and Carol Cleveland was effectively stamping on comedy convention with a giant Renaissance foot, an image that became synonymous with the show thanks to Gilliam’s animated title sequence.
Audiences were quickly introduced to a surreal world in which anything could happen, and frequently did. Viewers were soon talking about Bicycle Repair Man, Nudge Nudge and Hell’s Grannies, while sketches including Dead Parrot, Spam and the Spanish Inquisition became known and imitated and loved the world over.
After four TV series and a total of 45 episodes, the troupe would come to dominate stage (with touring shows) and screen (with four Monty Python films), taking over the comedy world both collectively and individually. The fertile period after Flying Circus gave rise to Fawlty Towers, Ripping Yarns, The Rutles, Time Bandits and many other projects besides.
Not that those early days showed any sign of the mammoth success to come. John Cleese tells Radio Times, “It was nerve-racking at the start because after we’d had this extraordinary meeting with Michael Mills [the BBC’s then head of comedy] in which he gave us 13 programmes without having any idea what we were going to do, and without us having any idea, we were anxious for a bit because we had one or two meetings that got absolutely nowhere until dear old Terry Jones said, ‘Well let’s just go home and write.'”
Cleese remembers very clearly the first day of recording Flying Circus, when he and Palin were waiting in the wings while Jones and Chapman were about to perform the start of a sketch about Flying Sheep to an unsuspecting audience.
“We had no idea how it was going to be accepted, and I said to Michael quietly, ‘We could be the first people in history to record a comedy show to complete silence.’ And he said, ‘I was having the same thought.’ So we had no idea how it was going to be received. And people always say, ‘Did you think it was going to be a great success?’ Absolutely not!”
Sir Michael Palin agrees that hopes weren’t initially high. “I thought, ‘This is the beginning of the end for Python.’ It was only the first show! It’s where John and I have to share a moustache and when you finished speaking you had to take the moustache and stick it on the other person who would then start speaking. And the moustache kept falling off – it was completely hopeless. We giggled, we had to do retakes, nobody knew what was going on. I thought, ‘Oh no, this series wasn’t a good idea!'”
But Cleese says nerves soon settled as the sketch continued: “There were one or two chuckles and then a laugh… and then a big laugh. And I remember thinking, ‘It’s going to be all right.’ But it’s nice for people to know that there was that degree of uncertainty about it when we started.”
But even as the series bedded in, there were still concerns from the BBC hierarchy, and the show was broadcast in a graveyard slot in that first series. “We very much felt we were on the margins of the BBC’s output and the BBC encouraged us to feel that way,” explains Sir Michael.
“We were put to one side, we were shown late, we were taken off, we were a regional opt-out in certain parts of the country… But all this helped, I think, looking back now, it helped enormously. It allowed us to create 13 shows, six and a half hours of television, virtually unscrutinised by the BBC. And although we didn’t have huge audiences, we did by the end have quite a loyal cult following.
Eric Idle agrees: “It was a very small, late-night show, nobody knew what it was, or that it was coming, so it sort of grew in its own mad space. I think it found a little area to develop without being noticed. That was the good thing about it.”
From an audience of around 1.6 million, the show went on to hit highs of ten million. A large part of the reason Monty Python’s Flying Circus established itself in the public imagination was the design work of Terry Gilliam, who created the opening titles, suggested John Philip Sousa’s Liberty Bell for the theme tune and linked material with hilarious cut-out animations.
Sketches often ended abruptly, even brutally, with the iconic Python foot coming down to squash routines that went on too long.
“Yep,” says Gilliam, “I think I am always concerned as life goes on that the happier I get the more I worry about the big foot coming down. It’s always these unexpected things… Even in [the film Monty Python and the] Holy Grail, I didn’t know how to end the little bit with the Beast of Argh, so the animator suffered a fatal heart attack!”
Another popular member of the Python team was Carol Cleveland, who after working alongside Roy Hudd, Charlie Drake and Ronnie Barker appeared in more than 30 of Flying Circus’s 45 episodes and all the subsequent films. I asked her how she felt about joining the gang back in 1969.
“Because I’d already been working with so many other TV comedians up to that time, I didn’t feel at all nervous… just excited at the thought of being the only female in a brand-new comedy show and working with six performers I’d not worked with before.
“They always treated me as an equal, although I myself didn’t feel I was in the early days… simply because they were all such very clever university chaps and I was just a US high-school girl. I felt more relaxed as time went on.”
At a time when there weren’t an abundance of funny women on the box, Cleveland must have been proud of her work? “Yes, I’m proud and grateful to the Pythons for giving me the opportunity to show that glamour girls can be funny, too. They discovered that I wasn’t just a pretty face, but was quite happy to get a pie in it as well!”
Talk to the Pythons today and you form a vivid picture of the fun to be had at script meetings and rehearsals. One of Cleese’s favourite moments was when he read out his and Graham Chapman’s Cheese Shop sketch to the group for the first time.
“I kept losing confidence in it and Gray just kept on saying it’s funny, it’s funny. And when I finally read it out it didn’t really take off to begin with… then Michael started to laugh and he got quite out of control, and actually fell off his chair. And he was lying there on the floor howling with laughter. It was the happiest moment.”
Fifty years on, the gang is sadly no longer the full Monty. Graham Chapman died from cancer in October 1989, and the others still miss him. “Graham was from another planet – it was nice to work with an alien!” says Gilliam. “And it was nice to have someone who was so purely eccentric. That’s the word that I’m missing in modern Britain: eccentricity. Where are the eccentrics now? Graham was one of the last of the true eccentrics.”
Also, Terry Jones was diagnosed in 2015 with primary progressive aphasia. But as his friend Michael Palin says, “It’s very important to keep Terry in the picture. He’s still around, he’s not disappeared. A dementia like that doesn’t suddenly stop or get better, so it is something that will take its course. But there’s enough of Terry there to make me feel very grateful that I can still go and see him.”
As for the troupe’s comic legacy, can you imagine Not the Nine O’Clock News, The League of Gentlemen, The Mighty Boosh, Vic and Bob, Little Britain, A Bit of Fry and Laurie, Saturday Night Live, The Simpsons, South Park or Austin Powers existing without Python? In fact, their influence on comedy has been compared to that of the Beatles on music.
Back in June, Cleese told me about his recent tour in Canada. “I did 14 shows in a month to 28,000 people and the love and affection for Python is quite extraordinary, with people saying things to me like, ‘Thank you for forming our sense of humour.’ And 60-year-old men with a tear in their eye, literally, saying, ‘Thank you for making me laugh all those years.’
“I remember when we were at the 02 [in 2014] selling out every night, 160,000 seats in ten nights, I think it was the Telegraph who wrote a piece saying, ‘Was Monty Python ever really funny?’ The answer is, it was to enough people.”
Idle calls the Python phenomenon extraordinary: “I mean, it went to something like 93 countries – you can’t get your mind round something like that. The good news is that everybody is silly in the world: they understand comedy, and daftness… and I suppose the most amazing thing is it went to America. And not only did it go to America, it changed American comedy. They just went nuts for it.”
There’s been plenty of Pythonic activity for the 50th anniversary in the UK. The BFI in London has hosted a month-long screening of Python-related programmes and films, and the BBC produced a new documentary, Silly Talks and Holy Grails, which is still available on BBC iPlayer here.
Meanwhile Flying Circus is being remastered on blu-ray for a November release, and to mark the anniversary date of the launch of Python – 5 October – Terry Gilliam is leading fans in a world record attempt at the largest gathering of people dressed as the Gumbys, at the London Roundhouse.
And now, Radio Times has published this handsome, 116-page bookazine celebrating the 50th anniversary of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, packed with interviews, behind-the-scenes stories, previously unpublished photos from the RT Archive and episode-by-episode highlights.