On this date in 1969 Monty Python’s Flying Circus was broadcast on BBC One for the first time. It lasted for 4 seasons and I saw every episode when it was aired originally. This took a lot of doing because I was an undergraduate at Oxford at the time, and in those days we had ONE television in the whole college. So we would all cram in to the television room to watch. It was a great way to see it for the first time – 80 students crowded into a tiny room, laughing like mad through it all. Memorable times.
My chief inclination in this post is simply to embed a bunch of my favorite clips and leave it at that. But perhaps I should ramble on a bit. The 1960s was a tremendously fertile period for British television comedy. The Pythons emerged from this incredible richness largely because their fortuitous coming together from other diverse shows, where they were both writers and actors, created a perfect blend. They also benefitted later from international syndication and by moving from television to film making. I was a fan of their work (separately) on such series as I’m Sorry, I’ll Read That Again (radio) [Cleese: cast member and writer] – [Idle and Chapman: writers],The Frost Report [Cleese: cast member and writer] – [Idle: writer of Frost’s monologues] – [Chapman, Palin and Jones: writers] At Last the 1948 Show [Chapman and Cleese: writers and cast members] – [Idle: writer], and Do Not Adjust Your Set [Idle, Jones, and Palin: cast members and writers] – [Gilliam: animation]. I really liked these shows, but Monty Python was clearly a step above – right from the start.
Following the success of Do Not Adjust Your Set, ITV offered Gilliam, Idle, Jones, and Palin their own late-night comedy series together. At the same time, Chapman and Cleese were offered a show by the BBC, who had been impressed by their work on The Frost Report and At Last the 1948 Show. Cleese was reluctant to do a two-person show for various reasons, including Chapman’s supposedly difficult and erratic personality. Cleese had fond memories of working with Palin on How To Irritate People and invited him to join the team. With no studio available at ITV until summer 1970 for the late-night show, Palin agreed to join Cleese and Chapman, and suggested the involvement of his writing partner Jones and colleague Idle—who in turn wanted Gilliam to provide animations for the projected series. The Pythons were born.
From the outset the team was disciplined and organized (which Jones later ascribed to Cleese in a rather negative way). Script writing started at 9 am and finished at 5 pm. Typically, Cleese and Chapman worked as one pair isolated from the others, as did Jones and Palin, while Idle wrote alone. After a few days, they would join together with Gilliam, critique their scripts, and exchange ideas. Their approach to writing was democratic. If the majority found an idea funny, it was included in the show. The casting of roles for the sketches was a similarly egalitarian process, since each member viewed himself primarily as a writer, rather than as an actor eager for screen time. When the themes for sketches were chosen, Gilliam had a free hand in bridging them with animations.
While the show was a collaborative process, different factions within Python were responsible for elements of the team’s humor. In general, the work of the Oxford-educated members (Jones and Palin) was more visual, and more fanciful conceptually (e.g., the arrival of the Spanish Inquisition in a suburban front room), while the Cambridge graduates’ sketches tended to be more verbal and more aggressive (for example, Cleese and Chapman’s many “confrontation” sketches, where one character intimidates or hurls abuse, or Idle’s characters with bizarre verbal quirks, such as “The Man Who Speaks In Anagrams”). Cleese wrote that “most of the sketches with heavy abuse were Graham’s and mine, anything that started with a slow pan across countryside and impressive music was Mike and Terry’s, and anything that got utterly involved with words and disappeared up any personal orifice was Eric’s”. Gilliam’s animations, meanwhile, ranged from the whimsical to the savage (the cartoon format allowing him to create some astonishingly violent scenes without fear of censorship).
Everyone has their own personal favorite Python actors. I am not alone in finding the combination of Cleese and Palin hysterical. The “Dead Parrot” sketch is an everlasting favorite with all audiences. The others I cared for somewhat less, but their work in concert was stellar. I can’t say I ever cared for Gilliam’s animations; they seemed intrusive, pointless, and very repetitive. Gilliam did, however, go on to great (often disturbing) film production. I reflect on his oeuvre in a separate post http://www.bookofdaystales.com/terry-gilliam/ Repetitiveness proved to be the downfall of the series. Cleese left after 3 seasons because he felt they were just rehashing old material, and, indeed, season 4 was not very good – season 3 was not their best either, showing signs of staleness. The evergreens come from seasons 1 & 2. The good news is that in branching into film the team blossomed in new ways. They were still episodic, like the series, but much more thematic, with linking threads. The Meaning of Life is my absolute favorite in this regard. Absolutely brilliant from start to finish. Here’s the “Galaxy Song”
You can find the full movie of Monty Python and the Holy Grail here:
One of several of my favorite scenes from the film is this one where Palin plays a politically astute peasant to Chapman’s uptight Arthur:
My all time favorite sketch from the original series is “The Cheese Shop,” which is a perfect bridge to a recipe.
Among other things, Cleese gives a fairly comprehensive listing of world cheeses here, so you could just celebrate with a cheese platter. But I’ve already covered that base several times, as well as talking about individual cheeses. What I think hits the mark is a great British light dish: Welsh Rarebit. The Pythons did take jabs at all nationalities from time to time, but the core of their humor was poking fun at British culture, including some British foods – notably baked beans and Spam (which is not British but has taken root). My mum used to make Welsh Rarebit for weekend suppers when we had our main meal in the middle of the day. She called it Welsh Rabbit which is the older pronunciation and spelling. “Rarebit” probably came about as a way of indicating that it was not a rabbit or meat dish. I’ll use either term.
Hannah Glasse, in The Art of Cookery (1747), gives recipes for “Scotch rabbit”, “Welch rabbit” and two versions of “English rabbit,” so we could be thoroughly British:
To make a Scotch rabbit, toast the bread very nicely on both sides, butter it, cut a slice of cheese about as big as the bread, toast it on both sides, and lay it on the bread.
To make a Welch rabbit, toast the bread on both sides, then toast the cheese on one side, lay it on the toast, and with a hot iron brown the other side. You may rub it over with mustard.
To make an English rabbit, toast the bread brown on both sides, lay it in a plate before the fire, pour a glass of red wine over it, and let it soak the wine up. Then cut some cheese very thin and lay it very thick over the bread, put it in a tin oven before the fire, and it will be toasted and browned presently. Serve it away hot.
Or do it thus. Toast the bread and soak it in the wine, set it before the fire, rub butter over the bottom of a plate, lay the cheese on, pour in two or three spoonfuls of white wine, cover it with another plate, set it over a chafing-dish of hot coals for two or three minutes, then stir it till it is done and well mixed. You may stir in a little mustard; when it is enough lay it on the bread, just brown it with a hot shovel.
These are all little more than grilled cheese on toast, which I am certainly quite fond of as a snack. But Welsh Rarebit nowadays is customarily a spicy cheese sauce spread over toast. Usually the sauce is flavored with hot mustard and Worcestershire sauce. The best cheese is sharp cheddar. Cayenne pepper and/or paprika may also be used. I have seen old recipes involving beer and cheese only, and you can still use dark beer if you wish. But it is more common to use milk or cream. With this recipe I give you lots of options.
375 g mature cheddar cheese, coarsely grated
30 g butter
30 g flour
125 ml milk, cream, or dark beer
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp English mustard powder
1 pinch cayenne powder (optional)
4 toast slices
Melt the butter in the top of a double boiler. Add the flour and whisk to form a white roux. Slowly add the milk, cream or beer, whisking constantly until the mixture is thick. Then whisk in the Worcestershire sauce and mustard (and cayenne if you wish).
Add the grated cheese a little at a time whilst continuing to whisk until the whole mixture is thoroughly combined.
Pour the mixture over hot toast. Garnish with paprika if you wish.
Some people run the sauce on toast under the broiler to brown it before serving.