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Not the Spanish Inquisition, but an important document
on 4 November 2003
Over the years, Monty Python's Flying Circus has been elevated to a stellar status far beyond the expectations of its creators. Much of that has been achieved through continuing popularity with Americans, who didn't start to get the joke until long after the final TV episode had been screened here in the UK. And even the Pythons themselves do not quite realise their impact on the world: on this CD, Michael Palin talks about the creation of the 'Spam' sketch and the bizarre injection of some Vikings into the scene, with no inkling of the significance of spam in today's Internet world.
If you don't know Monty Python's humour, this is not the place to start. Go and buy 'Another Monty Python Record' on CD, or 'Monty Python and the Holy Grail' on DVD.
This double-CD set is aimed at Python completists, and anyone interested in how great creative teams come together, get their ideas and work together. There's nothing here that isn't also in the bumper coffee-table book of the same name, which also has many magnificent, previously unseen photos. But on this CD, you get the Pythons' own voices, so it's more intimate, and the format enables those of us who spend more time in the car than reading books, to absorb some of the material.
Sound quality is variable. Michael Palin is very clear, though the interview is frequently interrupted by phone calls (presumably from BBC producers wanting to send him off to the Amazon). At the other end of the sonic scale, John Cleese is inteviewed in what seems to be a cavern, about 30 feet from a puny microphone, and his cutlery is sometimes more audible than his voice. Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones come somewhere in between.
All the contributors put some effort into dredging up memories from the distant past, i.e. 1960s and earlier. They know this book/CD, while maybe not the definitive biography, isn't going to be yet another fanzine. By and large, they're pretty serious. (The Pythons seem to have found it harder and harder to be funny, or at least zany, since about 1980.) And they're remarkably honest -- all of them admit that 'The Meaning of Life' was not as good a film as it should have been.
There's a lot of giving credit and taking credit -- originally the entire show was billed as a total team effort, but this CD reveals a certain paradox: having first said that every sketch was subject to team review and enhancement, each writer then goes on to say of certain sketches, "That was one of mine" or "That was one I wrote with John".
The influence of 'The Goon Show' and 'Beyond the Fringe' becomes apparent from these recordings. (So much so that I went out and bought a BtF CD.) Of particular interest is the immediate predecessor to Python, namely the children's programme DO NOT ADJUST YOUR SET, written by Michael, Terry J and Eric, with cartoons added by Terry G. For me, that series is just a distant memory in black and white. But the way the Pythons refer to it here makes it seem like it was pretty much Version zero of Monty Python. Terry Jones admits that they wrote it for themselves, not for children, and it just happened to be scheduled during the children's TV slot on Wednesday afternoons. In the absence of any DVDs, videos or script-books from that series, we will just have to take their word for it.
It's fascinating to hear Eric Idle talk about the writing process: he wrote mostly on his own, but occasionally wrote with others. He comments that whereas he likes to hop around, trying to create more highlights in a sketch, John Cleese works in a very linear fashion, only progressing to the second line in a sketch when he has worked out the first line in immense detail. John Cleese talks about his dislike of puns, the lowest form of wit, in his words. Terry Jones comments on the stream-of-consciousness feel to each episode.
Hopefully this CD will enhance Michael Palin's status in the comic pantheon. John Cleese is always regarded as a god because he also created 'Fawlty Towers' and because of his previous work on 'The Frost Report'. But most of his best sketches work as well on radio as they do on TV. It's clear from this CD that Palin (as well as Gilliam) was the genius behind much of the visual humour that made Python something completely different from 'Beyond the Fringe' et al. Cleese could never be described as 'zany', if that means lovably ridiculous. Even on this CD, Cleese comes across as coldly analytical, whereas Michael is just so damned affable!
So there you go, five stars for content, minus one for sound quality. I wish it had been much longer!