October 5th1969 was a cool and misty autumn Sunday – I remember it like it was yesterday, rather than 50 years ago. In the late afternoon I went to visit my cousin, who was in a local hospital after an unfortunate accident. We were both fans of TV comedy – Not Only, But Also (BBC, 1965-70) and At Last the 1948 Show (Rediffusion, 1967) were particular favourites – and I told him there was a new programme starting that night on BBC1 which looked interesting. It had some excellent names involved – above all, John Cleese, who, through his radio and TV work had become a firm favourite of us both.
At 10.55pm my father and I sat down to watch it – the next day was the start of the school week, so this was quite late. The show opened on a seashore. A man emerged from the gentle waves and slowly made his way to the beach. He was wearing torn clothes and had a straggling beard – the classic image of a castaway. He falteringly dragged himself towards the camera, collapsed and looked up into the lens – we knew this was comedy and could hear the audience laughter, so we prepared ourselves for the traditional laugh line, which was surely about to be delivered. But all he said was……….”It’s”.
There then followed a sequence of surreal animated images incorporating the opening title, with Cleese’s unmistakable tones calmly announcing that it was, indeed, Monty Python’s Flying Circus. But, back in the studio, things were still not going as anticipated. A presenter (Graham Chapman) took his seat and a pig squealed, at which point one of a line of drawn pigs on a blackboard was crossed out. This became a running gag throughout the show, both in the sketches and the animations which interrupted them and (sometimes) linked them. A number of parodies of arts programmes made up the bulk of the show and the laughs began to flow (particularly, from me, at the unfortunate Arthur “Two Sheds” Jackson). At the end, we got an extended sketch which seemed to be on more familiar ground – a parody of World War II movies, in which the British were developing a killer joke, that would not have been out of place in the Goon Show.
Finally, the castaway was prodded back into life and made his way back into the sea as the end credits rolled, incongruously giving the title of the episode as “Whither Canada?” (many years later, I won a set of Python scripts in a competition in the Independent newspaper for knowing this subtitle, a well as the line of the Lumberjack Song following “I cut down trees, I skip and jump, I like to press wild flowers” – answer at the foot of this blog). We were not to know at the time, but this was one of what became very rare occasions when the opening titles started the show and the end credits closed it, as Python began its constant parodying and flouting of television conventions.
To be honest, I wasn’t really sure what to make of that first episode. I hadn’t laughed as much as I had expected, but I had most certainly been intrigued by its bold experimentation and I knew I would be back for more. And was I ever back – back for good and for ever! And did I ever start to laugh – often uncontrollably and until it hurt and I couldn’t hear the next line. And, as that first series progressed, so the team began to develop the seamless flow of material, linked by Terry Gilliam’s brilliant animations, which became their trademark. Before long, we were getting episodes which were coherent and integrated works of genius, rather than a collection of outstanding and hilarious sketches.
Python hit me at just the right time – between finishing at school and starting at University. It was ideal fare for the student – intelligent and anarchic – and one of the first things I joined in my freshman year was the Oxford University Monty Python Appreciation Society (OUMPAS). I wasn’t one for going on street demonstrations (very popular amongst students in the early 70s) but I did take part in the OUMPAS Silly Walk through the streets of Oxford. My walk was not particularly silly and could certainly have done with a government grant to develop it, but then it would have taken a lot of effort to be really silly over the distance involved. I bought all the long-playing records (the only way of re-experiencing the show at the time) and played them over and over, memorizing both the words and the inflections by osmosis. I can still give you all the cheeses from the Cheese Shop sketch, in the correct order.
Later on, my career as a television archivist gave me opportunities to be more than just a fan. I met all the Pythons apart, alas, from Graham. As the BBC TV Archivist, I was able to ensure that series 2 episode 13 was reconstituted as originally transmitted (with the Undertaker Sketch at the end) when the BBC Library only contained the re-edited version. When I was at the BFI, recovering lost episodes of At Last the 1948 Show brought me into contact with John, while I was able to work closely with Terry J on restoring lost material from The Complete and Utter History of Britain (LWT, 1969), recovered on an obsolete videotape format which only we could play. Terry G was a governor of the BFI while I was there, Michael a visitor to our Conservation Centre on one of his less exotic travels and Eric a guest at a National Film Theatre event.
On the 25th anniversary in 1994, I went into a central London studio on a Sunday lunchtime to do a live satellite interview about the significance of the show on (appropriately) Canadian (CBC) breakfast television. They asked me to say that the Argument Sketch was my favourite, because that’s what they had a clip of. Fortunately, it was, indeed, one of my very favourites, so I was able to eulogise without argument. The interview was just five minutes rather than the full half-hour.
As I said in an earlier blog (Ten TV Programmes that “Made Me”, Aug 6 2018) my entire world outlook has been influenced by Monty Python’s Flying Circus – my general air of flippancy, of not taking anything too seriously, of always immediately looking for the funny side of any situation, the cheerful atheism, the always looking on the bright side; and, just as so much of our language contains phrases and sayings that originate in Shakespeare, so barely a day goes by without my regular discourse containing something that can be traced back to Python, whether in conversation or commenting on Facebook or this blog. For me, personally, it is the most important television show I ever saw.
And the answer to the second question in that Independent quiz is: “I put on women’s clothing and hang around in bars”. As if you didn’t already know.