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Monty Python's Flying Circus

Entry updated 13 November 2023. Tagged: Film, TV.

UK tv series (1969-1974). A BBC production. Produced by Ian MacNaughton. Created, starring and written by Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin. Other regular actors included Connie Booth, Carol Cleveland, Neil Innes (final series) and Ian MacNaughton. Four series comprising 45 episodes of 25-30 minutes. Colour.

The anarchic/surreal Humour of this Television comedy-sketch series was hugely influential; its innumerable spinoffs include books, audio recordings and feature films. Monty Python or The Pythons also became a collective name for the creative team responsible, both as writers and performers: Graham Chapman (1941-1989), John Cleese (1939-    ), Terry Gilliam – who contributed numerous animations including the opening credits – Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin (1943-    ); additionally, many glamorous female roles were played by Carol Cleveland (1942-    ). An early film spinoff reprising selected sketches from the first two series, reshot for Cinema, is And Now for Something Completely Different (1971) directed by Ian MacNaughton. The television scripts are collected as Monty Python's Flying Circus: Just the Words (1989 2vols). Some trademark Python devices, such as non-sequitur transitions, recursive Satire of television conventions and the abandoning of a sketch with no punchline (a kind of Slingshot Ending), were anticipated several months before the Python debut by Spike Milligan's comic series Q5 (1969). Other signature features include occasional Oulipo-like obsession with quirks of language – harking back to the music-hall sketch tradition – and envelope-pushing (for that era) extremes of verbal and even physical violence.

Only a few Monty Python television skits are of direct sf interest. The first episode deploys a comic Basilisk in a sketch about the World's Funniest Joke, whose victims helplessly laugh themselves to death; this escalates into an Alternate History treatment of World War Two, won by British soldiers wreaking havoc upon the enemy by uncomprehendingly reciting the Joke in German (translated by a team who each, for safety's sake, saw only a single word). Later, sillier sketches include blancmange-like Aliens from Andromeda planning world domination by turning people into Scotsmen, and a housewife – actually Terry Jones in drag – being fitted with a less than adequate new brain (see Cyborgs) supplied by the downmarket UK electrical appliance firm Curry's. The penultimate show features growing media hysteria and US Paranoia about the dread Superpowers of the costumed Superhero or Antihero "Mr Neutron" (Chapman), who as terror spreads and bombs fall does absolutely nothing of any significance.

Further Python films include Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) directed by Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones, a broad Parody of the exploits of King Arthur (Chapman) and his Knights of the Round Table, with an abrupt Timeslip finale in which Arthur's charging army is intercepted and arrested by modern UK police; and Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979) directed by Terry Jones, whose hero Brian of Nazareth (Chapman) is emphatically not Jesus Christ but a contemporary who likewise becomes a victim of ancient Judea's insatiable enthusiasm for prophets and Messiahs; the most incongruous of Brian's adventures is a brief ride in an alien Spaceship under attack, which soon crashes and returns him to the plot. [For more on Holy Grail and Life of Brian see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below.] Several of the Pythons were also involved in the less relentlessly comic fantasy film Time Bandits (1981) directed by Terry Gilliam, featuring a map of the Multiverse and manic pursuit through the Timeslip portals or Wormholes which interconnect its various locales and realities. Monty Python's The Meaning of Life (1981), directed by Terry Jones, abandons any pretence of storyline, linking new sketches and song routines (some very funny) with the all-encompassing theme of human life – from birth, via satirical potshots at Medicine, Sex education, Religion and War, to death (personified as the Grim Reaper) and beyond. The main film is preceded by the fantasy "supporting feature" The Crimson Permanent Assurance (1981) – directed by Terry Gilliam and perhaps nodding to The Crimson Pirate (1952) – in which the titular pirate building slips its anchor in London to sail "the wide accountan-cy", preying on rich company premises; this title is homaged as the name of a Spaceship crewed by privateer accountants in Charles Stross's Neptune's Brood (2013).

All six male Pythons have had Asteroids named in their honour, and the show itself is commemorated by asteroid 13681, named Monty Python. [DRL]

see also: The Bonzo Dog Band; Brazil; Flash Fiction; J B Morton; Scream and Scream Again.

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