Oh hey there, welcome back. If you’ve just joined us, have a seat. We’re doing something different in this episode of Bella’s Odyssey. We’re departing the present moment to amble down the narrow path through the forest of time, between moss-covered trees and overgrown shrubs way back to my roots, not quite where it all began but somewhere along the way. We’re parting the fern fronds of my character to peer with the curiosity and wonder of a more politically correct 19th century explorer at what has influenced me not just as a writer but also as a human.
The title of this article is a Monty Python reference. I make a lot of Python references in life, most of which go unnoticed, which I’ve come to terms with as a lot of the things I like are apparently obscure (are they though?) and I don’t expect anyone to laugh at my jokes apart from myself because that’s usually what happens anyway. But ask me what my top three favourite films are and I’ll tell you that two of them are Monty Python films: Life of Brian, and The Holy Grail, in that order. I’ve seen Life of Brian so many times I know it almost word-for-word. I have all of their movies and their television series, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, on DVD and I have an album, Monty Python Sings, of many of their songs from the movies and TV series in my music collection. In other words, I’m a big fan.
Allow me to explain. Monty Python are a six-man British comedy group who were at their prime on TV and in cinemas in the 1970s. I don’t think the Pythons ever expected or even wanted to appeal to the mainstream, because things regularly got pretty weird (hence the group are often labelled a ‘surreal comedy’ group) but, ironically, they have had a monumental impact of British subculture, if not British culture at large as well as overseas.
The off-beat silliness delivered with a straight face is what I like about it; the random, unexpected, over-the-top absurdity of the humour and the concepts that go way outside the box of conventional television, not only breaking the rules but making fun of them, and then making fun of the Pythons themselves, and just about anything within the sphere of Western culture. Yet, despite the silliness, all members of Monty Python are actually very intelligent, well-educated people, having met at the top two universities in England; Oxford and Cambridge. Although they all act in the series and films, they’re firstly writers (they all wrote sketches) and I think that’s the other thing I really like about it – the dialogue is fine-tuned, razor sharp and thought out. Both Life of Brian and The Holy Grail are 90 minutes of line after line of comedic genius and every time you watch you catch another brilliant line that you didn’t quite hear the last time. They’re extremely quotable. Terry Gilliam’s animations add an obscure, moderately unnerving charm as well as a release from the shackles of physics to allow things to get truly bizarre. They also linked seemingly random sketches together, which, oddly enough, added more intelligibility and storyline to otherwise disorderly episodes of the Flying Circus. Although, I should note that I do find some of the sketches tedious, especially in that experimental Flying Circus era when the Pythons were perhaps still finding their creative feet and developing their formula.
However, the wacky genius far outweighs the moments that are a tad grating. There are far too many of my favourite scenes and sketches to list, but I’ll mention a few that I particularly cherish.
John Cleese absolutely nails the physical comedy in the Ministry of Silly Walks sketch, keeping a completely straight face while absurdly lifting and bending his long legs. What cracks me up is how upright he keeps his back and the fact that he’s carrying a briefcase.
The French guards taunting King Arthur and his men, rather than helping them on their quest as is the expectation when heroes go on quests in films, from atop a tall castle in The Holy Grail has to be some of the best back-and-forth in the history of cinema (“Your mother was a hamster, and your father smelled of elderberries!”).
Also from The Holy Grail is the Knights of the Round Table song, which fills me with pure joy.
One of the early scenes in Life of Brian gets me every time; when the Three Kings show up at what they think is Jesus Christ’s stable, but as they enter they scare the crap out of ‘Mary’ (actually Brian’s mother) and she shrieks, falling backwards off her stool. And I like it when, in the same film, the protagonist is caught by Roman guards painting graffiti insulting the ruling class. Instead of punishing him with death, the centurion corrects his dodgy Latin grammar like a stern schoolteacher and makes him write it out a hundred times.
Also in that film are the two prison guards, one of whom is afflicted with a terrible stammer and the other seems to be insane. When asked by the flustered centurion if the crucifixion party have already left, the guard replies “we’ve got lumps of it round the back”. The Roman, frustrated by the unhelpful pair, rushes off, at which point the two continue their conversation normally, apparently only pretending to be invalids.