❉ A unique interview with the Flying Circus’ late Film Editor.
“The intrigue of the cutting room is the face on the cutting room floor, so they say. There was always one member of the cast who goes through the trim bin. Ronnie Barker was a master at it, glasses on his forehead and off he went, Marty Feldman would go through the film bin – God knows what Marty ever saw – and from the Pythons, Terry Jones.”
Ray Millichope was the Film Editor for 40 out of 45 episodes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the influential comedy sketch series which celebrates its fiftieth anniversary this year, marked by a forthcoming fully restored release on DVD and Blu-Ray. Ray Millichope passed away on 2 September 2016, leaving a lifetime of credits including The Two Ronnies, The Last Of The Summer Wine, The Liver Birds, Marty, Spike Milligan’s Q series, Not Only But Also and of course Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
We Are Cult‘s editor James Gent, was fortunate enough to get in touch with Ray Millichope earlier this decade and correspond via e-mail about his work on the series. What follows is a unique account of Ray’s memories on the series, published with the blessing of his son, Marcus, who himself works in television – Marcus’ credits include Goodnight Sweetheart, Birds Of A Feather and The Might Boosh – and recalled that “everyone [in the industry] knows my dad’s work and had the greatest respect for him.”
August 1969, I received a phone call from the BBC to find out my availability to work on a forthcoming comedy series. No name was given for the series. I was asked to telephone Ian MacNaughton for a meeting. I phoned his office and a meeting was arranged for lunch at the BBC Club.
I arrived at the television club to be greeted by Ian Mac, dressed in a beige three-piece suit, shirt and tie, with the words ‘Haaah Hen, there you are’ – this was a little off-putting, and I soon realised that everybody was called ‘Haaah Hen’! Lunch never appeared and Ian explained to me the situation like this, ‘Hen, it’s a very tight budget, I don’t know the name of the programme.’ I asked if there was a working title, and he said something like Owl Stretching Time. I was familiar with the cast as they were all writers on The Frost Report which I had just finished working on, apart from John of course who was a performer as well.
I mentioned Ian’s beige suit because four years later at the end of what was to be the end of Python, he was dressed in trainers, jeans, a battle top and a rope around his waist; this obviously was a result of four years of Monty Python.
And then in September shooting began as they saw “the game was on” and the programme was now to be called Monty Python’s Flying Circus. The laboratories and the neg cutters were instructed it was going to be filmed in 16 mm colour and the team was in place. At this level of entertainment nothing is simple, it’s usually quite a tough call when you have six members of a cast all with their own ideas.
The cutting room was sometimes a meeting place for Terry and Michael and Terry Gilliam with his animation. The intrigue of the cutting room is the face on the cutting room floor, so they say. The cutting room had four or five trim bins each with thirty or forty hocks some holding two to three strips of film, others holding six or seven slates or takes. There was always one member of the cast who goes through the trim bin. Ronnie Barker was a master at it, glasses on his forehead and off he went, Marty Feldman would go through the film bin – God knows what Marty ever saw – and from the Pythons, Terry Jones.
The editing of Python was at times difficult because although the transmission date was five weeks away the recording date was probably days away and sometimes hours which made many a long day and into the night before Ian would arrive for editorial notes and sometimes the cast would also come along.
Then, just when you thought things could not get worse, the door would open and in would come Terry Gilliam with his animation. Terry Gilliam, I think our relationship blew hot and cold purely because of the late arrival sometimes of the animation and the delay in getting the final cut to the neg cutters. What Terry achieved was sheer brilliance but fitting his sound FX took time and patience, and at eleven o’clock at night after a fourteen-hour day it somehow wore thin. Sometimes one got the impression when the cutting room made a call the person who picked up the phone got the short straw, it was always something very, very demanding.
Although Terry completed a lot of animation on the Rostrum camera, the sound FX were left for that night, sometimes the animation needed to be edited and this was by today’s standard fairly lengthy, like getting 3 seconds of a mouth shut, 3 seconds of a mouth open to edit and make it say “Monty Python.”
Production manager Roger Last recalls:
“The timing was… you’d guess it was a couple of minutes, he’d give himself a couple of minutes, and when we did the timing on the Monday or whatever day we did the timing, we’d find this show might be too long or too short and therefore Gilliam could cut his stuff. You couldn’t really guess it because he was working ahead, but we never saw it at all until the actual studio day and often it wouldn’t quite be ready, you would have to run in something very rough, but it had to be there for the edit, the VT editing, which was probably the day after, because it was so fast, you couldn’t hang around for anything.
Mostly the (animations) turned up for the show, I can’t remember any where they didn’t really have it. You wouldn’t have it for (Camera) rehearsals early in the day, but for the evening performance it would be there.”
We all worked to a rehearsal print, this was just a working copy of the final cut edited by me. Sometimes copies would be made to pass to other people to work to, e.g. composer/performers for rehearsal etc. This was at times in black and white for speed and because it was cheap.
We had at this time a pic sync which had pictures and three sound tracks, I believe this was the second one in the country, so therefore you could never determine what it sounded like mixed together until you reached the dubbing studio in another part of London, namely the BBC East Tower or the Ealing studios, famous for those old comedies. I remember on one occasion at the Ealing studios with all cast present rendering their given sound effect and voiceover. I overheard the dubbing mixer turned to his assistant and say ALL WOULD BE WELL AT THE TURN OF THE CENTURY, this was 1970.
Dubbing mixer Ron Edmonds recalls:
“During those Python years I was the dubbing mixer for dubbing the film sketches at the Beeb, in the TV Centre East Tower complex. When I look back, I always wonder how we got the dubbing done in the booked time, the antics that some of the cast got up to in providing live sound voices and FX was a laugh all around. Ian MacNaughton, the producer, always had his hands full in trying to keep some sort of order. To see the cast do their bit for the film items was a show in itself because most of the time they would add and change things at a moment’s notice.”
In the meantime, the cutting copy of the programme was sent to the neg cutters who then would match the negative to the cutting copy which was made by me. We used a system called Checker Board which meant the first scene was on roll A, the second on B, the this on C and so on; this system was a breakthrough because one never saw the joins.
Sometimes it was a tough call for the neg cutters as the edit was sometimes so fast that there were no edge numbers on the film for the neg cutters to relate to.e.g. (How to confuse a cat) At this stage they had to eye-match, a difficult task when there was little time.
When the neg cutters had completed, it was then sent to the laboratory for colour grading, after which a transmission print was struck.
The show print was the transmission print that the world saw having been graded and prepared for transmission. This was integrated with the live material on the recording night. The final mix was when the dubbing was complete. The voice over, the effects and the music are all mixed together onto one track; this will be synchronised with the show print for transmission. This is what the audience saw on the monitors at the recording. This is how it was done forty years ago, prior to tape and video suites. This is what made changes sometimes difficult.
On the second series the editing room had gone upmarket and we had a German Steinbeck to edit on. This made life a lot easier for viewing the final edit. In fact in Michael Palin’s diaries there is a footnote regarding the Steinbeck.
Library material was sometimes found purely by luck, for instance the famous Women’s Institute shot came from the BBC library.
On another occasion the funniest joke in the world required Second World War library material, so off I went to the Imperial War Museum to view French trenches and dog fights. While seated in the screening room at the Imperial, a gentleman limped in wearing a suit and holding a clipboard and sat next to me. On the screen ahead there were Messerschmidts and Spitfires in a dog fight, the gentleman glanced over and said to me, ‘BBC?’, I replied Yes, ‘Programme category?’ he said while writing on his pad, I said sorry what do you mean, ‘What is it, HISTORY, NEWS OR DOCUMENTARY?’ Light Entertainment, I said, as the dog flight was continuing on the screen. ‘Light Entertainment?’ he said, ‘This is World War bloody II! What’s the name of the programme?’ ‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus’ I said, he got up and walked out.
Monty Python had from my point of view a first-class team of people, I always got the impression because of the tight schedule that when we telephoned the neg cutter, the colour grader, the laboratory, the composer, the answer was not hello but “What time will we get it?”, but never in the four years were we ever let down. Sometimes a scene would be changed overnight and unlike today on tape when it can be done instantly, on film it would take twenty-four hours for reprints etc. Sometimes of course it would be too late and the cutting copy was used but very rarely.
I mentioned earlier my relationship with Ian Mac, Ian worked tirelessly as a director to keep the ship afloat and understood what a late change would mean. The cutting room relationship with the cast was good, on many occasions I would have a pint with Graham Chapman in the bar, Terry and Michael would call in afterwards, in the evening John would sometimes come to the cutting room. John Cleese at this stage was familiar with the cutting room as he used to call in as a writer on The Frost Report.
In one occasion working in Portland, Oregon, a technician from the studio floor came up to me and recited word for word the entire Parrot sketch followed by the ‘Dead Indian.’
30 years later at the turn of the century we had a celebration dinner in town and we all sat around the dining table. I had the misfortune of sitting opposite John Cleese who periodically throughout the dinner reached over and helped himself to mine. The words of the dubbing mixer 30 years ago came to mind ‘…all would be well at the turn of the century’
It’s hard to believe that the conversation I had with Ian MacNaughton was in August 1969 and we are still talking about it today. I never did get the lunch, but what a memory.
❉ Editor of WE ARE CULT, James Gent wrote the biography for the official Monty Python website. He also acted as consultant for the documentaries ‘Monty Python: And Now for Something Rather Similar’ (BBC) and ‘Monty Python: The Meaning of Live’ (GOLD). James has also contributed to several acclaimed publications devoted to cult and popular television including 1001 TV Series You Must Watch Before You Die and is the co-editor of ‘Me and The Starman’, published in July 2019 by Chinbeard Books.