‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus: Hidden Treasures’ reviewed

❉ It’s… The latest addition to that ever expanding library of Python material.

You’ve watched the Monty Python films, the concert films, and the charity concert films featuring a variety of Pythons revisiting classic sketches, you’ve listened to the albums, the compilations of the albums, and probably even the album that has never been officially released, you’ve watched the numerous and various documentaries, read the many books by Monty Python and the many, many more books about Python (long gone are the days when Roger Wilmut’s From Fringe to Flying Circus, Robert Hewison’s Monty Python: The Case Against, and George Perry’s Life of Python were the holy trinity of Python scholarship occupying a lonely corner of the fan’s bookshelf), you’ve played the computer games with hours of specially recorded material from the team, you may very well have seen them live and in the flesh during their sell-out shows at the O2, and, of course, you’ve watched and rewatched the original forty-five television shows (okay, counting the German editions, the Montreux special, and the Python Night 30th Anniversary sketches, the 48-and-a-bit original television shows).

So, can there be any more Monty Python still remaining to be enjoyed?

The answer is, happily, yes, and the new book, Monty Python’s Flying Circus: Hidden Treasures, goes a fair old way to prove it. Rather, the extra material tucked away in envelopes bound in at several points throughout the book go a fair way to prove it, consisting of reproductions of vintage promo material, posters, tickets, images and, most enticingly, unused extracts from original Python scripts.

The book itself, written by Adrian Besley, tells the story of the series and its stars, highlights many of the classic sketches and characters – with QR codes printed next to the highlighted sketches to take you straight to the appropriate clips on YouTube when scanned – and follows the Pythons from screen to stage, through the German shows and their fame in America, and to the 2014 reunion. Throughout, Besley’s text makes for a lively guide, lightly sketching in the legend without piling on the hyperbole, or, worse, attempting to tell the story in a faux-Python style.

And, speaking of faux-Python, the designers have avoided the pitfall of trying to be Terry Gilliam without the advantage of actually being Terry Gilliam that has plagued many a Python tie-in over the years. The Python animator’s artwork appears frequently, sometimes simply as page decoration, often as full, glossy pages, but is mainly left to speak for itself, while there are many unfamiliar photographs of the team scattered throughout.

In fact, it’s a very handsomely designed edition, looking like an ancient photograph album or scrapbook when removed from its Gilliam-designed slipcase, and it borrows cues from the original Python books, including different paper types for different sections, and cut outs on pages. There’s even a pop-up theatre with press-out props. The design team of Russell Knowles and Katie Baxendale have enthusiastically picked up on the spirit of the classic Python tomes.

Meanwhile, back at the text, Besley’s done his research, finding apposite quotes from a variety of interviews and reviews and citing various sources as he follows Python’s progress across the decades. And even speaking as one who has read most of those books about Python and watched the many documentaries, there are snippets here I’d never encountered. If you want to know why Terry Jones took over as nude organist from Terry Gilliam, to learn Anne Elk’s conclusions concerning her second theory, or to find out what David Bowie thought of Monty Python’s Drury Lane shows, for instance, you’ll find it here.

But mostly it’s a familiar story, and while there is still a seriously in-depth book on the series’ production yet to be written, the condensed version here may leave long-term Python devotees wishing more space had been devoted to those hidden treasures, while those less familiar with the Flying Circus for whom a reprise of the group’s history would make fresh reading may find themselves a little puzzled by some of the treasures when seen out of context, making it a book that is possibly trying to do too many things at once and only partially succeeding at some of them.

Some of the missing script extracts that can be found in the envelopes contain material that has appeared online over the years, transcribed for sketch-hungry fans by the likes of SOTCAA or PythonNet, letting fans, for instance, finally experience the infamous Wee-Wee Sketch, previously denied to them by the combined efforts of John Cleese and the BBC. Even still, there are sketches, like the interview with cowardly boxer, Henry Pratt, or sections of sketches presented here that have merited little more than passing mentions online and in print. And, it has be said, there is an extra frisson from holding stapled together facsimiles of the original scripts, complete with crossing outs and rewrites jotted down in biro and pencil in the margins, and these artifacts seem to tell us more about Python’s working methods than a transcript could manage.

Though it’s frustrating that several of the extracts end in mid-sketch – just how much would it have added to the budget to have one more page of Ursula Hitler? – it’s a delight that these inserts, as well as several pages of the book itself that reproduce script pages, are allowing these mostly unseen sketches an official public airing. The Pythons even wrote funny stage directions, which can only have been intended to make each other and the production team laugh, so there are still undiluted moments of pure Python still to be unearthed.

Aside from the script pages, the publicity material and memorabilia reproduced also contains its delights, though the replica of the hilarious Hollywood Bowl programme might have been a rarer treat if it hadn’t been reproduced over several pages in the last official Python book, Monty Python Live! Though that version is obviously trickier to frame and put up on your wall.

Admittedly, as I’m the person described in the opening paragraph of this review, ultimately I’d have preferred something with twice as many pages filled with more rare photos, magazine excerpts, and even more script pages, and half as many words about the history of the team. But I’ll also admit that it’s a book I’ve taken from its slip case and pored over rather frequently since it arrived, and my Python DVDs have come down off the shelf again, so maybe it does succeed more fully than I initially gave it credit for.

My actual hope is that this volume is just the start of a process of Python excavation and archaeology. While transcripts of the four series have been available in print since Just The Words came out in time for Monty Python’s 20th Anniversary (at a time when you couldn’t even get several of the series on VHS), now that the episodes are all available on DVD and streaming platforms – though a deluxe set of fully restored episodes, plus the German and Montreux specials, must be on most Python fans’ Blu-Ray wish-list before the 50th anniversary in 2019 – surely it’s time for a several volume set of reproductions of the original camera scripts, containing the episodes as written, not as broadcast, and presented in the manner of the original Holy Grail Bok, complete with the doodles, scribblings, additions and amendments made by the Pythons at the time.

And as Hidden Treasures restricts itself to the TV series and the live shows, let’s hope there may yet a volume covering the albums and the Monty Python films. I, for one, would love to add the scripts for Terry of Nazareth, Cheryl and Karen, Hampstead Lady, and Lots more about Terry of Nazareth, as well as Permission to Panic, The Kashmir Expedition, Vercotti New-Town, Monty Python’s Last Crusade and huge chunks of Monty Python’s Fish Film to that ever expanding library of Python material.

Can there be any more Monty Python still remaining to be enjoyed?

Again, the answer is yes, and if Hidden Treasures has nudged the vault door open, then it’s already earned its place on any Monty Python fan’s shelves.


❉  For more rare Python, check out our post on the mini-episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus scheduled for Christmas Day 1969.

❉  Monty Python’s Flying Circus: Hidden Treasures’ by Adrian Besley was published by Carlton Books on 7 March 2017, RRP £30.00.

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