Last night I watched a recording that I’d ‘organised’ of a BBC television documentary called A Life On Screen about Michael Palin that was first broadcast at some point last weekend. It was both fascinating and entertaining.
When Monty Python’s Flying Circus first hit the television screens in 1969 it became an instant cult hit at my boarding school far away in the countryside. It took until about Series 3 before it became a mainstream hit and thence eventually an all-encompassing cultural force and influence upon British comedy going forward and a hit around the world.
I’d been vaguely aware of the individuals in the Python team previously (well, except for Terry Gilliam, the Yank who began by making the little surreal animated sequences and gradually branched out).
I can remember watching Do Not Adjust Your Set and also seeing John Cleese in whatever programme it was (a David Frost show of some sort?) on which he, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett did the ‘Class’ sketch with Barker in the middle saying “I look up to him [looking at Cleese to his right] … but I look down on him [looking at Corbett in a cloth cap to his left]” and so on).
See here, courtesy of – YOUTUBE
One comment in the documentary which struck home with me, made separately by both Palin and John Cleese, was the fact that each of the five Pythons brought something quite different to the party.
As Cleese put it “Had we all been similar it wouldn’t have worked [i.e. as well as it did]”.
Four things occurred to me after watching the programme.
Firstly, the Pythons’ relative youth. Palin was born in 1943 and so was just 25 when the first Python TV series was made – and by then he’d already been writing gags and/or appearing in TV sketch shows for three or four years.
Although I may have watched one episode right through when it was first transmitted, the project rather passed me by.
However, the documentary featured three extracts from the series each of which were laugh-out-loud funny. I would love to see more now if I could find them.
Thirdly, what a fabulously erudite, articulate and simply ‘nice’ [a word I rarely ever use] chap Michael Palin is.
In the early Python days and right up to his classic sitcom Fawlty Towers, he was an unstoppable force of brilliant comedic nature. Now in a state where he lives on past glories – cue a reference to his recent/current TV commercial for Specsavers in which he flaccidly recreates his classic Fawlty Towers scene in which he attacks his car with a tree shrub for breaking down on him – he has become a rather sad, bitter, money-needy person.
See here – YOUTUBE
I was talking to my brother this week about this documentary on Palin and, unsolicited, he cited a quote he’d seen somewhere from someone who had been seeking to identify a certain year by saying “It was about the time that John Cleese stopped being funny …”
Both of us felt this apposite and summed Cleese up as he is these days perfectly.