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The Roots of Monty Python

Before the Circus flew: the hidden origins of the Python wit

Main image of The Roots of Monty Python

In the beginning was the word, and the word was "It's...". Generations of fans will know that this utterance, gasped out by a ragged Michael Palin, introduced a new 30-minute sketch series on BBC2. It took a little longer than 30 minutes, but Monty Python's Flying Circus (1969-74) would become a comedy phenomenon, catapulting Palin and his five-strong cohort - Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle and Terry Jones - to international stardom, via four series, four feature films, numerous records and books, an appearance at the Hollywood Bowl and countless collective and individual projects, comic and otherwise. But what if, instead of tracing the history forward from that momentous start, we looked back, taking our historical shovel and unearthing the roots of the illustrious sextet and their unique comic achievements?

In the year or so before the Circus made its maiden BBC flight, the various Pythons were to be found on ITV, in two quite different comedy series made by Rediffusion. Idle, Palin and Jones were writing and appearing in Do Not Adjust Your Set (1967-69) with David Jason and Denise Coffey, supplemented in late episodes by some short animations from Gilliam. As a children's show, its humour was inevitably more silly than innovative, but it anticipated something of Python's anarchic flavour. Meanwhile Cleese and Chapman made up two-fifths of At Last the 1948 Show (1967-68), alongside Marty Feldman, Aimi MacDonald and Tim Brooke-Taylor. This was a more familiar grown-up sketch show, and a few ideas first aired here found their way into Python, notably the ever-popular 'four Yorkshiremen' sketch. Eric Idle made occasional appearances.

At Last the 1948 Show gave Cleese and Chapman the chance to develop a more personal comedic style than they had managed in the cast of The Frost Report (BBC, 1966-67); and to rescue some of the sketches rejected for the earlier series. Nevertheless, The Frost Report is an important branch in the Python family tree, marking the first time that Chapman, Cleese, Idle, Jones and Palin (but not Gilliam, who only arrived in the UK in 1967) all appeared in the same cast, though not necessarily in the same editions. The association with David Frost was useful to the future Pythons professionally, but it also linked them back to the early 60s satire boom, of which Frost, as presenter of That Was the Week That Was (BBC, 1962-64), was such a visible part. Direct political satire may not have been a major Python feature, but ridiculing authority figures or Britain's archaic class system - as Cleese did in a memorable Frost Report sketch - certainly was.

Between series of Do Not Adjust Your Set, Jones and Palin found time to develop their own project, derived from their shared interest in history. The Complete and Utter History of Britain (ITV, 1969) was an absurd, breakneck tour through key events from the Stone Age to Oliver Cromwell, replayed as if television cameras had been present to capture them. The anachronistic blend of history and the contemporary would be a Python favourite, most vividly in the conclusion to Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975).

Around the same time, Cleese, assisted by Chapman, Palin, Tim Brooke-Taylor and Connie Booth and encouraged by David Frost, created a one-off comedy for American television. Heavily indebted to The Frost Report in form, How to Irritate People (US tx. 21/1/1969) bound together its themed sketches with a narrative by Cleese that feels unnecessary and conventional today, but the barely suppressed anger and cruelty throughout was very Cleese - and very Python. One sketch, with Cleese conducting a job interview as a bizarre exercise in humiliation, reappeared almost unchanged in the Flying Circus's first series, while another, featuring Palin as an evasive used car salesman and Chapman as his increasingly frustrated customer, contains the germ of what became the legendary Parrot Sketch.

With the exception of Gilliam, the Pythons-to-be kept themselves busy in TV comedy throughout the late 1960s, variously writing for and/or performing in other people's projects: Doctor in the House (ITV, 1969-70); Marty and Broaden Your Mind (both BBC, 1968-69); We Have Ways of Making You Laugh (ITV, 1968, with Gilliam's animation in one edition); Hark at Barker and No, That's Me Over Here! (both ITV, 1967-70); Twice a Fortnight and A Series of Bird's (both BBC, 1967). On the way, they would frequently cross each others' paths. Just as significantly, though, they would rub shoulders with more seasoned writers and performers, among them Marty Feldman, Barry Cryer, Frank Muir and John Bird, as well as other up-and-comings such as Ronnie Barker, Ronnie Corbett, Bill Oddie, Graeme Garden and Tim Brooke-Taylor.

The last three, later to become The Goodies (BBC/ITV, 1970-82), had studied at Cambridge, where, like Cleese, Chapman and Idle, they were active in the Footlights revue (both Idle and Brooke-Taylor served as its president). Footlights, together with its parallel, the Oxford Revue (which numbers Palin and Jones among its alumni), has been the wellspring of a peculiarly British strain of student humour, simultaneously clever and very silly, that has nourished generations of comedians from Beyond the Fringe to Fry and Laurie to Mitchell and Webb. One-time Beyond the Fringe members Peter Cook and Dudley Moore's TV comedy, Not Only... But Also (1965-71), showed signs of incipient Pythonism, particularly in Cook's more lunatic flights of fancy (such as Sir Arthur Strieb-Griebling's forlorn attempts to teach ravens to fly underwater).

The assorted Pythons shared with Cook and Moore an adoration of The Goon Show, the BBC radio comedy that ran from 1951 to 1960, colouring in the process the development of just about every aspiring comic then living in Britain. With their trademark surrealism, anarchy and childishness, the four original Goons, Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe, Peter Sellers and Michael Bentine, created a new language for British comedy, making virtually all previous broadcasting seem tame and conservative by comparison.

There were various attempts to bring the Goons unhinged comedy to television, beginning with Milligan and Sellers' The Idiot Weekly Price 2d (ITV, 1956), followed in quick succession by A Show Called Fred and Son of Fred (ITV, 1957). Arguably the most successful was Bentine's It's a Square World (1960-64), which predated Python in several of its innovations, including using a deskbound newsreader (Bentine himself) to link sketches. But the acknowledged head Goon was Milligan, whose own Q series (1969-82) debuted on BBC2 just six months before Monty Python. Q5 and its sequels presented the most anarchic comedy yet seen on TV, with sketches unfolding according to an entirely unfathomable logic, abandoned without a punchline or disintegrating into chaos, just as many of the Pythons' would.

This much is well documented. Less so are the veins of darkness and absurdity which the Pythons drew upon, however indirectly, from earlier generations. We can see traces of proto-Python in the darker Ealing comedies, notably Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) and The Ladykillers (1955), with their grisly class warfare and joyful multiple murder, or in Launder and Gilliat's The Green Man (1956), in which Alistair Sim engagingly plans a campaign of selective assassination. All of these draw upon the kind of relish for the comedy of murder long associated with Alfred Hitchcock.

In the mid- to late-1920s, Adrian Brunel made a number of short 'burlesques' spoofing contemporary film forms, including the silhouette animation of Lotte Reiniger. His Crossing the Great Sagrada (1924) satirised the travelogue genre, with much of its humour resting on the incongruous matching of exotic images with mundane intertitles - "We left the Blackfriars Bridge behind us on Friday" followed by shots of Africans crossing a rope bridge; "We reached the outskirts of London on Friday" accompanied by images of Venice shot from a traveling gondola - Similarly oddball juxtapositions regularly surface in Pythonalia - though perhaps the film more directly anticipates Palin and Jones' Ripping Yarns (BBC, 1977-79).

Brunel was a founder of the film society movement, and during the 1920s societies sprang up across the country, including at Oxford and Cambridge universities. Presumably between studying Sergei Eisenstein and other Soviet auteurs, a group of Oxford students led by Terence Greenidge, whose friends included Elsa Lanchester and Evelyn Waugh, made a series of amateur films, including The Scarlet Woman (1924) pastiching historical melodrama and adventure stories in a way that freely blended the intellectual and the infantile. Meanwhile, the same year, the Cambridge University Kinema Club produced the elaborately daft fairytale The Witch's Fiddle. However obscure, such efforts demonstrate that the towers of academia were producing highbrow silliness long before either Python or Beyond the Fringe.

Certain Python sketches betray a debt to silent comedy, presumably, in the main, the likes of Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton, although Gilliam has spoken of his admiration for French trickster Georges Méliès. Probably unknown to all was British star Fred Evans, who appeared in some 200 films between 1912 and 1922 as Pimple, a naive, slightly roguish hero in clown make-up. The Pimple films typically spoofed stage or screen hits of their time. Pimple's Battle of Waterloo (1913) buffoonishly re-enacts Napoleon's last stand - he arrives at Waterloo by train, naturally, where a pantomime horse waits for him - climaxing with the defeated dictator defeated by an army of boy scouts: think Python's 'The Batley Townswomens' Guild present the Battle of Pearl Harbour'. Also popular around this time - and long before - was another Python favourite, cross-dressing, as in Love in the Varsity (1913).

We could go back earlier still, taking in early experiments in filmed surrealism such as The '?' Motorist (1906), in which the titular driver, having run over a policeman, takes to the skies, orbits the moon, then rides a comet to saturn before plummeting back to Earth (the animated escape is eerily, if crudely, similar to a more sophisticated sequence masterminded by Gilliam for Monty Python's Life of Brian, 1979); or James Williamson's early 'trick' film, The Big Swallow (1901), in which a cameraman's close-up gets closer and closer, until he is consumed by his subject's cavernous mouth. The Pythons may never have seen such films, and it would certainly be going too far to suggest they were influences. But they all occupied the same rich gene pool of British wit that would one day produce Chapman, Cleese, Idle, Jones, Palin - even Gilliam. Without them, the circus might never have flown so far or so high.

Mark Duguid

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of '?' Motorist, The (1906)

'?' Motorist, The (1906)

Comedy about a motorist going to extreme lengths to evade the law

Thumbnail image of Big Swallow, The (1901)

Big Swallow, The (1901)

Early trick film in which a man appears to swallow the camera

Thumbnail image of Crossing the Great Sagrada (1924)

Crossing the Great Sagrada (1924)

Hilarious, surreal, spoof travelogue - humour decades ahead of its time

Thumbnail image of Love and the Varsity (1913)

Love and the Varsity (1913)

Two male students pose as female pupils to infiltrate a girls' school.

Thumbnail image of Pimple's Battle of Waterloo (1913)

Pimple's Battle of Waterloo (1913)

Daft spoof of Napoleon's ill-fated campaign

Thumbnail image of Pimple's Charge of the Light Brigade (1914)

Pimple's Charge of the Light Brigade (1914)

Pimple recreates England's notorious military defeat

Thumbnail image of Running, Jumping and Standing Still Film, The (1960)

Running, Jumping and Standing Still Film, The (1960)

Surreal, dreamlike comedy from Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan

Thumbnail image of At Last The 1948 Show (1967-68)

At Last The 1948 Show (1967-68)

Sketch comedy series now seen as a dry run for Monty Python

Thumbnail image of Complete and Utter History of Britain, The (1969)

Complete and Utter History of Britain, The (1969)

Eccentric history from a (just) pre-Python Jones and Palin

Thumbnail image of Do Not Adjust Your Set (1967-69)

Do Not Adjust Your Set (1967-69)

Madcap children's sketch show starring several future Pythons

Thumbnail image of Frost Report, The (1966-67)

Frost Report, The (1966-67)

Topical comedy show, a successor to the more famous TW3

Thumbnail image of It's Marty (1968-69)

It's Marty (1968-69)

Marty Feldman's unjustly forgotten pre-Python sketch series

Thumbnail image of It's a Square World (1960-64)

It's a Square World (1960-64)

Madcap sketch comedy from ex-Goon Michael Bentine

Thumbnail image of Monty Python's Flying Circus (1969-74)

Monty Python's Flying Circus (1969-74)

Legendary sketch show that revolutionised TV comedy

Thumbnail image of Not Only... But Also... (1965-71)

Not Only... But Also... (1965-71)

Definitive 1960s sketch comedy with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore

Thumbnail image of Q5, Q6 etc. / There's a Lot of It About (1969-82)

Q5, Q6 etc. / There's a Lot of It About (1969-82)

Surreal, unhinged sketch comedy from ex-Goon Spike Milligan

Thumbnail image of Show Called Fred, A / Son of Fred (1956)

Show Called Fred, A / Son of Fred (1956)

Groundbreaking post-Goons outing for Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan

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