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23 April 2014
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  • Comedy
  • Monty Python's Flying Circus

Monty Python's Flying Circus

The Monty Python team

The 1960s satire boom opened up the way for a fresh, inventive generation of young comedy writer-performers to flourish on TV and to take comedy in a new and exciting direction.

Among them were five graduates from the Oxbridge comedy scene, all of whom became contributors to The Frost Report and whose stand-out talents were soon rewarded with prominent roles in new hit sketch series: At Last the 1948 Show, which starred ex-Cambridge Footlights John Cleese and Graham Chapman, while Do Not Adjust Your Set featured ex-Oxford writing partners Michael Palin and Terry Jones alongside another former Footlight, Eric Idle.

One of Python Terry Gilliam's cartoons

The two shows had a similar, zany feel and Do Not Adjust Your Set was spiced-up further by the inclusion of some hilariously surreal animations by an eccentric young American upstart named Terry Gilliam.

Forming a strong mutual respect, the six decided to team up and work together on 'something new' and with the help of Barry Took (who was then a comedy consultant at the BBC) they were given their own series, famously being told "you can have thirteen shows, but that's it".

Having toyed with several names (including Owl Stretching Time and The Toad Elevating Moment), the group settled on the appropriately bizarre Monty Python's Flying Circus: 'circus' being suggested by the BBC, and Monty Python being envisaged by the team as the perfect name for a sleazy entertainment agent.

Their writing effectively threw away the rulebook of traditional sketch writing, dispensing with punchlines and allowing sketches to blend into each other or simply stop abruptly.

Michael Palin and Graham Chapman

It was a technique already pioneered by Spike Milligan, but the ruthlessly self-critical Pythons mastered it.

Gilliam's unique animation style became crucial, segueing seamlessly between any two completely unrelated ideas and making the stream-of-consciousness work.

Flying Circus was fortunate too in being broadcast in colour, unlike their previous shows, helping transmit to viewers the Pythons' vibrant, crazy ideas.

The show took a short while to find a fanbase but grew into a phenomenon, so much so that George Harrison claimed the spirit of the Beatles had passed onto Monty Python.

Episodes often had a surreal and barely identifiable theme and the Pythons joyfully weaved sketches throughout every show so viewers had no idea where they would be taken next.

The Pythons

It's one of the Pythons' astonishing achievements that a single edition could throw up characters like The Spanish Inquisition, who remain as memorable as any of the weekly repeated caricatures in recent series like The Fast Show or Little Britain.

Flying Circus did have its share of recurring items: John Cleese' BBC link man and his announcement "And now for something completely different" became a catchphrase; while characters appearing in multiple episodes included a rubber-chicken-wielding knight and various members of the dim-witted Gumby family.

But such moments seemed to be the icing on the Pythonic cake, always outbalanced by fresh material.

The Pythons took on virtually every acting role themselves, the main exception being attractive women (usually played by 'honorary Python' Carol Cleveland) and each cast member developed his own specialities.

Terry Jones could portray both middle-class English gentlemen and ratbag old women; the towering Cleese and Chapman mastered pompous authority figures but could also do a fine line in cantankerous old ladies; Idle often played more feminine women as well as TV anchor roles and slimy, more sinister men (as in his famous Nudge, Nudge sketch); and Palin, perhaps the most gifted comic actor of the group, could make his own anything from Cardinal Ximinez of the Inquisition to sleazy end-of-the-pier variety compères.

The Pythons

Gilliam, who spent much of his time slaving over the animations, was usually handed supporting roles which, over time, became some of the filthiest characters in the scripts.

Flying Circus ran on TV for four series and spawned spin-off records, books and even German-language specials.

Cleese backed out of the last season (barring the odd cameo) to concentrate on a new sitcom with wife Connie Booth (Fawlty Towers), but Python-mania continued unabated nonetheless.

The shows became a massive phenomenon in the States and the team (with Cleese) toured their new fanbase, performing an acclaimed live show at the Hollywood Bowl.

With a huge and growing global following, the Pythons were encouraged to continue working together on three hilarious and groundbreaking feature films, while the Flying Circus, which started it all, has come to be seen as probably the most ingenious and imaginative comedy show ever to grace British television.

Cast

Connie Booth
performer
Graham Chapman
performer
John Cleese
performer
Terry Gilliam
performer
Terry Jones
performer
Michael Palin
performer
Eric Idle
performer
Ian Davidson
performer
Carol Cleveland
performer

Crew

Graham Chapman
writer
John Cleese
writer
Terry Gilliam
writer
Terry Jones
writer
Michael Palin
writer
Eric Idle
writer
Ian MacNaughton
producer
John Howard Davies
producer

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