So, it’s finally over. The end of a comedic era. That tatty blue macaw has kicked the bucket for the last time and the Four Yorkshiremen can neck their brandies and crawl home to the rolled up newspapers and septic tanks from whence they came.
But the five remaining Pythons did not go gentle into that good night. They sailed into the showbiz sunset kicking, screaming and benignly reaching out to the audience for one last show of fanatical adoration. Despite all those years of fierce protestation about a reunion, when the final moments came it was all too clear that none of them really wanted it all to end – their emotional connection to the audience being so unbearably strong, the memories so poignant, the financial rewards so sweet.
As a boy I grew up watching Python on the BBC and laughed until I literally weed myself and fell off my parent’s battered old sofa. My dad, of course, hated the series, but then he was supposed to. He was old. Python was for the new, cynical, post war generation and we took ownership of it as lovingly as if it were our own local football team. We cheered at Python’s triumphs and in later years shared in their grief. We jeered and booed at the Anglican protests over Life of Brian (probably the funniest film ever made) and we dutifully forgave Cleese and Co. for the shortcomings of Meaning of Life.
Through a friend who worked in the Python offices in Cambridge Gate I was lucky enough to go to the very first “test” showing of Meaning of Life, in a small viewing room in Soho. Many of the animation sequences were not yet completed and during these bits Terry Gilliam would leap to his feet, madness in his eyes, and stand in front of the screen while physically acting out what we we should be seeing. Terry Jones, who was sitting nearby, turned to me and said, “Would you buy a used car from this man?” I can’t remember what I replied.
Python built their reputation by being subversive about the establishment, but they are firmly part of that establishment now. For this reason I was disappointed they didn’t take this opportunity to parody themselves. For me, it was not their understandable lack of energy in performance, but this notable lack of knowing, self derision that truly showed their age. It was as if they simply couldn’t be bothered to take the piss anymore, even out of themselves. So very tired.
While Cleese and Palin were undoubtedly the scriptwriting engine of the group in the old days, it has always been Eric Idle that’s been the most driven and business-minded Python – the member of the team most well equipped to understand the immense commercial possibilities of the franchise and haul Monty Python into the twenty first century through re-invention after re-invention. This reunion simply wouldn’t have happened without Idle’s boundless energy and commitment to the Python brand, and the rest of the team owe him a great debt, if only financially.
There were few surprises at the O2 on that emotional final night. The catchphrases were the same, the costumes familiar and as one might expect the audience remembered the script far better than the performers. However one surprise for me, and a rather uncomfortable moment to witness, was John Cleese’s treatment of Terry Jones during the crunchy frog sketch. While “pretending” to bully Jones about his failure to learn his lines, for me Cleese came across as a genuine bully, and there seemed to be a glimpse of actual hurt and betrayal in Jones’s eyes.
In repeatedly throwing food and drink at him, Cleese similarly bullied comedian Alan Carr recently in a chat show on Channel 4. What started as a joke actually became quite difficult to watch and Carr’s genuine embarrassment and annoyance became difficult to conceal.
Having a strong character is one thing, but I can’t help wondering whether this kind of overpowering, bullish behavior may have been a factor in the big man’s departure from the original Python TV series, and why he has since been one of the most remote and disconnected members of the group. No-one but a control freak could have created a masterpiece like Fawlty Towers, but it’s not always a pretty site at close quarters. Comic icon he may be, but perhaps Mr Cleese’s good judgement and comic timing are on the wane.
There have been many unsung Pythons over the years and special mentions are due for Carol Cleveland (who played all the female parts and was rarely given a funny line), and John Du Prez who wrote many of the songs with Eric Idle, did all the musical arrangements, and conducted the orchestra so splendidly at the O2.
The most emotional moment for me was when the late, great Graham Chapman appeared on the big screen and sang “It’s Christmas in Heaven”. I couldn’t help wondering whether an unaccountable cold shiver ran through his body while he was recording that song in a studio in London in 1982.
There was of course an extremely good reason for Chapman’s physical absence from the festivities, but I think it was a great pity that Neil Innes was not part of the show. Innes was thought by many to be the seventh Python and his contribution to the history of the group should not be underestimated. Innes played a major role in performing and writing songs and sketches for the final TV series after Cleese left and he is one of only two non-Pythons ever be credited as a writer on the TV series (the other being Douglas Adams). Innes appeared on stage with the Pythons many times and wrote songs for the movie Holy Grail. I assume his absence was due to his well publicised feud with Eric Idle, but it was a great shame that he wasn’t able to take his place on stage for the final curtain call, perhaps in place of that young, anonymous performer dressed as Graham Chapman.
Whether you get the very British humour of these guys or you don’t, few people would argue that in the passing of Monty Python we have seen the end of a momentous era in the history of both comedy and what used to be called light entertainment. Let’s hope that none of them will be spending Christmas with their old mate Graham for many, many years to come.