Film Discussion

And Now For Something Completely Different – Throwback 50

What do a soft porn empire, a disused dairy in North London, and a Blue Peter presenter’s catchphrase all happen to have in common? That would be the first foray into filmmaking by now-legendary British comedy troupe Monty Python.

Having spent the better part of the Sixties plying their trade and learning their craft, the sextet of John Cleese, Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Graham Chapman, Terry Gilliam and Eric Idle – who were brought together via shows like At Last The 1948 Show and Do Not Adjust Your Set – served up Monty Python’s Flying Circus in October 1969. When it premiered on BBC1, the series certainly received something of a mixed critical reception to begin with.

One person who became an early fan, however, was Victor Lownes III, the American head of Playboy Europe as well as the UK Playboy Clubs, who happened to be living in London when Monty Python’s Flying Circus was first aired. In fact, he was so taken with what he saw, Lownes viewed this as a golden opportunity to use the newly-established Playboy Productions unit as a way of launching the Pythons on the other side of the Atlantic.

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Although Monty Python’s Flying Circus was an unknown quantity in the United States, Lownes felt that the college campus film circuit – which totalled a couple of thousand cinemas, and showed a mix of both old and new pictures – would be a ready-made means of giving the Pythons some exposure across America, and hopefully start to build up a following, even though the series was not being aired over there at that point in time.

Following Lownes’ initial approach, Eric Idle’s agent Roger Hancock – brother of late comedian Tony, as well as being representative of the creator of the Daleks, Terry Nation – advised the group to consider forming a limited company, and in early 1970, Python Productions was created. It was Lownes’ original intent to persuade Playboy founder Hugh Hefner to put up the sum of £100,000 to fund production of the Monty Python film project.

As this was apparently unsuccessful, Lownes then said that he would fund the movie single-handedly, with the budget then being set at a comparatively low £80,000. However, in the end, only 50% of the cash ended up coming from Lownes himself, with the remainder hailing from a separate backer, following some counsel which Lownes had received from an unlikely source: Roman Polanski.

Lownes and Polanski were old friends, and the pair had been out partying together on the evening Polanski’s wife, actress Sharon Tate, had been murdered by members of the Manson Family in 1969. Polanski also managed to persuade Lownes to get $1.5 million in finance from Hefner, through Playboy Productions, so he could make his 1972 version of Macbeth, after he had already been turned down by every major studio in Hollywood.

It was after Lownes showed Monty Python’s Flying Circus to Polanski that he began to get second thoughts about the size of his financial stake in the venture, as Polanski told him that it was not very funny. Despite having such a meagre budget, the Pythons were taken with Lownes’ proposal, and in mid-January 1970 work began on putting together the script; it proved to be something of a bone of contention between the group and Lownes.

Terry Jones in particular had been keen to pen new material; however, Lownes was adamant that he had only put the deal together on the basis that they re-used sketches which had been featured in the series, as he felt that this would be stuff he knew would be funny, with it having caught his attention originally. In the end, the Pythons managed to incorporate a number of pieces which would end up in the second series of Flying Circus, such as ‘Blackmail’, ‘How Not To Be Seen’, and the ‘Dirty Hungarian Phrasebook’.

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Having already been committed to doing that second run of the show, as soon as recording had been finished on that, the group went straight into filming on the movie, which Lownes had insisted be called And Now For Something Completely Different, the phrase used by Cleese’s announcer character. The actual origin of the expression was Blue Peter presenter Christopher Trace, as a way of segueing between items on the children’s magazine programme (a future presenter, Lesley Judd, actually has a minor role in the movie, appearing in the ‘Hell’s Grannies’ sketch).

The choice of having And Now For Something Completely Different as the title was felt to be rather uninspired by the troupe, but they grudgingly approved, as the idea was that this was intended solely for the US market, and Lownes had secured a deal with Columbia Pictures. However, it ended up getting its first release in the UK, which then made the film’s name seem particularly ironic, as all of the sketches featured would have been seen in Monty Python’s Flying Circus by a domestic audience.

Having worked with him on the TV series, the Monty Python team wanted director Ian MacNaughton to helm the feature film, and he managed to obtain permission from the BBC to take eight weeks’ unpaid leave. During production, however, there were creative tensions between MacNaughton and the two Terrys, Jones and Gilliam, as they felt that the material was being shot as if it were still for television, rather than the big screen, and tried to assert some influence; it left both of the Terrys feeling they would want to have more directorial control over any future movie projects.

After a lavish launch party at the Playboy Club on London’s Park Lane in late October 1970, work got underway on And Now For Something Completely Different in earnest. In a further cost-saving exercise, rather than using established studio facilities, the former A1 Dairy in Whetstone was to be the impromptu soundstage for filming, which was hardly a glamorous location to use, particularly as production would be taking place over winter months, and the ex-milk depot was not exactly purpose built for such activity.

Earlier issues with Lownes trying to hold sway over some of the choices being made by the Pythons recurred whilst the post-production was taking place, as he insisted due to his role as Executive Producer, he should see his name receive a significant billing at the start of the film; this caused some considerable acrimony with Gilliam, who was responsible for putting together all the animated credits for the movie, but Lownes’ demand was grudgingly acceded to, in the interests of keeping the co-financier happy.

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However, it also became clear the Pythons would not have a final say over what would be the finished cut of And Now For Something Completely Different, as Lownes had a strong dislike of the character of Ken Shabby, and demanded that sketch be removed. With an initial rough cut running to 107 minutes, Lownes mentioned this to Woody Allen, who was visiting him in London at the time; Allen told him it should be trimmed down, feeling that the ideal length for comedy films should be 88 minutes.

With the loss of so much material from the final product, it galvanised the Monty Python team to ensure they had the last word on any further creative endeavours, to avoid any rancour caused by outside interference. The finished picture was first seen by British cinema audiences on Tuesday 28th September 1971, and despite it all actually being something completely familiar, the £80,000 outlay was made back at the domestic box office.

Launching Monty Python in America with the film proved to be a rather different proposition, and was not at all helped by Columbia being unsure on what to do with this property they had acquired and agreed to distribute. It  meant And Now For Something Completely Different eventually saw light in the States on Tuesday 22nd August 1972, with a limited number of engagements, and little in the way of publicity, other than some guerrilla marketing by fan and publicist Nancy Lewis, who ultimately became the group’s US manager (as well as wife of Simon Jones, A.K.A. Arthur Dent in The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy).

However, the picture was to get a second lease of life when Monty Python’s Flying Circus finally landed on American shores in 1974, with clips being used in the NBC series The Dean Martin Comedy World. The amount of money paid for permission to use the Flying Circus excerpts was enough to cover the costly process of converting the British 625-line PAL broadcast format tapes to the US 525-line NTSC, which had been a bar to its sale over there. As a result, the publicly-funded PBS stations began to pick up Monty Python’s Flying Circus in Autumn 1974, which in turn led to the re-release of the movie.

And Now For Something Completely Different does tend to divide opinion, with some people seeing it as being a retread of skits and sketches which played better in their original TV versions; the Pythons have live studio audience reactions to play off of, unlike on the big screen. Arguably, you can see the difference in performances when the group revisit some of exactly the same material in front of a large concert venue audience in 1982’s theatrical release, Monty Python Live At The Hollywood Bowl (also directed by MacNaughton).

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In another world, however, this could have ended up being the only significant record of some of the Pythons’ output. During 1971, they received a tip-off from an inside source that the BBC were actually looking to wipe and re-use all of the master tapes from the first season of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, so they managed to make illicit copies of the episodes on the lower-quality Philips VCR home system, to ensure some record survived for posterity. But for a quirk of fate, however, the outcome could have been very bleak.

And Now For Something Completely Different resulted in the Pythons’ realisation that their way forward was to veer away from sketch comedy, and instead have far more of a narrative thread, as 90 minutes of unconnected skits was something of a stretch for most audiences, as they found from some of the reactions they got when they tested the film prior to release. It also made them wholly adamant to have total charge of what they produced in future, to avoid the possibility of any external meddling.

The grand culmination of all this came in the form of 1975’s Monty Python And The Holy Grail. But that particular tale is altogether something completely different…

And Now For Something Completely Different went on general release in the UK on 30th September 1971.

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