A Revolution In The Head: The Other Side Of Monty Python
, July 1st, 2014 07:54
Taylor Parkes will not be traipsing down to Greenwich to watch the Monty Python reunion shows. Here he explains what has changed in the "disquieting, disordered, disruptive" British institution
The thing is, rock bands can reform when they're 70 and play the old songs in a lower key, with backing musicians providing cover. You can't do that with comedy. But they will... they surely will.
It'd be nice to feel at least a bit enthusiastic about Monty Python's reunion shows at the O2 Arena, which start tonight – but like a great many hardcore Python fans, I really, really can't. Sure I'm a curmudgeon, but I have my reasons; good ones, too. Age is not the issue – the five surviving members of the Python team are old but hardly doddering, and it's not as if those sketches demand much physical exertion (apart from quite a lot of shouting). As for all those accusations that they're "only doing it for the money" – the Pythons have been perfectly open about their avarice ever since they planned to call their American company, operating on the fringes of legality, Evado-Tax Incorporated. In this age of holographic necromancy, it even seems piffling to point out that one of them is fucking dead. I don't begrudge them one last hurrah, nor even one last payday (proper graspers would – and have – set ticket prices higher than this). None of that bothers me. That's not the problem.
Here's the problem: this kind of arena-sized, singalong, book-on-your-credit-card, buy-the-T-shirt blow-out is the antithesis of everything good or worthwhile about Monty Python, everything that made it matter. The slickness, the cosiness, the lack of spontaneity, the inevitable gallery-playing, Eric Idle's bloody songs (just what we needed, a slightly edgier Richard Stilgoe)... this is the kind of schlock they once stood up against, and worse, it will just compound the modern perception of Python as something unthreatening and whimsical, a posh boys' lark, an "icon of Britishness", a zany figleaf for the humourless and the deeply conventional, like brightly-patterned socks.
There is, or was, another side to Monty Python. Back in the day, that celebrated silliness was only part of the picture; this was adversarial humour, part of the counterculture (in effect, if not necessarily by intention). Very rarely was Python political, but it was a protest all right – a protest against bullshit and bullying, sloppy thinking and humbug, a gleeful assault on philistinism and pseudery. What's more, it was weird. Not "wacky", not "delightfully loopy" – really, really weird. At its best, Python could be a disturbing experience, disquieting, disordered, disruptive... something close to Dada. It was not just absurd, but absurdist: cosmic satire, a mockery of meaning.
And yet, like all popular avant-garde art, its appeal was beautifully basic. This was comedy stripped to its root: two incompatible ideas colliding, noisily and painfully. Comedy returned to its primary purpose: to inform the powerful, the headstrong and the vainglorious that everything is bullshit – life is a joke, your finery is meaningless and worms will be feasting on you sooner than you think. Partly out of devilment, partly in the hope that once we've got that straight, we can all move on from there. That was the funniest thing of all: deep down, under the warm embrace of bad taste and the cold contempt, Monty Python cared.
Without the weirdness, the danger, the anger, the paranoid-hysterical edge, Python is not really Python, and I suspect that two or three of the team are well aware of this. Terry Gilliam, animator and for some years now the self-appointed keeper of the group's collective soul, seems a bit perturbed by this whole palaver, having previously been proud that whatever else happened, they'd never sunk this low. "That’s why I thought we were really good," he told the Standard glumly. "But in the end we sold out."
What exactly happened, then? Part of the problem is Eric Idle's silent takeover of Python since the success of Spamalot, his Broadway adaptation of their much-loved movie Monty Python & The Holy Grail. With Idle in charge of the O2 shows, Spamalot seems to have set the tone, both in terms of diluting the comedy with musical interludes and choreography, and – more importantly – in terms of reshaping Python, both in the here-and-now and retroactively, to fit that popular misperception: silliness, and nothing more.
This is a process that's been underway for years – certainly since their final film, 1983's grotesque and haunted The Meaning Of Life, a natural end to Python which was not, alas, the end. The subsequent milking of their fanbase, in the absence of any substantial new product, has been relentless – reissues, more reissues, compilations, tacky merchandise, CD-ROMs, computer games – all of which, for nakedly commercial reasons, reduce Python to its least troubling and most saleable component. In the run-up to this reunion, we've been treated to yet more worthless crap: more of Idle's excruciating songs, in which Python's aggressive tastelessness gives way to the bawdiness of the rugby club bar, a "Silly Walks" game for your mobile phone, and worst of all, 'Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life' rewritten and re-released – again – as an unofficial England World Cup song. (All of this while hours of vintage Python material rots in the vaults, and the current DVDs of the Flying Circus look like they were downloaded from the internet in 1999... but that's another grumble, for another rainy day).
Many were the battles that the Pythons fought, without a second thought, because in those days some things were (slightly) more important than money, and because they had standards worth preserving, at (almost) any cost. When their fourth series was censored to death by American television, they took on the ABC network in court in a doomed attempt to get it off the air; the hoo-ha over Life Of Brian, and the Pythons' principled stand on that, has passed into modern folklore. For years they managed to balance integrity and the acquisition of huge amounts of cash – perhaps they just stopped caring? Well, that's fine; they can do what they like. But I've stopped caring too.
These days it's received wisdom that Monty Python's Flying Circus – the television show which ran from 1969 to 1974 – was mostly rubbish. We hear it all the time. Even some of the Pythons are in lockstep. Here's Michael Palin, from April of this year: "A lot of Python was crap, it really was. We put stuff in there that was not really that good, but fortunately there were a couple of gleaming things that everyone remembers, while they’ve forgotten the dross."
As is the case with most received wisdom, there's an element of truth in this, and the rest is bollocks. Sure, anyone watching the Flying Circus for the first time in 2014 and expecting non-stop hilarity will be rather confused and perhaps a little disappointed. Sketches fail on a regular basis, sometimes quite spectacularly; extraordinarily long periods can pass without anything funny happening (the studio audience tittering nervously from time to time, to compound the embarrassment). Once considered dizzyingly fast, bits of Python now seem painfully slow.
But that doesn't matter much. Python isn't meant to be a procession of quickfire gags – rather, it calls to mind the words of the poet Hugh MacDiarmid: "My job, as I see it, has never been to lay a tit's egg, but to erupt like a volcano, emitting not only flame but a load of rubbish." The aim is to create a flow of unnerving and bewildering ideas, an unstable atmosphere which may produce hysterical laughter, or merely dumbfound. Those longeurs are part of the deal. Python is not about wisecracks and pithy one-liners – it's all about the swirl.
Besides, the Pythons delivered 45 half hour shows – plus another two for German television – four albums, two books and two feature films in five years, not to mention countless scripts for Marty Feldman, the Two Ronnies and God knows who else, so's not to go bankrupt in the close season. There were very few returning characters, almost no catchphrases and very few repeated jokes. They performed these long, intensely wordy sketches to a studio audience, with practically no time set aside for retakes, on a BBC Light Entertainment budget. It's absolutely remarkable that so much of it is so phenomenally good.
And it is; it's brilliant. Almost all of it is brilliant, in one way or another – even those fumbling early episodes, even the back end of series three, when creative exhaustion had clearly set in. Even when it's not especially funny, it's usually carried by the sheer beauty of the writing (quite a few of those "failed" sketches are actually just let down by poor direction or slightly wobbly performances, and work beautifully on the page).
It just requires a little readjustment, that's all. Perhaps because Python feels, in some ways, very modern – hardly surprising, since no other comedy show has been ripped off more frequently or more comprehensively – it's sometimes easy to forget you're watching a programme that's almost half a century old. In fact, as is often the case with popular culture from another time, you sometimes have to meet it halfway. Python spoofs the TV presentation styles of the day, obsessively; in 1987, when I first saw these programmes, television still looked more or less like this (the earnest chat to camera from a swivel chair, then cut to a piece on film with a plummy, portentous voice-over). But that's all changed, and so has comedy acting, now obsessively naturalistic, all about the shrug and the glance. Python is leering, fruity, grotesque – inevitably, the performances can sometimes seem a bit full-on. But at the same time, that energy is invigorating, all the more so after nearly two decades of mumbled understatement.
When re-watching the TV shows, what stands out is never the Parrot Sketch, nor the Spanish Inquisition, nor the Ministry Of Silly Walks. The best of Python is deep down in there: odd lines in half-forgotten sketches, unexpected explosions, sudden right-angle turns... those bits which jar the mind. The television presenter with uncontrollable deja vu; the unseen presence of Michael Ellis; the gradual unravelling of Superintendent Gaskell of the Vice Squad. No one else has ever written comedy so deeply worrying... or liberating, depending on your view.
The Pythons, of course, were children of privilege. Less posh than is commonly supposed, but middle class and Oxbridge educated, with no good reason to be angry with the world. With the possible exception of Graham Chapman – a natural-born anarchist whose drinking made him awkwardly unpredictable – these were not firebrands. God knows, there was nothing especially bohemian about their lifestyles (if Palin's diaries are anything to go by, they spent most of the 70s travelling on Concorde and ordering champagne in West End restaurants). Politically, they were your standard-issue Guardian-reading media types. In the run-up to the general election of 1970, all of them bar Idle appeared in a Cleese-penned instructional film for Labour Party canvassers; no one who's ever seen Life Of Brian could possibly be in any doubt as to their opinion of the revolutionary Left.
But these were different times, and there were other ways to be radical. Python evolved out of British satire in much the same way psychedelia evolved from the protest movement, or Situationism from left-Libertarianism: disillusionment with straightforward political solutions, a belief in the transformative power of the imagination, a desire to open minds by force. Not that the Pythons ever actually thought of their work in those terms – they'd tell you they were just trying to make people laugh, that the weirdness was only the influence of Milligan and Peter Cook (or in Gilliam's case, Walerian Borowczyk or Harry Everett Smith). But that's how culture works, sometimes. You can get caught in a current without even realising what's going on.
Spend any time browsing Monty Python clips on YouTube and you'll soon come across some well-meaning LOLster announcing to the world that this or that sketch is "random". The whole point, in fact, is that it isn't random. All those ideas have been chosen incredibly carefully, so that when they're placed together, the combination is explosive (or as Terry Jones used to say, quoting Browning: "You take two ideas and combine them, and produce not a third idea but a star"). One of the most notorious rows in the Python script room concerned a goat with lightbulbs screwed into each of its hooves, being used as a chandelier. This was to appear on screen for less than five seconds, yet a split developed, three against three, over whether it should actually be a sheep instead. John Cleese remembers the team "insulting each other – 'A fucking sheep? What do you mean, a fucking sheep! It's got to be a goat!'" This kind of attention to detail, this concern not just with what would be funny, but with what would be right, is what separates Python from its imitators, what gives it that extraordinary power, that uncanny sway.
Looked at another way, Python was fuelled by a rather proper, middle-class version of the same spirit which powered the Sex Pistols or The Who: these are unmistakably British kids, with that disruptive insolence, that innate irreverence and constant compulsion to rip the piss – the difference is, coming from relatively comfortable backgrounds, the Pythons' response to a British establishment for which they too had zero respect was not frustrated, nihilistic violence, but rather, derisive laughter. As Eric Idle noted: "Comedy is inverted anger."
And the anger is there: for instance, how many other comedy series would treat Her Majesty's police with such open and desperate contempt? Policemen in Python are brainless, corrupt and psychopathic, pretty much without exception – arguably, if they were not, the programme's worldview couldn't hold together. After all, if there was one thing Python set itself against, it was inflexible authority.
It's been said that Python has dated. I'd say part of the appeal is how perfectly it captures a particular time and place: the very late 60s and early 70s, the moment when post-war English drab (teastained doilies, Morris Travellers and Brentford Nylons) met the lurid post-psychedelic fashions which were then emerging into the mainstream. The choking ugliness of that combination is Python's visual signature, and contributes hugely to the unsettling feel of the third series especially – Python simply wouldn't be the same without this marvellous 70s grimness. Much of the location filming has that same dark and ominously wintry feel as Public Information Films about road safety and rabies; after reading The Brand New Monty Python Bok, with its strange obsession with early-70s "naughtiness" – grotesque dildos, flammable undergarments, dubious Danish porn – you want to go and wash your hands. (On a lighter note, the shows are peppered with casual references to then-contemporary politicians, sportsmen, intellectuals and TV presenters; for some reason, it cheers me up no end to think there must be Python fans born this millennium who recognise the names of Cyril Connolly, Reginald Maudling, Derek Hart, Sir Gerald Nabarro, Brian London, E.W. Swanton, Ann Haydon-Jones and her husband Pip.)
Still, there is another sense in which Monty Python is "of its time". There's not all that much dodgy material in Python, but what's there can be hard to ignore. The freewheeling 70s approach to racial terminology can be somewhat startling on occasion (however satirical the intent, the BBC Compliance department might want a word with any contemporary comedian planning to dress up in drag and call himself "Mrs Niggerbaiter"). No one watches Monty Python for jokes about Japanese people being unable to say the letter 'R', but there they are all the same; these days, the fascination with Jewish stereotypes looks quite peculiar too. Most notorious of all, of course, is Python's binary representation of women: shrieking old ladies in headscarves and housecoats, or brainless blonde starlets called Vanilla Hoare.
Some of this, it must be said, is partly a matter of context. What now seems boorish – being the first TV comedy programme to show bare female breasts, for instance – was once considered courageous and liberated. Idle and Palin as high court judges, mincing into chambers bitching about "well hung juries", gold-sequinned leotards underneath the ermine, may seem crassly homophobic: it's funny 'cos they're gay, right? Well, yes and no. To a Python audience in 1970, high court judges were The Man, and flamboyant homosexuality was still considered faintly seditious. Far from being reactionary, a sketch like this would have been seen as subtly subversive (Graham Chapman, rather militantly gay himself, was always more than happy to join in with this kind of merriment, for what it's worth). But let's not get too pseudy about it. It's still a great big poofter joke. The Pythons may have done away with punchlines and two-minute blackout sketches, but male homosexuality – like big noses and big tits – was one traditional comedy staple they weren't prepared to forgo.
It's not just the acceptability of this joke or that joke that's shifted with time – the targets have, too. The British establishment, underhand as ever, has moved the goalposts: those overbearing schoolmasters and gruff army colonels are now just ghosts, and there are no gents in the City these days. The dreadful young toffs from The Upper-Class Twit Of The Year Show are still here (and noisier than ever), but they're unrecognisable, the tweeds and trilbies traded in for moccasins and skinny jeans. The world may still feel the same, pretty much, but it looks different; it talks different. Watching the old shows, it's perfectly possible to translate on the fly – that's a measure of how good they are. Watching the Pythons at the O2 would, I suspect, just feel like nostalgia. And surely, nostalgia is anti-Python.
Look, I've got no problem with anyone who wants to see their old favourites up on stage, doing it one last time before they finally ring down the curtain. That's fine. I just don't get it; I don't need to hear these sketches performed by septuagenarian millionaires, surrounded by whooping strangers in brightly-patterned socks, with a five-quid beer in a beaker. Still, each to his own.
Idle, asked if he thought the O2 shows would "dilute the Python legacy", answered "Oh, I hope so. There’s nothing that could be better than that." Yes, that's a cop-out, masquerading as good old-fashioned Python iconoclasm – but I suppose it's better than hand-wringing, and much better than hypocrisy. Gilliam, meanwhile, asked how he'd be spending his share of the money, replied "A coffin. A really nice one." The laugh I got from that is almost enough to justify this whole fiasco, so yes, y'know, fair play to him.
But I'll stick with the old Python, its rampaging lunacy and rigorous illogic, its wild avenging decency... and yes, its silliness. The Python that cared.