Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Monty Python's Flying Circus
The first episode of Monty Python's Flying Circus was recorded September 7, 1969, and broadcast on October 5 of the same year on BBC One - not BBC Two as is often erroneously stated, possibly because the latter is a more 'niche' channel that would have seemed a more natural home for the programme.
The shows often targeted the idiosyncrasies of British life (especially professionals), and was at times politically charged. The members of Monty Python were highly educated (Oxford and Cambridge graduates), and their comedy was often pointedly intellectual with numerous references to philosophers and literary figures. It followed and elaborated upon the style initially used by Spike Milligan in his series Q5, rather than the traditional sketch show format. The Monty Python team intended the style to be uncategorisable, and suceeded so completely that the adjective Pythonesque had to be created to categorise it and later material like it.
This article discusses the series itself. For information about the formation of the group and the conception of the series, see the main Monty Python article.
In contrast to many other sketch comedy shows (such as Saturday Night Live), Flying Circus featured only a handful of recurring characters, many of whom were only involved in titles and linking sequences, including:
- The "It's" man (Palin), a dishevelled man with torn clothes and long, unkempt beard who would appear at the beginning of the programme, often after climbing up a mountain or performing a long task and say "it's..." before being abruptly cut off by the opening titles, which started with the words 'Monty Python's Flying Circus'
- A BBC continuity announcer in a dinner jacket (Cleese), seated at a desk, often in highly incongruous locations, such as a forest or a beach. His line, "And now for something completely different," was used variously as a lead-in to the opening titles and a simple way to link sketches together. It eventually became the show's catch phrase, even serving as the title for the troupe's first movie.
- Mr Praline (Cleese), an odd, raincoat-clad man (except in the Crunchy Frog sketch, in which he wears a police uniform) with a distinctive, florid style of speech delivered in a Northern accent. He has a penchant for getting into the most absurd arguments, though he is alternately the victim and perpetrator of this absurdity.
- An armoured knight carrying a rubber chicken (Gilliam), who would end sketches by hitting characters over the head with it.
- A Viking (Palin, Chapman or Gilliam) who would inexplicably interrupt sketches to say "Anyway," or to complete a portion of another character's dialogue, after which the sketch would (usually) resume as normal. Occassionally he would also pose the question "Lemon Curry?"
- A nude organist (played in the first episode by Gilliam, afterwards by Jones) who provided a brief fanfare to punctuate certain sketches (usually game show parodies) or as yet another way to introduce the opening titles.
- The Colonel (Chapman), a straitlaced military officer who would sometimes abruptly end sketches for being too silly.
- Mr. Badger, a tight-fisted Scotsman (Idle) who would come up with various schemes to make £1. He also interrupted sketches simply to inform the viewers "Actually, this is not an interruption".
- Biggles (Chapman, and in one instance Jones), a fictional WWI pilot from a series of stories by W. E. Johns.
- The "Gumbies," a group of slow-witted individuals identically attired in high-water trousers, braces (suspenders), and round, rimless glasses, with tiny Chaplin-style moustaches and handkerchiefs on the tops of their heads (a stereotype of the British holidaymaker). They hold their arms awkwardly in front of them, speak slowly in loud, low voices punctuated by frequent grunts and groans, and have a fondness for bashing bricks together. They often complain that their brains hurt.
- The Pepper Pot Women, screeching middle-aged housewives played by the cross-dressing Python men. The Pythons played all their own women, unless the part called for a younger, more glamorous actress (in which case either Connie Booth or Carol Cleveland would usually play that part). "Pepper Pot" refers to what the Pythons believed was the typical body shape of middle-class British housewives.
- Mister Luigi Vercotti (Palin), an entrepreneur, occasionally accompanied by his brother Dino (Jones).
- Ken Shabby (Palin), a man of poor health and income.
Some of those attacked by Python seemed to reoccur far more frequently than others. Reginald Maudling, a contemporary political figure, was singled out for perhaps the most consistent ridicule. The theme tune was John Philip Sousa's Liberty Bell March (see that article for an MP3 recording of the MPFC version of the march). Regular supporting cast members include Carol Cleveland, Connie Booth, Neil Innes and The Fred Tomlinson Singers (for musical numbers).
Popular character traits
Although there were few recurring characters, and the six cast members played many diverse roles, each one had a couple of roles that they had perfected.
Graham Chapman was well known for his roles as straight faced men, of any age or class (frequently an authority figure such as a military officer, policeman or doctor) who could, at any moment, revert to raving maniacs, and then back again (see sketches such as 'An appeal from the Vicar of St. Loony-up-the-Cream-Bun-and-Jam', the argument sketch , the one man wrestling match).
Terry Gilliam claims that John Cleese is the funniest of the Pythons in drag, as he barely needs to be dressed up to look hilarious (see the 'Little Bastards' sketch). Cleese is also well known for playing very intimidating manics (see the Self Defence Class sketch). Cleese's character of "Eric Praline", the put-upon consumer, features in some of the most popular sketches, such as the "Dead Parrot" sketch and the "Fish License" sketch.
Many of the sketches were linked together by bizarre, grotesque and often hilarious animations drawn by Terry Gilliam. These also comprised the opening sequence.
The nature of the series and of the style of animation allowed Gilliam to go off on bizarre, imaginative tangents. Some running gags derived from these animations were a giant hedgehog who would appear over the tops of the buildings shouting 'Dinsdale!' in an attempt to further petrify the paranoid Dinsdale Piranha, and a giant foot that would squash things.
The giant foot became a symbol of all that was 'pythonesque'. Other memorable animated segments include the carnivorous houses, the old woman who can't catch the bus and the story of the black cancerous spot.
The animation consisted of shot-by shot frames made up of cardboard cut-outs of either Gilliam's cartoons or famous pieces of art (the giant foot is that of cupid's in Agnolo Bronzino's 'An Allegory of Venus and Cupid')
Although he was primarily involved as an animator, Gilliam also occasionally appeared before the camera, usually playing more grotesque characters and parts that no-one else wanted to play (generally because they required a lot of makeup or involved uncomfortable costumes). The most recurrent of these was a knight in armour who would end sketches by walking on and hitting one of the other characters over the head with a plucked chicken.
Eric Idle is perhaps best remembered for his roles as a cheeky, suggestive, slightly perverted, upper middle class 'playboy' (see sketches such as 'nudge-nudge, wink-wink'), his role as crafty, slick salesmen (see the Door-to-Door Joke Salesman or his role as the shop keeper who loves to haggle in The Life of Brian). He is also acknowledged as 'the master of the one-liner' by the other Pythons. He is also considered the best singer in the group.
Although all of the Pythons played women, Terry Jones is renowned by the rest to be 'the best Rat-Bag woman in the business'. His portrayal of a middle aged housewife was louder, more shrill and more dishevelled that any of the other Python's (see The Worst Family in Britain sketch, or his role as Mandy in The Life of Brian, or Mrs. Linda S-C-U-M in "Mr. Neutron").
Michael Palin's most common characters were working class northerners, often portrayed in a disgusting light (see The Funniest Joke in the World sketch, the 'Every Sperm is Sacred' segment of The Meaning of Life). He also played weak willed, put-upon men such as the husband in the marriage counsellor sketch, or the boring accountant in the Lion Tamer sketch. One of his most famous creations was the shopkeeper who attempts to sell useless goods by very weak attempts at being sly and crafty, which are invariably spotted by the customer (often played by Cleese) because the defects in the products are inherently obvious (see the Dead Parrot sketch, the Cheese Shop sketch); his spivvy club owner 'Luigi Vercotti' in the Piranha Brothers sketch is another classic variant on this type.
Best remembered sketches
The troupe's best-known sketches include:
- The Argument Clinic
- Army Protection Racket
- The Bruces Sketch (and the related Philosophers' Song from their stage shows)
- Cheese Shop
- Dead Parrot
- The Dirty Fork
- The Fish-Slapping Dance
- The Funniest Joke in the World
- The Lumberjack Song
- The Ministry of Silly Walks
- Nudge, Nudge
- The Philosophers' Football Match (Germany vs Greece)
- Piranha Brothers
- The Spanish Inquisition
- Upper Class Twit of the Year
Most of these sketches appear in the first two series. A possible explanation for their fame is their inclusion in the feature film And Now For Something Completely Different, which was recorded between series 2 and 3. However, this film was little more than a regurgitation of popular sketches intended to be shown in countries that had not seen the TV series, and did very badly in most countries (the one country where it was a modest hit was the UK itself, despite - or perhaps because of - the familiarity of the material). A further reason could be that when the show is re-broadcast it is often cancelled before the later series are shown.
The Flying Circus closes
John Cleese left the show after the third series, so did not appear in the final six episodes that made up series four, although he did receive writing credits where applicable. Neil Innes and Douglas Adams are notable as the only two non-Pythons to get writing credits in the show - both in the same episode late in season four. Innes frequently appeared in the Pythons' stage shows and can also be seen in Monty Python and the Holy Grail and (briefly) in Life of Brian.
Two episodes were produced in German for WDR (Westdeutscher Rundfunk) -- the first, Monty Python in Deutschland, was produced in 1971 and was performed in phonetic German, while the second, Monty Python's Fliegender Zirkus (also known as Monty Python Blödeln Für Deutschland and produced in 1972) was recorded in English and later dubbed over in German. The original English recording was transmitted by the BBC in October 1973.
The final episode of Series 4 was recorded November 16, 1974, and broadcast on December 5. That same year, Devillier-Donegan Enterprises syndicated the series in the United States of America among PBS stations, and the show appeared for the first time in that country on the PBS station KERA in Dallas, Texas. It was an instant hit there, rapidly garnering an enormous loyal cult following nationwide that surprised even the Pythons themselves, who didn't believe that the humor was exportable without being tailored specifically for the North Americans.
However, a 1975 broadcast of several episodes by the ABC Network was heavily censored and reedited; the Pythons were so disgusted with how the network handled their program that when ABC refused to stop editing the programs, or to at least display a disclaimer indicating that the program was heavily edited, the troupe took the network to court over artistic rights .
Censorship controversies aside, the discovery of an international legion of fans would inspire the troupe to reunite to create the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail, since they now knew they had a world-wide audience.
At the end of 1980, the Monty Python members obtained ownership of their series from the BBC in what was considered a landmark agreement.
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