❉ We take a deep delve into the first episode of ‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus’….
““We had a studio audience, and we were polite to it, but it was ignored. The incredible thing about a lot of television shows is that the directors are more concerned about the three hundred people in the studio than the ten million people watching. It stems from a lack of confidence and the belief that if you can make the studio audience laugh it is a successful show, no matter if it looks rubbish on the box.” – John Cleese.
“NEXT WEEK: A flying circus on Sunday night. Monty Python’s Flying Circus is the new late programme on Sunday night. It’s designed ‘to subdue the violence in us all.’
This was the Radio Times (25th September 1969, page 57) providing its readers with a teaser of “the school of hairy comedy” which would premiere on 5 October 1969, with Series 1, Episode 1 of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, “Whither Canada?”. Although not the first episode to be recorded (That honour would go to Series 1, Show 2, “Sex And Violence”) this is the one we’re going to look at, going above and behind the screen, to hopefully explore and illustrate just what made this show’s debut so different, so appealing?
Let’s meet Arthur ‘Two Sheds’ Jackson, follow Picasso in the Tour de France, and try not to die laughing at the world’s funniest joke…
‘A seashore. Some way out to sea a ragged man is struggling his way to shore. Slowly and with difficulty he makes his way up onto the beach, flops down exhausted and announces…
MAN: It’s . . .’
– ‘Whither Canada?’, Monty Python’s Flying Circus: Just The Words – Volume One, 1989. Page 1.
In a sight that no doubt bemused and intrigued anyone tuning into this “new late night programme” on 5 October 1969, perhaps expecting to be greeted by a slick compere offering a warm welcome; instead Palin’s ragged, hirsute hermit staggers wearily camera-wards, across an inhospitable location. Palin’s hermit would become a regularly character, week after week clambering across various inhospitable terrains to deliver his one-word announcement, before the titles abruptly crash in, only to have to make the equally arduous return journey under the closing credits, like a latter-day Sisphyus.
Note that this opening sequence lasts 50 seconds. In retrospect, this kind of extended foreplay appears to be a prime example of a Pythonic trait – toying sadistically with viewers’ expectations, creating a sense of anticipation in an extended scene in which nothing very much happens, only to cut abruptly.
John Cleese recalled in Radio Times’s 1979 Python cover feature:
“The beginning, with the old man coming towards the camera wasn’t symbolic – we just liked the idea of wasting the audience’s time. I mean provided you do it in a way that makes them laugh. The whole thing to involve someone in a very lengthy movement towards camera and culminate in them simply saying, ‘It’s…’”
This sequence was filmed at Shell Bay, Bournemouth, on 11 July 1969, as part of the first week’s location filming for the first three episodes of what was then known as ‘Bunn Whackett Stubble Buzzard & Boot’.
Make-up assistant Jacquie Jeffries recalls:
“I was the make-up artist and was responsible for setting up of some of the regular characters and the man coming out of the sea at the end of every show. I filmed with them for a couple of weeks … I think it was our last day of filming on the Isle of Wight (Dorset – ed.) when they rushed into the make-up caravan and asked me to make up the “It’s” man, the old man coming out of the sea. We sorted out a wig, beard and moustache and they filmed what you see now at the opening of the show, it was all a bit rushed!”
Unlike many of the series’ most iconic characters, the It’s Man’s ragged costume was not created by Hazel Pethig, their regular costume supervisor:
“I actually didn’t do that first couple of costumes, with the It’s Man. I wasn’t there from the beginning, someone else covered for me. I was on holiday, and on my first day back, I had to leap right in, I hadn’t read the scripts for the first four shows and had to catch up, really catch up. So the It’s man, I would have made it more ragged, instead of those squares, more distressed, but they probably didn’t have the time to do it, they probably spent all their time doing in the way it was.”
Terry Gilliam’s gorgeous animated titles make their debut here, cut to John Philip Sousa’s jaunty ‘Liberty Bell March’. Tightened down to thirty seconds, topped and tailed by the titular bell (treated to sound louder) and a heavily compressed cymbal crash, the recording was performed by The Grenadier Guards Band and taken from the LP ‘Sousa Marches’ (Decca PFS 4134, 1968), an album which makes an unexpected return in the first series’ ‘home invasion’ sketch The Visitors. The recording has since appeared on various compilations in association with the series, notably ‘The World Of TV Themes’ (Decca SPA 217, 1972).
While Sousa’s Liberty Bell has become synonymous with Python it’s a little-known fact that director and producer Ian MacNaughton wanted an original piece of music to be commissioned as the theme tune, as he told students at Imperial College London, c.1971, in a rare interview:
“I wanted, when I came onto this show, to use – I happen to be an honorary member of the Birkenshaw Brass Band. I’d used them in a series once before, a brass band up in Yorkshire, for a series that I think Thora Hird was in, and I wanted to choose them using a special theme written for Monty Python. I got up there and they were very happy, I came back, saw my budget, I knew my budget would not cover an original tune written, and in fact the payments to this band, every week for thirteen weeks… I just didn’t have the money for it. We came back and we got all the martial records we could get out… and we had all the Sousa marches, and Liberty Bell struck as the perfect one, ‘cause it started out, ‘DOING!’ and off you go…”
However, Production Manager Roger Last, who was responsible for raiding the BBC’s music library for cues and scores, remembers things differently:
“(Liberty Bell) was Terry Gilliam. I can tell you absolutely it was Terry Gilliam… I don’t know where he got Liberty Bell from, that was his idea, and he did all the music for his animation, if there was music in it. The signature tune just emerged, like the name emerged. You might get Terry Jones saying he chose Liberty Bell, but it sounds like Gilliam to me, the jaunty music would fit that style of animation.”
An announcer (Graham Chapman) introduces the show (“Good evening…”) and, as he sits down, there is the sound of a pig squealing. This introduces an absurd repeated joke, as pigs are noisily bumped off off-screen throughout the episode.
‘It’s Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’: In this sketch (formally known as ‘Famous Deaths’), a grinning, genial Mozart (John Cleese) presents famous deaths from history, in a show named in the style of ‘It’s Tom Jones’, the popular singer’s variety show (ABC, 1969-1971). In its wake, the BBC lifted the format and the title convention for similar showcases for Cliff Richard (‘It’s Cliff Richard’, 1970-1974) and Lulu (‘It’s Lulu’, 1970-1973).
As Cleese said, in that 1979 Radio Times feature:
“It was our irritation that at the time, everyone, everyone who every got a (variety) show always called “it”… It was always called ‘It’s John Cleese’ or ‘It’s Michael Palin’.”
The colliding of a composer of Mozart’s stature with a pop/variety format was rehashed the following year by Peter Cook & Dudley Moore in ‘This Is Ludwig Van Beethoven’, from Series 3, Show 5 of ‘Not Only But Also’ (BBC1, 15 April 1970). The piece of music heard at the beginning of this sketch is an excerpt from Mozart’s ‘Gigue In G, K574’, played by Artur Balsam (LP: ‘Mozart Piano Music Volume 1’, L’Oiseau-Lyre SOL 60021, 1962).
The sequence of Genghis Khan was filmed on 11 July 1969, at Shell Bay, Bournemouth. The background music is identified in the PRS database for this episode as ‘Indian Music’, artists unknown (possibly Standard Music Library ESL 102, 1969).
Score cards follow, presented in the style of ice skating judges, complete with Homburgs (A visual gag recycled for ‘Silly Job Interview’ in Series 1, Show 5)and a look at the scoreboard, with Eric Idle impersonating Eddie Waring (1910-1986), the Rugby League commentator and host of ‘It’s A Knockout’ from 1969 to 1981 – or more accurately impersonating his former housemate Graeme Garden’s Eddie Waring impression. Waring’s distinctive Northern accent (particularly his pronunciation of ‘Hull Kingston Rovers’ as ‘Hulking Stan Rovers’) and stock phrases (“Up’n’under”, “He’s gone for an early bath”, etc.) made him a gift for impressionists, being a regular part of Mike Yarwood’s repertoire throughout the 1970s. Waring also appeared as himself in the classic Goodies episode ‘The Goodies and the Beanstalk’ which boasts a pleasing Cleese cameo for Python aficionados.
This week’s ‘request death’ is Mr. Bruce Foster (Graham Chapman) of Guildford, who exclaims “Strewth!” and promptly expires. This is the first appearance of an Australian character in the series, and certainly subtle in comparison with later examples, “Strewth!” being an Australian slang term. ‘Bruce’ would later become a name synonymous with Aussie menfolk thanks to a certain Python sketch, and of course Foster is a famous brand of imported Australian lager.
That strangely reticent, yet oddly excitable, bussed-in studio audience makes its awkwardness felt during this skit, but this was not a concern, as Cleese told David Nathan in 1971’s The Laughtermakers, described by Danny Baker as “truly one of the best books ever written on comedy/comedians”:
“We had a studio audience, and we were polite to it, but it was ignored. The incredible thing about a lot of television shows is that the directors are more concerned about the three hundred people in the studio than the ten million people watching. It stems from a lack of confidence and the belief that if you can make the studio audience laugh it is a successful show, no matter if it looks rubbish on the box.”
In this, Cleese was showing consistency, having opined about the pointed issue of audience laughter in the pages of January 4-10 1969’s TV Times:
“Why do TV executives think audiences are necessary then, Ethel? First, they say, performers need an audience for reaction. Well, most performers quite happily make films without an audience. In fact, technicians working on a film set are not allowed to laugh. (What a good point!)
Secondly, it is alleged that people at home will not laugh unless they are prompted by laughter from the screen. Rather insulting to the ordinary-man-in-the-street’s intelligence; but anyway, why not play the show back to an audience when it’s finished, or put a dubbed laughter track on it?”
The sketch ends with ‘one of the evergreen bucket kickers’, Admiral Horation Nelson, uttering his famous last words as he is thrown from a block of flats, in a film sequence recorded at Wellington Close, Walton on Thames, on 17 July 1969. This building later appears in the opening scene of Series 2, Show 5 and fans of British cult horror may recognise it from the movie Psychomania (1973). Cleese dubbed Nelson’s voice during a voiceover session on 3 September 1969. This sketch, an avowed favourite of Cleese’s– “I always liked the famous deaths” – was included in the collection ‘John Cleese’s Personal Best’ (2006), with one of the famous deaths substituted with ‘Ivan the Terrible as an assistant in Freeman Hardy & Willis’, an insert taped for ‘Historical Impersonations’ from Series 1, Show 13.
The stream-of-consciousness linking style comes into play for the first time, as the squeal of a pig as Nelson hits the ground leads us into ‘Italian Classes’ as the tutor (Terry Jones) crosses-off a pig from a line of pigs drawn on a blackboard, and he attempts to teach a group of students some useful Italian phrases. It transpires that all of his students are fluent, native Italians, played deliberately broadly as blogger AlexWritesAboutStuff notes:
“The Pythons are offering their own twist on the trope of using stereotypes for an easy gag. They would do it again throughout the series, and frankly, the underlying point is much more obvious in later episodes.”
Jones’ tutor’s mention of Gerrards Cross gets a knowing titter from the suburban studio audience – Jones regularly played mild-mannered chaps identified as hailing from Greater London’s ‘commuter belt’; resolutely middle-middle class, suburban enclaves such as Camber Sands, Purley (say no more!) and Thames Ditton… In aspirational, post-war South England, location was a key signifier for one’s class and status and, in Python, characters originating from these Green Belt locations are invariably associated with a specific kind of mundane suburban conformity and a certain kind of white-collar, bowler-hatted commuter, emblematic of “the old stockbroker syndrome, the suburban fin de siecle ennui, angst, weltschmertz, call it what you will…”, to quote Chapman’s specialist in Series 1, Show 5.
Graham Chapman’s lederhosen-clad German student asks, “Was ist das Wort for (what is the word for) Mittelschmertz?” – ‘Mittelschmertz’ literally translates as ‘middle pain’ and is a medical term for stomach cramps women experience during their menstrual cycle.
In his commentary on Apple’s Python Bytes app, Palin recalled:
“Graham always, being a doctor, he knew all these strange, these satiric, medical words, in German. So “mittelschmerz” comes up quite a lot in Python; as far as I know, it means menstrual blood (sic)… So that was Graham already on his foreign medical words, parts of the body…”
Chapman later appears on ‘Another Monty Python Record’ (1971) playing a Mrs. Mittelschmertz, and would go on to name several characters after obscure gynaecological or genito-urinary terms, for the amusement of his medical chums at his alma mater, St. Bart’s. Notable examples include character names ‘Mr Glans’ and ‘Mrs B.J. Smegma’ in Series 2, Show 11, while ‘The Story Of The Film So Far’ on ‘The Album Of The Soundtrack Of The Trailer of the Film of Monty Python and the Holy Grail’ (1975) features “plucky nuclear scientist, ‘Reginald Vas Deferens”!
The sketch concludes with a fairly limp punchline, “He shouldn’t be saying that we haven’t done comparatives yet!”. The weak ending – as well as what one reviewer referred to as the hesitant tone of the piece – betrays the sketch’s origin as one of the first pieces written for the series, as confirmed on Palin’s commentary on the Python Bytes app:
“Yeah, that was a very early one, actually. It was right in the first batch of writings that we got, April ‘69 – no, May ‘69. It’s just – You get this silly idea of Italian class in which they’re all Italian apart from the instructor, and he’s trying to teach them Italian! And it’s so well done by everybody, really, everyone sort of does their bit, and Terry’s very, very good, very tolerant as the instructor … It’s just – things break down and mayhem breaks loose, the world is a sort of silly place!”
As the scripts note, a “genuine mandolin-playing Italian” strikes up ‘Cuando Calienta El Sol’ – a song by Rafael Gaston Perez, whose English language version (‘Love me with all your heart’) was successfully covered by artists as varied as Petula Clark, Nancy Sinatra, Ken Dodd and Engelbert Humperdinck. Production paperwork notes that the guitarist was one Miguel Lopez-Cortzo, who was paid twenty guineas for his services.
A pig is sat upon by the Italian teacher, leading us into the show’s first Animation sequence, as a mysterious hand crosses off another pig in the line. As Gilliam had free reign for these sequences, the script merely states, “Thereafter action follows the dictates of Senor Gilliam’s wonderfully visual mind.” The porcine theme is elaborated upon before transforming into a commercial for ‘Whizzo Butter’, containing 10% more less and guaranteed indistinguishable from a dead crab.
The animated ad features a short, aggressively pitched-shifted, burst of the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ from Handel’s Messiah (HWV 56), conducted by Sir Malcolm Sergeant, performed by Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and Huddersfield Choral Society (LP: ‘Handel – Messiah Highlights’, EMI Columbia SAX 2365, 1959)
An interviewer (Michael Palin) conducts a survey of housewives – “hereinafter always known as Pepperpots”, the scripts note – all of whom testify that they can’t tell the difference between Whizzo Butter and a dead crab. This sketch is inspired by a long-running advertising campaign for Stork SB Margarine fronted by Leslie Crowther, and was filmed at Walton on Thames Shopping Precinct, Hepworth Way, Walton on Thames, Surrey, on 17 July 1969. The same location is briefly featured in vox pops during Series 1, Show 2, and can also be seen in the films ‘Psychomania’ (1972) and ‘The Rise And Rise of Michael Rimmer’ (1969), doubling as Nuneaton in the latter movie.
The Pepperpot ladies make their Python debut here, although Tim Brooke Taylor had originated the caricature in several ‘At Last The 1948 Show’ sketches and they had been formally introduced in the proto-Python television special ‘How To Irritate People’, recorded in 1969 and broadcast in America on the Westinghouse network.
Over time, the Pepperpots will take on a life of their own as an inversion of the stereotype of the gossip-obsessed, working class housewife and char, by proving themselves to be exceptionally well informed on philosophy, art and culture, but here this ‘squadron’ of Pepperpots are much closer to how they are introduced by Cleese in ‘How To Irritate People’, viz:
“A pepperpot’s life’s ambition is to be in the audience at a quiz show. She is to be found in shopping areas, blocking the pavement, tormenting babies, spreading rumours and spending a fortune on bargains. She enjoys worrying and being shocked. Individually, she is intolerable. In a group, horrific.”
An additional Pepperpot sequence called ‘Competitive Pepperpots’ was scripted but not filmed, with a callback to the Whizzo Butter ad, where they discuss different things that they can’t tell the difference between, including “my husband and a dead crab”, “ordinary household dust and special household dust”, “Mervyn Stockwood and a quality carpet”, concluding with one Pepperpot exclaiming, “I can’t tell the difference between Marcel Marceau and solid boredom!”, to which the other Pepperpots commiserate, “She hasn’t been educated, poor soul.” A not dissimilar exchange appears in the Pythons’ corporate film, The Great Birds Eye Frozen Pea Relaunch of 1971.
The world of advertising is one the Pythons return to again and again throughout the series, often accompanied by Gilliam’s animations, Gilliam having honed his artistic style working for graphic designers and advertising agencies in the mid-1960s.
Title sequence for ‘It’s The Arts’ introduces the middle section of the episode, with opening music excerpted from Mozart’s ‘Quartet No.3 in F, K590 Prussian No.3’ performed by The Weller Quartet (LP: ‘Mozart Quartets’, Decca SXL 6258, 1966). The spoof show’s title echoes Rediffusion’s ‘This Week – The Arts‘ (1967), a poker-faced example of arts and culture coverage, treated with ponderous reverence by its host, the intellectual Bryan Magee, while Palin and Jones had observed the rarified world of arts criticism at close quarters as writers and occasional performers on BBC’s ‘Line Up‘ (1965), where on one occasion they fell foul of Dennis Potter, as Terry Jones told The Times on March 29, 1975:
“One night Michael and I did a sketch for the programme dressed up in Batman suits and jumping off chairs… Anyway, our sketch came on and the after it they started one of those Line Up discussion about The Future Of The Arts or something and Dennis Potter said he hadn’t come all this way from Gloucestershire to take part in a programme which could include such idiots as us.”
The linkman (MP) introduces ‘An Interview with Sir Edward Ross’, with Graham Chapman playing a distinguished, titled film director in the mould of Sir David Lean CBE (Great Expectations, Brief Encounter, Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence Of Arabia, Dr Zhivago etc.). Ross’ casual aside, “Of course, in those days I was only a tea-boy…” alludes to Lean’s lowly beginnings as a tea-boy at Gaumont Studios, while the costume and make-up production notes for the character describe the mature Lean in all but name: “Rather too much hair and yet manages to be quite suave, with grey side boards”. The in-joke would not have been lost on director John Howard Davies, having starred in Lean’s ‘Oliver Twist’ (1948) as the juvenile lead.
In what will become something of a recurring motif for characters written and performed by Cleese, his interviewer reveals himself to be something of a monomanical obsessive, in this case doggedly trying to establish a suitable social register with which to address his guest and failing miserably. The aside, “Robin Day’s got a hedgehog named Frank”, is also an early indicator of another Pythonic motif, useless trivial information – in 22 episodes’ time, another Cleese character will boast excessive knowledge of famous people’s pets’ names (“I’ve heard tell that Sir Gerald Nabarro has a pet prawn called Simon”).
Sir Robin Day OBE (1923-2000) was the Rottweiller of political commentary, infamous for his confrontational, interrogative style of interviewing, at a time when deference to public figures was the norm in broadcasting. Cleese’s namecheck proves apposite when his interviewer ends the sketch in a desultory, derisory fashion by telling Ross to shut up!
As an aside, ‘Great Actors’ on 1973’s ‘Matching Tie & Handkerchief’ LP sees Cleese get a taste of his own medicine, when Idle’s interviewer tells Cleese’s windbag thesp ‘Sir Edwin’ (sound familiar?) to “Get stuffed”.
When the Sir Edward Ross sketch was repeated in 1971 film, ‘And Now For Something Completely Different’, the reference to Robin Day was replaced with ‘Richard Nixon’ one of many translations for the film’s intended American audience that attracted the ire of the team’s token Yank, Terry Gilliam, who came to blows with Cleese over whether to say ‘tinned’ or ‘canned’ peaches to an American audience, reasoning that Anglo-British terminology was part of the appeal of Python (Gilliam won with ‘tinned’, by the way).
The linkman trails a forthcoming item on Picasso painting, live, on a bicycle, only to be interrupted by a squealing pig, which the linkman shoots. The gun is a 9mm Luger P08, according to the alarmingly but accurately-named Internet Movie Firearms Database.
A scorecard dutifully informs us of the half time score – PIGS 3, NELSON 1.
In the original script, after this caption, we cut back to the linkman: “We’ll be taking you back as soon as there’s any news of Picasso. In the meantime some music”, leading in to an early, abbreviated version of the Johann Gambolputty…. von Hautkopf of Ulm sketch. The sequence was recorded as part of this studio session, but dropped when the show was edited for transmission, and remounted for Show 6.
Interviewer: “I was going to ask… Oh I’m sorry! That’s all we have time for. Thank you for talking to us Mein herr Gambolputty de von Ausfern- schplenden- schlitter- crasscrenbon- fried- digger- dingle- dangle- dongle- dungle- burstein- von- knacker- thrasher- apple- banger- horowitz- ticolensic- grander- knotty- spelltinkle- grandlich- grumblemeyer- spelterwasser- kurstlich- himbleeisen- bahnwagen- gutenabend- bitte- ein- nürnburger- bratwustle- gerspurten- mitz- weimache- luber- hundsfut- gumberaber- shönedanker- kalbsfleisch- mittler- aucher von Hautkopft of Ulm.”
Karl Gambolputty: “I haven’t said anything.”
Beethoven’s ‘Symphony No. 4’ as performed by Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Herbert von Karajan (LP: ‘9 Symphonies’, Deutsche Grammophon DGL SKL 101-108, 1962) opens ‘Arthur Two Sheds Jackson’ wherein a third interviewer (Eric Idle) attempts to discuss the aforenamed composer (Jones). A companion piece to the earlier Sir Edward Ross sketch, this item similarly sees the interviewer being distracted from his guest’s lofty achievements by getting side-tracked with trivia and nomenclature, in this case the origin of Jackson’s nickname “Two Sheds”, forming a two-pronged deflation of the ‘elevated’ nature of arts discussion.
In actual fact, Idle’s question, “Have you written any of your recent works in this shed of yours?”, is not as fatuous as Jackson clearly feels. The shed has long been a masculine symbol of refuge and solitude – indeed, the word ‘shed’ is derived from the Old English scead, for shade or protection. As it happens, many composers owned composing sheds, shacks and huts – notably Gustav Mahler, who owned two composing huts, one of which is seen to burst into a spectacular fireball in the opening seconds of Ken Russell’s movie ‘Mahler’ (1974). Benjamin Britten owned a potting shed in Horsham, Suffolk, where he composed his later works, and which was granted a Grade II listing by the Department for Culture Media and Sport in 2002.
The two interview sketches converge as the two interviewers gang up on Jackson, and forcibly eject him off the set with a macho swagger totally at odds with their effete image – “Get your own arts programme, you fairy!” – which itself is subverted with the delicious, off-screen reveal that they are intimately familiar.
Forty years later, The Independent’s John Walsh, posing the question ‘Is Monty Python’s Flying Circus as dead as a parrot’, took this brace of sketches to task for what the writer perceived to be, ‘underlying homophobia’:
“The arts interviewer who wants to call his film-director guest “sweetie”, “sugar plum” and “angel-drawers” has a moment with another arty poseur. “Never mind, Timmy,” says the latter. “Oh Michael you are such a comfort,” says the former. You can hear the sneers coming off the writers like cologne: “These guys are pretentious. And they’re poofs.””
It’s not hard to see where the writer is coming from – Idle’s character has an in-built feyness common with many of his ‘critic’ characters, and the costume paperwork even notes that he wears “an even poofier tie” than his colleague, but it isn’t over-reaching to suggest a more complex interpretation beneath the surface; after all, this was 1969, something of a transitory period for addressing more liberal issues. A more nuanced interpretation, and more accurate to the writers’ intentions, would be that Cleese’s critic is working through some kind of crisis of masculinity, as indicated by the changes of social register he adopts across the two scenes; lurching from the casually homosocial (“You don’t mind if I call you Ted?”) to the homoerotic (“Eddie Baby…”), later compensated with by the homophobic (“You fairy!”), with the mask dropping with the overheard “Oh Michael, you’re such a comfort…” betraying his true nature….
Essentially, ‘It’s The Arts’ is a benign satire whose well-judged target is the pretentiousness of the arts world as a whole, as Chris Monigle concurs in his blog ‘TV With The Foot’:
“‘It’s The Arts’ doesn’t mercilessly attack Two Sheds and Sir Edward Gross [sic]. The sketch isn’t about bullying the musician and the director about their names. The sketch wants artists everywhere to possess the ability to laugh at themselves even if they write moving musical compositions or direct wonderful films. Monty Python’s Flying Circus is one of the most intelligent shows written as well as one of the silliest shows written (and) ‘It’s The Arts’ represents what Monty Python wanted to accomplish. They were going to be smart but they were going to take the piss out of themselves, and all they want is self-important artists to drop the self-importance, the pretension and, once in awhile, laugh at themselves.”
The sketch appears on the 1970 LP ‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus’; in a nod to the vinyl format, Idle’s Interviewer reacts to Cleese’s re-apparance, “Good Lord, you’re the man who interviewed Sir Edward Ross on the other side.”
The massive back projection screen used in the arts sketches forms part of an elaborate ‘television studio’ set (along with the linkman’s set, also with a BP [back projection] screen, and another in the same monochrome, Op Art style) set which contributed significantly to the series’ budget; although Ian MacNaughton managed to placate his superiors by assuring them that the sets would be used throughout the entire thirteen episodes of the series to amortize the initial expense: A 26 September 1969 memo from John Howard Davies to Ian McNaughton re ‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus – Finance’ notes that, “We were £775 overspent on No.1, the majority of this cost was because of our filming… Some of these costs were of course design on No.1 which includes needless to say stock sets like the interview set and the linkman set.”
This wasn’t the only budget issue the first series encountered. An internal memo from the costume department supervisor to Ian MacNaughton, dated 2 July, noted, “up to date I estimate we have spent £900 out of a total costume budget of £1,750 for the above series. I am afraid the balance is sufficient to provide only 70 more costumes during the course of the series. I do understand your problems but, unfortunately, this is as far as we can stretch the present budget. If you are able to let us have any money naturally we shall be delighted.”
Pythonologist Dale Larsen writes:
“The stated budget for this episode was £4,000, then £3,800 for each subsequent show, according to Michael Mills of Light Entertainment. He would end the 31 July 1969 budget memo, written to John Howard Davies and Ian MacNaughton: “You have heard the word of the Lord… please heed it.” (By way of comparison, the fourth and final series episodes had bloated to more than £100,000 per episode)”
In his book The Laughtermakers, David Nathan quotes Mills as saying:
“I had them down and told them what budget they had. I said ‘Don’t get too clever. If you try to do too much you won’t get away with it and you’ll bugger your show up. Now start quietly.’ And it worked.”
So much for hubris!
Palin’s linkman provides a handover from the concluding sketch, with a one-word interjection from a Viking (JC) – a device used on several occasions in the first two series, partly a product of the Pythons’ general aim to surprise the audience with unexpected interstitials, and also a popular device of Jones and Palin, the kings of incongruity – it’s a hallmark of the Oxford Two, such as placing the Spanish Inquisition in an Industrial Revolution-era sitting room (which nobody expected) or Vikings in a greasy spoon caff.
The item previewed earlier in the show, a live report on Picasso ‘painting in motion’ gets underway, taking ‘It’s The Arts’ into other realms of factual programming. Just as the earlier sequences pricked the pomposity of arts programmes by reducing the level of discussion from the highbrow to the trivial, the Picasso sequence plays similar games with the BBC’s own hierarchy of programming genres, here by colliding the high culture world of master painters with the populism of sports coverage.
Why Picasso specifically? As the first twentieth century artist of the media age, Pablo Picasso’s fame existed comfortably at the intersection of high culture and mass media, occupying an unprecedented level of international fame and notoriety, not just for his creative work and the huge sums his paintings commanded but also his many affairs – and it’s sobering to note that Picasso is unique in the roll call of artists featured in the ensuing cycle race for being a then-contemporary figure rather than purely historical. Indeed, his death a few years later would inspire musical tributes by Jonathon Richman’s Modern Lovers and Paul McCartney’s Wings while his corpse was still cooling.
As we segue into the format of Sportsnight or Grandstand, we have Palin styled after Spitfire pilot turned TV presenter Raymond Baxter, in his guise as BBC motoring correspondent for such events as Le Mans 24 and the Monte Carlo Rally, replete with sheepskin coat and regulation ‘Coles’ 4104 noise-cancelling microphone, illustrating Picasso’s route, and ‘Vickie’ (Eric) giving a perky rundown of Picasso’s bicycle’s spec and tech in the time honoured style of annual Tour De France coverage. Note that ‘Baxter’ (Palin) and ‘Vickie’ (Idle) are still wearing their regular ‘It’s The Arts’ clobber from preceding scenes – clearly no time to pre-record VT inserts for this episode!
As presenter of the BBC’s mainstream science programme ‘Tomorrow’s World’ from 1965 to 1977 Baxter would be later referenced in Series 2, Show 7 alongside an allusion to thirsty newsreader Reginald Bosanquet (“Did he have his head all bandaged?”)
Live from the ‘Guildford bypass’, Reg Moss (EI) speaks to Ron Geppo (GC), introduced as ‘British Cycling Sprint Champion and this year’s winner of the Derby-Doncaster rally’, who proves surprisingly well-informed on the subject of the scale of Picasso’s work. This sequence was filmed in Walton On Thames, on 17 July 1969 – the Guildford bypass was the site of Formula One racing driver Mike Hawthorn’s fatal crash in 1959.
The next stage of the commentary takes place on the Tolworth roundabout (filmed 17 July 1969 on the junction of the A244 and B375), as Sam Trench (JC) reports a sighting of Wassily Kandinski, and the sketch really ignites as it escalates into a full-on cycling race between numerous famous artists, living and dead, of various nationalities and movements.
The roll-call of artists also came in for joyless critique in the Independent article mentioned earlier, as John Walsh writes:
“The suspicion that the writers were being a touch elitist is worsened by the Oxbridge smart-aleckry on display. Would any comedy writer today name-drop so many historical names, confident that the audience would be dead impressed? Richard III, Marat, Jean d’Arc, Lincoln, Edward VII, Nelson, Mozart, Kandinsky, Braque, Mondrian, Chagall, Ernst, Kokoscha, Schwitters… Gosh, well done, chaps, for having a nodding acquaintance with French and art history – not that it’s being used for any actual humorous effect.”
This critique spectacularly misses the point that the entire ‘It’s The Arts’ sequence is a mockery of elitism, and fundamentally misunderstands a crucial rule of pastiche, namely that one cannot accurately skewer a target without correctly observing its outward form; in any Python send-up of po-faced intellectualism, context is key. Walsh might even be pleasantly surprised to discover that works by the vast majority of artists this silly sketch name-checks can be viewed for zero pence in London’s major art galleries.
Darl Larsen, in his encyclopaedic tome, Monty Python’s Flying Circus: An Utterly Complete, Thoroughly Unillustrated, Absolutely Unauthorized Guide to Possibly All the References, effectively fields Walsh’s criticisms in a sublime summary of the sequence’s critical relevance:
“The laundry list of twentieth-century artists competing in this race is significant, as these artists would have been shaking up the world of art, design, advertising, architecture, and even morality and culture as the Pythons were growing up and shaping their own sensibilities. Interesting also that Pythons would characterize the world of modern art as a heated contest, reflecting the competitive environment created and nurtured by the mass culture art world of the period. In fact, once the l’art pour l’art (“art for art’s sake”) period arrived in post-war era, and especially into the 1960s, competition for gallery space and, therefore, commercial and public exposure, intensified significantly.”
Or it could just be another Monty Python silly list of names.
The two real joys of this sequence, however, remain Palin’s Pepperpot correcting Trench on the nationality of Kurt Schwitters, a delightful incongruity, and the closing sight gag of Toulouse Lautrec (TJ) trundling past the roundabout on a child’s tricycle. There’s a sneaking suspicion that the ‘escalation’ of this cycling race, with its all its lofty namechecks from the world of high art, has been contrived purely as an elaborate set-up for this giggly visual punchline.
The ‘Picasso/Cycling Race’ sketch concludes with the announcement that Picasso has fallen off his bike just outside Dewhurst (“Picasso is reported to be unhurt, but the pig has a slight headache”).
The Linkman (MP) bids the viewer goodnight, pushing back a pig’s head that appears at the edge of the desk. BBC paperwork notes that this is in fact an an actual pig’s head, as requested by designer Roger Limington. A condensed version of ‘Picasso/Cycling Race’ appeared in Series 3, Episode 3 of ‘Boxpops’, first broadcast BBC2, Sunday 15 December 1990.
The arts/sports overlap of the previous sequence is wrapped up with a split-screen credits sequence in the style of ‘Sportsview’ (BBCTV, 1954-1968), a precursor to Sportsnight, and Grandstand, only with footage of artists at work (Sir John Betjeman). The original script suggests “A painter, a sculptor, a composer at piano and Tennyson on the moors, a concert… All stock film”. The ‘Sportsnight’ theme is a 1951 recording of Wilfred Burns’ ‘Saturday Sports’ performed by the International Radio Orchestra.
The credits are abruptly interrupted by twisted animations of various Victorian cut-out figures against a pastoral tableau. A number of Gilliam motifs make their debut here – a sinister Victorian girl who recurs throughout the first two seasons and whose waif-like appearance and ringlets anticipate real life urchins in Gilliam movies, namely Sarah Polley in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988) and Jodeller Ferland in Tideland (2005); a human trapped inside a gargantuan head, complete with automata-like mechanical sound effects ; and a peek beneath the veil of Victorian propriety, in this case a portrait of a soldier and his wife, who transform into a cheesecake model and a Burglar Bill figure whenever an old-fashioned Bobby looks away. Just for good measure, the young Queen Elizabeth II and her sister Princess Margaret turn into a barrel organ, to the strains of ‘Baywood Villa’ (Rob Barker) played by Irvin’s 89 Key Marenghi (LP: ‘All The Fun of the Fairground’, Marble Arch MAL 854, 1968). The animation ends with a pig squashing a Victorian gentleman – a sequence recreated for the end credits of ‘And Now For Something Completely Different’.
A War Room scene provides a very effective, economic transition into the wartime theme of the following sketch, while maintaining the loose linking motif of pigs, as two generals push model pigs across a military strategist’s map. Where the scene cuts after one General (MP) quips, “Porker, eh? Swine”, the original rehearsal script continues with the following direction: “They (the generals) mumble about where they are going to put the pigs. The camera closes in on one of the pigs just as it has been pushed into place.”
Note that the set dressing for this scene includes, incongruously, a figurine of a bank-robber, with mask and striped jersey. It appears that this was intended as an obscure continuity link – in the original camera script for this episode, this scene was followed by an early version of ‘Lingerie Shop’ where Cleese plays a bank robber, dressed identically to the figurine. A BBC memo notes that the sketch was recorded as part of this episode, but dropped at the editing stage, as Cleese was unhappy with his performance:
“The sketch in Episode 2 [as recorded] called Lingerie, which although on tape, John Cleese would like to do again. It was cut again because of time but it was very short, running about 2 to 2 ½ minutes.”
The sketch was remounted for Series 1, Show 10 – something of an ‘everything must go’ episode in terms of mopping up material from the front half of the season.
The same camera script also shows that ‘Lingerie Shop’ was followed by another sketch recorded but not used in this episode, ‘Dirty Fork’ (Series 1, Show 3), introduced in the original draft script as by “two boys from London town”
Returning back to the transmitted version of the episode, the remainder of the episode is devoted to an ambitious, long-form sketch, ‘The Funniest Joke In The World’, which occupies the best part of a whole third of the first episode’s running time, and is an early expression of the team’s later forays into more lengthy, film-based items, with location filming taking place mostly on 18 July 1969, in and around Surrey, including Pirbright Army Camp and Ham House.
In an episode which has seen the long-departed Mozart hosting a clip show, it’s testament to how quickly the viewer goes through the rabbit hole to accept the Pythons’ world, where time and space can be concertina’d in a way that Spike Milligan had previously achieved on radio, that very few commentaries on this episode dwell even in passing on the miraculous fact that ‘The Funniest Joke In The World’ opens with a segment clearly set in the then-present day, as Terry Jones reports on “sudden, violent comedy” striking Dibley Road, the home of joke merchant Ernest Scribbler (A fine example of a nested gag if ever there was one) – complete with the first appearance of Pythonic police force ‘Q Division’ of Piranha Brothers fame – prior to a roll back and mix into the wartime world of Pathe newsreels, diving straight into the world of WWII “Joke warfare” without losing the narrative of Scribbler’s sacrifice.
It’s quite possibly a total coincidence that, six months prior to this sketch’s conception, the Avengers episode Look – (Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One) But There Were These Two Fellers... first aired on UK television, taking its own slant on comedy as a deadly business, with a memorable scene depicting gag writer Bradley Marler (Bernard Cribbins) virtually submerged in a room swamped with his rejected joke scripts – not unlike how Scribbler’s death is depicted in the 1971 movie adaptation of the sketch. That episode’s guest star? One John Cleese.
Scribbler’s dwelling, Dibley Road, is the first of several references in the series to one of the show’s working titles – ‘Gwen Dibley’s Flying Circus’. Yes, before Dawn French’s thicc vic Geraldine, there was another Dibley in comedy, whose history was tied into the early days of Python’s name-searching….
As Palin told American chat show host and Anglophile Dick Cavett in 1981:
“It was so near to being thrust upon her, Gwen Dibley.. it was just a name that I found in… Well, the thing is the BBC wanted to call it someone’s Flying Circus, they wanted a hand in the title, they didn’t want us hogging all the glory, we had silly names like A Horse A Spoon And A Bucket and Owl Stretching Time, things like that, which I think once the series had got going they would have accepted but at the beginning they wanted to keep some order to it, so it had to be somebody’s flying circus and I was reading a magazine at my mother-in-law’s and it was about all the activities that go on at Women’s Institute groups – someone gave a talk on Brazil, someone gave a talk on flower arranging, someone gives a talk on the Amazon – ‘accompanied by Gwen Dibley on the piano’. It was just the idea of all these things being accompanied by Gwen Dibley on the piano! I also thought it would just be splendid to give someone quite anonymous, living up in Cambridge to be given the name of a television show, just to see what would happen. The shock when they open the Radio Times! ‘Mum! You’ve got your own show!’ But the next day it wasn’t quite so funny, nobody found Gwen Dibley very funny.”
In the magazine TV Zone Andrew Pixley noted that shooting script of the ‘Funniest Joke In The World’ originally concluded with an interview with a man reminiscing about Germans dropping jokes on Britain during the war in a ‘modern BBC2 interview’, introduced by a newsreel voiceover proclaiming as “Britain’s latest weapon the War against the Hun”: “I remember the lady at the sweetshop – she copped one in January… there was a very good rude one in March, which caused a lot of trouble in the Wandsworth area…”.
Original rehearsal scripts also included a speech from Churchill – the script notes, “Cut to usual shot from behind of Churchill in armchair.”
CHURCHILL: It is a frightful weapon, but one which we must not hesitate to use, if the final victory is to be ours. We must tell the Joke, we must tell it well and we must tell it loudly, and we must be funny when we tell it. Ho. Ho.
In an edit which reflects the condensed version of ‘The Funniest Joke In The World’ as featured in 1971’s ‘And Now For Something Completely Different’, Terry Jones went on to re-edit the sketch for his ‘Personal Best’ in the team’s series of DVD “Best bits” compilations for A&E, as he told The Sound Of Young America in 2006:
“When we were editing the shows, Ian MacNaughton who was the director, he’d sort of think that we could get away with two hours of editing, and I’d turn up in the morning and we’d spend the entire day editing! Because you can improve things so much. Even then, editing the show wasn’t even enough and when we came to do these Personal Bests… it was a great opportunity to re-edit the actual TV shows, things like in my choice, the killer joke… That was nine and a half minutes when it went out on television and I was able to get it down to six minutes without losing a single joke. It’s now much more how I imagined it when we wrote it.”
Michael Mills, BBC Head of Comedy, carefully scrutinised the first three episodes prior to broadcast, and in an internal BBC memo to directors Ian MacNaughton and John Howard Davies issued on 29 September 1969, he described the shows as “very meritorious and very funny” and stressed that they were “way above most of our other productions”, with the following criticism:
“I think that the ‘Killer Joke’ is a little too long and could do with some trimming in the latter part. In particular, I would like the shot of the German wounded laughing to be removed entirely. The man in bandages is too horrific. In this second show there seems to be one glaring weakness. There is the ‘Death Request’ sequence at the beginning and the ‘Killer Joke’ in the same show. They are basically the same joke and indeed, on many occasions, the same artists are doing the same movements. It has the effect of softening the impact of the ‘Killer Joke’ routine and it would be advantageous if these two items could be separated into different shows.”
This was the same viewing where Cleese professed his dissatisfaction with an early version of the Lingerie/Bank-robber sketch and the group agreed to re-mount it in a later episode (Series 1, Show 10). Mills is one of the unsung heroes of Python’s launch, as set designer Robert Berk recalled:
“The head of comedy was very ‘pro’ Python, Michael Mills. He was a tough guy, Michael Mills, but I mean, he put the Pythons on with only their previous record, most of which they hadn’t been working together, and gave them a series of thirteen on the strength that he thought they were good guys. One thing about Michael was that he wasn’t the most liked person, but he was tough, and if he believed in something, he’d back it. He was definitely a good guy.”
A 1979 Radio Times retrospective provided an effective adumbration of how, as Head of Comedy, Michael Mills – not Barry Took, not David Frost – offered the five Oxbridge boys and a Minesottan interloper the leniency to make their mark:
“By the end of May, these six men have been brought to the BBC on the basis of a series of memoranda headed ‘The Circus’. Most of these have been written by a catalytic comedy adviser, Barry Took, who has been urging for some time that they be let loose on the Corporation airwaves. They see the then Head of Comedy, Michael Mills, who feels that they are minority material. But he also feels that they should be broadcast as soon as possible. Since he has no slots on the minority colour channel, BBC2, for the next six to nine months, he suggests to Paul Fox, then Controller of BBC1, that this new group should go out on the majority black and white channel” (Radio Times, 16th – 22nd June 1979, page 72 – 77)
Of the Pythons’ infamous ‘job interview’, Michael Palin recalled 20 years later:
“(Michael) Mills asked us what we wanted. None of us knew what to say. He tried to help us. He said: ‘Will there be guest stars?’ We said we didn’t think so. ‘Will there be musical interludes?’ We didn’t think so. ‘Will there be a theme each week, like The Frost Report?’ We didn’t think so. He asked what we would be called. We said we didn’t know. It was the world’s worst job interview and at the end, Michael Mills stood up and said: ‘All right, I’ll give you 13 shows.'” (Sunday Telegraph, 17th September 1989).
And that was the beginning of something completely different…
❉ James Gent is editor of We Are Cult, and co-editor with Jon Arnold of Me And The Starman. In 2014, James Gent wrote the biography for the official Monty Python website. He also acted as a consultant for the documentaries ‘Monty Python: And Now for Something Rather Similar’ (BBC) and ‘Monty Python: The Meaning of Live’ (GOLD).
❉ Material from “Monty Python’s Flying Circus ” © Python Productions. Reproduced for review purposes according to Section 30 (Criticism, review and news reporting) of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 (CDPA)