Monty Python – punk before the Sex Pistols – remains the greatest television comedy of all time, writes Aidan Smith.
A few years ago I had the chance to meet John Cleese but, thinking I was done with the showbiz beat after a shocking run of bimbos and himbos and actors who, shorn of a script, had damn all to say for themselves, I passed on the interview. Part of me thinks this was the right decision – they say you should never get one-on-one with your heroes. The other part regrets it, and probably will for the rest of my career.
Okay, maybe hero’s a bit strong, but in first year at secondary school, Cleese and the rest of Monty Python’s Flying Circus were crucial figures. My son starts secondary tomorrow and how I wish he had the chance to settle the nerves and instantly bond with strangers over a mutual appreciation for a group of men in Fair Isle tank-tops, rolled-up trousers, wellington boots, tiny moustaches and hankies on their heads.
The Gumbys saved my life? Okay, maybe that’s a bit strong, but 50 years ago the world was a straight place which had just got straighter, thanks to all these stern-faced masters, capes billowing in a fug of chalkdust, whiskers flaring (and that was just the women), the belt at the ready, who talked to us of past participles, Pythagoras’ theorem and the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.
What a year 1969 was. A few weeks after man first set foot on the moon, a giant foot came crashing through the clouds, squashing teachers, prefects, elders and supposed betters, park-keepers, posh people, battleaxes, gloomy ministers, sepulchral sermonisers, ball confiscators, army recruitment officers, absolutely any kind of fun reduction officer such as the ones who tried to outlaw penny bangers being casually dropped in metal dustbins – and last but not least three-day-week enforcers, especially if our turn for power cuts meant missing Python. That’s what the show’s title sequence meant to us, and Cleese and his chums were punk before the arrival of punk a few years later.
The 50th anniversary of the moon mission was commemorated and soon it will be time to celebrate the greatest television comedy of all time. The what? Are you sure? Yes I am. A “BBC takeover” is promised next month featuring re-runs, stuff never broadcast before and a Guinness Book of Records attempt at mustering the most number of people dressed as Gumbys.
But I can tell that you’re querying that bit about Python being the greatest. You don’t get Cleese and wonder what all the fuss is about. You liked Fawlty Towers but think that hailing it as “after the NHS, arguably Britain’s greatest achievement since the Second World War” is over-the-top. You point to his remarks about “half-educated tenement Scots” and London not being an English city anymore and ask, not unreasonably: “Hasn’t he turned into a silly old goat, the kind that Python used to gleefully deride?” And you point to his Beeb comeback Hold The Sunset and reckon it to be the worst sitcom on the box.
Well, about Hold the Sunset I agree. Revolving round the thwarted attempts of – yes – a silly old goat to persuade his widowed neighbour to move with him to warmer climes, it’s so lame that I wonder if it’s Cleese being ironic or sending up crummy comedies or being Dadaist, which was what Monty Python were, and oh we used to love dropping the term into earnest school quad discussion about our favourite show, never quite knowing what it meant (still don’t, really).
Last week it was revealed that somewhere between the first and second series, the show has lost five million viewers. I tuned in to the latest episode to see just how bad it had become. Cleese, the big star, the comedian of his generation, didn’t appear until eight minutes from the end. Either he’d tried to flee the grim mess or he was being perversely Pythonesque.
Hold the Sunset is exactly the kind of comedy Python wanted to stuff into a time capsule, maybe borrowed from Blue Peter, which would be strapped to a rocket and fired into outer space, there to inform the inhabitants of more sophisticated planets: “This was what they used to watch on Earth before John Marwood Cleese, nee Cheese, sat behind a desk and mimicked a sonorous, self-important continuity announcer by declaring: ‘And now for something completely different... ’” Who sent up continuity announcers before Python? Or poked fun at police officers, politicians and pretentious late-night talk-show guests? Maybe The Goons did, but they were a bit before our time.
We were exactly the right age to snigger uncontrollably at Cleese and Co. Python almost called themselves Gwen Dibley’s Flying Circus then Cynthia Fellatio’s Flying Circus then Owl Stretching Time. They had us at “It’s...!”
I laughed last week, not at Hold the Sunset, but the report that rudeness on telly originated with Trinny Woodall and Susannah Constantine.
Academics submitting evidence to the reality TV inquiry in the wake of the death of a participant on The Jeremy Kyle Show had pinpointed the fashion flibbertigibbets’ What Not to Wear as the beginning of the end of deference. How rude! Surely it was Python who rubbished everyone and everything.
Was Constantine a contestant on Python’s Upper-Class Twit of the Year Show? She could have been but she wasn’t because I remember Vivian Smith-Smythe-Smith (“Can count up to four”), Simon Zinc-Trumpet-Harris (“Married to a very attractive table lamp”), Gervaise Brook-Hampster (“Used by his father as a waste-paper basket”) and all the rest.
The morning after every edition of Python we’d re-stage the sketches in the quad and compete to see who could impersonate them impersonating Alan Whicker the best.
Some might try and claim Python is dated but, as always, context is everything.
And if you don’t agree it’s the greatest, then you’re a Gumby.