The final instalment of Owl Stretching Time
I got to see Monty frigging Python perform, live (almost)*. Twice.
Where to begin on a story like this?!
At the tender young age of about 10 whilst killing time in the Victorian town of Elmore my brother and I availed ourselves of about the only method we had at our disposal to pass the time – hiring videos from the video library at the shop up the road. We had several days to kill, and we watched a LOT of movies. And then, I spotted a title which I’d vaguely remembered hearing my cousin Aaron describe as being “the funniest thing ever”: Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
I remember being vaguely amused at the shennanigans whilst missing the point entirely, as kids often are/do. But I clearly remember seeing God declare the Quest which Arthur and his knights were to carry out, followed by an angelic trumpet fanfare – and I stopped the tape and implored my brother, “Did you see that?! Did they really just stick those trumpets up their bums?!”. Several attempts at rewinds later (the VHS machine wasn’t up to much) I confirmed that this was indeed the case, and began to hoot with delight as I realised that Monty Python were a different animal to comedy I’d seen before (in my vast 10 year old experience).
We all knew John Cleese from Fawlty Towers, but the rest of them weren’t very familiar – and then a couple of years later I saw Time Bandits, and behold some of the same faces popped up.
Year 7 at school came about and for music lesson where we were allowed to play a song we’d brought from home, while the rest of us were trotting out selections from Smash Hits magazine or our parents’ John Farnham records, Stefan turned up with “I Bet You They Won’t Play This Song On The Radio” from Python’s “The Final Ripoff” album. This was a turning point, and shortly borrowing Python albums from the South Australian State Library to try to soak up every bit of it I possibly could became a mainstay. Throguh highschool we’d memorise and quote swathes of the stuff at each other – Ryan and I having a particularly gruelling contest in Year 9 where the object was to see who could recite the largest chunk of The Final Ripoff album (double cassette) in sequence without missing any… I got halfway through Side 1 of Tape 2.
Monty Python references and silliness entered every facet of my growing up life – no event featuring dressing up as knights was complete without a group of solemnly moving monks belting themselves over the head with planks.
At my mate Alex’s birthday he’d hired the video of And Now For Something Completely Different, and his Mum rolled her eyes at the jubilant hooting and screeching at a bunch of 13 year olds on a bigger buzzhigh than had they been stuffing themselves with sugar.
When I went to the USA in 1996 to work at Summer Camp I was in WalMart buying some cassettes to entertain my on the long trainride across from Philadelphia to Los Angeles and discovered that the copy of Monty Python’s Contractual Obligation Album which I’d purchased contained the actual sketch which on Australian copies had been “omitted on legal advice”. NEW PYTHON! It wasn’t very good, but it was TREASURE!
Likewise, at the age of 18 or 19 the discovery of the fact that Monty Python had recorded a video of sketches performed phonetically in German for German TV (as the Pythons didn’t speak conversational German) it felt like admission to a secret club of sorts. The material from Monty Python’s Fliegender Zirkus was never going to be casually bounced about at a pub or campfire, but having seen it made us feel like scholars.
Long discussions were held about whether the version of a sketch from the TV series recording was better than the ANFSCD film, or the audio tapes, or even the Live At The Hollywood Bowl concert. And this was all well before the arrival of YouTube.
Upon moving to the UK I remained quietly optimistic that there might be a chance to stumble across a cast member or two – then success, as I went to a film screening featuring talk by Michael Palin. A couple of years later there was a world record attempt at getting the world’s largest coconut orchestra together – attended by Jones and Gilliam.
A while later there was an event at the Southbank Centre with Palin and Jones in conversation… and still John Cleese remained the elusive one… until he took the Alimony Tour around the country and we got to see him from the third row in Oxford! Eric Idle remained my last unbagged Python, although the best spot “in the wild” was seeing Terry Jones having a pint in Highgate one afternoon while I was waiting to meet my mate Dave.
And then the reunion show was announced – and, unintentionally, I got to go along twice. When ticket sales were announced my mate Billy and I declared that it was our solemn mission to go to this show – then watched in horror as the first show sold out in 45 seconds. And then the 5 further shows sold out within the hour. And then by a mixture of dedication and fluke Billy managed to bag some tickets to the final night! So imagine how delighted I was when m’chum Dan informed me that my birthday surprise was a ticket to the first night of the Monty Python shows.
From a life of Python, to actually having the chance to see them perform so many years later.
This is the thing about the Python reunion shows: the idea was for a bunch of 70+ year old giants of comedy to come together and perform material that they’d splurged out into the world 50 years previously. To re-live some of the moments and give the fans a chance to see their heroes, live, delivering the lines that come to our lips quicker than the national anthem, the lyrics of a Beatles song, or the Lord’s Prayer. And, unashamedly and transparently, to make a big pile of cash**.
The show was utterly, utterly wonderful.
I realised about 20 minutes into the first half as Terry Jones appeared to be reading some lines from a card that it must be a bit surreal for the Pythons, because though many of the fans had been living, breathing, and quoting this material for years that they themselves possibly hadn’t performed some of it since it was recorded for broadcast.
As predicted, the show was chiefly built of sketches involving people sitting around talking – with lengthy interspersed segments of video footage of some of the more nimble stuff of yesteryear (can’t imagine the lads getting through a performance of the Fish Slapping Dance, or the Batley Townswomen’s Guild Recreation of the Battle Of Pearl Harbour), and also a troupe of young, flexible & precise singers and dancers whose every arrival on stage made me think in a Kenny Everett voice “And now… HOT GOSSIP!”***.
The selection of material for the evening was as gloriously hit and miss as the content of an average episode of the TV series: we were all delighted that classics like Four Yorkshiremen, The Lumberjack Song, Argument, and the Dead Parrot sketch were on the list. There was the mildly baffling inclusion of a fairly unenthralling Blackmail game show segment (including irrelevant “star” cameos by Stephen Fry and Mike Myers the nights I was there – as if MONTY FRIGGING PYTHON needed any star power to lift their game!), and an amusing but torturously long viking chorus to conclude the Spam sketch, the concluding non-event of a song of Christmas In Heaven (never their strongest piece, I felt), and the oddly popular but again I felt poorly executed Spanish Inquisition (although it was a treat seeing Terry Gilliam enter through the doors each time with a run and a great leap). The thing that really impressed me was the choices of some of the “lesser known” pieces, such as The Penultimate Supper****, or Gumby Flower Arranging (gleefully carried out by Terry Gilliam in Gumby getup).
Individually the performances were engaging & delivered with impetus – Eric Idle probably did the heavy lifting for the evening with lots of musical input. Jones delivered his bumbling bluster albeit with less of the Welsh excitement and passion than he used to. Palin still plays nice guy as well as dispelling naivete from time to time. Gilliam is clearly the most energetic of the bunch and took great delight in capturing the few on-stage moments he could grab (never a main fixture of any of the sketches) with his trademark grotesque. And of course John Cleese… well. We’d often describe certain line delivery as “typically Cleesian”, which sort of summed up a combination of bewildered/incredulous and annoyed. As Cleese has aged (and gone through a few wringers, both psychological and matrimonial) his voice has taken on a more venomous, scratchy quality – and this added a certain dismissive testyness to some of his lines, which I enjoyed immensely. During the Whizzo Chocolate Assortment sketch, when Jones says “But what about our sales?”, Cleese (as Superintendant Praline) looks away as if there’s anything more interesting going on at the minute and declares “Fuck your sales.”. A brilliant Cleesian gem of a moment.
There wasn’t a great deal of full-ensemble work, but there were nice moments where performers worked together. By far the best chemistry was between Palin and Cleese in their Lion Taming, Argument, and Dead Parrot/Cheese Shop moments – the last particularly being a point of much ad-libbing as you know this IS a routine they’ve trotted out time after time: in a way a neat bookend to the opening Yorkshireman (Idle) remarking “Who’d have thought fifty years ago that we’d still be sitting here doing Monty Python?”.
The shows weren’t a complete re-hash of old material: many, if not most, of the songs had gotten a bit of a polishing (I don’t know for sure if this was Idle working alone), but I Like Chinese had some different verses, Every Sperm Is Sacred featured some new stuff (and made great use of the full-stage Hot Gossip group), and excitingly Isn’t It Awfully Nice To Have A Penis segued from Noel Cowardesque monologue into a 3-part chorus with the inclusion of 2 new verses about vaginas and bums. Progress indeed! Again, the only songs that really didn’t work brilliantly were the overly long Spam sequence (with a Python-bereft stage full of vikings singing pointlessly about how much they liked spam – the players in the sketch having now left stage) and the Christmas In Heaven closer.
The opening of the second half was a masterstroke, with a woodland creatures/faeries stage piece expectation being set which spun on a dime to become a full stage belter of Sit On My Face. And singing that at the top of one’s lungs along with 14,000 other people in a venue in London was definitely one of life’s rare treats.
But for my money I think the highlight was the unexpected sight of Terry Gilliam in dinner jacket and y-fronts suspended from the ceiling singing “I’ve Got Two Legs”, before the amazingly visual treat of his stomach exploding and dangling guts. One of the world’s finest conceptual and creative directors, having a moment of delightful silly fun in front of a capacity crowd.
I’m still not 100% sure how The Spanish Inquisition sketch segued into The Universe Song (perhaps one of the most Pythonesque bits of sketch linkage in the show, by virture of their having been a refrigerator on stage in one sketch which Eric Idle could enter to stage through for the song), but I definitely enjoyed the post-song video inclusion of Professor Brian Cox critiquing the numbers featured in the song, only to be mown down by the electric wheelchair of Professor Stephen Hawking. And on the final night an oddly positioned spotlight into one of the side-boxes revealed the presence of Professor Hawking at the gig! Let that thought settle in for a second – Professor Stephen Hawking, one of the greatest minds of our time, bought a ticket to the Monty Python gig.
In closing I’d refer to comments by people on how the whole thing was a sad, cynical, cash-grabbing unfunny waste of time: I think those people missed the point. This was never going to match the buzz of discovery as your 13 or 14 year old self discovers a new Python recording or film that you didn’t know about before. This was a group of – it’s not going too far to say it – Legends, coming together after many years of not working together to perform their comedy together for a final time. Monty Python isn’t about the last performance, it’s about the body of work they produced – and if that hasn’t been great, then why do so many thousands of people feel compelled to memorise and quote it at each other the world over? The sociopolitical landscape which informed the writing of their material has changed completely, as has the basis of the rest of the comedy industry: and yet these silly sketches still garner new devotees (as evidenced by the spectrum of ages at the O2 gigs).
In the documentary and in various interviews and statements various Pythons have said that this show would be the last time they would ever perform this stuff together – I guess now that they’re all over 70 (and each ridiculously busy on their own projects) it makes convergence far more challenging, and this was definitely a great celebratory high note to go out on*****.
Good work, lads.
- My album of photos on Flickr from the gig is here. There’s a lot of shots of the video screens, but it was hard not to be drawn to them and we were sitting at the far end of the arena so getting closeups was a little challenging.
- Wikipedia has its typically dynamic take on the sequence of the evening over at their entry entitled “Monty Python Live (Mostly)“. Jeez, those guys know how to party.
- There’s a very good documentary on YouTube about the leadup to this show with loads of interviews and behind the scenes material. If you’ve got 45 mins to spare, I highly recommend it.
- Thanks very, very much to Dan and to Billy for somehow managing to get these tickets.
* By which I mean almost all of Monty Python are alive – seeing Graham Chapman ceased being a viable option in 1989.
** According to a documentary I found later on YouTube the need for big piles of cash was in part brought about by a lawsuit involving royalties for the musical Spamalot between the Python team and a producer who worked on the original film of Holy Grail, and also Cleese’s divorce. The team had a meeting about what they should do financially and another producer friend of theirs kept saying, “One show at O2 and you could pay for all of that”.
*** later I’d learn that these dancers were indeed choreographed by Arlene Phillips, and so my Hot Gossip guess wasn’t too far wrong!
**** whilst never part of the Flying Circus TV series, this one has turned up in live shows from time to time and to me is one of the great showcases of excellence of timing (event though – as with many Python sketches – it lacks a cohesive ending). “The Last Supper was a significant event in the life of our Lord. The Penultimate Supper was not. Even if they had a conjuror and a Mariachi band!”. Brilliance. On YouTube here.
***** And underlined somewhat conclusively by the showing of a titlecard at the end: Monty Python. 1969-2014.