BBC News UK Edition
 You are in: Special Report: 1999: 10/99: Monty Python  
News Front Page
N Ireland
UK Politics
Talking Point
Country Profiles
In Depth
BBC Sport
BBC Weather
Monty Python Friday, 1 October, 1999, 16:11 GMT 17:11 UK
Nudge, nudge, wink, wink. Say no more!
Don't mention the war! Nothing was off limits for the Pythons
Monty Python's Flying Circus has been elevated to cult status since it first transmission in 1969 - but as well as enjoying their fair share of adoration, its members have also been demonised for their ground-breaking brand of humour.

Weary of the constrictions imposed on them by producers and stars in their days as gag writers, the Pythons were keen to explore fresh territory with the Flying Circus.

Under the protection of director and producer Ian MacNaughton, the team felt no pressure to please their BBC bosses or the TV audience.

John Cleese
Even the BBC's announcers were parodied by the Pythons
Shows would go to air without being previewed by corporation chiefs - who would deliver their assessment of the work after transmission.

"Python was a unique organism of six writer/performers," recalls Eric Idle. "If it made us laugh it was in."

This uncompromising attitude would see the Pythons embark on a collision course with those unable to stomach their more irreverent work.

Although indebted to the 'satire boom' of the mid-1960s, the Pythons chose not to directly lampoon politicians or any of the other targets regularly attacked by the BBC's The Frost Report or in Peter Cook's Establishment Club.

Peter Cook
Peter Cook ran satire venue The Establishment and Private Eye magazine
"We weren't being satirical because it wasn't the thing that interested us," Terry Jones says. "Ours was a slightly more abstract humour - just being silly really. What satire there is, is more generalised satire."

This "generalised" satire saw the Pythons send up every section of British society from shopkeepers to documentary makers, but the team particularly seemed to relish the chance to knock the establishment.

Life of Python
Coming from the professional classes themselves - with careers in medicine, the law and industry awaiting their graduation - the Pythons were particulary effective at pricking the pomposity of polite society.

Peppering their scripts with references to rotary clubs and townswomen's guilds, they were well aware what middle England would make of their stream of consciousness style.

The Pythons even diffused such criticism with the regular appearance of Graham Chapman's 'colonel' character. "Stop that! It's silly," the old soldier would bluster at the height of a surreal sketch.

However, as the popularity of the Flying Circus grew - with more BBC regions screening the show - the "angry" letterwriters of Tunbridge Wells would have their revenge.

Eric Idle
Eric Idle makes a mockery of marriage guidence couselling
"At the end of the first series we had the 'eating the mother' sketch," said Jones. "By the second series they [the BBC] were wanting to see the programmes before they went out. And by the third series... they wanted to see the scripts before we filmed them."

This changing culture at the BBC only once prompted the Pythons to censor their own material.

"There was one animation which was shelved because we thought, 'Oh, we couldn't do that' " remembers Jones.

"It was pulling back from Jesus on the cross and there was a telephone guy working - it was a telephone line."

Although the Flying Circus shows suffered cruelly at the hands of censors in the US - it was a return to the crucifixion theme which landed the Pythons in their greatest controversy.

Life Of Brian
Life of Brian came from an Eric Idle idea - "Jesus Christ: Lust for Glory"
Life of Brian was the team's third foray into film-making. The 1979 movie caused a storm with its fictional account of a man born at the time of Christ who is mistaken for the Messiah.

Brian, played by Chapman, becomes a focus for religious fanatics and political radicals - who is eventually sentenced to crucifixion by the Romans.

"I thought it might be taken even more badly by some people. In a way I was quite relieved we didn't have fundamentalist Christians taking pot shots at us," admits Jones, the director.

Despite being cleared by the British Board of Film Censors, the film was banned in towns across the UK.

In America the movie was condemned by religious groups of all shades and prohibited across the southern Bible belt.

"The people who reacted were people who hadn't seen it, so it's not very upsetting," says Jones.

The angry response seemed to have vindicated the stance of EMI - who had pulled out of the financing for fear of controversy, leaving Beatle George Harrison to save the project.

However, Life of Brian's notoriety saw it reach a wider and more appreciative audience than the previous Python films.

The team's last film, The Meaning of Life, also touched on the heavyweight issues of sex, religion and death.

Terry Jones
Terry Jones and the Pythons seldom sat on the fence
"Comedy is about reminding us of the truth of being human: we all have a body and we all must die, and it is okay," reckons Idle.

That said, one of the film's most infamous sequences, featuring a diner who explodes after gorging himself in a restaurant, was far removed from the theological argument of Life of Brian.

"You don't need to be satirical to anger people," says Jones. "It was very much a boundary line sketch - between being funny and being awful."

"A lot of people really didn't find it funny because they couldn't stand the sight of someone puking everywhere. Then other people found it terribly, terribly funny. You're on a knife-edge there."

Michael Palin was shocked by the anger Python stirred up
"The BBC took a pride in not censoring itself"
Terry Jones admits to directing Life of Brian in the nude
Internet links:

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Links to more Monty Python stories are at the foot of the page.

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more Monty Python stories

© BBC ^^ Back to top

News Front Page | World | UK | England | N Ireland | Scotland | Wales |
UK Politics | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature | Technology |
Health | Education | Talking Point | Country Profiles | In Depth |