Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Monty and Me

Do you ever feel old? I feel old all the time these days. Nothing makes me feel old like watching my idols wither and decay, their bodies losing definition, their talents dwindling as the sun sets on the lives and careers. So, pondering Python has been making me feel old since at least the first Secret Policeman's Ball movie. They've been out and about this year celebrating their 40th anniversary, and every time they stagger, stumble and wheel out for one of these things they look more disturbingly ancient and unfunny.

The age I am, Python have always had the slight allure of the forbidden and the “grown up”. I was a bit young to be aware of it first time around, but by the time repeats were showing on TV in the seventies I had two older brothers who were fanatics about it and a bedtime curfew that prevented me from seeing it most of the time. I recall one summer's day with the Perkins family in Raumati (maybe they had a summer batch or something, because I seem to remember they lived in Wadestown) staying up late and an episode and I'm pretty sure I saw the episodes Party Political Broadcast (I remember The Most Awful Family in Britain) and Mr Nuetron from series at some stage. I might have even seen them while living in the UK.

Back in these ancient times, before videos and goddamn YouTube, we used to get our Python fix through their amazing records. My brothers (again!) owned them, and listened to them avidly at every opportunity and it's these versions of the sketches that burned themselves onto my impressionable, malleable pre-pubescent mind. [NB There's a doco about these on Radio 2 tonight presented by the Mighty Boosh Guys. Don't groan that way, maybe they'll play it straight! It'll be on listen again for a week, so go listen to it!] I was startled when I saw the Cat License on DVD and it didn't end up with the wonderful Eric the Half A Bee song, and neither does the Michael Baldwin sketch end up with the Philosopher's Song. I think that the versions of the sketches on the records tend to be a little than the original broadcasts, too, the rhythms are hit a little harder and the scripts are a wee bit sharper. Plus you don't have to sit through some of the ... er... weaker items.

In addition to the records are the completely brilliant books, the Monty Python Hardback Bok and Monty Python's Big Red Book. My brothers owned these, two and I practically memorised them as a kid. I picked them both up second hand quite recently (on the Isle of Wight!) and they are a real delight. The design is fantastic, using different types of paper and cut outs to add a whole other dimension to material from the show. They could probably have just printed the scripts and walked away with the cash, but instead the material has been solidly re-worked for the new format, giving it a whole new dimension.

I saw the films in my early teens, first the Holy grail and then The Life of Brian when i was fifteen or so (it was an R16 in New Zealand – those were different days!). I can vividly recally seeing it in the old majectic Cinema on Willis Street (now the site of an ugly skyscraper) and feeling exhausted with laugher before the end of the credits. The Meaning of Life was a disappointment, of course, and it's probably instructive to ponder why that is. I guess it seemed like a retrograde step after the wonderfully unified (in the Aristotelian sense, in fact) Life of Brian and, for that matter, after Time Bandits and Brazil, Gilliam's great first flowering and nearly Python movies in their own right. I'd say that by the early 80s the show was over for the Pythons and it's been annoying cruft like Spamalot ever since.

Ah well, who can complain when the originals are so marvellous? Watching the TV shows now (via the wonders of DVD, but it's nearly all up on youtube if you want) them now they are still amazingly funny and fresh. The first couple of episodes of series two, for example, are nearly faultless, including the Ministry of Silly Walks, the Piranha Brothers, Meet the Press (“I'd like to answer that question in two ways....”), and the Spanish Inquisition. They have the reputation of being “clever” with jokes about philosophy, art and literature, but what really strikes me is the amazing gleeful silliness of it all. There's so much wonderful slapstick and word play, grotesque costumes and simple clowning about – what are the Gumbies if not drolls? Some of my favourite sketches are based on such simple premises, like Arthur “Two Sheds” Jackson or the whole “No Time To Lose” sequence, which ends with the brilliantly stupid gag about “No Time” Toulouse, the Fastest Impressionist in the West.

The other key element is the quality of the performances. They weren't just wonderful writers, but brilliant comic actors. On the one hand they are brilliant clowns and physical comedians but on the other they can play straight to provide the correct leavening to the wackiness, notably Graham Chapman's wonderfully straight performances such as the army Colonel in series one and later in Monty Python and the Holy Grail and The Life of Brian. Terry Jones also had a nice line in stuffy middle class types, like the guy in Nudge Nudge that could also break in wonderful silliness. These two elements combine most memorably in Cleese's performance in the Ministry of Silly Walks – while the top half of his body expounds on government funding, the bottom capers hilariously around the office.

Python has been a huge influence on me creatively ever since I started acting out and writing and everything. When I was nine, I goaded my friends at Greenacres School in Tawa to perform the Lumberjack Song for the Friday performance assembly. Who knows what Mr Swan made of me pulling aside a plaid shirt to reveal one of Mum's bras? His thoughts were never recorded. My “funny” writing leans heavily to the Pythonesque. I sometimes wonder if I've fallen into a Douglas Adamsy/Terry Prathcetty mode (who also echo Python pretty heavily) but... hm, well, I don't know. I try and be a little meaner than those two, who I admire technically but I find a little good natured for my own tastes. I worry about the age of it all, too – is it too old hat in this age of rock star comedians playing stadiums and hosting every flavour of programme on TV ever (how long can it be before Jo Brand joins the team on The Today Programme? Or – worryingly realistically – Russell Brand?)

So, there's two posts in a row about what are probably my foundational creative elements. Marvel comics and Monty Python - no wonder I can't sell anything!

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