MONTY PYTHON'S FLYING CIRCUS: THE COMPLETE SERIES 1 TO 4 / CERT: 12 / DIRECTOR & SCREENPLAY: VARIOUS / STARRING: GRAHAM CHAPMAN, JOHN CLEESE, MICHAEL PALIN / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW
If you’re a Python fanatic impressed by Network’s beautiful HD restoration of series one of the groundbreaking comedy classic released late last year, you’ll probably be hungry for more and unwilling to wait for the staggered 2020 releases of the rest of the series. You might well be tempted to take a punt on this lavish (if slightly pricey) boxset collection of all four seasons and you’re unlikely to be disappointed even if your credit card is left a little bruised for a while.
What’s left to say about the Pythons and their place in the great pantheon of British comic greats? Monty Python’s Flying Circus debuted on British television on 5th October 1969 and almost immediately became required cult viewing. The show, consisting of a random and undisciplined collection of surreal sketches, often peppered with intellectual and literary references borne out of the group’s Oxford and Cambridge background, and punctuated by disturbing animated sequences and moments of raw slapstick, baffled and confused a staid BBC Sunday night audience. However, across its first thirteen episode run, it not only delivered many of the sketches which sealed its reputation – the parrot sketch, the lumberjack song, Upper Class Twit of the Year, Hell’s Grannies – but it marked the show out as something daringly different with each individual member of the group bringing something new to the table. The lanky, bendy John Cleese was the go-to guy for the physical stuff, Michael Palin was easily the best comic actor, Graham Chapman was often the stuffy authoritarian figure or wild-eyed eccentric, fresh-faced Eric Idle delivered the smooth patter, Terry Jones was very often in drag as the screechy middle-aged housewife and Terry Gilliam supplied the bizarre and memorable animations which wandered throughout the episodes.
Monty Python made its mark in its first season even if the BBC had been less than supportive, bouncing it around the schedules or dropping it on a whim – something the Pythons acidly acknowledged on screen in the very last episode. Series two, debuting in September 1970, sealed the show’s reputation even if the BBC were still edgy. The very first episode introduced the now-legendary Ministry of Silly Walks and episode two sees the arrival of The Spanish Inquisition (which no-one was expecting). The group was now firing on all cylinders, dismantling not just the sketch show format but also challenging the entire notion of broadcast television, especially the stuffy traditions and standards of the BBC. Later on in the series, sketches are started and abandoned and the credits appear halfway through episodes; audiences could never second-guess what the Pythons were going to do next. The second series ended with the notorious ‘Undertaker’ sketch in which Cleese is trying to organise the funeral of his mother only for Chapman’s undertaker to suggest that it might be easier to eat her. The subsequent studio uproar with the audience booing and catcalling and eventually storming the set was in fact carefully staged to satisfy the BBC’s concerns that the entire sketch really was in ‘poor taste’ even though the media missed the point entirely the following day.
Series three, airing from October 1972, contains a few gems – Wicker’s Island, The Summarising Proust Competition, Sam Peckinpah’s Salad Days – and the group are still tampering with form and content but it all seems a little tired with many sketches ambling along to no real end point and often outstaying their welcome or just missing the mark. John Cleese, disillusioned by the third series, opted out of returning for the shortened fourth run (now retitled just Monty Python) that aficionados consider to be a shadow of the show’s earlier days and the series came to an end on 5th December 1974. This was not, of course, the end of Monty Python by any stretch…
The 45 episodes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus have never looked as glorious as they do on this spectacular boxset. Regardless of your views on the issuing of videotaped / SD material in HD, Monty Pythion has clearly benefitted from Network’s considerable restoration work here with the studio material looking crisp and vivid and the filmed inserts and animation sharper than they have ever looked before. By and large it’s not true HD, of course, because it can’t be, but Network has brought an important piece of classic TV history back to life – with acres of supporting material in the form of edits, extended sketches and outtakes – in a manner it really deserves and which its fans, old and new, are bound to appreciate. It’s essential.