'Monty Python's Flying Circus' - the Television Series
Created | Updated May 23, 2008
Monty Python - a Brief History | Graham Chapman - Comedy Writer and Actor | John Cleese - Comedy Writer and Actor | Terry Gilliam - Writer, Animator and Director | Eric Idle - Comedian, Writer and Actor | Terry Jones - Writer, Director and Actor | Michael Palin - Writer, Actor and Traveller | 'Monty Python's Flying Circus' - the Television Series | Monty Python's 'Dead Parrot Sketch' | 'And Now For Something Completely Different' - the Film | 'Monty Python and the Holy Grail' - the Film | 'Monty Python's Life of Brian' - the Film | 'Monty Python's The Meaning of Life' - the Film | Monty Python - The Books | Monty Python - The Records | Monty Python - The Stage Shows | Monty Python - The Best Bits | Almost Pythons - Important 'Monty Python' Contributors
It's all a bit zany. A bit madcap, funster. The kids seem to like it...
In 1969, five writer-performers and one writer-animator were milling around the BBC after working on a number of comedy shows, including At Last the 1948 Show and Do Not Adjust Your Set, as well as various shows for TV presenter and producer David Frost. The most well-known of these six writers was John Cleese, who had been approached by the BBC about the possibility of doing his own show. At the same time, John had seen a number of shows written by and starring Michael Palin, and felt that a collaboration between the two would be a success. At the time, both John and Michael were writing with old University friends: John with Graham Chapman and Michael with Terry Jones. A meeting between these two groups was engineered by BBC producer Barry Took, with Michael and Terry bringing along Eric Idle and Terry Gilliam, with whom they had just finished working on Do Not Adjust Your Set. The six attended a meeting at the BBC where, with remarkably little fuss, they were given 13 half-hour shows and complete freedom to write whatever they wanted.
The first problem the group ran into was trying to find a name for their new show. The idea of having a different name each week was vetoed by the BBC, so the group was stuck with having to decide on a single name that they were all happy with. Or, at least, one to which no-one objected too violently. Many, many names were suggested, including 'Owl Stretching Time', 'A Horse, a Spoon and a Basin', 'Bunn, Wackett, Buzzard, Stubble and Boot' and 'The Toad Elevating Moment'. Part of the decision was taken for them by BBC head of comedy, Michael Mills, who accused Barry Took of giving orders as though he were 'running a flying circus'. Because people were already starting to refer to the show as The Circus in official documents, all the team now had to do was decide whose flying circus it should be. After yet more rounds of arguing and endless suggestions, the title eventually evolved into Monty Python's Flying Circus and stuck.
The First Series
Now that they had a title, all they had to do was write the 13 episodes. The writing process was given a head-start by the number of sketches that each of them had lying around that had been rejected by their previous employers for being too rude, too controversial or just too silly. Eventually, recording of the first series started on 30 August, 1969, with an episode titled Sex and Violence, inspired by a nervous BBC who had asked: 'there won't be any sex and violence in this new show, will there?' This particular edition - which eventually became the second episode to be broadcast - contained, amongst other things, flying sheep, musical mice, a marriage guidance counsellor, a working class playwright and a problem with men who would be mice. Already, several recurring elements were in place: cruelty to animals, Michael Palin playing an insignificant nobody, sketches linked by animation, the catchphrase 'and now for something completely different', stock footage of applause at a Women's Institute meeting, and also the first appearance by regular Python actress, Carol Cleveland.
The opening episode of the first series was eventually broadcast on 5 October, 1969, although transmission of the rest of the series was rather fragmented, with the transmission time moved around or even cancelled from week to week, and some regions of the UK showing local-interest programmes instead. Despite this, the show gained a significant word-of-mouth reputation, not surprising considering that the series contained some of their most successful material, including the 'Dead Parrot Sketch', the 'Lumberjack Song' and 'Nudge Nudge'. After that lot, a second series was almost a certainty.
The Second Series
The following year, the team returned with what many believe is the best of the four Python series. Epsiode one contains probably John Cleese's least favourite sketch: 'The Ministry of Silly Walks'. For years, John would be plagued by members of the public stopping him in the street and asking him to perform the sketch - requests that he always refused politely but firmly. Other highlights of the second series include 'The Spanish Inquisition', 'Bruces' and 'Spam'.
The second series also contains one of the Pythons' most notorious pieces: the 'Undertakers Sketch'. In this, John Cleese goes to see some undertakers about his dead mother, whom he happens to have in a sack. After a quick look at the body, the undertakers decide that they've got 'an eater' on their hands, and get the oven on, informing a shocked John that 'if you feel guilty about it afterwards, we'll dig a grave and you can throw up in it'. The BBC were reluctant to allow this sketch in the show at all and, in the end, a compromise was reached in which the audience would rush onto the set and attack the actors. This episode, the last in the second series, remains the only one of the 45 never to have been repeated by the BBC1. The BBC deny that this has anything to do with the cannibalism theme, but insist that it is because of references to the Queen, who is supposed to be watching part of the show.
The Third Series
After a brief foray into feature films with And Now For Something Completely Different, the team returned with a third series of the Flying Circus, for which Terry Gilliam revamped the opening titles and Terry Jones' nude organist - previously played by Terry Gilliam in the 'Blackmail' sketch from series two - became a regular fixture. By this time, John Cleese was starting to get restless and suggested that he might leave the group. He was persuaded to stay, but insists that he and Graham Chapman produced only two original pieces in the entire third series: 'Dennis Moore' and 'Cheese Shop'. Despite John's misgivings, the third series had many highlights, not least of which was Michael Palin's personal favourite, the 'Fish Slapping Dance'.
The Fourth Series
Taking a break to produce Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the team returned for one more television series. This time, however, John could not be persuaded to return and the five remaining members went on without him, changing the name of the series to simply Monty Python. Widely claimed to be some of the weakest material that Python ever produced, the series does contain some classic moments, including the 'Most Awful Family in Britain'. The series also saw the first appearance of non-Python writers, with material from Neil Innes and Douglas Adams.
After filming six episodes of the series, the group realised that things were not working as well as they had before. Following much debate, it was decided to leave it at six episodes. The success of Holy Grail had given them a taste for feature films and the team were to reunite with John for Monty Python's Life of Brian.
Die Fliegender Zirkus
Some time between the third and fourth series, the Pythons were invited to Germany to film a one-off episode for German television. The group wrote new material (apart from a Bavarian version of the 'Lumberjack Song'), which was then translated into German. This meant that the team had to learn the lines parrot-fashion2, as none of them spoke German. Despite being shown at the same time as an England-Germany football match, the show was a success and the team were invited back for a second show the following year. Again, new material was written, although this time the Pythons were allowed to perform in English, with the show being dubbed into German later. This second show was later shown on British television, but the original German show was considered 'lost' for many years until the two were screened at the New York Museum of Broadcasting Arts in 1989. It has since been released on home video in the UK.