For a show of its era, Monty Python’s Flying Circus is extraordinarily lucky to still exist in its entirety. A great many TV shows were lost either partly or wholly as a result of the BBC’s archival policies of the 1960s and ‘70s, where huge swathes of material were wiped either due to rights issues, lack of repeat potential, or a need to save money and space by reusing tapes to record new programmes. But it could have all been something completely different.
Terry Jones has said that when the Pythons were working on their third BBC series, as well as the German-language Monty Python’s Fliegender Zirkus specials in 1971, they had received a heads-up from a BBC employee that the Corporation was planning to re-use the tapes containing the first series. In an effort to preserve their work, they reportedly sneaked out the master copies to make backups, in case the unthinkable happened.
Thankfully, the worst-case scenario never came about, and this meant that copies could be made for sale to the United States for showing on their PBS network. This has actually proved to be something of a blessing, as these overseas tapes have actually proved to be a very useful resource to Network Distributing when putting together this Blu-ray collection of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, as while all 45 episodes do still exist in the archives, they aren’t actually complete or intact.
The master copies of Flying Circus have actually seen edits made to them for various reasons, such as on grounds of censorship by the BBC themselves (with references made to masturbation and cancer, for example, ending up being overdubbed or just excised altogether); or because they’d rather cheekily sneaked in David Frost’s actual phone number, which led to people calling him up and bothering him, leading to the BBC taking this out for subsequent screenings. Copyright issues with some of the music used resulted in their being substituted with other tracks for repeat broadcasts.
However, the PBS copies appear to have largely been made from the unedited original masters before any changes were made; this meant that, in some cases, the PBS tapes actually contained sketches which were never actually broadcast in the UK, and which were preserved by fans in the US making domestic recordings of the PBS screenings. In other cases, black & white telerecordings were made for sale to overseas territories without the ability to transmit from videotapes; this involved the high-tech process of pointing a film camera at a monitor while the programme was being played back.
With Network Distributing having decided to set about restoring Monty Python’s Flying Circus to the way it was meant to be seen, they’ve set themselves a rather daunting task, as it meant trying to put together complete shows from a patchwork quilt of a multitude of different sources – original master tapes; off-air recordings; overseas copies; and a mixture of 16 & 35mm original location film, along with surviving studio recording tapes, containing extended and deleted footage, as well as outtakes.
You know that you’re in safe hands with his release, as it’s been worked on by members of what’s become known as the Doctor Who Restoration Team – a group of devoted TV industry professionals who happened to also be dedicated Who fans, and were driven by their love of the show to find ways of making it look as good as possible for a modern audience, given that episodes from the first eleven years of the programme existed as a similar mix of different sources, all of which were of varying quality in terms of both picture and sound.
So driven are they to give the best possible presentations of archive TV, they’ve actually pushed the envelope in terms of technology, and come up with a number of new techniques which are now being used more widely in the preservation and restoration of other shows. For example, they improved the method used to convert copies of British shows existing only in the American 525-line NTSC format (after being sold to the US) back to the original 625-line PAL standard, and restore some of the definition which was lost in the original transfer process, making the picture as sharp as possible.
In fact, these boffins have even gone as far as not only devising a way to restore the glossy look of videotape to film telerecordings, but also recovering the original colour signal from these black & white film copies, which had been encoded in the prints due to a quirk in the original telerecording process. Being able to retrieve colour from black & white is nothing short of modern-day alchemy, and besides this boxed set and Doctor Who, it’s also been used on Dad’s Army and the pilot of Are You Being Served?, as well as the two rediscovered episodes of The Morecambe & Wise Show which were shown over Christmas 2018.
You can’t fault the effort or dedication that’s gone into putting together this set, as they’ve managed to make programmes which are up to five decades old look brand new. Where original film negatives exist, they’ve been polished up and had any text captions recreated and overlaid to match the original broadcast; by dropping in so much restored material from differing sources, it feels like they’ve rebuilt the series from the ground up, which is no mean feat in making it still look authentic, while also upgrading it for an increasingly 4K or HD world.
One thing that you might not notice when you’re playing the episodes is that each one actually starts from chapter 2 – if you skip back, you’ll find they’ve actually hidden away on chapter 1 the original studio VT clock leading into each episode. It’s the sort of detail which would likely be lost on Joe Public, which is why they’ve tucked it away, but for anyone who appreciates archive TV, it’s these little gestures which make all the difference, and illustrate perfectly the sort of care and attention which has been lavished on this set.
Another lovely bonus is that each of the four seasons has an accompanying book, penned by television archivist and historian Andrew Pixley, who’s done notes and booklets for a number of Network’s other DVD and Blu-ray releases, as well as a number of TV series-related books published by Network. It’s got the sort of exhaustive detail which you’d expect if you’re familiar with Pixley’s work, and takes you all the way from the formation of the Pythons, through the production of every season, and right up to BBC2’s Python Night in 1999 (which, sadly, isn’t included amongst all the set’s special features).
The value added material is, however, quite remarkable, with all sorts of rare footage showing deleted and extended sketches, along with promotional films made by the Pythons for Birds Eye Peas, Harmony Hairspray and Close-Up Toothpaste. However, the big question is about how effective all this remastering work has been, and the answer is that it’s nothing short of remarkable: as Terry Gilliam himself remarks in one of the featurettes, it’s like the restoration of the Sistine Chapel. The colours are so bright and vibrant, the grading so consistent, and the animations by Gilliam look as if they were made today, with so much previously-obscured detail now visible.
If you can’t appreciate the impact that all this work has made in restoring Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and making it look not just pristine but even better than its original broadcast, then you’re probably the sort of person who can’t tell the difference between Whizzo Butter and a dead crab.
Monty Python’s Flying Circus: Norwegian Blu-ray Edition is out now from Network Distributing.