I’ve previously touched upon how the Pythons generally eschewed punch-lines in favour of a style described by them as a “stream of consciousness”. So the sketches could be linked by Terry Gilliam’s animations, vox pops from the man and woman in the street or, as in Full Frontal Nudity, a single character interrupting the sketches to complain that everything had got “too silly”.
Full Frontal Nudity treads a difficult path – not only do we have the Colonel bringing the majority of the sketches to an abrupt end with his complaints and criticisms, the Pythons also seem to delight in highlighting the inadequacy of their material. Two sketches are terminated after the line delivered by the token female is criticized – with her wailing that “It’s my only line”. When the Colonel curtails the opening sketch and orders the telecine to be run, Terry Jones comments that “The general public’s not going to understand this, are they?”. And again it’s Jones (towards the end of the Dead Parrot sketch) who is apologetic for the sketch spluttering to an end, since “Oh yeah, it’s not easy to pad these out to thirty minutes”.
If you continually mock your own efforts, then there’s a real danger that the audience will agree – but by dropping this show eighth into the run it works much better than if it appeared earlier. However, the Pythons weren’t the first to play with the format of the sketch show, it was Spike Milligan’s Q5 that really opened their eyes, as Terry Jones explains.
(Spike) made it so clear that we’d been writing in cliches, where we either did three minute sketches with a beginning, middle and end, or we did one joke with a blackout.
Once they found they were free from such self-imposed restrictions, the Pythons were able to experiment even further. Full Frontal Nudity is one of more successful examples of this from the first series.
After a few vox pops on the merits of full frontal nudity, there’s a voice-over played over stock footage from WW2 – “In 1943, a group of British Army Officers working deep behind enemy lines, carried out one of the most dangerous and heroic raids in the history of warfare. But that’s as maybe. And now . . .”
This is the first wrong-footing moment as we jump to unoccupied Britain 1970 and Watkins (Idle) who’s a solider who wants to leave the Army because it’s dangerous (“A bloke was telling me, if you’re in the army and there’s a war you have to go and fight. I mean, blimey, I mean if it was a big war somebody could be hurt”). This is a nice, silly idea and it doesn’t go on too long.
We then meet Luigi and Dino (Palin and Jones), two Italians who are keen to offer the Colonel the benefits of their protection (“You’ve got a nice army base here, colonel. We wouldn’t want anything to happen to it”). The fact that they’re running a protection racket becomes clear very quickly, but the sketch continues for a while longer – possibly it was extended so that when the Colonel brings it to a halt (“No, the whole premise is silly and it’s very badly written. I’m the senior officer here and I haven’t had a funny line yet. So I’m stopping it”) it has a little more impact.
My favourite sketch in this episode is Buying a Bed. Terry Jones and Carol Cleveland are newlyweds keen to buy a bed. The problem is that Mr Verity (Idle) multiplies every figure by ten whilst Mr Lambert (Chapman) divides every figure by three. At the start of the sketch you can’t help making mental calculations to follow the discussion of bed sizes, but this is fairly irrelevant as once Mr Lambert hears the word “mattress” he places a paper bag on his head and Mr Verity has to step into a tea-chest and sing Jerusalem to snap him out of it. Yes, there’s only a illogical logic to this, but it works (I don’t know why, but it does). And presumably the names of the two salesman were deliberately chosen to pay tribute to a certain well-known female television producer.
There’s also a sketch about a dead parrot, which has become quite well known. The Dead Parrot is, of course, one of Python’s greatest hits, although like a lot of the material from the first series it’s received politely, but without wild enthusiasm, by the studio audience. But they do warm up a little as Cleese gets to the end of his rant.
It’s not pining, it’s passed on. This parrot is no more! It has ceased to be. It’s expired and gone to meet its maker.This is a late parrot. It’s a stiff. Bereft of life, it rests in peace. If you hadn’t nailed it to the perch it would be pushing up the daisies. It’s rung down the curtain and joined the choir invisible. This is an ex-parrot.
When performed live it was no surprise that it tended to end after Cleese’s line “If you want to get anything done in this country you’ve got to complain till you’re blue in the mouth” as it meanders on for a few minutes more with the odd nice moment (arguing that the palindrome of Bolton would be Notlob rather than Ipswich) but this may be another sketch that’s been allowed to run on longer in order to justify bringing on the Colonel to stop it.
Hell’s Grannies and the even more bizarre follow-ups (baby snatchers and vicious gangs of keep left signs) end what is probably the best show from the first series of Python and one the strongest from all four series. Others might have equally good sketches, but Full Frontal Nudity flows well from sketch to sketch with very little filler.
Next Up – Episode Nine – The ant, an introduction