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Posts Tagged ‘Monty Python’

Is it time for another potentially embarrassing confession? Could be. I have mentioned before that I never really had a favourite rock group or band growing up; I didn’t really get into music at until my late teens. That role was played by, amongst other things, comedy, which I was just as obsessive about as any Oasis or Take That fan. Forget all that ‘comedy is the new rock ‘n’ roll’ stuff people were spouting in the early 90s when David Baddiel and Rob Newman were selling out arenas – Monty Python were my favourite group a good six or seven years earlier. And yet – and here’s the thing – much as I loved the TV series when I finally got to see it properly, much as I fell about laughing when Monty Python and the Holy Grail finally came on TV, much as I followed the other projects of the group members – Fawlty Towers and Ripping Yarns, obviously; Michael Palin going around the world; any Terry Gilliam film you cared to mention – when I finally got to watch Monty Python’s Life of Brian, ten years or so after its 1979 release, I was distinctly underwhelmed by it.

This despite the fact that at least one member of the group considers it the pinnacle of their work together; this despite the general acclamation the film has received (as well as numerous writs for blasphemy). It’s almost enough to make one doubt one’s own opinion. But not quite, though.

The movie is of course another of those Terry Jones projects which managed to get itself banned in Ireland on its initial release. It opens with a tried and tested Python gambit – opening ‘straight’ and sustaining a note of serious authenticity for as long as possible, before something silly happens. In this case it is the Three Wise Men turning up at a stable in Bethlehem, in search of the new-born Messiah – only to be confronted by Mandy (Jones), perhaps the apotheosis of all those ratbag old women he played in the TV series, and her infant son Brian. Suffice to say the Wise Men have unwisely come to wrong stable, just around the corner from one where a more famous nativity scene is in progress.

Cue animated titles and the (rather magnificent) ‘Brian Song’, which leads us into a genuinely impressive recreation of Judea in the first century (shot in Tunisia, sometimes on sets left behind by Zeffirelli when he finished making Jesus of Nazareth – something the Italian director was apparently hopping mad about when he found out). Brian (Graham Chapman) and his mother lead fairly ordinary lives, until a shock discovery about his own origins challenges everything Brian believes in, and incites him to rebel against the Roman occupation.

Here’s one of the odd things about Life of Brian – you can summarise the plot in broad strokes and it doesn’t actually sound that funny. Brian attempts to join a local resistance group, the People’s Front of Judea, but ends up as the only survivor of a raid on the palace of Roman administrator Pontius Pilate (Michael Palin). While escaping from the Roman pursuers with the unwitting aid of some passing aliens (all right, this bit sounds quite funny), Brian finds himself mistaken for the Messiah and pursued by a large following. Can this help him deal with his various travails? One thing is certain: it’s never not a good idea to take a positive view of the world.

Needless to say, the various Pythons play various parts (John Cleese gets some juicy moments, Terry Gilliam contributes a couple of the gargoyle-like grotesques he seemed to specialise in at this point in his career, and while Eric Idle doesn’t get a single really memorable character, he does get to sing the closing number (which, stripped of its context and blackly comic impact, has nevertheless gone on to become hugely popular as a sort of vaguely jolly song).

It almost goes without saying that there are many sequences in this film which are very funny indeed and which have, in some cases, embedded themselves in popular culture – the unfailingly funny stoning scene, the ‘What have the Romans done for us?’ routine, the closing number, Spike Milligan’s cameo (demonstrating, as others have previously observed, the art of upstaging John Cleese and Michael Palin simultaneously – no small feat). But the odd thing about them is they do feel like sketches grafted onto a more extended narrative with varying degrees of success.

This, I think, is the main difference between Life of Brian and the Python films and TV shows that preceded it – it has a confidence and cinematic quality to it that the previous films often lacked, but at the same time the structure and nature of the film is more conventional – it doesn’t have the fake credits or non-ending that marked Holy Grail out as being essentially a continuation of the TV series, which often featured similar gags and conceits. Life of Brian actually has a fairly coherent story, with a moral premise of sorts, and even genuine moments of sincere feeling and pathos (only very occasionally, of course).

The movie is also surprisingly on-the-nose about its message, as well. It’s essentially about ideology, particularly the absurdity of fanaticism – something shared by Brian’s followers and the various squabbling terrorist groups he encounters in the course of the film – and the Pythons are not afraid to lay it on a bit thick in this department. ‘You’re all individuals! You don’t have to follow anyone!’ yells Brian to the pursuing throng, and the editorial message is so clear you almost expect a caption poking fun at the lack of subtlety at this point.

Not that anyone was paying much attention to the film’s subtext back in 1979, of course. I suspect that much of the stature of Life of Brian owes to the kerfuffle that greeted its release, some elements of which have virtually become folklore – Strom Thurmond attempted to ban it in South Carolina on his wife’s insistence, while many other bans succeeded – it remained banned in Aberystwyth for thirty years, at which point the mayor repealed it (the mayor’s own nude scene in the film may or may not have been a factor). Cleese and Palin’s skirmish with Malcolm Muggeridge and the Bishop of Southwark on a chat show very quickly became the stuff of satire itself.

How much the Pythons were genuinely shocked by the strength of the reaction to the film is somewhat unclear. ‘Next year we will have to live with the impact of the film… there will be something of a sensation,’ predicted Michael Palin in his diary at the end of 1978. Nowadays the team are very clear that the film does not ridicule Jesus (he is played dead straight by Kenneth Colley, in a tiny cameo) and it’s more about challenging doctrinaire belief systems and parodying biblical epics, but this does strike me as a little disingenuous – especially as they are also on record describing cut material in which Jesus has trouble booking a table for the last supper and later helps out with the carpentry of the crucifixion. The presence of a number of biblical personages, and the use of some significant imagery (most obviously in the crucifixion sequence) also makes the claim that the film has nothing to do with the origins of Christianity sound a little disingenuous.

Maybe the film is still as shockingly irreverent (even heretical) as it sets out to be; I don’t know – maybe we’re all just too familiar with it now. As I say, there are some very funny sequences, but other sections of the film don’t make me laugh as hard or as long as other things they’ve done. For me it’s lacking the essential Python willingness to tear the formal conventions apart; it has a beginning, a middle, an end, character development, and all the usual stuff. Which make it a better conventional film, I suppose – but I come to Python looking for something completely different. It’s still a cherishable movie with some very funny moments, but it’s not really amongst my favourites as far as their work is concerned.

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I did not get into music as a teenager – not until my late teens, anyway. I’m not sure why this was, possibly because we just weren’t that kind of a family. It was always Radio 4 that was on in the kitchen, not Radio 2. And I suspect liking music was just not my thing. With hindsight, I can see I took a kind of perverse, masochistic satisfaction from being into stuff which was incredibly obscure and peculiar – which is why I became a kind of comedy geek. Not even the present day stuff: I suspect I was the only 13-year-old at my school who knew the names and birth dates of the cast of Beyond the Fringe. Lots of people could quote all the usual Monty Python sketches: I was the only who’d heard of The Frost Report, At Last the 1948 Show and Do Not Adjust Your Set, and could trace the lineage leading up to Python itself. Yes, it is a strange place, inside my brain; I have learned how to hide it much better in the last thirty-odd years.

The strange thing is that I’d committed all this information to memory before even seeing or hearing most of the shows and performers concerned – a lot of it came from Roger Wilmut’s book From Fringe to Flying Circus, an exhaustive history of the generation of Oxbridge comics who rose to prominence in the late 1950s and 1960s. Strange to recount, but when the BBC actually repeated the second and third series of Monty Python’s Flying Circus in the summer of 1987 (inconsiderately scheduled to regularly clash with their thirtieth-anniversary season of Hammer horror movies on the other side), I was not entirely sure who was who amongst the team. I knew John Cleese from Fawlty Towers, of course, and I knew the American one who didn’t get many lines was Terry Gilliam; I was also pretty sure which one was Michael Palin, too. But for quite a long while I was under the impression Eric Idle was Graham Chapman, and vice versa. Which just left Terry Jones, who – and this is the reason we are here, of course – has just left us.

Things were different back in the early 1980s, of course. Things popped up in strange places. I distinctly recall an episode of Python being shown long before the watershed when I was about eight. Similarly, I remember possibly the first time I saw Terry Jones on TV: he was being interviewed on a Saturday morning kids’ TV show, Lord knows why – possibly to publicise one of his childrens’ books, I don’t know – and this was accompanied by a clip from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Monty Python and the Holy Grail! On Saturday morning TV! It was a different world, I tell you. (It may be that someone on the editorial team was an avid Python fan, for they ran an equally inappropriate promo for Brazil in the same slot a year or two later.)

I get the impression that Terry Jones was quite proud of the fact that his films tended to be controversial – his first three solo projects as a director were all banned in Ireland – and this may be why they dragged their feet a bit in reaching the TV screen. These days we’re used to films arriving less than a year after their cinema debut, but part of me is quite sure it was eighteen years before Holy Grail was eventually shown in full on British TV: it was at Christmas 1993 that I finally got to see the whole thing. (I should of course make it clear that this particular Python extravaganza was directed by Terry Jones in tandem with Terry Gilliam.)

Here is where I traditionally describe the plot, but this being a Monty Python movie, various gags and conceits keep rocketing off at right-angles to the actual story (which is still reasonably cohesive, all things considered). Ostensibly set in the Dark Ages, the film concerns King Arthur of Camelot (a silly place) and his Knights of the Round Table. (Graham Chapman plays Arthur with his usual, worryingly plausible glassy-eyed authority; the rest of the team play Lancelot and the others.) God, or possibly W.G. Grace, commands them to find the Holy Grail, that their efforts should inspire the rest of the populace.

This is basically just a simple but wonderful framework on which to hang a selection of skits and sketches. It’s almost a cliche to describe the Pythons as comedy’s answer to the Beatles, but there is some truth to that, and their range of styles is fully on display here. Some of the humour is brutal (most obviously the encounter with the Black Knight), some of it is cleverer than it looks, much of it is gleefully silly, and some of it is knowingly puerile. The practiced viewer can often figure out who wrote a particular sketch based on its style – ‘Anything that opened with rolling countryside and music was Mike and Terry, anything with really heavy abuse in it was John and Graham, and anything that got totally obsessed with words and vanished up its own backside was Eric,’ according to Gilliam (if memory serves) – but personally I don’t really feel the need to pick it apart in quite such detail.

Even so, one does note that they are generating some of the gags here by giving mediaeval characters twentieth-century attitudes and outlooks (for instance, the anarcho-syndicalist peasants Arthur encounters near the start of the film), something which would go on to be one of the main drivers of Life of Brian, and also that some of the more anarchic assaults on the structure of the film itself have obviously developed from jokes in the TV show. The opening gag (of the DVD release, if not the theatrical version) where the wrong film – Bob Monkhouse in Dentist on the Job – is shown by mistake is a close cousin to a joke where an episode of Flying Circus is introduced by a continuity announcer from the commercial network, while the subversion of the opening credits by the Swedish tourist board does recall the way in which Njorl’s Saga was infiltrated by a group seeking to promote North Malden.

I know that Life of Brian is the Python movie one is supposed to like best of all, and I do think it has some very good moments. But this one is honestly still my favourite, and that’s partly because it is still very much in the style of the TV series at its best: there is kind of a plot, but this still feels very much like a revue movie, and it does have the kind of formal daring one expects from Python – particularly in the total lack of a conventional climax, or indeed an ending. Plus, on top of this, it does look remarkably good for what was clearly quite a low-budget movie: the surreal grotesqueries of the dark ages are clearly right up Gilliam and Jones’ street (not really surprising, when you consider Gilliam would go on to make several historical fantasy films while Jones would do some substantial historical documentaries). Was it this film or Jabberwocky that earned Gilliam a complimentary phone call from Stanley Kubrick, telling him it looked more authentic than Barry Lyndon? I can’t remember.

Still, you don’t argue with Kubrick. History does not recall what Stanley’s favourite Python movie was, but this is mine. Watching it again is a reminder of just how good these boys were, all those years ago. No wonder the Black Knight and the Knights Who Say ‘Ni’ and the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch have all infiltrated popular culture to some extent. Terry Jones had one of the more diverse and eclectic careers of any of the Pythons – rather than just writing and performing comedy, he was also a brewer, a historian, a poet and a film director – which may be why he never seemed to get quite the recognition and plaudits of some of the other members of the team. Certainly he deserved them, because he was very good at all these things. Possibly that may be rectified now; better late than never. The Pythons were the closest thing I had to a favourite band as a teenager. I hope we will cherish the remaining quartet appropriately while we still have them.

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