The daft ditties of Glasgow’s Ivor Cutler and Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks might never have seen the light without the BBC, writes Aidan Smith.
The BBC is under threat. Yes, again. It’s not perfect. Sometimes it annoys and occasionally it infuriates. Like when the in-house diversity focus group decides – in the interests of inclusiveness for other minute markings on the clockface, presumably – that the new Crackerjack shouldn’t start at the sacred and literally time-honoured “five-to-five”. But think of this right now: we wouldn’t have had Terry Jones without the Beeb, nor Ivor Cutler.
I’m thinking of Ivor because he’s being celebrated by Celtic Connections with tomorrow’s performance in his Glasgow birthplace of a tribute album of his daft ditties and I’m thinking of Terry because like the Norwegian Blue parrot he’s no more, ceased to be, an ex-comedy genius.
Jones and the rest of Monty Python’s Flying Circus emerged, big foot bursting through a bucolic sky, at the end of a decade of merciless mirth at the expense of the natural order. Politicians were sent up by the satire boom and then Python set up the Ministry of Silly Walks. The government of the day, still believing in deference, was appalled at this snook-cocking by the state broadcaster. The government of this day, even though it controls much of its own message, still manages to be appalled by the Beeb and perceived bias and is planning stiff retribution.
Safe and snug and twee and tame
Python was less political than That Was the Week That Was and The Frost Report and, in comparison, Cutler wasn’t really political at all, although the other day, bumping across potholes on the way to the cheaper supermarket which sells wood shavings as muesli, an episode of his classic Life in a Scotch Sitting-Room popped up on iPod shuffle and I thought to myself: “The man didn’t just knead a wheezing harmonium in a badge-festooned bunnet as the sixth or seventh Beatle … he was a true visionary who knew exactly what the current austerity programme would look like!”
You had to be there. You had to be in my school playground, or any other playground in Britain, to properly appreciate the seismic shock caused by the Python foot. Before Jones and John Cleese and Michael Palin and the rest, comedy had been safe and snug and twee and tame. Shows were set in workplaces or in the house, long-time marrieds sat on the sofa, boring each other and boring us.
Suddenly … “No one expects the comfy chair!” But after the Spanish Inquisition sketch, the Argument Clinic sketch, the Dennis Moore sketch (“Stand and deliver … your lupins or your life!”) and the Upper-Class Twit of the Year sketch, this constituency of spotty 12-year-olds, who’d been desperate for something completely different, raced round the playground shouting the catchphrases at each other.
Making fun of religion
Python really was completely different. These guys had obviously watched a lot of TV, possibly even more than we had, and were sending it up something rotten. Sonorous continuity announcers, oleaginous game-show hosts (the Blackmail sketch), pretentious late-night discussion hosts and the biggest guns (the Whicker Island sketch) – no one was safe.
The same year Python began – 1969 – ITV got religion and rolled out Stars on Sunday introduced by a holier-than-thou, organ-bashing Jess Yates. Meanwhile Jones also played the organ, but nude, and turned the Pope into a street thug, smoking aggressively and barging passers-by. Who knew you could make fun of religion as well? Lucky me, I got to meet Jones. The interview was at his home where in violent storms an ancient tree in his garden had just blown over and crashed through a sunhouse with all the force of the Python foot. Understandably, he was a bit flustered – all the more so when I asked, at the insistence of my salacious editor of the time, about his open marriage, recently revealed. All this anorak really wanted to do was talk Gumby with him.
Python was fantastic, punk rock-before-punk rock, and I’ve become very protective of it. Headlines among the Jones tributes where the writer admits he can no longer watch the show as he finds it “grindingly unfunny” just enrage me.
The best comedies are by their nature of their time and Python was the best. Maybe in my devotion I can get carried away (were the Silly Walks really as historic as the moonwalk?). But I was just the right age for this outrageous, psychedelic, anti-establishment, clever-clever zaniness and happily there was a new series for every year of high school – on the BBC, of course.
Also on the Beeb – he couldn’t have emerged from a channel beholden to advertisers – was Cutler. First on the Home Service, then the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour premiered on Boxing Day, 1967, then John Peel. His Jewish parents fled the pogroms on a boat hoping to reach America; in fact they only made it to Clydeside. Just imagine: you set a course for the promised land and have to settle for a spot 100 yards from Rangers’ football ground. Maybe it’s no wonder young Ivor grew up to be the most gloriously gloomy Scotsman there’s ever been.
There had been an earlier career in teaching, and when he quit Cutler chopped up the belt he hated using and handed the pieces round the class.
On Peel’s programme each episode from the Scotch Sitting-Room was like a bit of belt – doleful descriptions of privation and harshness (“Voiding the bowels was unheard of – you just kept it in” ... games played with three grains of sand) which might have been exaggerated but are extremely useful now when you want to remind your kids, who seem to get the trainers and gadgets they want while Dad munches his wood shavings, that they should count themselves lucky.
I’ll be moving them on to Python soon and they’ll enjoy that. Or else ...