Monty Python’s Flying Circus – Series One. Network BD/DVD Review

It probably won’t have escaped your notice that 2019 marks the 50th anniversary of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. There’s already been a flurry of interesting Python related material released – such as At Last The 1948 Show and Do Not Adjust Your Set from the BFI – but now the series itself debuts on BD from Network.

The previous DVDs (Sony, 2007) were perfectly serviceable, although disappointingly bare bones in terms of special features.  The Network releases, in addition to theIr improved picture quality, also promise a slew of interesting bonus material (mainly additional studio footage and film offcuts).

Series one of Monty Python feels quite traditional, at least to begin with. Sketches such as The Funniest Joke In The World and The Mouse Problem have very definite beginnings, middles and ends.  The first transmitted episode (Wither Canada?) also introduces us to a key Python trait – mixing highbrow and lowbrow culture (the Picasso cycling race).

It’s Kandinsky. Wassily Kandinsky, and who’s this here with him? It’s Braque. Georges Braque, the Cubist, painting a bird in flight over a cornfield and going very fast down the hill towards Kingston and… Piet Mondrian – just behind, Piet Mondrian the Neo-Plasticist, and then a gap, then the main bunch, here they come, Chagall, Max Ernst, Miro, Dufy, Ben Nicholson, Jackson Pollock and Bernard Buffet making a break on the outside here, Brancusi’s going with him, so is Gericault, Ferdinand Leger, Delaunay, De Kooning, Kokoschka’s dropping back here by the look of it, and so’s Paul Klee dropping back a bit and, right at the back of this group, our very own Kurt Schwitters.

Although this is the sort of sketch which has tended to label the Pythons (in certain quarters at least) as elitist, it’s not really. You don’t need to have heard of all the artists described by John Cleese (in his best breathless commentators voice) in order to appreciate the strange juxtaposition of a group of artists attempting to create new masterpieces whilst also indulging in a hectic cycle race.

What’s remarkable about revisiting this first series is discovering just how packed it is.  Later on the Pythons would slow down a little in terms of producing top-rate material (they also started to delight in stretching out jokes long beyond their natural conclusion) but to begin with there’s an abundance of strong sketches.

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The hen-pecked Mr Arthur Putey, Arthur ‘Two Sheds’ Jackson, Whizzo Butter (“you know, we find that nine out of ten British housewives can’t tell the difference between Whizzo butter and a dead crab”), Bicycle Repair Man, Dirty Fork and Nudge, Nudge all show up within the first three shows.  As does the Working Class Playwright, an early example of Graham Chapman’s ability to inhabit a character (it’s also an excellent showcase for Terry Jones’ drag skills).

Self Defence Against Fresh Fruit is another favourite of mine, whilst Confuse A Cat has a slew of very odd images (such as a penguin on a pogo stick) which suggests that the Pythons were beginning to stretch their creative legs.

Crunchy Frog (“oh, we use only the finest baby frogs, dew-picked and flown from Iraq, cleansed in the finest quality spring water, lightly killed, and sealed in a succulent, Swiss, quintuple-smooth, treble-milk chocolate envelope, and lovingly frosted with glucose”) is the highlight of the sixth episode whilst the seventh – You’re No Fun Anymore – spins the series off into a different direction.

After a few throwaway early sketches, the bulk of the running time is devoted to a single sketch – an alien blancmange is desperate to win Wimbledon and so transforms all Englishmen into Scotsmen (as it’s well known that the Scots can’t play tennis). That’s not something you see every day.

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Show eight – Full Frontal Nudity – is a fascinating one.  It demonstates how the Pythons were increasingly playing with the form of sketch comedy (Graham Chapman’s Colonel appears at regular intervals to stop “silly” sketches whilst the Pythons were also beginning to question on-screen the quality of their own material).

This wasn’t new though. Spike Milligan (“what are we going to do now? What are we going to do now?”) had already thoroughly deconstructed the way a sketch was traditionally performed and concluded in his Q series.

This mockery (or self-indulgence) only works if there are some strong sketches in the show.  Luckily, Full Frontal Nudity delivers with Buying A Bed and Hell’s Grannies as well as an amusing skit concerning a dead parrot.

It’s interesting that even this late on in the first series, sketches were still being played out to polite, but not ecstatic, audiences.  Once Python become a cult, the studio audiences tended to be packed with very receptive younger viewers (rather than – as legend has it – confused old dears who were convinced they were coming to watch a real circus).  It’s slightly jarring to see the Dead Parrot sketch receiving a fairly muted response (compare and contrast this to the hysteria generated whenever it was later performed live).

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The eleventh show – The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra Goes To The Bathroom – is quite noteworthy as it seems to point the way ahead to the more fragmented Python of series two. There’s still good material (Inspector Tiger) but you also have the likes of Interesting People (which is best described as free-form).  In some ways this show feels like the Beatles’ White Album – bitty and incomplete, but still rewarding.

Llamas, Lumberjacks, a vicious parody of David Frost (It’s A Tree), Adolf Hilter contesting the Minehead By-Election, The 127th Upperclass Twit of the Year Show, Ken Shabby and Albatross (“course you don’t get bloody wafers with it”) are just a few of the later series one highlights.

Restoration

Both the film inserts and the studio material have received a thorough overhaul. The film sequences now look considerably more colourful and vibrant compared to the washed-out versions used on the 2007 DVDs. As the for the studio footage, the Sony DVDs were quite noisy whilst the new remaster looks quite smooth. The difference on the VT isn’t as dramatic as the film upgrade, but it’s still noticeable.

Extras

Studio outtakes from Sex and ViolenceFull Frontal Nudity and The Ant – An Introduction. The untitled tenth episode features extended film material with Ron Obvious and clean end titles.

In total, there’s over half an hour of material. Some of it (from Sex and Violence) escaped onto YouTube a few years back, but the majority was new to me. I won’t describe it in any detail as I’m sure people will want to discover it for themselves. There’s some nice little bits and bobs though and I look forward to seeing what nuggets the later releases unearth.

The digi-pack release comes with a book by Andrew Pixley. The check discs I have didn’t include that, but based on his previous works for Network I think we can safely assume it will be both incredibly detailed and impeccably researched.

Conclusion

Monty Python’s Flying Circus series one is top class. This seems an obvious statement, but sometimes it feels like Python is more analysed and debated than it is watched and enjoyed. For me, it’s as good now as it was the first time I saw it (the 1989 repeats, where it was already treated in certain quarters as something of a museum piece).

There’s plenty that’ll be familiar, even to more casual viewers, but there’s also a good deal that’s still striking and surprising. Like the Beatles, the Pythons enjoy a monolithic reputation which irks some – but like the Fabs they thoroughly deserve their iconic status.

Monty Python’s Flying Circus series one is released by Network on the 4th of November 2019 on both BD and DVD.

The limited edition BD digi-pack (featuring Andrew Pixley’s book) can be ordered here.

The standard BD and DVD (which includes all the special features included in the digi-pack apart from the book) can be ordered here and here.

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7 – 63 UP. Network BD/DVD Review

Seven Up! was a World In Action special broadcast in May 1964. Planned as a one-off, it looked ahead to the far-off year of 2000 AD, reasoning that the seven year olds of 1964 would be forty three in 2000 and by then many would be key members of society (“executives and shop stewards” as the narrator puts it).

World In Action editor Tim Hewat had a jaundiced view of the British class system – wondering if someone’s social and economic background predetermined their future, even from a very young age.  Deliberately choosing a diverse mix of boys and girls from various parts of the country and different economic backgrounds, Seven Up! quizzed these voluble youngsters about subjects which included life, love, marriage, fighting, education and their plans for the future.

One of the unusual things about Seven Up! is the fact it was directed by a drama director (Paul Almond).  He was at Granada waiting to do something else and stumbled across Seven Up! almost by accident. Michael Apted (a researcher on the original programme) took over directing duties from the second edition onwards, maintaining this drama link.

What’s remarkable is how many of the subjects kept on returning once it was decided to make a new programme every seven years.  Charles dropped out after 21 Up in 1977, never to return, whilst others (John, Symon, Peter) have skipped certain ones but later came back (Suzy didn’t contribute to the most recent – 63 Up).  Lynn is the first to have passed away, dying in 2013 after a short illness.

Given that the original research process was fairly random and haphazard (no long term contracts or agreements were signed as no thought was given to the possibility of future programmes) the fact that most have come back again and again is testimony to the relationship they’ve forged with Michael Apted through the decades.

There has been a certain amount of tension though.  Apted himself has admitted that on occasions that he was tempted to “play God” and mould the interviews and programmes in a certain direction to tell a predetermined story.  The unbalanced male/female split (ten to four) is something else Apted now regrets, whilst only one contributor – Symon – is mixed race, another missed opportunity.

Taken in isolation, Seven Up! is a really interesting and entertaining watch.  The introduction of Andrew, Charles and John (all pupils in the same expensive Kensington pre-prep school) is unforgettable – along with the rest of their class they perform Waltzing Matilda in Latin.

Jackie, Lynn and Sue all attended the same primary school in East London (a slight pity that three of the four girls were plucked from the same area, but as previously discussed nobody was anticipating a long-running series at this point).

Although a fair number of the children were London-based, Neil and Peter hailed from Liverpool whilst Nick was raised on a farm in Yorkshire.

There’s plenty of amusement to be found in Seven Up! (John loathing the Beatles’ haircuts) as well as more reflective moments (Bruce wishing more than anything to see his Daddy again, who was six thousand miles away). 

When Seven Plus Seven was made in 1970, things really began to get interesting (as the process of comparIng and contrasting the people they are now to the people they were then could begin). This of course is the main strength of the series as it developed, especially with those who have had the most troubled or colourful lives.

Paul has had an especially chequered journey. A lively and amusing child at seven, by the age of 21 he’d dropped out of college and was living in a squat. Still homeless at 28, by the time of 35 Up he’d slowly begun to turn his life around and during the last few decades has become a local councillor as well as contesting several General Elections.

The stories of some of the others, such as Andrew, whose lives have progressed in a much more orderly fashion are still of interest – not least for the initial shock of seeing how they’ve aged when each new programme appears.

In order to contrast the current individual with their past self, liberal use has always been made of their archive interviews. This is understandable (especially during the early broadcasts, where the audience would otherwise have struggled to remember all the faces from seven years earlier) but it does mean that there’s a certain amount of repetition in each programme. Therefore the series is best sampled at irregular intervals rather than via a box-set binge-watch.

But however you view it, the Up series is an unmissable slice of social history. The format has subsequently been copied by various other countries, but the original is still the best. Enlightening, moving, amusing and deeply thought-provoking, this is British documentary making at its very best. Highly recommended.

The Programmes 

Seven Up! (39″ 35′)

Seven Plus Seven (51″ 56′)

21 (99″ 50′)

28 Up (61’05” and 73″44′)

35 Up (115″ 02′)

42 Up ( 59″ 40′ and 72″ 31′)

49 Up (70″ 27′ and 70″ 19′)

56 Up (46″ 58′, 46″ 57′ and 50″ 01′)

63 Up (47″ 40′, 47′ 45″ and 47′ 44″ )

Special Features

Michael Apted at Granada (21″ 41′)

Ir Was Only Going To Ever Be One Film (13″ 36′)

28 Up Commentary Track

7 Up and Me (46″ 32′). 2019 documentary narrated by Joanna Lumley in which celebrities discuss what the Up series means to them.

7 – 63 Up is available now from Network. The Blu Ray edition can be ordered here and the DVD is available here