Monty Python’s Flying Circus is of course a benchmark for comedy and an example of 70s television at its finest. A collective that spawned countless TV and cinematic moments of gold and inspired endless playground retellings and re-enactments… from ‘The Ministry of Funny Walks’ to ‘No one expects the Spanish Inquisition’.
John Cleese and Fawlty Towers apart however, the rest of the Python’s solo work tends to fly under the radar. In comparison, it’s similar in many ways to the Beatles solo projects, which rarely got the appreciation they deserved…. step forward ‘All Things Must Pass’ by George Harrison.
Take Eric Idle’s excellent Rutland Weekend Television, although it hatched the excellent Beatles parody – The Ruttles, it was cut short after two series and was never truly appreciated in the UK. Likewise, Ripping Yarns by Michael Palin and Terry Jones was restricted to 8 episodes after the initial pilot… the hilarious ‘Tomkinson’s Schooldays’.
If you’ve never seen it, Ripping Yarns was a shameless parody of British culture. To be fair it could be a bit hit or miss, but when it hit the sweet-spot it was as funny as anything that’s ever been on TV. There were nine 30 minute episodes presented in the style of Boys Own adventure stories, set in an era when all a chap needed was a stiff upper lip and a healthy dash of derring-do.
The series was tucked away on BBC2 at 9pm on a Friday night but once discovered, it became an essential part of my weekend.
In 1977, Joanna’s Night Club in Glasgow was my Friday night destination of choice, so as part of my weekly ritual I’d get spruced up, go round to my partner in crime Paul Fitzpatrick’s house and we’d watch the latest episode of Ripping Yarns before heading into town, armed with quips from the show still in our head. Quips I hasten to add that confused the hell out of anyone that hadn’t seen the show (about 99.9% of the population), but would amuse the hell out of us.
My brothers George and David were also big fans of the show and we used to have some very surreal conversations in front of our bemused parents about Spear & Jackson shovels and black pudding (in Yorkshire accents) – as an homage to our favourite episode, ‘The Testing of Eric Olthwaite“. There are too many great comedy moments in this 28 minute masterpiece, to break down, but the opening 3 minute sequence (below), will give you a taste.
A Yorkshire banker, Eric was sooo boring that his Father pretended to be French to avoid talking to him whilst his mother would feign bilious attacks or even death. Heartbreakingly, Eric’s family run away from home to avoid further contact with him, he was just that tedious.
A confused and devastated Eric can’t understand why people find him so dull and you can feel his pain as he protests in his thick Yorkshire accent…. “It were hard to accept I were boring. Especially with my interest in rainfall”
Eric’s obsession with precipitation and shovels drive his family to distraction and ensure he’s friendless but like all good tales there’s a twist… if you’re interested to find out what it is, you can catch the full episode below and become like me… a fully paid-up member of the Ripping Yarns fan club.
According to the Harvard professor and cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker, mankind’s never had it so good.
He reasons that by almost every metric of human wellbeing, the world is getting better —everything from war, violence, and poverty (all declining) to health, wealth, happiness, and equality (all improving).
I’m not about to argue against the Prof or his logic but despite the obvious progress there are still a few things from the 70s that I’m sure we all miss.
I don’t mean major things, like – loved ones or youth or waistlines, they’re a given of course, however, I’m not talking about superfluous things either, like Golden Cups or Sea Monkeys.
I readily admit that my choices are all minor in the grand scheme of things but they’re particular to me….
1) Jukeboxes: I know we can stream music from a grain of sand nowadays and Spotify can provide us with 70 million downloadable songs at the touch of a button, and really, I’m grateful for that, it’s progress, it really is.
But I do miss a great jukebox in a pub, because it’s the way it should be, it’s democracy at its finest, everyone has a choice and if the proprietors are smart and curate the best of each genre then it doesn’t matter if you’re a Rock fan and the jukebox is playing Dock of the Bay by Otis Redding or Wichita Lineman by Glen Campbell, the chances are you’ll still appreciate best in class.
The alternative is generally hit or miss and usually in the hands of a disinterested staff member who’s happy to put on anything for a bit of background noise.
I’ve left pubs before because the music was so banal.
In my local they have an online jukebox system called Secret DJ where you can log-in using the pubs Wi-Fi and make your own choices (everyone that logs in has 3 free choices before you have to pay), there’s not a great selection to choose from to be honest but there’s a bit of Steely Dan & The Doobie Brothers & Al Green and of course Wichita Lineman & Dock of the Bay…
It’s not as good as a finely curated jukebox of course but it’s better than listening to Adele on a loop.
2) Robert Halpern:
In the late 70s one of the best nights out for me was a visit to The Pavilion in Glasgow to see a stage hypnotist called Robert Halpern.
I must have seen the guy 20 times at least, and over the course of a few years I dragged along everyone I knew to see his act… mainly for the show but also to witness their reactions, which were usually hysterical.
The premise of the show was pretty simple and never really changed.
He would hypnotise about 40 people every night. Most of them hypnotised within the first 10 minutes of the show, unknowingly put under, whilst sitting in their seats.
He’d then home-in on about 12 principal characters (usually the mouthy ones) who would become the stars of the show.
I took a friend who on attending the show for the first time got hypnotised, and I watched it all unfold.
One minute he was sat beside me saying it was all claptrap the next he was trudging up to the stage like a zombie with his fingers clasped so tightly that his hands and arms were shaking.
At the end of the show my mate vehemently denied that he had been hypnotised and insisted that he’d been fully aware of everything that had gone on.
I so wished I had a camera phone back then to show him his ‘awareness’ at work.
He didn’t think it was strange at all, that… He was up on stage in front of 1,500 people… Or that he was eating raw onions that supposedly tasted like sweet apples…. Or that he would start taking all his clothes off when he heard a certain song… Or that he was stuck to a chair that he couldn’t get out of for 10 minutes…. Or that he was trying to feed a carrot to a wooden horse…. Or that he believed the number 3 didn’t exist so when he counted his fingers, he had 11 digits… despite him working for a bank!
He said he was just performing for the benefit of the show, which I guess on some level is how ‘response to suggestion’ works… which is at the core of hypnotism.
Anyway, as you can probably guess, the star of the show every night as always, was the great Glasgow public.
There was always a gallus wee punter telling the hypnotist to ‘f*ck off ya clown!’ or a schemie laying into him with ‘do ya think I’m buttoned up the back, ya dobber!’.
At the height of his popularity this dobber was earning £25,000 per week, had added a Bengal tiger a set of gallows and a spaceship to his act and was swanning about in a Rolls Royce.
Things didn’t end well for Halpern though. A girl hypnotised by him marched off the front of the stage into the orchestra pit, when as part of the act he’d convinced her she needed a pee and was desperate for the bathroom. She broke her leg, damaged her back and sued.
Halpern, a regular at the casinos, was by now allegedly bankrupt.
Even though I knew the drill I miss those shows, they were funny, chaotic, very live and obviously spontaneous.
One of my favourite parts was the wooden horse routine –
“when you wake up you will see a beautiful stallion, a Grand National winner, you love that horse and no one else is allowed to go near it, if anyone touches your horse you will be livid…. 1-2-3 Wake Up!”
Cue wee Glasgow punter when he wakes up and sees another wee Glasgow punter sitting on the wooden horse – “hey you, ya thieving b*stard, get aff my f*cking horse!!!”
3) Laugh out loud movies:
I never laughed so much in the cinema as I did in the 70s – Blazing Saddles, Life of Brian, Kentucky Fried Movie, Young Frankenstein, The Jerk, *Caddyshack, *Airplane, etc…
(*the last two were actually released early in 1980 but were devised & written in the 70s and filmed in 79, so I’m claiming them for the 70s)
Don’t get me wrong there have been some great comedies in subsequent decades – Borat, Step Brothers, In Bruges, In the Loop, etc, but nothing quite as hilarious as Mel Brooks and The Pythons at their best.
The depressing thing about a lot of those 70s movies however is that none of them would get made in todays ‘cancel culture’.
Don’t get me wrong, if something is genuinely offensive then it shouldn’t see the light of day, but nowadays a big section of society gets offended by everything and being outraged seems to give some people the right to take the moral high ground and say ‘I’m offended therefore I’m principled’…. permitting them to jump on whatever bandwagon is rolling through social media that week.
Creatively, this leads to a culture of fear and reduces risk taking, which in turn stymies talent and imagination.
Take Blazing Saddles as an example.. as brilliant as it is, that screenplay would never be pitched to studio execs today.
It’s mistakenly referred to as a racist movie by some, when in fact it’s actually one of the greatest anti-racist movies of all time…
Co-written by Richard Pryor, who also advised on the language, the films original title was Tex X: it was planned to be an homage to Malcolm X, and was conceived from the outset as an unflinching attack on racism
True, it requires a modicum of critical thinking to work out who the butt of the satire, sarcasm and absurdity is aimed at, but surely we can trust the general public to work that out for themselves without the need for a ‘3-minute racism warning message’ recently added to the start of Blazing Saddles (and Gone With the Wind) on HBO in America.
Likewise, was The Life of Brian really blasphemous or was Brian just “A very naughty boy” who happened to be born next door and on the same day as Jesus?
On reflection, maybe I’m using Movies as a means of bitching about todays ‘woke culture’, so I best stop there before I get cancelled!
(Post by John Allan, from Bridgetown, Western Australia – March 2021)
I will endeavour to present this article to you, the general public, without the use of quotes. Thank you.
“It’s !……………….” Ah, false start.
We kids of the 60s were brought up on a numbing TV diet of the crass and corny. Think “The Dick Emery Show”, “On The Buses” and “Steptoe & Son”. The bland – “Charlie Drake”, “Harry Worth”, “Hugh & I” and the innuendo strewn and mildly titillating “Carry On” films “Up Pompeii” and of course “The Benny Hill Show”. There were a few stand outs – “Dads Army”, “The Likely Lads” but on average our comedic viewing was……………………… well, average.
“Monty Python’s Flying Circus” emerged from the ashes of “The Frost Report”, “At Last the 1948 Show” and “Do Not Adjust Your Set” in 1969 but didn’t come to my attention until a couple of years later. It continued the surreal elements of “Peter Cook and Dudley Moore” and Spike Milligan’s “Q”. It became an unexpected success.
“Nobody expects the Spanish…………………………….” No !
Five ‘Oxbridge’ dons and a Yank cartoonist wrote, created and performed a sketch show which stretched the boundaries of what we had previously known and witnessed. This was no traditional nor conventional comedy sketch show with a beginning, middle and end. Continuity was abandoned, chaos was unleashed and we teenagers lapped it up.
This was our generation’s comedy, our Beatles and Stones moment of hilarity and mirth and best of all……………………….our parents didn’t get it !
“Turn that rubbish off !”
“Isn’t there snooker on the other side ?”
I think the show went to air on a Thursday evening and on Friday morning, the registration class was a buzz with soliloquising falsetto voices. Come recess, a pit of 4th year Python prodigy would slither sideways across the playground in a great arc flicking it’s tail and baring it’s fangs at any stray juniors with a caustic Cleese like come down.
We would then curl up in a huddle to re-enact the previous evening’s episode. We must have looked like a convention of young Tourette sufferers with our silly walks and Gumby impressions. (Having a knitted tank top, I was half way there already !)
Cross country running was the staple of many a PE class. Off twenty odd gangling teenagers would trot around Kilmardinny loch a few times, sufficient to fill a double period. A group of us would hang back and turn a sharp left up to Graeme’s basement for a few tracks of “Another Monty Python Record”, it’s cover a crude crayon scratching out of Beethoven 2nd Symphony in D Major, then rejoin the stragglers 15 minutes later in our Upper Class Twit of the Year personas.
“Simon-Zinc-Trumpet-Harris, married to a very attractive table lamp………..” Oops !
The 70s brought us the cinematic “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” and the iconic “Life of Brian” with all it’s ridiculous accusations of blasphemy. What could be better publicity than rabbis and nuns protesting with placards !
Sadly the circus packed up and left town. Cleese to the equally iconic ‘Fawlty Towers’ then basically any film that required his cameo. Palin went off on his travels. Gilliam became one of the leading film directors of the time. Idle tried to revive some sketches on Broadway and Chapman and Jones left the stage altogether.
“’E’s expired and gone to meet…………………….” Sorry !
The word pythonesque is now the standard bearer for anything deemed as ‘surreal comedy’.
Even today, when I pick up the axe to chop some fire wood, I can’t help humming to myself the first few lines of “I’m a Lumberjack”. Or maybe the smirk is because…
“I cut down trees, I wear high heels
Suspendies and a bra
I wish I’d been a girlie, just like my dear Papa”…………………………..damn it !
Who can’t resist on hearing the final refrain of Sousa’s “Liberty Bell” blowing that squelching raspberry.
Or is it just me with my highfalutin ideas ?
Come on. I know you want to say it. In your best falsetto voice now……………