WFTB Score: 9/20
The plot: The Monty Python troupe regale cinema audiences with a selection of favourite sketches from the first two series of their Flying Circus.
If you were fortunate enough to own a colour television set in Britain in 1969, you might have enjoyed the lunacy served up by John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Eric Idle and Terry Gilliam in their show Monty Python’s Flying Circus in its full glory. If, however, you were one of the great majority who only saw TV in black and white, or lived outside of the country, Playboy bigwig Victor Lownes had something for you – a cinematic presentation of some of the best sketches from series one and two, recreated on film for the pleasure of Transatlantic audiences.
The world of Python may need some explanation to the uninitiated, especially to those who only know the later films. Well, the best way to find out is by watching, but essentially it’s a warped, silly world where Hell’s Grannies beat up innocent young men, where timid, dull accountants transmogrify into blackmailing TV show hosts, where huge cartoon cats destroy neighbourhoods and groups of suspiciously butch women re-enact battles by flinging themselves into mud.
First impressions of the film are not promising, however, because while the material is the same as the TV show, a number of things are immediately apparent: firstly, the film is made extremely cheaply, with minimal effort made to recreate locations and sets – Idle refers to a “low-budget movie like this” at one point. This drabness cannot but diminish the comedy, and it’s very apparent in sketches such as ‘Marriage Guidance Counsellor’ and ‘Nudge, Nudge’; where the original video was colourful and on TV the small sets looked intimate and authentic, the real locations used for the film are empty and uninspiring.
Secondly, the absence of a studio laughter track is initially unnerving; of course, Python historians will tell you that the early shows were received in almost complete silence anyway, but it feels unnatural for the sketches not to be punctuated by an audience reaction. Thirdly, a film consisting of sketches connected via semi-random links must by definition feel bitty and incohesive.
As to the material itself, it’s something of a mixed bag. Sketches which rely to any extent on obsolete aspects of English life – the city worker in the bowler hat, old cars, pre-decimal currency – obviously struggle for relevance, while the film also shows how outdated attitudes towards homosexuality (Chapman’s sexuality isn’t really a get-out), women and race now appear – it’s not a huge issue, but a few formerly commonplace phrases really stand out to a modern ear. Also, a number of sketches riff on television shows, an idea which made absolute sense for TV but falls flat on celluloid. Terry Gilliam’s animations intrigued me as a child, but nowadays I’m less struck by their surrealisms than how primitive they look; there are certainly too many animation sequences in the film as a whole.
On the other hand, about halfway through you get the ‘World’s Deadliest Joke’ sketch, an extended conceit with a hint of a plot, and from this point And Now… picks up the pace. ‘Dead Parrot’, surely the Bohemian Rhapsody of comedy sketches, segues into the deliriously silly ‘Lumberjack’ song, which is followed in turn by the fun ‘Dirty Fork’ sketch, where Jones, Palin, Idle and Cleese take turns to outdo each other whilst a mortified Chapman and dolly-bird-in-residence Carol Cleveland look on.
The film closes strongly too, with the stinging and ultimately morbid satire of ‘Upper Class Twit of the Year’. Throughout, the highly-strung mannerisms of John Cleese make him the undoubted star of the show, with Palin a close-ish second; but all the cast are comfortable with their own material, and if skits like the double-vision mountaineers and self-defence against fruit aren’t quite as warm on film as they were on telly, they are still performed skilfully and raise a decent laugh.
Trends in both television and comedy move on, and Monty Python’s Flying Circus is currently out of vogue – while Life of Brian and Holy Grail continue to gain respect and new fans, the TV series is now seen as more miss than hit – and anyway, Spike Milligan got there first with Q5 (as the Pythons themselves admit). And Now For Something Completely Different doesn’t really do the job as a ‘best of’ compilation – Parrot Sketch Not Included will serve you better for that, since it contains the Ministry of Silly Walks and the Spanish Inquisition – and the lack of any money or cinematic flair makes this film a slightly cold experience. Nevertheless, the quality of the writing and performing ensure that it’s very rarely unfunny for more than a couple of seconds.