In Praise of Python: the impact of a comedy classic on the 1970s

And now for something completely different. I am a major fan of Monty Python’s Flying Circus – I always have been, and always will be. In fact, I tend to lose any objectivity as a historian when it comes to all things ‘Python’, and can bore people to tears if I am given even the slightest opportunity to talk about my love of ‘Pythonesque’ humour.

Monty Pythons Flying Circus foot

This month (October) saw the 50th Anniversary of the late-night transmission on the BBC of the very first episode of Monty Python, the premiere of what was to become one of the most controversial (at the time) comedy shows on British television. There were four TV series of Monty Python, plus a TV special made especially for the German market in 1972. There were also three smash-hit Python films (four if you include a film based on remade sketches from the early shows). Furthermore, a ‘live’ show in Hollywood in the 1970s had enormous impact, and – more recently – a spin-off ‘Spamalot’ stage musical, based on 1975’s Monty Python and the Holy Grail, saw tremendous success in the UK.

More poignantly (as we now know that one member of the team, Terry Jones, was beginning to experience memory problems), a special and final ‘reunion’ Monty Python stage show was performed by the group over the course of ten sell-out evenings at the 02 Arena in London in July, 2014.

As you can perhaps appreciate, with all the 50th Anniversary celebrations, I have been in comedy heaven, lapping up all the recent TV ‘specials’, some radio broadcasts of unused and re-discovered material, and the various tie-in anniversary articles in the media.

I was particularly interested in new evidence on how the BBC, which first commissioned the show, initially viewed Python. In 1969, the BBC had little idea of how big and influential Python would become. Indeed, five decades on, from my perspective as a historian, and with the benefit of hindsight, I think its worth reflecting on how ‘revolutionary’ Monty Python actually was in 1970s Britain. With its bizarre characters, surreal cartoons and demolition of all forms of pompous authority, Monty Python – as a number of social commentators have quite rightly pointed out – seemed to convey certain stereotypical characteristics about British identity, something that has fascinated and beguiled many others around the globe ever since: British people were presented to the outside world in the early 1970s as invariably eccentric or unhinged or uptight.

For the British public, however, once they had grown accustomed to Python’s radical new style of comedy, the popularity of the show in the 1970s arguably lay in its subversive digs and satirical treatment of many of the UK’s key institutions and traditions. In fact, it seemed nothing was off-limits: the establishment, Royalty, the social class structure, the police, the army, the Church, government Ministers, the Civil Service, the Judiciary, the medical profession, businessmen, Universities, and even the BBC itself (much to the consternation of some of the Corporation’s top executives). As Terry Jones once observed: ‘It was so stuffy in the 60s. The class system had a stranglehold… There are no taboo areas with humour – nothing you can’t make fun of. The only criterion is: is it funny? If people laugh, it is’ (1).

Significantly, as part of the 50th anniversary, documents and memos which were unearthed by the BBC History website from the Corporation’s own archives demonstrate the extent to which some BBC managers did not see the funny side of Python, and were very uneasy about the comedy team’s targets and morals. Indeed, according to the newly-discovered material, some executives within the British Broadcasting Corporation condemned Python as disgusting, sadistic and ‘simply not amusing’ (2).

Monty Python team.jpg

But some at the BBC were more ambivalent about their creation. Bill Cotton, for example, who was the BBC’s head of light entertainment at the time, clearly had some mixed feelings. He commented that, while it would be sad if the BBC lost the programme, the second series of Monty Python was so bad that the group ‘seemed to have some sort of death wish’ (3).

On the other hand, there were others at the BBC who evidently viewed Python with great unease. Some BBC executives apparently complained that the values of the show were ‘nihilistic and cruel’. The Corporation’s head of religious programming was, perhaps unsurprisingly, especially critical: he protested about a sequence in which paintings of Jesus and the Virgin and Child were animated (all the animations were from the highly visual imagination of Terry Gilliam, the sole American member of the group).

Clearly, Monty Python initially left some within the BBC exasperated and uneasy that the Corporation was enabling the production of such a potentially ‘dangerous’ show. In hindsight, it was difficult for them to appreciate at the time just how popular and beloved Python would become. Yet, interestingly, the evidence of the memos also indicates that many BBC executives soon overcame their misgivings once Focus Group findings became available: research undertaken by the BBC found that about half of the viewers had reacted to the show very positively. In fact, some of the most loyal and enthusiastic viewers were students and, once word spread, the show began to take on an almost cult-like popularity among younger viewers. Over time, while there were still serious complaints from viewers about Monty Python, the show gradually managed to reach out to a notably wide range of age-groups and backgrounds, who seemed to appreciate the show’s ‘nothing is off limits’ approach.

Importantly, in a recent interview, Python member Michael Palin argued that the genius and originality of the show lay in its anarchic assault on the very medium of television itself. He said: ‘The key thing about Python was that it was all about how television presents itself to the world. It was a child’s way of deconstructing television’.

Palin added that he also felt Python was very much a product of the ‘big’ and thrilling new blooms of the 1960s: ‘It was a time when comedy was expected to be part of the whole new way of looking at the world, the freedom you found in fashion or music – the Beatles and Mary Quant and all that sort of thing. And comedy as well, not that the BBC recognised it at the time. Python was put on very late at night and we were lucky to get the series done at all’ (4).

Whatever one thinks of Monty Python today, there is no doubt that the group’s ‘lucky’ break back in 1969 helped revolutionise British TV satire in ways never seen before. Would such a show get made today? That’s an interesting question.

Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University

Notes

(1) Cited in Radio Times Official Guide to Monty Python at 50 (2019), p.5.

(2) ‘And now for something completely disgusting’, The Times, October 5th, 2019, p.3.

(3) The Times, October 5th, p.3.

(4) The Sunday Times magazine, September 9th, 2018, pp.9-13.

(All images: Wikimedia Commons)

 

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2 Responses to In Praise of Python: the impact of a comedy classic on the 1970s

  1. Really enjoyed reading your thoughts on Python, Steve.

    After Hancock and the Goon Show there was ‘a gap’ in the market for less conventional styles of comedy which during most of the 1960s was dominated by sitcom and TV stars such as Morecambe and Wise. Apart from the BBC’s short-lived flirtation with satire in ‘That Was the Week That Was,’ it was only later in the decade that the mould really began to break with the likes of Dave Allen who must have been the first ‘observational’ comic and offbeat anarchic comics such as Marty Feldman starting to get prime time TV slots.The more ‘subversive’ comedy was to be found on radio where shows like ‘Round the Horne’ and ‘I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again’ acquired cult status among younger listeners like my then teenage self.I first discovered Cleese on ‘I’m Sorry…’ in the mid sixties and followed his career through the his collaborations with ‘Ronnies’ Barker and Corbett on the ‘Frost Reports’ which included the iconic ‘Class sketch’ so when I heard he was involved in the Python project I was primed and ready for the first episode which in true BBC style was buried in the schedules at around 10.30 one Sunday evening in October 1969. As is often the case with pioneering comedy (like Fawlty Towers some years later) Python was a ‘slow burn’ and it wasn’t until the series was repeated, this time in a more congenial time slot, that it really gained traction and acquired its own cult status.

    One of the major innovations which differentiated Python from other sketch shows was the continuity between sketches which was an area where Terry Gilliam’s cartoons played a major role as did Cleese’s spoof of the BBC announcer dressed in DJ in a range of surreal locations, challenging, as you say, the TV medium itself. This was a good example of the show’s iconoclasm which chimed perfectly with what David Cannadine called the ‘Decline of Deference’ in the 60s. Python basically challenged and subverted Britain’s society, institutions and many aspects of its way of life. So many of the changes in society and culture in the 1960s took place towards the end of the decade and consequently their real impact was only felt in the 1970s. Python was one such phenomenon. It had been bubbling under for most of the 60s but its breakthrough came after 1970. It broke several moulds including making irreverence an acceptable comedy genre, one which reached its Pythonesque climax in ‘The Life of Brian’ but which lived on through ‘Spitting Image’ into the late 1980s and beyond. As in the theatre, music and art, the television world was changing in the 1960s and if not Python something else would have done the mould -breaking job so yes I do think it would’ve got made today.

    Tim ‘Two Sheds’ Hodgson

    Like

    • Many thanks ‘Two Sheds’. Really glad you enjoyed the blog. You make some very interesting points, especially on the decline of deference; in fact, I think your comments are worth a blog in themselves. I look forward to reading one on your own blog site. Go for it! As for your last point, it is difficult to say: one gets the feeling that the BBC have become a lot more cautious and risk-averse in the nature of the programming they will allow and, regrettably, I think that has had an impact on the type of comedy shows they will commission today. I think even members of the MP group themselves have made this point. On your important point about continuity between sketches, interestingly a number of the MP members have said that Spike Milligan’s approach in the ‘Q’ series was also an influence here. Again, one suspects that a Milligan-style ‘Q’ series would not get made today – far too anarchist! Thanks again for some great observations.

      Best wishes,

      The Knight who says ‘Ni’

      Like

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