(l-r) Michael Palin, Terry Jones, John Cleese, Eric Idle and Terry Gilliam Photo © Andy Gotts

(l-r) Michael Palin, Terry Jones, John Cleese, Eric Idle and Terry Gilliam
Photo © Andy Gotts

…least of all the Pythons, as for the past 25 years they declared they would never perform together again. And yet, here they are. CriticalDance’s Stuart Sweeney looks at the return of the Monty Python in a new live show put together as a musical packed with sketches, song and dance; and backwards to memories of student days…

It was expensive divorces and court cases, combined with the indefatigable energy of Eric Idle that brought this mega-talented group back together. They swear this is it; the final throw of the dice; the end; finito; exit stage left; the last goodbye, no more. It’s not about age or retirement, rather they all have their own projects and want to get back to work on their films, books and TV series.

The new live show, “One Down, Five To Go”, is their first for over 30 years and some 40 years since they performed on-stage in the UK. It began life as one performance, with 15,000 tickets in London’s O2 selling out in less than a minute; expanded to 5 shows, which sold out in an hour, and finally they agreed to do 10. Overseas bookers wanted to have the production, but Michael Palin put his foot down (by the way the infamous Python foot was amputated by Terry Gilliam from Cupid in Agnolo Bronzino’s 16th C masterpiece, “Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time”) and that was that.

To appease the zillions of overseas fans, and make a bundle more money of course, the final show on July 20 will be live broadcast to more than 1,800 cinemas in 39 countries. At the press conference for the £4.4m (US$7.5m) show, Eric Idle explained that the new production uses only existing material from the TV programmes and films but packaged as a large scale musical with songs, dance and beautiful young people “to make up for the crinklies performing the old sketches.” Arlene Phillips who choreographed the Python film “The Meaning of Life”, has been drafted in to create dance sequences based on “Nudge, nudge”, “Ministry of Silly Walks and other sketches.

Although the Pythons came together from a range of radio and TV precursor shows, the anarchic, surrealist series broke new ground from 1969 to 1974 and became an essential part of TV watching for students like me. Alongside the zany humour, the allusions to famous artists and philosophers we had heard of, even if we didn’t know much about them, made us feel clever, and the anti-authority character of so much of the material accorded with the Zeitgeist of demonstrations and new age thinking. Imagine my horror when I moved to a college in central England in 1970, sitting in front of the TV in high expectation, only to find the local BBC region wasn’t screening the series.  Python had been scheduled at a time which made it possible for the regions to opt out and show amazingly dull local programmes. They deemed the material too offensive and weird for their provincial audiences. Maybe it was Terry Gilliam’s exquisite, scabrous animations that proved too much for the milksops of the local BBC.

The impact of the Python concept has been enormous and it’s intriguing to note that Douglas Adams of the “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” co-wrote one of the sketches in the fourth and final series and his wonderful science fiction comedy draws on the style of the Pythons with non sequiturs and everyday scenes transformed by anarchy and surrealism: the Earth destroyed to make way for an interstellar by-pass, with no room for complaint as the plans had been available for 50 years on Alpha Centauri. Adams’ involvement also indicates that the Python team had reached the end of the road on TV, as they brought in other writers, but still only had enough material for 6 shows compared with the 13 in each of the previous three series. And looking through the sketches of the final series, none are as memorable as earlier examples such as, “Dead Parrot”, “Proust Summarising Competition”, and others. John Cleese had wanted to leave after the second series, but did depart after the third and perhaps that was the death knell for Python on TV.

The title “One Down, Five To Go” refers to Graham Chapman, who died of cancer in 1989 aged 48.  Although credited as a co-writer, Cleese says that Chapman “would lob in an idea or a line from out of left field into the engine room, but he could never be the engine”. He and the others agree that Chapman was the finest actor in the group, resulting in his lead roles in two of the Python films. At his memorial service, Palin said that he liked to think that Chapman was there with them all that day – “or rather, he will be in about 25 minutes”, a reference to Chapman’s habitual lateness when he and the other Pythons were working together. Film of Chapman will be used in the live show.

Asked about training for the gruelling schedule of the ten shows with rapid costume and make-up changes, Idle, who has much greater experience of musical theatre from his years in “Spamalot”, said that he has been walking and hill climbing to ensure he had the stamina and fitness to cope with the physical demands of a live musical, but most of the others hadn’t prepared. Will they make it? One of the problems for the new production was the insurance for a termination of the expensive project due to the death of one of the five septuagenarians. A suggested solution was to say that the insurers only had to pay out if there were two deaths, as a single fatality could be turned into a tribute for the deceased.  I wish them all many more years of creativity – with Python and their subsequent solo projects, they have made a huge contribution to the mirth of nations.