The BBC certainly knows how to mistreat its family silver. Making a huge mistake by selling off Television Centre, for one. Wiping great chunks of its archive back in the 1960s and 1970s, for another. It seems like Auntie Beeb consistently manages to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
Having launched Monty Python’s Flying Circus on 5th October 1969, the troupe and the Corporation have had something of a challenging relationship ever since. For example, if it hadn’t been for the six Python members stepping in, the original tapes of the series would have long since been wiped. Having survived the Beeb’s archival policies, the shows themselves have only been sporadically shown over the years, with the complete run having more recently turned up on Netflix, along with some documentaries and material of a relatively rare nature (such as their two German language episodes), and a Blu-ray boxed set is due out in early November, which is due to be chock-full of unseen material, as well as digitally remastered to look better than even when it was first transmitted.
Occasionally, both sides have managed to get all their ducks in a row, and brought us some really special programming, like 1999’s Python Night on BBC2, celebrating what was then 30 years since the start of the show. Back then, all of the surviving Pythons reunited to give us an evening of specially-written new sketches, celebrity tributes, long-lost clips, and some brand new documentaries. Instead of looking its gift horse in the mouth, the BBC seemed to actually get it right for a change, and give us a worthy tribute to the comedy phenomenon they’d launched on what was a still relatively fledgling channel at the time.
Of course, it would be impossible to pull off something like that nowadays, due in no small measure to Terry Jones’ onset of a form of dementia which sadly robbed him of the power of speech. Python’s true swansong as a performing group came in the form of 2014’s live shows at the O2, so we couldn’t have expected further brand new comedy material from them for the commemoration of five decades, but you might’ve expected the BBC to try and put together something really special for such a big occasion, particularly given just how much attemtion was lavished on the 50th anniversary of the Moon landing only two months ago.
However, what we actually got could only be charitably described as ‘begrudging’ or ‘half-arsed’ – a repeat of an edited version of a documentary from ten years ago; and a compilation of rarely-seen interviews, along with behind-the-scenes material from the BBC’s archives. Plus the first ever Flying Circus, too. And that’s it. Even if you’re not comparing it to 1999’s 30th anniversary celebrations, it all feels very much thrown together, as well as rather lacklustre. You’d think the Beeb’s enfants terribles would deserve something a little bit more substantial, but the Corporation does tend to have a love-hate relationship with its success stories.
The opening programme – Monty Python: Almost The Truth (The BBC Lawyer’s Cut) – is a heavily truncated version of the six-part documentary from 2009, with this edit being shown for the 40th anniversary celebrations. Even though the full version is available not just on DVD but Netflix as well, you might have hoped that the BBC would put the full version out there, over several nights (or perhaps one instalment per week, building up to the anniversary date next month). But, no: the best that we could get – seeing as how an entirely new documentary wasn’t ever a consideration, it seems – is yet another screening of one-sixth of something more substantial.
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The other programme – Python At 50: Silly Talks And Holy Grails – brought us an hour’s worth of archival footage from the making of the Flying Circus, as well as their movies, along with appearances on chat shows or other series. It’s nice to see these clips, particularly the ones that feature Graham Chapman, who’s become very much the forgotten man of Python (having inconsiderately died just before the 20th anniversary). Seeing him being candid yet still witty while speaking to Michael Parkinson, it makes you wish we could have more of Chapman, so perhaps it would’ve been nice to have something like a retrospective focusing on him.
Considering that Silly Talks And Holy Grails sets itself up as a chronological look back at the life of Python, it opens with around 5 minutes’ worth of a 1979 documentary about the making of Life Of Brian. As nice as it is to see this, it does make you wonder (a) why it’s shown out of sequence, and (b) why tbey wouldn’t just show the whole programme as part of the 50th anniversary festivities. However, there’s still plenty to enjoy here, including a clip of Chapman appearing alongside Graeme Garden and Tim Brooke-Taylor, as well as Cilla Black (of all people), in a Python-esque sketch from Black’s 1960s show Cilla.
Rounding out proceedings was the first Monty Python’s Flying Circus – ‘Whither Canada?’ – which is clearly the obvious choice to mark the show’s anniversary. Except for the fact that as it doesn’t fall until 5th October, what the BBC’s done here is actually commemorate the 50th anniversary of the recording of the first ever episode, on 7th September 1969. It’s yet another example of just how curious this whole Python evening has been, as there doesn’t seem to be any reason why they’ve arbitrarily picked this date, rather than the actual anniversary itself in just under a month’s time.
In fact, so mismatched and disjointed the whole night has turned out, they might as well have introduced it all by saying: And now for something completely dissonant.