'Monty Python' was created in the late 1960s by Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin. The six members of the team had got to know each other gradually in the preceding years, firstly through university - Graham, John and Eric were at Cambridge together, while Terry Jones and Michael were at Oxford - and later through their work on various television comedy programmes, most notably The Frost Report.
In 1967, John and Graham co-wrote and starred in At Last, the 1948 Show, which also starred Marty Feldman, Tim Brooke-Taylor and Aimi MacDonald, with occasional appearances by Eric. The following year, Eric, Michael and Terry J wrote and starred in the children's show1, Do Not Adjust Your Set (DNAYS), which also featured David Jason2 and the 'Bonzo Dog (Doo Dah) Band'3, who enjoyed chart success with 'I'm the Urban Spaceman'. Importantly, the series also featured animations by Terry Gilliam.
In early 1969, Michael and Terry J wrote and starred in a short-lived series called The Complete and Utter History of Britain, in which they presented various periods in British history as though television cameras had been there. The series was seen by John, who decided that he would like to work with Michael. A similar thought was had by Barry Took, a producer at the BBC, and he arranged a meeting between the two. John brought writing partner Graham along, and Michael brought DNAYS colleagues Terry J, Eric and Terry G. The six of them hit it off, sharing a love of The Goons and Spike Milligan's Q5 television show. With no questions asked, the BBC gave them a budget to produce 13 television shows...
The Flying Circus
The first episode of Monty Python's Flying Circus was broadcast on October 5, 1969. The show was buried late at night and was moved round the schedules to make way for other programmes. Occasionally it was dropped altogether4, while certain regions of the UK never got to see it at all. Despite all this, the show developed a significant word-of-mouth following; enough for the BBC to commission a second series in 1970.
Just before the second series, the Pythons branched out into the world of film, with the release of And Now For Something Completely Different. Envisaged as a way of breaking Monty Python into the American market, it wasn't as successful as they'd hoped and the team returned to television. The third series of Flying Circus was shown in 1972-73, at the end of which, John decided that he'd been with the circus long enough. The fourth series, renamed simply Monty Python was shown in 1974. Having only six episodes, it is generally considered to be the weakest of the four television series, with John's departure unbalancing the group. Fortunately, John wasn't gone for good...
Learning from their experiences on And Now For Something Completely Different, the Pythons were determined to keep control of their next film.
Decamping to Scotland between the third and fourth series of Flying Circus, the group filmed Monty Python and the Holy Grail on a tiny budget, with Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam directing. Despite some hardship during the filming process - the Scottish weather proving typically unfriendly - the team managed to put together a highly successful film. In a fortunate piece of timing, the release of Holy Grail coincided with the time that Python was first becoming popular in the USA, further boosting the success of the film and convincing the team that cinema was the way forward for Monty Python.
The next Python film was the highly controversial Monty Python's Life Of Brian, released in 1979. The idea came from an off-the-cuff comment by Eric Idle, claiming that their next film would be called 'Jesus Christ: Lust for Glory'. After many rewrites, including a working holiday to Barbados, the final script had almost nothing to do with Christ at all, and simply told the story of a man mistaken for the Messiah - the eponymous Brian. For a while, it seemed as though the film would not be made, as the original funding was withdrawn. Fortunately, George Harrison, a Python fan, was desperate to see the film and set up a production company, 'Handmade Films', for that purpose. On its release, the film was attacked by fundamentalist Christians who campaigned, successfully in some areas, to have the film banned. Despite (or perhaps because of) this, the film went on to be an enormous success. Simultaneously hilarious, intelligent and thought-provoking, it is possibly the Pythons' finest hour.
After Brian came a recording of their 1980 stage performance at the Hollywood Bowl. The group performed some favourite sketches, while the crowd, many of whom were dressed in Python costumes, shouted the words along with them - the comedy equivalent of a rock concert.
The Pythons' next film was, as it turned out, the final true Python project. Monty Python's The Meaning Of Life was released in 1983 and was another financial and critical success, winning the Jury Prize at the Cannes film festival. The film contains some of their most outrageous material, including an attack on Catholic birth control policy in 'Every Sperm is Sacred', a live sex-education lesson in front of some bored schoolboys, Graham Chapman being chased off a cliff by a group of near-naked women, and, of course, the all-vomiting, all-exploding Mr Creosote. A fitting way to bring the Python era to a close.
During the Meanwhile...
In between the television series and films, the Pythons also worked on other projects, particularly a series of books and records. These were as innovative as their other material, with The Monty Python Matching Tie and Handkerchief being the world's first 'three-sided' record - a second groove was cut into side 2 of the album so that the sketches heard depended on where the needle fell.
In good Python tradition, both the books and records also managed to cause some controversy, Monty Python's Brand New Bok5 in particular causing consternation in book shops with some realistically dirty fingerprints on the white cover. Monty Python's Instant Record Collection also caused problems for shopkeepers, as it was originally packaged in a Terry Gilliam-designed fold-out cover which could be assembled to look like a stack of records. The complicated package kept breaking open in shops, and later versions were released with a much more simple cover. Monty Python's Contractual Obligation Album managed to cause offence in a different way, with one item - 'Farewell to John Denver' - being deleted from later versions, and a second item - 'Sit on My Face' - threatened with deletion.
Python continues to exist today in the form of the official website: Pythonline. This is very much Eric Idle's project, but the other Pythons have occasionally been known to drop in.
Of course, Python also lives on in the many references to it that can be found in popular culture and elsewhere. Phrases such as 'this is an ex-parrot' or 'nudge, nudge, wink wink, say no more' have entered the English language, and the word pythonesque is defined in Chamber's English dictionary as:
Pythonesque, adj. of humour, bizarre and surreal, as in the BBC television comedy programme Monty Python's Flying Circus.
Scientists (computer scientists in particular) often look to Python for inspiration when naming things: the net term 'spam' takes its name from a Python sketch, while the programming language 'Python' is a direct steal. In 1985, a giant fossil snake was discovered and was given the Latin name Montypythonoides riversleighensis6.
Although Meaning of Life was the last genuine Python project, there was talk all through the 1980s about a Python reunion, another stage show, another film, another television series... The problem was that all the individual Pythons were too busy with their own (and each other's) projects to find the time to get all six of them together. Then, in 1988, Graham Chapman was diagnosed with cancer and, despite claiming to have beaten it, died on 4 October, 1989, one day short of the 20th anniversary of the Flying Circus.
The Python team were reunited in 1998 for a stage appearance in Aspen, Colorado, USA, with British comedian Eddie Izzard making a brief appearance claiming to be one of the team. Graham also 'appeared', in an urn, which was 'accidentally' kicked over and spilt by Terry G. After the event, there was again talk of a new film or stage show, but it failed to materialise. The team also got together for a 30th anniversary celebration on the BBC in 1999. The sad fact is that, although they remain friends, they are all too busy and successful to ever co-ordinate their efforts into a joint production. Besides, without Graham Chapman, it just wouldn't be Python anyway...