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Bristol Post
Bristol Post
Louisa Streeting

Michael Palin on his first TV job in Bristol, Monty Python’s legacy and the future of comedy

The first time I ever saw a Monty Python sketch was the Mr Creosote scene from the 1983 film The Meaning of Life, featuring a very large wealthy man played by Terry Jones who is doted on by John Cleese, the maître d’. It was one of the most hilarious, shocking things I’d ever seen, exemplifying the Pythons’ physical comedy in the most gruesome way possible.

If you’re unfamiliar with it I implore you to watch it, but with caution. It’s famously the only film sequence that has ever disturbed director Quentin Tarantino, who admitted this when probed on the violence in his films.

The legacy of Monty Python is just accepted rather than theorised these days. Their contribution to popular culture is tantamount to The Beatles, with the lines from ‘The Spanish Inquisition’, ‘The Lumberjack Song’ and scenes from Holy Grail recited verbatim like lyrics.

Read more: Slapstick Festival 2023 announces full line up

Python member Sir Michael Palin has previously said he struggles to reflect on his canon of work, as it feels “overindulgent”. However, after a fruitful career in acting, writing, travelling and broadcasting that spans almost six decades, he’ll have to stomach his life being unravelled in front of a Bristol audience for the 19th edition of Slapstick festival, of which he is a co-curator.

He’ll be in conversation talking all things Python with Rob Brydon as well as a showing of Life of Brian with Stephen Merchant ahead of his 80th birthday this May.

Bristol isn’t redundant in these moments of introspection, either. After leaving Oxford University, Michael’s first glimpse of the limelight took him to Bristol for a comedy pop show called Now! back in 1966 with TV contractor Television Wales and the West.

“I remember walking along Clifton Suspension Bridge in big heavy boots and an Edwardian costume on to Nancy Sinatra’s ‘These Boots Are Made for Walking’ and being in a field playing the piano as Arthur Mullard came up and smashed the piano,” Michael recalled from the show. “It was all rather whacky and surreal, a bit Pythonic early on.”

Now! was short-lived and concluded after one series. “I held on for as long as I could because, at the same time, I was writing the first comedy that myself and Terry Jones first produced, The Frost Report .” Michael had also joined David Frost’s satirical television show that launched the careers of almost every Python member as well as the two Ronnies.

Michael and Terry were paid £6 for each joke that was broadcast on The Frost Report compared to £50 a week with Now! but recognised that the pop show was a dead end. The Frost Report walked so that Monty Python could run; the use of dry, sardonic humour and provocative commentary was a precursor to Flying Circus.

He said: “Frost tapped into university comedy which was much maligned and sneered at but produced some great including beyond the fringe and people like Alan Bennett, Dudley Moore and Jonathan Miller. You had this strong cast doing very different kinds of sketches to what had been seen before because they were I suppose satirical, but also about the world at that time and the way people behaved. It wasn’t overly serious.”

Left to right: Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Graham Chapman, John Cleese and Michael Palin from Monty Python (PA/PA Wire)

‘The Class System’ sketch from 1966 is still referenced today for its timeless ingenuity. The Frost Report was one of the shows that honed Python’s style and silliness, something that wasn’t popular in the comedy genre at the time.

The troupe first formed through partnerships - Jones and Palin, Cleese and Chapman - with Eric Idle who has written before with Michael and Terry Gilliam offering illustrations. The comedic legacy of the 1960s had typically involved shows with one or two names attached, so a group of six was quite a new concept on screen, Michael explained.

“It seemed a bit of a risk but we thought ‘why the hell not, let's try it’. One of the jokers in the pack was Gilliam. He was really new and trend-setting because no one had used animation before, and his animation was brilliant that gave the show a sharpness and a gloss and non-Britishness which worked very well. This extraordinary mixture somehow worked and that was it really. The question was, how long could we write together without people getting bored.”

After two series of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Cleese was the first to feel confined, straying from the pack to do Fawlty Towers after the third series. While the Pythons were rarely restricted creatively, Michael said the BBC had started to interfere when the programme became more popular.

Michael Palin, pictured second from the right in 2014 with (from left-to-right) fellow Monty Python comedians Eric Idle, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones (PA Archive/PA Images)

“They started looking more carefully at the scripts and of course, once censorship of comedy comes in it’s very much involved in arbitrary rules about taste, it would produce some ludicrous results.”

One instance of this was a sketch in series 3 called ‘Summarize Proust Competition’, where each contestant is ordered to give a summary of Proust's A La Recherche du Temps Perdu in 15 seconds. The competition finalist Bagot (played by Champman) says his hobbies are "strangling animals, golf and masturbating”, which received a huge roar of laughter from the audience.

“The BBC found out we’d said the m-word on television and it just couldn’t be used. In the final version, it was cut out at the edit and it said ‘strangling animals, golf’ pause, huge laugh. It shows you just how ludicrous that form of censorship is, the joke had gone down very well.”

He has always thanked and praised the corporation over the years for allowing them the airtime, despite some jokes not making the final edit. “I have to say the BBC was extraordinarily tolerant of us and I don’t think any organisation in the world at that time would have let Python do what it did.”

Palin admitted he was surprised to not see Monty Python mentioned in the BBC’s centenary coverage in 2022, although wondered if this was due to legal constraints. The rights to the entire Python back catalogue were handed to Netflix in 2019.

(Getty Images)

There are also some sketches that don’t translate well in the 21st century, including the treatment of women, homophobia and rape references. “Maybe just that there’s a feeling now that Python is rude and naughty and these are not rude and naughty times,” he wondered. “We didn’t have an intimacy advisor for Monty Python.”

Michael underscored the troupe’s intentions of provocation as a reaction to the zeitgeist, bringing up unspoken taboos in society. Comedy changes with the national consciousness.

Take a look at something like The Life Of Brian, which caused outrage across the world when it was released in 1979. Now, these themes wouldn’t draw the same level of accusations of blasphemy and protests as modern society becomes increasingly secular.

Michael recognised that comedy has changed, as the world around it does. “The comedy we were doing reflected the times and the way people think, particularly about broadcasting.”

Much of Flying Circus and pre-Python comedy was a reflection of the BBC and broadcasters' style of that epoch. Now, comedy goes far beyond what’s fed to you on terrestrial television, as streaming services dominate and on-screen content is increasingly commercialised.

Sir Michael Palin was awarded Special Recognition at the NTAs (Mike Marsland/WireImage)

For Michael, this is why he hopes the BBC’s licence fee will be protected as streaming giants like Netflix, Disney+ and Amazon Prime Video are forcing broadcasters to change their models. “What’s important is that the BBC still remains independent of being a marketing enterprise and commercials. The BBC is trying to present itself as something exciting and whacky like Netflix and ITV. It used to be an oasis of calm.”

But the problem predates the rise of streaming services. The genre has largely been replaced in Hollywood by superhero films and blockbusters, the big box office money-makers - but there is an undeniable change in the tide, whether it’s difficult to sell on-screen comedy or if there’s an underlying anxiety in creating it.

One of the monumental differences, Michael believes, is the use of social media. A sphere where there is heightened exposure, both positive and negative. While cancel culture isn’t a new concept, reaction spreads much quicker and on a larger scale in a chronically digital era, which is to the applauding of some and the hounding of others, Michael said.

“There’s nothing wrong with not wanting to upset people. I think if we’re not very careful we become very programmed to react in a certain way,” he explained.

Palin and Cleese in 2013 (Getty Images)

This is something fellow Python John Cleese has spoken out about frequently in recent years. Many comedians have said in interviews that they feel they have to be “more careful” with jokes these days.

In reality, comedy will always thrive when the audience is shocked into laughter, but the tropes of the genre are changing. It still holds a mirror up to the world without being targeted or identity-driven.

“Good comedy is a reaction to not usually being able to say something and that’s what brings out laughs in people. I think we’ve got to find a way in dealing with that and at the moment,” Michael added.

“It’s because we’re not allowed to say something because we might offend somebody, which is a new orthodoxy. I think that ought to be questioned if you can make it funny.”

Michael Palin comes to Bristol for Slapstick Festival in February 2023

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