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Why the reunion gig will be vintage Monty Python

... except for a high-kicking chorus line courtesy of Arlene Phillips logo
Published: Sunday, 29th June 2014 at 6:01 am

Monty Python are back – which is great news for fans of surreal comedy and TV nostalgia, but, you might think, not such good news for lovers of something completely different. After all, the sketches are so well known that fans can parrot them word for word. What can possibly be new about a legendary 1970s comedy that was last revived more than 30 years ago?


Eric Idle, 71, the Python charged with assembling and writing the new show, to be staged to sell-out crowds from 1 July in London’s vast O2 arena, explains: “This is a musical revue with a chorus of 20 and lots of Python songs, many of which have never been done by the Pythons before. And many of the sketches have never been performed live by us.”

The last time the group performed together was in 1982 in Los Angeles, complete with Graham Chapman, who later died of cancer in 1989. “I wanted to do a show different from the Hollywood Bowl, in this our final outing,” says Idle, just days before the first of the ten live performances. “How wonderful to have the opportunity to say goodbye.

“Comedy has been largely stand-up for the past 25 years. This show is different in so far as it is sketch comedy. So the stage will be filled more and there are sets and costumes and an orchestra, led by my old collaborator John Du Prez. This is the first attempt at musical revue for about 50 years. I called it ironically ‘Déjà revue’.

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“We pulled in Arlene Phillips, who choreographed The Meaning of Life, and she has been absolutely brilliant. The 20 boys and girls of the chorus give the whole show an energy that I felt was essential to fill the O2.”

In November last year, when the Pythons announced their shock reunion, I met all five of them together and Terry Gilliam, 73, was bemoaning the impact of ageing: “The worst thing is on the bus or Tube when a girl in her 20s offers you her seat. It’s so depressing.”

“I thought that was twerking,” responded Idle, to much laughter. “This tour is the opposite of A Hard Day’s Night. This is the geriatric version where we’re not being pursued by anybody. We’re very old and we just long to go to bed and have a sleep.”

“Everybody’s become more comfortable,” replied Gilliam. “We need more money to live – and we’re just older. We’re not as a group as outrageous as we used to be and that’s why I keep trying to push it.”

But today Idle is blithe about the challenges of writing in a new era: “We haven’t been dead! Many of us have been writing for years. Spamalot, for example. Everything changes all the time, but we change with it. We are no longer the same people we were in 1969. No one lives in the past.

Monty Python Live (mostly) is at The O2 arena 1—5 July and 15, 16, 18—20 July 2014. Buy tickets with Radio Times Box office here

“This is the Age of Entitlement. Modern celebrity culture is a product of television. Python always mocked television. We have updated Blackmail, for example, as a modern TV show, which reflects the tabloids’ obsession with celebrities and their sex lives. But this obsession isn’t new. The Profumo case at the beginning of the television age showed our interest in sex, power and corruption. But you could cite Nell Gwyn and Falstaff as examples that it has been ever thus.

“Because it followed a satire boom, Python was never particularly topical, which meant that it didn’t date so quickly. Its comedy was more universal and less particularised. You don’t see re-runs of That Was the Week That Was.

“We were the last generation to grow up with a radio. There was no television on, not until we were 12.” Radio comedy, he suggests, is “actually much more surreal and imaginative than TV, which paints everything for you.”

Monty Python thrived through democracy, according to Michael Palin, 71. “John’s quite a dominant personality. Not only is he taller than anybody else, but also he has a quite incisive way of putting a point of view forward. On the other hand, right from the very beginning it was pretty democratic. John didn’t want to be the leader of the group. Nor did anyone else.”

The Pythons, Idle says, were able to be honest with each other. “People would argue and fight – it was always about what size chair it should be in the sketch but we could say anything we wanted to about anybody’s work without them going out crying.”

“At their best,” says Palin, “the Python writing sessions were wonderful. Some of the work would have been done – sketches were brought to the table by the various writing groups, so we had something to go on. Either people roared with laughter and we’d just say, ‘Tick that’, or we’d work on it together... people would pick up ideas and run with them – very often in the wrong direction. There was a real momentum to those meetings. It was as if we could have written comedy all day long.”

“We literally sat down to do what made the rest of the group laugh,” adds John Cleese, 74. “We had no idea of a target audience or any of that crap. There was something about the joy of the silliness of it.”

The results have stayed with the Pythons all their lives. “No matter where you go,” says Idle, “some- body in the world says Monty Python to you every day. So at first that’s kind of annoying. When you’re in your 30s, you’re trying to get away, you run as far as possible away and hide. But then in the end you go, ‘Actually, they liked it. This is fine, I’m comfort- able with it being Monty Python.’ In the end I learnt to exploit it. I did a tour called Eric Idle Exploits Monty Python and then I finally figured out, ‘Well, we can make a musical out of the Holy Grail’ and so it became Monty Python’s Spamalot. And my big secret was putting girls in it.”

Which is exactly what he’s done in the new show. But, although he wrote it, Idle confirms that the read-through was a group endeavour. “We all read it together and added our comments. I asked every- one what they would like to perform for the last time.” There have been, he says, some interesting choices. “And we have put in a few surprises.”

The Pythons’ success seems to have had something to do with the creative freedom they were granted. “The BBC was confident enough at the time to commission a series like Python on the merest whim,” says Palin. “We gave them very, very little information as to what should be in it and that helped us a lot. We weren’t easy to dictate to. We didn’t have executive producers saying, ‘Do this, do that.’” In the third series, though, the BBC “started making some fairly ridiculous censorship decisions. Not being able to say masturbation. We fought them for the right to say that.” It was cut out.

So were they trying to challenge the establishment? “No,” insists Palin.” We were just trying to do something that would be very, very funny and would also have a shape and form that was different to anything done before. Of course, it came very close to Spike Milligan’s [1969 series] Q5, so there was surreal television around. But nothing quite like the way Python put all these things together.

But Terry Jones, 72, maintains they were trying to subvert the establishment: “It was so stuffy in the 60s. The class system had a stranglehold.”

The Pythons all wrote from different directions, says Palin. “John and Graham were quite angry, Eric was very witty and verbal, Terry and I were a bit more surreal and whimsical. And there were no rules really. That was the nice thing about Python. You could put in what you wanted to put in.”

“We’ve always enjoyed each other’s company,” says Cleese. “Doesn’t mean we don’t argue and disagree about things. We do all the time.” The group have been friends “from way back”, says Gilliam. “There was this combination of six characters and it just was the right chemical balance. The molecule fitted. It worked. I don’t like ’em, but we’re friends,” he says and laughs. “No, no, it’s more than friends, it’s family.”


Monty Python Live (mostly) is at The O2 arena 1—5 July and 15, 16, 18—20 July 2014. Buy tickets with Radio Times Box office here


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