Now for something completely the same

by Jeremy Miles

Monty Python's Palin, Idle, Jones, Gilliam and Cleese 361 years old and coining it

Monty Python’s Palin, Idle, Jones, Gilliam and Cleese. 361 years old and coining it

With their pensions now well and truly enhanced, the Pythons can hopefully fade cheerfully into comedy history. Not that I have any problem with the five surviving members’ solo careers you understand.

I just happen to think that 45-year-old comedy shows tend not to mature very well and believe that Monty Python’s Flying Circus is best viewed as something that happened a very long time ago. It was astonishingly innovative back then and, occasionally, utterly brilliant.

However I also remember how distressingly dire some of the sketches were. People forget that one of the reasons Python worked was that the BBC gave the team an extraordinary amount of space to experiment. This wasn’t as generous and enlightened as it sounds.

The simple fact is that the stuffed shirts who ran the corporation at the time hadn’t got a clue what this bunch of Oxbridge jokers were playing at. What they did know though was that change was in the air.  So as somehow the Pythons seemed connected to the leading players in the satire boom and what’s more had been to the right schools, they just let them get on with it. The result was a pile of dross but also a superb collection of comedy sketches. The brilliant young humorists had caught the spirit of the times perfectly, attracting a cult following that endures to this day.


The Pythons in 1969

When news broke that they would be staging their first live shows together for more than 30 years, the media were quick to point that the five surviving members were now in their seventies. Indeed they have a combined age of 361. That inevitably led to questions being asked about the wisdom of playing a 10 night residency at London’s O2 Arena. Were they only in it for the money? Could they still hack it?

Predictably the opening night at the O2 Arena last night was greeted with mixed reviews.  To the diehard fans – and even our cynical national press has a few of those – the show was a triumph, a joyous romp down memory lane. Comedy gold revisited.

To those with a slightly more critical take on the proceedings it was a clever but lazy exercise in milking old material for capital gain. A bunch of old men dishing up re-runs of sketches that made them cult favourites in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

What everyone agreed was that a 2014 Monty Python audience contains significant numbers of people desperate to re-live their own youths and bathe in the reflected glory of their comedy idols. For them the chance to watch Cleese, Palin, Jones, Idle and Gilliam perform on the same stage together is a pretty big deal in itself. To see them deliver classics like the Dead Parrot Sketch and The Lumberjack Song is utterly irresistible. Sadly The Ministry of Silly Walks was literally a stretch too far for the old boys and was wisely omitted.

It’s a little ironic perhaps that today first-generation Python fans, once so proud of their anarchic and radical taste in humour, are not remotely interested in ‘something completely different’. They want a word-for-word re-run of everything they loved and held dear four decades. At the O2 they were not disappointed although one or two minor adjustments had been made to tone down some of the lines produced in the less enlightened 70s.

The devotees appeared not to notice. They didn’t bat an eyelid either at the eye-watering ticket prices or even at stumping up twenty quid for a programme. All they cared about was the joy of seeing their comedy Gods in the flesh and greeting their favourite routines like the return of long-lost friends that were once edgy and dangerous but are now comfortable and familiar. On that basis, Monty Python’s Flying Circus 2014 appears to have worked a treat.

Even the shows detractors admitted that the audience gave a pretty conclusive impression of having loved every second of it, even though a disproportionate amount of time was devoted to old TV footage.

There was also some concerns that younger members of the audience – and there were a few – might have had difficulty understanding the various references to pound notes, Bertram Mills and Timothy Whites, though I doubt this was a significant problem.

I’m sure the Pythons will sail through their 10 day run with adoring audiences hanging on their every word and if there’s anything the besotted crowd don’t like they’ll just pretend it was funnier than it actually was. Just like we all did with the original TV series!