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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
Studio outtakes from Sex and Violence, Full 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.
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.