Monty Python: ‘Christmas Night Without The Stars’

❉ What happened to the mini-episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus scheduled for Christmas Day 1969? 

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For the past twenty-five years, we have been living in a golden age of cult television. The tragic loss of so much carelessly wiped or abandoned vintage television has, over the years, been offset by a remarkable number of archive finds that have returned to the vaults, thanks to the efforts of archivists and collectors, and frequently brought to light under the aegis of the BFI’s long-running Missing Believed Wiped events.

Very often, these vintage finds serve to plug some lost-lost gaps in our telly history, such as the recovery of some of Patrick Troughton’s earliest ‘Doctor Who’ episodes, or ‘Tunnel of Fear’ from the first series of ‘The Avengers’, starring Ian Hendry and Patrick Macnee.

By the same token, some archive finds raise as many questions as answers, and that’s the case with one of the many vintage ‘lost’ clips unearthed by Christopher Perry’s ‘Kaleidoscope’ archive.

In 2015, Kaleidoscope assembled a wealth of previously lost archive television, in sound and vision, under the banner, ‘The Native Hue of Resolution’. Nestled within, alongside the likes of ‘Colour Me Pop’, ‘International Cabaret’, ‘World In Ferment’, ‘Not In Front Of The Children’ and Spike Milligan’s ‘Beachcomber’, was the 1969 edition of the BBC’s annual festive jamboree of yore, ‘Christmas Night With The Stars’.

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This particular find – immortalised on audio – was of special interest to this writer as it presented, at long last, aural evidence of Monty Python’s much-rumoured contribution to this one-time staple of the BBC’s light entertainment calendar, as smack bang in the middle of this televisual feast was a reprise of the Series 1 sketch Confuse-A-Cat, originally from Show 4 of the series.

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Cleese kits out Jones, at Edenfield Gardens, Worcester Park, Surrey.

What’s the big deal, you might ask? Surely everything there is to know about Monty Python has already been documented many, many times over in countless documentaries, books and profiles? Well, you’d be right in thinking that – but the sad fact is, a lot of those aforementioned retrospectives tend to retread the same well-tilled, badly-researched soil, and fresh information and new finds in the Python canon remain mainly in the provenance of hardcore fans.

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Jones, Idle and Cleese about to confuse a cat.

YouTube opened up some fresh avenues in this line of research when a fan channel leaked studio floor footage from the BBC TV series, and this – coupled with my own investigations as part of my ongoing research into ‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus’, principally digging around in the BBC Written Archives and exploring Terry Jones’ cache of scripts – lead me to discover some secret history: That the Pythons, the Beeb’s great white hope of the Winter 1969 season, had originally been tasked to assembled what amounted to a capsule-sized episode of their freshman series (let’s call it a ‘minisode’) for ‘Christmas Night With The Stars’. And it was scripted and taped!

It’s become enshrined in Python lore that the BBC felt lumbered with this strange show, awkwardly trumpeted by Beeb publicists as from “the school of hairy comedy” and designed to “subdue the violence in us all with gentle, sick laughter”.

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An early BBC press release for Series 1.

True, it was dumped into the elephant’s graveyard of Sundays at twilight, nestled between Omnibus and the closing weather report, and dropped from the schedules for three weeks, yet ‘Flying Circus’ was commissioned on a leap of faith by the Beeb’s fearsome Head of Comedy Michael Mills and BBC1 controller Paul Fox, who granted them a series of thirteen episodes, to be recorded in new-fangled ‘high definition’ (625-line) colour TV and networked nationwide, largely on the strength of its team of writer-performers having bagged the Golden Rose of Montreux for ‘The Frost Report’ three years previously and through the persuasion of the Beeb’s ‘comedy czar’ Barry Took.

guardian-dec-24-1969With this top-level support, it’s only in retrospect it’s not surprising that in September  – before a single episode had been broadcast – the Pythons had the go-ahead for a plum spot as one of the jewels in BBC One’s crown for ‘Christmas Night With The Stars’, representing the Beeb’s best alongside more family-friendly fare such as ‘Dad’s Army’, ‘Mother Makes Three’ and the terpsichorial muse of Lulu and The Young Generation. In itself, this was a huge vote of confidence from the Beeb to their latest, most uncategorisable, signing.

The 1969 edition of ‘Christmas Night With The Stars’ aired on BBC One on Christmas Day, from 6.45 to 8.15. Its arrival was greeted with some vintage shade by an anonymous copy writer for The Guardian, who noted in that day’s TV listings: “Something to displease everybody, but justified, perhaps, by the presence of Monty Python, Marty, and Dad’s Army.”

On the night, the Pythons were represented the sketch Confuse-A-Cat, filmed on Monday 18 August, at Edenfield Gardens, Worcester Park, Surrey.

Although the sketch was designed to feature in the parent series, being present and correct in Terry Jones’ original rehearsal script for the episode transmitted as Show 5, BBC paperwork for Show 5 includes the footnote: “Christmas night for the stars insert ‘Confuse A Cat. Palin, Jones & Chapman” – Palin, Jones and Chapman being the only members present for the studio scene; one assumes that the opening scene set in the living room was originally planned to be remounted live for ‘Christmas Night With The Stars’, before cutting to the filmed sequence that comprises the bulk of the sketch. (Ref: WAC/ T12/1,086/1)

As it is, the entire Confuse-A-Cat sequence was dropped in to ‘Christmas Night With The Stars’, as you can hear in these two clips from the broadcast, complete with Val Doonican misnomering the show as “Monty Python’s Circus” – close, but no rocking chair, Val.

So there we have it. Python’s five minutes of prime-time, Yuletide fame for the average BBC-watching, nuclear family circa 1969. An interesting footnote but nothing to wet your p̶a̶n̶t̶i̶e̶s̶ appetites over. You all want to hear about this unbroadcast “minisode”, right? Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin…

In a seminal article on Python for ‘TV Zone’ in 1991, TV historian Andrew Pixley noted that the Pythons initially submitted the sketch Pet Conversions for ‘Christmas Night With The Stars’, before being rejected for inclusion and included in the session for what became Series 1, Show 10.

We can surmise that this early example of the Pythons’ forays into bad taste and animal cruelty didn’t meet with the approval of the Beeb bigwigs, as a BBC internal memo stated: “Original sketch insert rejected, to be used in the show itself; permission to use a clip instead” (Ref: (WAC/T12/1, 242/1) And there it is, in Show 10, an episode which was effectively an “everything must go” dumping-ground for skits dropped from earlier episodes at various stages of production, such as Bank robber/Lingerie, Ron Obvious and Vocational Guidance Counsellor, and is not coincidentally the least memorable episode of the first series.

In the meantime, while the first series was still in production, plans were afoot for a more significant contribution to ‘Christmas Night With The Stars’ than a mere clip. These plans were enacted at studio six of Television Centre on 25 November 1969, a studio date that produced one of the Pythons’ most memorable episodes, ‘Full Frontal Nudity’ (Series 1, Show 8 as broadcast; Show 9 in recording order), where the Vercotti Brothers attempt to bribe the British Army, gangs of old ladies attack young men, and a certain pacamac-clad pedant registers a famous complaint.

Show 9’s production paperwork notes that this studio session would also include “specially shot footage for Christmas Night With The Stars.” recorded from 11.30am to 12.00pm (ref: WAC/T12/1,089/1).  The ‘minisode’ was even given its own production number: 1149/1459 (VTC/6HT/55092).

Although no script exists for this pocket-sized episode of Python – not even in Terry Jones’ vast archive – we can build up a picture of its structure thanks to BBC paperwork and the leaked studio footage.

A requisite of onscreen captions requested for the special, as part of the main recording session for Show 9, lists: ‘A pet shop somewhere in Melton Mowbray’, ‘A stiff’, ‘A foreigner’, ‘President of Leisure Footwear Ltd.’ and ‘The Man Who Is Having An Affair With His Wife’ (ref: WAC/T12/1, 085/1). You will probably recognise the first of these captions as being related to the Pet Conversions sketch, so it would appear that said sketch was still in the frame at this point.

The same document also provides us with a partial cast list for this feature. It informs us that Graham Chapman played a pepperpot, John Cleese and Michael Palin played a man in shop and shopkeeper (Pet Conversions), Eric Idle as an interviewer, John Cleese as a “stiff in a dinner jacket”, Terry Gilliam as a man with a stoat through his head, Michael Palin as President of Leisure Footwear Ltd., Terry Jones as ‘Kevin’ and Eric Idle as ‘Vicar’.

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This is corroborated by the fact that, on 18 November 1969, there was a photo-call for Terry Gilliam as ‘the man with a stoat through his head’. This would later appear in ‘Monty Python’s Big Red Book’, as part of the Silly Party manifesto. In-house paperwork also reveals that when the ‘man with a stoat through his head’ prop was eventually made use of (for Series 2, Show 13) it had been residing in the basement of TV Centre in the intervening period. Meanwhile, production paperwork notes that the inserts would be edited on 28 November 1969 along with ‘Full Frontal Nudity’.

To get an idea of the shape of this purported ‘Christmas Night With The Stars’ minisode, we have been fortunate in that slivers of Python studio footage have leaked out onto the internet over the past three years. The offcuts of this session’s studio footage that escaped onto YouTube allow us to speculate how the Pythons’ ‘Christmas Night With The Stars’ may well have shaped up….

Rather excitingly, the session tape leads off with not one but two takes of Graham Chapman’s ‘Colonel’ speech to camera from ‘Full Frontal Nudity: “Nobody likes a good laugh more than I do”.

Henceforth, before the production team can move on to  ‘Christmas Night With The Stars’, there’s unfinished business, in the form of outtakes from the ‘Hell’s Grannies’ sketch; namely Michael Palin as a lab-coated forensic expert discussing the contents of a Hell’s Grannies’ handbag, and a brief item with Eric Idle playing (according to the rehearsal script) “a Gay Young Man” (ref: WAC/T12/1,089/1).

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You can hear both takes of these two items here, complete with studio chatter:

As you can hear at the end of that clip, these two unused ‘Hells Grannies’ sequences end with a member of the production team (Probably Roger Last) announcing, “Going on to the Christmas pieces…”

The ‘Christmas Night With The Stars’ studio inserts consist of fits and starts, and there’s no sign of any business regarding President of Leisure Footwear Ltd and his wife, sadly. Doubly gutting as such a skit appears to be devoid from the usual archives (Trust me, I’ve looked – short of rifling through Michael Palin’s bins in Crouch End).

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“Ooh, I must get one of those!”

What we know would have featured, is a ‘clean’ play-through of the title sequence, followed by an unidentified sketch featuring “Graham and Eric”, as the mysterious voice over the studio clock states. After that, it’s straight into Terry Gilliam’s ‘Charles Fatless’ animation (14.10m into the tape), Graham Chapman’s pepperpot vox pops later used in “The Ant” – “I want to complain about all this sex on the television…I mean, I keep falling off!” – complete with the ‘Rubber mac of Zurich’ title crawl (10.15m in) before leading into the already-recorded Pet Conversions.

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We cut to another Chapman pepperpot vox pops (unused elsewhere) complaining about cruelty to animals (“Well, I think it’s shocking teaching young people cruel things to do with animals. Leave that Thompson’s Gazelle alone, Kevin!”). Rather wonderfully, Chapman’s pepperpot reprises the ‘offscreen slap’ gag from the Art Gallery sketch!

A brace of vox pops follows, as reproduced in the official publication of the MPFC scripts, ‘Just The Words’ (1989, Methuen) – “Dear Sir, I object very strongly to that last scene, and to the next letter.” followed by, “Dear Sir, I object to being objected to by the last letter, before my drift has become apparent. I spent many years in India during the last war and am now a part-time notice board in a prominent public school. Yours etc., Brigadier Zoe La Rue (deceased). PS Aghhh!”

Both letters of complaint, in sequence, were re-used in Show 1, Series 13.

Curiously, this brace of letters of complaint are prefaced in ‘Just The Words’ with the note: “Cut to letter (as used for ‘Xmas night with the stars’ after pet shop. I’m sorry…as not used in ‘Xmas night with the stars’)” – the sole official acknowledgement of the ‘Christmas Night With The Stars’ affair.

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Detail from Terry Jones’ rehearsal script for Show 13.

At this point, I speculate that we are then presented with the ‘Interview sketch’ which features, President of Leisure Footwear Ltd and The Man Who Is Having An Affair With His Wife, if indeed it was recorded.

Following this, the sketch likely cuts to “a man with a stoat through his head” insert for sharp relief, before we go straight into an animation of dancing soldiers, clear of any audience noise.

Cut to some seasonal vox pops, again Chapman in the same location as the previous vox pop: “Well, what I always say is Christmas is a wonderful time for the children. Leave that alone you bleeding little rat!”

Another offscreen slap leads us into the next letter of complaint, also re-used in Show 1, Series 13: “Dear Sir, When I was at school, I was beaten regularly every thirty minutes, and it never did me any harm – except for psychological maladjustment and blurred vision. Yours truly, Flight Lieutenant Ken Frankenstein (Mrs).”

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The mini-episode most likely ends with the glorious ‘The Visitors’ sketch dropped in from the evening’s studio session – itself a remount of an earlier version of the same skit, but that’s another story – which ends with the Fred Tomlinson Singers leading a chorus of Ding Dong Merrily on High – the carol’s invocation is, of course, a dead giveaway to the sketch’s original Yuletide-themed destination. Bang, a seven-minute mini-episode done!

This is just a forensic reconstruction, using the information closest to hand from various sources, of a pocket-sized Python compilation that could have delighted and appalled in equal measure and remained a genuine curio. The Pythons would later create unique oddities for European-themed specials such as the oft-repeated ‘Montreux 71’ special episode (similarly, a mixture of existing material and new inserts) and quickies for a pan-European Mayday comedy special and for Dutch celebrity Lisbeth List’s TV special, but the Pythons’ ‘Christmas Night With The Stars’ that never was remains an intriguing fragmen of an an otherwise well-documented yet under-analysed body of work. Monty Python remains the gift that keeps on giving. Merry Christmas!


James Gent wrote the biography for the official Monty Python website.

❉ The following sources have been invaluable in the preparation of this article: ‘The SOTCAA Monty Python Pages‘; Andrew Pixley’s ‘TV Zone’ articles on Python (issues 146 and 147, published 2001); the Terry Jones archive, and the contents of the BBC Written Archive Centre, Caversham. ‘Radio Times’ scans courtesy of David Brunt.

❉ With thanks to The Pythonettes (Joseph Champniss, Leo Collett, Darrell Maclaine-Jones, Daniel McGachey, Andrew Peel & Jonathan Sloman).

❉  Material from “Monty Python’s Flying Circus ” © Python Productions and “Christmas Night With The Stars” © BBC Television. Reproduced for review purposes according to Section 30 (Criticism, review and news reporting) of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 (CDPA)

 

 

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