The Life of Python

Michael Palin's diaries and the digitally remastered Monty Python albums show that these comedy greats are not quite dead parrots.

Ed Barrett

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Michael Palin Diaries 1969-1979: The Python Years, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2006.

Congratulations on purchasing the executive version of this article, which has been quality-graded to give you the finest reading pleasure. It contains little or no offensive material apart from four cunts, one clitoris and a foreskin. And as they only occur in this opening introduction, you are past them now….

Comedy records of TV shows might seem somewhat anachronistic in this age of deluxe DVD box-sets, but I for one am glad that EMI have decided to reissue the Monty Python albums. For they weren’t just a way of reliving the sketches in the days before video recorders; they were classics in their own right. Far from being mere cash-ins, they were actually superior to the TV shows, and played a crucial but unsung role in establishing the Monty Python phenomenon.

Back in the day, a generation of schoolboys learned French verbs and poetry by rote, then spent their spare time committing Monty Python sketches to memory in similar dead-parrot fashion, using the tie-in albums and books for homework. Meanwhile in America, where the shows were virtually unknown, the records (on the ‘progressive’ Charisma label) became an integral part of the post-Sixties ‘stoner’ culture. FM djs gave them airplay, and rock stars championed them at every opportunity. They were known as ‘The Pythons’, which sounded like a rock group, and before long they were de facto rock stars themselves, with sell-out live tours and screaming fans. There was even a live album, replete with extra swearing. (The albums were quite risqué, in marked contrast to the strict censorship of the BBC at the time.)

Before singing their praises, it should be acknowledged that the Python albums did have a downside. Firstly, and most shamefully, there was the deathly tradition of ‘doing’ the sketches. Anyone who has stood glassy-eyed during these ritualistic re-enactments will have good reason to curse Charisma Records. And any masochist who hasn’t suffered in this way can experience it vicariously through the ‘romantic comedy’ Sliding Doors, in which the male lead inexplicably wins the girl by reciting Python at length in a restaurant, to the implausible delight of the assembled company. (Python Fact: Elvis Presley was prone to this sort of thing, and could recite Monty Python and the Holy Grail in its entirety. He was also in the habit of calling members of his Memphis Mafia ‘squire’. And look what happened to him.)

The other legacy of the discs was the way they helped establish a slightly misleading Python legend, which persisted long after the details of the shows themselves had been forgotten. Furthermore, they boosted the reputation of the first three series (upon which they were based) at the expense of the virtually forgotten fourth (which was written and filmed after John Cleese’s departure, and contains some of the most brilliant comic material ever shown on British television – but that’s another story).

Viewed as a whole, the TV shows are patchy and quite repetitive – understandable, given that they were written and performed in haste, and like all television programmes at the time, were not expected to ‘last’. Anyone watching the first three series for the first time (or watching for the first time since the original screenings) will probably wonder what all the fuss was about. At the time, Python was afforded a certain intellectual importance. Tricksy editing and Terry Gilliam’s distinctive cartoons helped create the impression that it was all very daring and groundbreaking. When sketches ended abruptly with a shooting, or a 100-ton weight falling from the sky, or a camera turning round to show the studio, or credits appearing mid-way through a programme, these tricks were saluted as Brechtian devices or surrealist statements. In reality, they often disguised the lack of proper sketch endings, or were used to simply pad the programmes out. (Indeed, it was the show’s increasingly formulaic nature that prompted Cleese to quit.)

Python also acquired a reputation for controversy, although this had more to do with the broadcasting standards of the times than with any desire to épater le bourgeoisie. Most of the ‘offensive’ material was silly rather than satirical. The transvestite army officers and dummy Princess Margarets were mad rather than bad. Admittedly, the BBC objected to some of the more unsavoury topics, such as masturbation, cannibalism, necrophilia and golf (when the latter was associated with the former). There were also complaints from Mary Whitehouse about the show’s supposed sadism, and later religious controversies over the feature films. All in all, though, it was about as subversive as a Harry Secombe raspberry – and certainly less offensive.

So never mind the series, head straight for the albums. These had several advantages over the shows. Material was cherry-picked, and performed under less hectic conditions, resulting in superior versions of good sketches. Then there was the new material, specially recorded, which was often top-quality. And the format itself allowed the Pythons to play to their strengths. Despite their reputation for ‘surreal’ and ‘zany’ humour, most of the best work relied on verbal inventiveness, which obviously lent itself to the audio medium.

Last but not least, the records allowed the team’s one true genius to flourish. Michael Palin took a keen interest in the recordings, and his performances are a wonder to behold. Matching Tie and Handkerchief is a good starting point, and full of prime Palin cuts. Try ‘First World War’, ‘Teleprompter Football Results’, or just marvel at the way he says ‘She, sir’ during ‘Cheese Emporium’. The Album of the Soundtrack of the Trailer of the Film of Monty Python and the Holy Grail is a great example of an album transcending its origins, and contains a high proportion of sparkling bespoke material. Again Palin shines, never more so than on ‘Marilyn Monroe’, in which he plays a gay-baiting repressed homosexual with unhinged relish.

As a Palin-struck schoolboy, I wondered why he was overlooked in favour of Cleese (and concluded, of course, that it was because everyone else was an idiot with no taste). Since then, Palin’s star has risen, although not in the way one would have expected. Today he is a mainstream celebrity, known primarily for his fantastically successful travel documentaries. Looking at him now, it is surprising to recall that in his Python heyday, his performances were frequently manic and dangerous.

One of Palin’s strangest performances is a short sketch for the reissued Holy Grail DVD. It’s a spoof government information film about the correct use of coconuts, and Palin plays the kind of pinstriped functionary that he habitually sent up as a young man. Yet now he is the same age as the character he is playing, and he performs the role dead straight. It’s funny (of course) but also disconcerting and strangely poignant. It put me in mind of an observation by one of the Pythons, who said that their comedy was a way of lampooning the kind of people they would otherwise have become. In retrospect it is easy to see Palin’s gentle nature projected on to the meek civil servants, accountants and vicars that he often plays.

The adjective most frequently associated with Palin is ‘nice’ – a characteristic not normally associated with comedians or geniuses. Although he undoubtedly is very nice, a better term would be genuine, and I say this as someone with first-hand experience of his generosity and good nature. As a schoolboy I used to send him thick bundles of work, and in return I would receive long hand-written letters full of thoughtful and constructive criticism, with careful references to specific ideas and phrases. It’s hard to imagine anyone else in his position doing the same.

The first volume of his diaries is written with typical sincerity, and an unaffected modesty. Because he has no ‘side’, he is able to speak frankly and often unflatteringly about himself and his fellow Pythons without bitching or appearing disloyal. In his introduction, Palin describes his diary as an ‘antidote to hindsight’, and argues that, unlike an autobiography or memoir, it ‘seals the present moment and preserves it from the tidying process of context, perspective and balance’. Yet Palin’s natural equanimity ensures that such revision is unnecessary – at least, not for reasons of diplomacy. When recording his frustrations with his fellow Pythons, he can’t help giving them the benefit of the doubt. He is forever biting his tongue, and seeing the good side of his companions. ‘I am hamstrung by an ever-conciliatory nature’, he admits, after being woken in the middle of the night by a shouting phone call from Graham Chapman. ‘It’s at times like that that I wish I was forceful, opinionated and rude.’

These frictions remind us that Python was ultimately a job, and much of the time they concern the day-to-day irritations that occur in any workplace. Yet these jottings are also studded with fascinating glimpses of the wider world, and frequent reminders of the stranger corners of Seventies life – not least the difficulties of acquiring alcohol. (At one point he reports that Chapman’s hotel room is full of uneaten salads, ordered so that he could also order booze to ‘accompany’ them.)

Palin’s musings also offer unwitting insights into his own character, with pleasingly honest comments on subjects as varied as rugby-playing ‘rednecks’ and The Goodies. But he blots his copybook when, as a Sheffield United fan in exile, he extends his support to arch-rivals Wednesday (‘a crime punishable by disembowelment in Sheffield itself’). The only other example of this behaviour that I have heard of is Everton fan Paul McCartney’s decision to support Liverpool as well. It is perhaps significant that McCartney’s action was prompted by Liverpool’s success, while Palin’s typically appears to be the result of misplaced solidarity with fellow Steel City strugglers.

Although the main pleasure lies in these everyday observations, there are showbiz stories, too, and they don’t disappoint. One in particular deserves special mention, and probably some kind of award in its own right. Without giving too much away, it’s an heroic contribution to the ‘never work with children or animals’ tradition – a spectacularly scatological episode in which Palin puts two cats down his trousers during a live TV broadcast. If you enjoy seeing animals torturing human beings, then you’ll be pleased to learn that there are also no fewer than three pictures of the eye-watering event.

Python fans will love it, of course, but many of the most interesting passages have nothing to do with the programme at all – which bodes well for future volumes. The flying circus might be long gone, but this Palin is definitely not dead.

Ed Barrett is a writer based in London. Michael Palin Diaries 1969-1979: The Python Years is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (buy this book from Amazon(UK)). The digitally remastered Monty Python albums are now available on EMI.

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