Though the members of Monty Python freely admit that it was Spike Milligan’s Q series that inspired them, their own influence for the surreal continues to this day. With four series running from 1969 – 74 during which John Cleese had left after the third series believing they were starting to repeat themselves they all went their separate ways with degrees of varying success. With Graham Chapman long gone and Terry Jones having passed away in 2020, Terry Gilliam unlikely to direct again , Eric Idle focussing on musicals and John Cleese raging about cancel culture its unlikely we’ll see them perform together after their O2 sell out tour in 2014. So we ‘re taking a look at their films starting with the worst…..
5. And Now for Something Completely Different (1971)
Essentially this was a collection of their best sketches from the TV series shot on film and released in the cinema. With a title, a sort of catchphrase that ran throughout the episodes, this was directed by Ian McNaughton who had directed the TV series also so had an innate understanding of the team and what sketches worked best. Shot on a miniscule budget of only $100,000 provided by Victor Lownes’ Playboy productions …yes, that Playboy …..with a view to them breaking into the USA. Lownes tried to exert a high degree of control over the film which the team railed against. Shot in a disused dairy the film was released but made little impact and ultimately flopped only becoming popular on the midnight movie circuit. The film included classic sketches Nudge, Nudge & The Lumberjack Song but Lownes had characters like Ken Shabby cut from the film and bizarrely the film does not include the Ministry of Silly Walks!
4. Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983)
Having had huge financial success with Life of Brian the team were encouraged to quickly make another film. Enthused, the team went through their film writing process of a working holiday in the West Indies where they wrote an enormous number of sketches but it was all going nowhere. Cleese grew increasingly despondent and wanted the team to jack it in and fly back to the UK. Eric Idle had originally pitched the idea of Monty Python’s World War III but it was Terry Jones, who would direct the film, that came up with the idea of hanging the sketches on a narrative thread based on the seven stages of life starting with birth and ending with death. Jones proceeded to knock the script into some sort of shape with a 70 minute running time that was still too short but telling the others that they only needed another 20 minutes worth of material and they had a film. In the end the film was was 107 minutes long but was a generally highly unsatisfactory ragbag of sketches similar in style to their debut film, ‘And Now for Something Completely Different’ except here they had a bigger budget and pushed the envelope with some particularly gruesome sketches notably an organ donor sketch that had blood spurting all over the screen. Perhaps what the film is best remembered for is the infamous Mr Creosote played by Terry Jones as a gargantuan and morbidly obese diner at a restaurant served by an obsequious waiter played by Cleese. Stuffing his face and throwing up everywhere Mr Creosote eventually explodes showering all the other patrons in vomit, or gallons of vegetable soup as it actually was. It was little surprise that the film was their only 18 certificate release. An uncomfortable scene for both cast and crew and as the days went by the smell of vegetable soup permeated the disused swimming pool where the set had been built to shoot the scene. The film had its supporters but it was felt to be something of a disappointment yet it still didn’t stop the film from winning the Grand Prize of the Jury at 1983’s Cannes Film Festival and was even nominated for the Palme D’or alongside Scorsese’s The King of Comedy but losing to The Ballad of Narayama (no, us neither). The decidedly mixed reaction to the film delayed the team from making further Python films and the death of Graham Chapman in 1989 at only 48 years of age put an end to fans hoping for any sixth Python film.
3. Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl (1982)
The TV series had taken off in spectacular style in the US and the six comedians pretty much became comedy gods there. The team had been working on the script for The Meaning of Life but the concert was a way of giving them a break from what was becoming something of a creative impasse for them all. There was immense demand for tickets and the open air concert at the famous LA venue saw most of the audience freely smoking cannabis and when characters from the show went out into the audience they found themselves having difficulty trying to perform in a hazy fug of weed and Jones especially found it particularly disorientating. It was the teams second sketch film but included an enormous amount of new material and especially good was The Custard Pie lecture (a sketch that Palin and Jones had written years previously) and the brilliant Pope & Michaelangelo’s Last Supper sketch. Filmed over the course of five nights in late 1980 by HBO the film was released in June 1982 in the US though didn’t reach UK shores until May 1983 to capitalize on the imminent release of The Meaning of Life that would follow two months later. Of all their sketch based films this was undoubtedly the best
2. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
The TV series had come to an end and the team, unimpressed with their experience on, ‘And Now for Something Completely Different’ wanted to make a film with a unifying theme and story and it was Terry Jones, who had a huge interest in medieval history, that pitched the Middle Ages and the story of King Arthur. Once again it was shot on a small budget with some of the funding provided by rock bands of the day who were fans of the TV series watching it on their tour buses. The lack of budget was a source of one its best jokes using a pair of coconut shells being banged together as the production couldn’t afford horses. The film, though still essentially a series of linked sketches, had several high points – the killer rabbit and the Holy hand grenade, the Knights who say ‘Ni’, and of course the legendary Black Knight (‘It’s just a flesh wound!’) that found itself being endlessly quoted for years to come. It’s one of the teams most popular films but it wasn’t quite the same for the six Pythons. Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam were co-directors with Gilliam focussing on the ‘look’ of the film and paying so much attention to detail that it irritated Cleese immensely. Filming conditions were uncomfortable with the chain mail actually woollen but consequently absorbing the rainy weather that they often found themselves in when filming. Reviews from critics were mixed but its shelf life was extended when Eric idle adapted the film for the stage as, ‘Spamalot’.
- Life of Brian (1979)
This was the film that would find the team mired in controversy for years with the film being banned in some countries whilst in the UK several town councils would refuse the film a certificate. It was hardly surprising. A film centred round a character mistaken for Christ was always going to be contentious and Eric Idle’s original suggested title for the film , ‘Jesus Christ – Lust of Glory’ gave some indication of the tone. With the script written it was circulated for financing and many were interested and it was EMI who put up the money but without having really read the script. When someone did the company immediately pulled out just days before the cast and crew were due to fly off to Tunisia and start filming. It was again rock stars who came to the rescue and Idle, who was close friends with George Harrison, told him about their woes. Harrison, having read the script, put up the money so keen was he to see the film. Shot in 1978 the film was released the following year to outrage and accusations of blasphemy or at least a perception of blasphemy. In New York the film was picketed by both rabbis and the Catholic church. In Italy the film was banned until 1990, in Ireland it was banned for eight years and in Norway for a year – leading the Pythons to claim on the films publicity, ‘So funny it was banned in Norway!’ And in retrospect it was all a bit reactionary. The Pythons, many of whom had had a religious upbringing, had found in their initial research that the teachings of Christ were intelligent, worthy and wholly decent not deserving of being mocked in any way. Instead it was the conventions of religious practice that they aimed at. In fact at several points in the film it’s made clear that Brian was not Christ. But many critics of the film had not seen it and were jumping on a bandwagon and it came to a head with an infamous late night TV debate between the Bishop of Southwark & Malcolm Muggeridge versus Cleese & Michael Palin who were keen to defend their film. Palin’s genial persona of the perfectly polite genteel gentleman was sorely tested and it’s probably the only time he’s ever been seen as barely able to contain his fury at the accusations being thrown at them. Cleese on the other had found it peculiarly amusing and soon realised that the bishop and Muggeridge were playing to the studio audience telling the pair that their film was ‘tenth rate’ before the Bishop ended it with, ‘Well you’ll get your thirty pieces of silver, I’m quite sure’. To be fair the final scene of Brian being crucified whilst all around him are singing, ‘Always look on the bright side of life’ was always going to be contentious and to this day the film still provokes debate and perhaps rightly so. Nonetheless the film was by far the pinnacle of Python with the film is often cited as the best comedy film ever made.