1 9 6 9 – 1 9 7 4 (UK)
45 x 30 minute episodes
From their days at Cambridge, the Pythons (John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam and Eric Idle) graduated, though not altogether, through such sixties shows as At Last The 1948 Show, The Frost Report, Do Not Adjust Your Set and The Complete and Utter History of Britain.
Securing a BBC commitment for the new comedy troop, the series went into production. What the series didn’t have was an air date, a time-slot or even a name!
With episodes already being filmed, the group found themselves under increasing pressure from the BBC to name their show. Owl-Stretching Time, Whither Canada?, The Whizzo Easishow, The Toad Elevating Moment and The Venus Di Milo Panic Show were all seriously considered before the team duly informed the BBC that the show would simply be called It’s.
The conservative network was not impressed and the series was given a Siberian time slot at 10:30 on Sunday nights and told to come up with a more memorable name. Eventually, they came up with Monty Pythons Flying Circus and took to the air in earnest on 5 October 1969.
The content of the show was designed to be disconcerting to viewers who expected to see typical television fare. This was obvious from the very first episode – The opening “discussion” featured a farmer who believes his sheep are birds and that they nest in trees. This bit was followed by a conversation between two Frenchmen who consider the commercial potential of flying sheep.
Just as viewers thought they were beginning to understand the flow of the show, it cut to a shot of a man behind a news desk announcing, “And now for something completely different,” and the scene shifted to a totally unrelated topic.
The thread might return to a previous sketch, but more often there was no closure, only more fragmented scenes. Interspersed throughout were Gilliam’s animations, often stop-motion collages in which skulls opened to reveal dancing women or various body parts were severed. The macabre and disorienting were basic elements of the show.
By the end of their second run, there were mounting fears from within the BBC hierarchy. They used phrases like ‘disgusting’, ‘appalling taste’ and ‘wallowed in sadism’. But the Pythons pressed on.
In 1972 they won the BAFTA award for Best Light Entertainment programme, a sure sign of finally being accepted, and went on to make a fourth series (just called Monty Python) without John Cleese. The brilliant ensemble cast of Cleese, Palin, Idle, Jones, Gilliam and Chapman left it’s footprint on every TV skit-fest since.
What was so funny? Well, where does one start?
- Hairdressers scaling Mount Everest (and opening a salon in the process, using the last of their oxygen to power the dryers)
- Anne Elk (Miss) and her theory about Brontosauruses
- Bounder of Adventure
- The Ministry of Silly Walks
- Dead Parrot
- The Proust recital contest where they couldn’t decide who should win so they gave the trophy to the “woman with the biggest tits”
- Arthur ‘Two-Sheds’ Jackson
- Nudge, Nudge
- The funniest joke in the world
- A man with three buttocks
- The Upper-Class Twit of The Year
- How to recognise different types of tree from quite a long way off
- A man with a tape recorder up his nose
- Arthur Pewtie, who suspects his wife is being unfaithful and goes for marriage counselling, only to watch the counsellor make love to his wife
- The Lumberjack Song
- “Me Doctor?”
- The Spanish Inquisition (totally unexpected!)
- Gumby Flower Arranging
- Spam, spam, spam and spam
- The Fish Slapping Dance
- The man who believes he’s qualified to be a lion tamer because he already has the hat
- ‘Hitting On The Head’ Lessons
- Kilimanjaro expedition with double vision
- A cheese-shop owner whose shop is “uncontaminated by cheese”
- Woody And Tinny Words
The last episode aired on the BBC on 5 December 1974, after the production of 45 instalments. But films like Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) and The Life Of Brian (1979) helped establish the Python team worldwide.
In 1976 they sued the BBC for selling the television series to America without their permission, and the BBC allowed them to buy back the copyright.
Michael Palin says: “Their attitude was, ‘oh well, Python had its day, so you can have the foreign rights and good luck to you’, which meant, of course, they missed, by about two years, the huge explosion in cable and video and ancillary markets, which we can now sell”.
Graham Chapman summed up the feeling that the Pythons were always felt to be outcasts at the BBC: “I don’t think the BBC really wanted us around the building very much. In fact, we seemed to get worse and worse offices as went along. For the last series, we were in a shed near the gate”.
The Python theme music is actually John Philip Sousa’s Liberty Bell March. The tune was chosen because – among other reasons – it was free from copyright fees.