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Python @ 50 – Monty Python At 50: The Self-Abasement Tapes – Review

And now for something completely – and thankfully – different, given how much of a disappointment Monty Python Night on  BBC2 was.

It looks as though the best shot we have of getting a worthwhile celebration from the BBC of 50 years of Monty Python’s Flying Circus rests firmly with Radio 4, thanks to their current 5-part series, Monty Python At 50: The Self-Abasement Tapes. Along with bringing us some genuinely rare and previously unheard Python material, one important factor which sets it apart from Monty Python Night is the involvement of an actual member of the troupe, in the form of Michael Palin.

The fictional premise of the series sees Palin making his way around the UK to seek out motherlodes of lost and hidden Python sketches, songs and ephemera of all kinds, in places ranging from a sewer conduit under the Edgware Road, to the recycling dump in Dunstable. With Palin having forged a post-Python career as an intrepid explorer and travelogue host, it’s therefore the perfect conceit to have him supposedly journeying across the nation in search of these nuggets of comedy gold, just waiting to be unearthed after years or – in some cases – decades.

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The series is currently airing on Radio 4 every Wednesday night, in bite-sized 15 minute-long easily digestible morsels. Or, if you should fancy gorging yourself on it in best Mr. Creosote style, all instalments are currently available for streaming via BBC Sounds. It’s tempting to try to ration this out, as once this treasure trove’s been raided, there’s no telling whether there’ll ever be any more ‘new’ Python to be seen or heard. However, you’d be forgiven for blasting through it all in the hour-and-a-quarter it takes to binge on this, like you might do with any modern boxed set.

Even if the rest of it had all been total and utter ordure, the whole exercise will have been worth it just to hear the first sketch presented, the ‘Fat Ignorant Bastards’ skit. Python did have a satirical undercurrent – no doubt due in part to Cleese, Chapman, Idle, Palin and Jones all having worked on The Frost Report, David Frost’s show that lampooned and lambasted most authority figures during its run on TV. ‘Fat Ignorant Bastards’ is a wonderful piece of prescient writing, which manages to foresee Brexit and the current state of the political scene on both sides of the Atlantic.

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The ‘Fat Ignorant Bastards’ firmly believe intelligence has got out of hand, and that enlightenment threatens all of us. Which, in no way, shape or form at all resembles anything happening right now. Ahem. It also sees new factions breaking out, like the ‘Mealy-Mouthed Tight-Arsed Little Bigots’, which again doesn’t bring at all to mind any political movements or parties. Double ahem. It’s incredible how Python has managed to perfectly skewer what we have going on now in a piece dating back to the 1970s, and shows just how ahead of their time they were in some respects.

Each part has its own area of focus, with Episode 1 giving us Python in its heyday, with sketches and songs galore, including a Country & Western version of the ‘I’m So Worried’ song. Episode 2 moves onto Holy Grail, bringing us a previously lost verse from the end of ‘Brave Sir Robin’. We also get some snippets from LP The Album Of The Soundtrack Of The Trailer Of The Film Of Monty Python And The Holy Grail, as well as Palin and Jones returning to original filming location Doune Castle for a stroll down memory lane, gift shop and all.

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Life Of Brian occupies Episode 3, giving us a deleted scene featuring Otto of the Judean People’s Front, with his suicide squad of crack troops. The content of the scene would have been controversial at the time of release, and feels even more so now, in a more enlightened and politically correct age – talk of ridding Israel of any foreigners in order to keep it pure is very highly-charged stuff, and it feels like we still have some taboos when it comes to comedy material, so you can see why this piece was excised ahead of release. Less contentious are the original radio ads for the film’s release, using family members of the Pythons – John Cleese’s mother has to beg people to see the movie, or else she will be turfed out of her retirement home, for example.

The penultimate part turns its attention to The Meaning Of Life, bringing us a song dropped from the finished product, which seems to have been intended as the main title theme; while catchy, it comes as a big relief they used the tune sung by Eric Idle instead. Still, rather a nice curate’s egg to have, all the same. There’s also material that’s adapted from Monty Python’s Big Red Book, including a quiz for goats, and sex-obsessed agony aunt Madame Palm. Rounding things off is an alternative take on ‘Christmas In Heaven’, which sounds more like a Michael Bublé track than the more familiar calypso-styled version used at the climax of the film.

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Finally, Episode 5 brings us more up to date, opening with Stephen Hawking’s version of ‘Galaxy Song’, duetting with Eric Idle. Of particular interest, however, are the lengthy extracts from a recording of the Python team’s first readthrough of the script for their 2014 O2 show Monty Python Live (Mostly), which includes the moment when they first coined the One Down, Five To Go subtitle. It’s somewhat dispiriting to hear just how low energy John Cleese sounds during the Argument Clinic sketch, particularly when Palin et al seem to be giving it their all. However, at least all of them seem to be having a great time during their swansong, which is well deserved.

In fact, you couldn’t find a better way of rounding off not only this series, but also the Python team’s career, with a rousing rendition of ‘Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life’ from the last night of the O2. As the lyrics say: Give the audience a grin, enjoy it, it’s your last chance anyhow. And they’ve certainly faced the curtain with a bow here, giving us a much more fitting appreciation of five decades of comedy. Now, stop that: it’s getting silly. Very silly indeed. And gloriously so.

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