Costuming Python: Hazel Pethig Remembers

❉ Excerpts from a 2013 interview with Hazel Pethig, Monty Python’s wardrobe maven.

The reason I was given Python to do – it was a wonderful thing to happen because I think I was the right person to do it – was because some of the people at the BBC, perfectly good designers, wouldn’t have seen the humour, wouldn’t have been as adaptable, there was no way; but I’d worked on Ken Dodd.

Ken Dodd wasn’t my taste, but the hampers that we used to use to transport costumes… I wasn’t sure what we were going to need up there in Knotty Ash, just pile in a load of stuff, and then we’d dress stuff – I can’t even remember the sketches – but when I came back from that job, the people who would allocate shows to particular designers said, ‘Oh, how did it go?’ I said, ‘I had a really good time!’ and they couldn’t believe their ears, because of the challenges of the way of working, making stuff up as we go along, and I think that’s how they decided to let me do this weird show that came along, called Owl Stretching Time at that point.

It was like nothing the BBC had ever worked on before, and from there it just took off.  We were all about the same age, I really enjoyed it, so it was really thanks to Ken Dodd! I worked again with Ken Dodd, and he was very pleasant to work with!

I think I tuned into their comedy.   Maybe sometimes if I had something to offer, it would click, and there would become a dialogue about the costume, but it was very much my sort of humour.

It was thrilling for me to see comedy, I can’t call it a show, I can’t have been the only person in the world, but I was brought up in a bohemian world, I was used to looking at things upside down, so classic comedy shows didn’t say much to me, whereas this did.

And I love character, it’s not much being a costume designer and it wasn’t a vision of doing showgirls, necessarily, although I’ve done showgirls; it’s people and characters and the psychology of clothing that really interested me, so that is ideal for working with the Pythons.

We were definitely a team. The people who got it – yes, a happy team.  No conflicts at all.

Ian MacNaughton was great, I think we had someone else at first, John Howard Davies, he was properly mad, he was good to work with, but NOBODY was like Ian.  He was a maverick.  He was a one-off.  John Howard Davies was more solid, and certainly had a great sense of humour, you’d have to to do a show like Python, or Owl Stretching Time as it was then.  Positive, you had to have positive vibes.   Ian was very much part of the team, he tried to understand what the Pythons wanted, which wasn’t difficult really.

Initially, you would read the script and hopefully understand the humour and comedy, then go to a read-through and get an even bigger idea, and then not to impose one’s ideas but offer up suggestions as to what the costume might be for certain characters, and they would offer up what they wanted.

For the writing, John & Graham would be at each others’ houses, Mike & Terry would write separately, but they’d go through the read through, they’d go through all their stuff.  When they come into the read-through, it’s a chance for them to all be together, obviously they’d all coordinate together beforehand, but they’d been hammering stuff out, and it really – they were marvellous, the production meetings, they’d argue things out in a positive manner.  They’d go through sketches and refine them all, something new, and obviously they all had something new to offer. It seemed to me they made a really good team, which is quite special for six, quite strong personalities.  There might have been arguments sometimes but they would have been productive.  They didn’t fall out over it, ‘cause they stayed together all that time!  There might have been fallings-out, but nothing I could comment on.  So in order to defend each others’ bit of writing, they were very exciting, interesting read-throughs.

And they were all good writers, very educated, didn’t express themselves badly.

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. I just liked making characters, making something out of nothing, that’s why I enjoyed Jabberwocky.

Sometimes you’d get offered a brief of what a character should look like, but mainly in descriptions of character.

With Michael, we had a particular suit for him, when he was going to be a ‘little man’ (Arthur Pewtey), little in experience, it had to be the right length for him, the right fit, slightly too short, awkward, ill-fitting, so it would be very much character based. It was a mutual, combined effort, like a two-way process.  You’d spark one idea off between us.  But importantly your brief as a costume designer would be to give whoever had written it, whatever they had written it for, and enhance it, and try not to get too much comedy in the costume… which can’t always be described.  But it helped Michael make the most of the role.

In 2013, Michael Palin told We Are Cult’s James Gent:

“Hazel was great – she wasn’t forcing her decisions on us, she wasn’t coming back to us from a background of a dogmatic ‘costume design’ world; she was very much her own person, she’s lovely, she had a nice, slightly dreamy, new age-y, way about her and she liked to explore the character. 

I felt working with Hazel was  a lovely way of building up characters together, because she was just happy to explore the various alternatives, she was never dogmatic and I rarely saw her go into jargon or costume-speak, it was about the character and how she could make that character with you something original and different.  She loved it when there were little sort of details or differences that we could agree on, a different sort of tie, a jacket that was a little too short or whatever, just a little touch that gave each character something different. “

With the pepperpots, it denoted the shape of the old ladies, the lack of imagination of some of them.  When you think of something like The Ladykillers, the clothes were so lop-sided, but it enhanced the character, it advanced the comedy, it advanced the intimacy, it draws the audience in.  For example, I’ll deviate here now, I’m doing some aprons for Mrs Brown’s Boys. It’s a vulgar show.  So it’s understanding the comedy in the apron.  Some audiences may not read it, but if the actor, the comedian, reads it, it assists their performance, the costume.

Some time with characters, there’s nothing very distinctive, coming across in the script costume-wise, or you don’t want to repeat characters.  I can remember worrying what on Earth I was going to do with John in [The Dead Parrot sketch], and the pac-a-mac seemed – if you buttoned it up, you could see the shirt he had underneath – you know, it was like, the transparency of the pac-a-mac was important.

How can I explain how that was?  Costume shouldn’t interfere – I felt it did help the character, although John isn’t very tuned in to extensive costume fittings, so I had to put it on him quickly, almost trick him into putting it on, and then, it just seemed right.  Praline’s a very practical character and it fits that he thought “I’ll put a pac-a-mac on, it might be raining today” thing, it would seem acceptable to put a pac-a-mac on as a coat, which is bizarre; the pac-a-mac coat just seemed to express Praline very well.  It’s a weird thing to go out when it’s not raining, to be wearing a pac-a-mac.  Some things can’t be explained, why something seems funny.

I got worried when it came to do the stage show and I didn’t know whether or not I could find a pac-a-mac, those long pac-a-macs that you used to be able to get, because it was so right!

The Gumbies were based on Southend on Sea where I lived, where I was brought up.  You’d see, in the days when people didn’t undress as much, the older people certainly would keep their collars and ties, just roll their sleeves up, and Gumby was an exaggeration of that.  They also used to wear a knotted hankie to keep the sun off their head, and to have a Gumby in the middle of the hedge….

These guys just sprang to mind, because they weren’t the sort of guys on the beach who would have much to talk about, they’d probably read the equivalent of The Sun, they might read Reveille, I didn’t go into it that deeply! I just thought, like Praline, what’s going to match the speech?

It’s absurd, because the further from the beach, people would sit with all their clothes on.  I’d say that he might not have been created that way if he’d not been sat in a deckchair. It was the deckchair that helped me.  I don’t think the deckchair was in the script, but seeing John rehearse it, or whatever, there must have been a reference to a deckchair that brought me to it, but then of course Gumby appeared all over the place, but the deckchair, I’m sure that was the first time. That’s what did it.

Gumboots might have come into it, but it also was a very wet day! I’d gone back to the truck that I thought I could use, it was made up on some day, and obviously I had the right sort of things in the truck that I was going to need; the Fair Isle sweater was looking – although it came into fashion at a certain point to wear, I was nothing to do with fashion –so I looked around in the truck and I thought, the gumboots would be perfect, because John is going to sit in his deckchair, on a day when it was raining, and it worked visually.  If it hadn’t been right, I would probably have put him in sandals and socks, but it wouldn’t have been as good a costume.

It’s all character and how it manifests, like with Pither. With Pither, it was a joy for me.  I’d suggest he might have cotton wool in his ears, you might not see it nowadays, but you know, EN&T treatments, wonderful medications at the chemists, and it all struck me as bizarre, because when I was younger, I used to go to the pub with my friends as a teenager, and I’d be looking at character clothing, which would interest me more than fashion.

Terry Jones used to like being the women with the screechy voice, very mixed range of women.  He enjoyed it, and for me it meant making a mixed range of body types. There was a certain amount of padding in BBC stock, then I’d add to it or combine.

City suits I used to buy up.  We had to hire them or buy them. With the city suits, I used to buy.  For Graham’s colonel uniform we had to hire, because having a clean costume made cost a fortune, so sometimes it was frustrating to have to go over it all again.

With Terry as Eartha Kitt, I had to make that in the morning! Because someone wouldn’t always have a name so I didn’t realise that Terry would need an Eartha Kitt prop. And Graham Chapman sat up all night with me while I made it!  One night I was up all night with Graham sowing sequins and he kept saying ‘Go to bed, woman!’ and we woke up on the same bed.

So I had to pull that together in a couple of hours, while the filming was going on.  Luckily I used to carry fabrics with me. I used padding and things I had with me. But it worked, it was fine, but he had to wear a wig as well!  And the thing is, it couldn’t be a perfect Eartha Kitt dress, not only ‘cos of the budget but also the humour, luckily I managed to get it all in, shoes, etc., before lunch.

There weren’t so many costumiers then. Bermans, Nathans, sometimes you’d have to order it over the phone. But I’d like to go behind the curtains and get what I wanted. I’d go around markets, old fashioned markets, where I’d get Terry Jones’ aprons.

The blessing was there was a massive costume store at the BBC, so they had LE stuff you could draw on, a big range. They didn’t have uniforms.  You could use their stock and when it came to the budget, you weren’t really charged. I couldn’t have done it without that BBC costume store, nowadays you couldn’t do it. Bermans were good at eccelsiastical stuff.

We’d have to hire stuff – that cost a chunk of the budget. Storage didn’t cost anything.  Then we had this big bus called the Pink Elephant – so named because it was a monster truck and it was pink!

I remember making an aviator’s in pink fleece for Biggles’ friend.  I made that at home, over a couple of nights, ‘cos I couldn’t AFFORD to take it into a costume house, not with the time.

For fittings, sometimes they’d come in a clutch.  We would always have to persuade them into fittings. Terry Jones and Michael enjoyed dressing up more, they’d be a bit easier and a bit more fun.  Eric wasn’t as interested but it was manageable, but John didn’t like doing costume fittings and I’d have to persuade him, used to have to!  Literally during the Spaniards, he had to dress like a Conquistador, and we had to dress in a playground or behind a bush or whatever, and he’d breath in, breath in, make his chest big, and say ‘Oh look, Haze, it doesn’t fit, it doesn’t fit’, because he didn’t want to wear it, but he had to wear it, so I would have to punch his chest to get the air out, pull a doublet round his chest and say, ‘Yes, it does fit, John, it does fit, you’ve got to wear it.’ And then he finished up wearing it, but he didn’t want to wear the moustache, because John didn’t think he needed to dress up to do all this stuff, but of course he did because all the others were dressed up. Couldn’t do it in black tights and a black T shirt.  It could be challenging to get him into a fitting.  I got used to knowing if a jacket didn’t fit my knees, it would fit John. And when it came to Life of Brian, he threw the Roman costume across the room, and I just laughed….

Terry Gilliam’s quite good about putting costume on because he’s so visual.

But they once came in a group, to the BBC stock room, which had fittings at the end, and they finished up running around all the rails.  I had to chase them around rails to get them to put their costumes on.  But we were all laughing while we were all doing it. I was hoping no one else would come in to do costume that day! There was always more energy in the room as a group, because when I came to do 30 Years of Python, I got them in a great big room again, they were just behaving the same way again, and we all loved it!

I loved Scott of the Sahara, that was so funny, and you had to have a lion, put in about three different stages, then I had to have a lion costume,  and then Carol – she’s quite canny – Carol was the regular glamour girl but sometimes they’d ask her to do a character.  Once I had to do her as a little old lady, and initially – initially – she found that very difficult. She had to have a little grey wig with a little hat, steel rimmed spectacles, funny old shoes. But then, she grew into these characters, much more, she became much more part of the show.

Carol Cleveland became part of the show, because it wasn’t misogynistic. But John wasn’t too keen on her being around, ‘cos she used to tease him. I had so many times I had to push up boobs, make her like a bunny girl.  She looked quite ordinary, but she came in with this case, it was a total transformation.

She had to have a white fox fur, I didn’t like having that but it was in the day when you had to had to have fox fur, fabulous coat, and there were catcii in the sand, and her coat had to get caught on the cactus, and the first time she ran through, not completely topless, but the crew had seen everything, so as soon as she ran in, I rushed in with a  dressing gown, to cover her up, and they hadn’t finished the shot, so the crew were thrilled ‘cause they had to do it all over again.

So, she was there for her sexy body, but she became very good at playing comedy roles as the series progressed. Compared to the Hammer Horror girls, she was the actress.

Once we had a stripper, in Barnsley, anyway, the stripper had a zip in her costume but she also had maribou feathers, and the feathers got stuck in her zip, and it was a real hot sweat having these feather boas caught in her zip, she had to get onto the set and right at the last second, managed to get it all sorted out, but a bit hair-raising as well.  You lose the flow.

For me, personally, the funniest sketch was the upper class twits.  I was up in the viewing gallery, behind the director, watching the actual take, doing the studio show, and of course the upper class twit of the year show was on film, and I laughed so much, I fell of my high stool, it was so funny, I thought aren’t I lucky – I’ve seen them rehearse it, I’ve seen them film it; I still find it funny even if I watch it now, hooting!

❉  Editor of WE ARE CULTJames 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.

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