When Eric Idle playfully uttered this line to kick off the classic Four Yorkshiremen sketch in front of their largest ever crowd in the 02 arena last Sunday evening (and simultaneously on screens large and small around the world), he held the question on everyone’s mind. The return to the stage of these 5 über-talented men under the banner of the Flying Circus for the first time since 1982’s Live at the Hollywood Bowl is as momentous as a gathering of homegrown talent gets. Looking back on their concert film from 32 years ago, you see a group of 5 British (and 1 American) comedians whose fame had transcended mere popularity to a level where they were received like rock stars in the world’s entertainment capital. Following this they took one more shot at celluloid glory a year later, were disappointed with the outcome, the bubble burst and they parted ways. There was ongoing talk of future Python projects through the 80’s but before the decade was out one of their brightest stars Graham Chapman passed away suddenly and to all intents and purposes the Flying Circus closed its mighty tent flaps, seemingly for good.
The collaborations didn’t end there. Palin and Jones engaged in some Ripping Yarns, Cleese and Palin handled a Fish Called Wanda and some Fierce Creatures and all but Gilliam got Wind in their Willows. Then 10 years after Chapman ceased to be all 5 surviving Pythons re-united for a 30th anniversary night on BBC2 where they duly donned the baggy stockings and high-pitched voices of their formative years. But another live show never materialised due to their immeasurable collection of personal projects taking hold – so it seems fitting that now the careers of all but Gilliam have slowed down, there were sufficient gaps in their schedules to re-unite. There are of course two other significant reasons that brought this event about; 1. MONEY. And lots of it. Cleese said at the London premiere of Spamalot in 2006 that the Pythons were always terribly protective of their prized brand, particular about not watering down its essence and selling out, until they realised how spectacularly wealthy it would make them. And he would know. His 3rd divorce is costing him $22 million – a figure that would have Basil Fawlty go up like Mr Creosote. 2. AGE. And lots of it. When the youngest guy in your group is 71 (Palin) and oldest 74 (Cleese) you really need to get the show on the road sooner rather than later – if a 71 year old Han Solo can damage his foot aboard the Millennium Falcon it’s time to learn your limits.
The Pythons are smart guys and they knew all the perils that a show of this ambition and exposure would present. It was going to be a field day for the cynical critics to quip on about flogging a dead parrot, complain that this once edgy group have faded like the bygone era they once shook up and of course the suspicion that it was all about the cash. Well – in all of this they wore their collective hearts on their sleeves. In all the pre publicity they joked about not getting on with each other, needing the dough and being too old for silly walks. So following all the ‘will it work/won’t it work’ internet debating the big question is – how was the show?
It was superb. Did the team all give outstanding performances throughout, re-kindling their former magic as if not a day had passed? Of course not. Is that relevant? Not in the least. For this was always going to be a show that transcended the showmanship – you could almost have just watched these guys walk on stage and wave and you would already have seen the reunion of the decade. But I’m glad they stuck around for the rest of the evening. Monty Python has always been a quintessentially British breed of eccentric humour – finding ridiculous situations in the mundane and milking every conceivable gag from them. What the Pythons brought to this in their 70’s was the sheer gameness to drag up, prat about, act seedy, ignorant, exasperated and indignant on cue. Essentially a 2 hour sketch show with song and dance numbers thrown in by an Idle-directed and Arlene Philips-choreographed sexy young chorus line, the whole enterprise was as crass, brash and OTT as its cast deserved. This was a celebration of the absurd and with this in mind it succeeded on all levels.
Apparently the selection of sketches came from the team picking their faves from the TV series. Like a carefully selected playlist by the likes of The Rolling Stones, this meant in amongst all the favourites such as Nudge, Nudge and the never faltering Spanish Inquisition were more obscure personal favourites due a dusting off like Lion Tamer. Tonally the show never missed a beat. The team’s epic back catalogue of sketches, films and musical numbers meant it whizzed by at a dizzying pace – with screens playing brilliant old clips during set changes but never to the point where they felt gratuitous. These moments also brought occasion to include Chapman in the action, largely as the general advising them to move on after being ‘too silly’. Every time their fallen comrade appeared he was met with enormous cheers, and there was a lovely moment where Cleese and Palin placed their thumbs up to the heavens where ‘Brian’ was surely looking down with his willy out in approval. Meanwhile guest stars Eddie Izzard, Mike Myers and (yes) Stephen Hawking were happy just to be part of the action.
The man of the moment was Idle – the consummate showman with the drive to orchestrate the proceedings using a big red theatrical curtain for the set, issuing in a sassy support cast and using his writing partner from Spamalot John Du Prez to conduct the live orchestra. His additional verse of The Penis Song with a line of chorus girls singing about having a vagina brought the dome down. Cleese delivered the level of cynical ‘I’m a bit above all this’ attitude to his sketches that you would expect and it made his character work so well as a foil to all the enthusiasm on display. Palin gave it all the twinkly-eyed persona that has him firmly pegged as a national treasure. Jones got his voice up a couple of octaves once again to deliver the immortal Spam soliloquy, and Gilliam threw his all into his regular line up of bit parts, even honoured with playing a spectacular Mr Gumby. This auteur of the cinema just doesn’t give a shit about his image and I love him for it. We even got the lovely Carol Cleveland, to many the 7th Python, with her still fabulous pins on display – though they were nearly outdone by Idle and Palin’s as the cross-dressing judges.
Monty Python may now be pushing up the daises but this fictional circus master has left us with a 45 year legacy of unforgettable laughs, affording his troupe a well-earned and needed rest that the audience were only too happy to oblige when met with the sign ‘Piss Off’ when the houselights came up. Joyous work guys.
Words> Roy Swansborough