Is Monty Python's Flying Circus dead as a parrot?

The first episode of Monty Python's Flying Circus was broadcast 40 years ago today. John Walsh dusts off the tapes to see if the old ones really are the best

It began with a shaggy, Ancient Mariner figure dragging himself along a seashore. Its jaunty credit sequence intertwined cartoon flowers and the photographed heads of Victorian grandees.

It introduced viewers to Arthur "Two Sheds" Jackson and the Funniest Joke in the World – and it was the start of a five-year love affair between the British TV audience and a world of cosily surreal humour. Monty Python's Flying Circus first hit the airwaves 40 years ago, on 5 October, 1969.

The timing was awful: it went out late on a Sunday night, in a slot formerly filled by a religious programme. But rumours of its surreal brilliance spread along the schoolboy grapevine, catchphrases ("And now for something completely different," "Bloody Vikings") began to appear in newspapers, and mildly satirical visual gags, like the Upper-Class Twit of the Year Contest or the Ministry of Silly Walks, were greeted as though they represented mad anarchy.

By the beginning of the new decade (programmes 12 and 13 were screened in January 1970) the nation was hooked on the new cult of Python: men with knotted handkerchiefs on their heads, shrill-voiced housewives in blue rinses, huge cartoon feet descending from the sky to squash the action, ancient footage of WI ladies applauding, stiff newsreaders and pretentious arts-show presenters, mendacious shopkeepers, and intrusive brigadiers closing down sketches with the words "Too silly..."

But was it actually funny? As with The Goon Show before it and The Fast Show after it, Monty Python established the taste by which it was judged. It was different. There were no punchlines, no scenes that ended with close-ups of a discomfited face, no anchorman, no musical interludes, no studio audience and no laughter track. Instead, a mix of cod-interviews, cod-documentary and cod-information was stitched together by Gilliam's hilarious bloated animations and naked Victorian cut-outs.

Watching the first episode now, I can recall the delight with which (aged 15) I watched the procession of unexplained bizzarerie on the screen. The hairy old man of the sea struggling 100 yards to utter the word "It's...". The squeals of dead pigs as they're squashed one by one. Mozart presenting a series on Famous Deaths ("We start with the wonderful death of Genghis Khan, conqueror of India.") The Italian lesson in a class of noisy Italians. The interview that gets nowhere because the interviewer is distracted by his guest's nickname. The cross-cutting between a Grandstand-type TV studio and roving-mike correspondents waiting to encounter Pablo Picasso executing a painting while riding a bicycle on the A272. The conceit of "The world's funniest joke" which makes all who hear it die laughing, and is co-opted into the Allied cause in the war...

Inevitably, there's some distance between the memory of watching the first Python and the experience of seeing it now. Terry Gilliam's surreal animations are still a delight and haven't aged a millisecond. The logic by which scenes are linked (by blackboards, signposts, bits of elderly artwork) still seem the work of fertile imaginations, while it's hard not to laugh at the subversion of po-faced TV presenters. But after that – goodness, how tired it looks. The pacing is all wrong: after the rapid-fire early sketches, the "Funniest Joke" section outstays its welcome by several minutes, and leaves you frustrated that the joke itself is never translated from German. Did they expect the viewers to understand it?

The suspicion that the writers were being a touch elitist is worsened by the Oxbridge smart-aleckry on display. Would any comedy writer today name-drop so many historical names, confident that the audience would be dead impressed? Richard III, Marat, Jean d'Arc, Lincoln, Edward VII, Nelson, Mozart, Kandinsky, Braque, Mondrian, Chagall, Ernst, Kokoscha, Schwitters... Gosh, well done, chaps, for having a nodding acquaintance with French and art history -- not that it's being used for any actual humorous effect.

Modern viewers might also raise an eyebrow at the underlying homophobia: the arts interviewer who wants to call his film-director guest "sweetie", "sugar plum" and "angel-drawers" has a moment with another arty poseur. "Never mind, Timmy," says the latter. "Oh Michael you are such a comfort," says the former. You can hear the sneers coming off the writers like cologne: "These guys are pretentious. And they're poofs."

Looking back, I suspect it was the lovely randomness of the show – the sense that anything could start or stop at any time, or be interrupted by a giant foot or a human hand – that most delighted my generation in 1969. And we loved the individual performers, especially Cleese and Palin. But a lot of Python was stuck fast in the public-school-Oxbridge ethos, the comedy of the schoolroom, the naughtiness of playing foolish japes on figures of authority. It liberated us all from the tyranny of the punchline – but it may be time to stop thinking that the liberation was a revolution.

Arts and Entertainment
Tate Modern chief Chris Dercon, who will be leaving to run a Berlin theatre company
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Tasos: 'I rarely refuse an offer to be photographed'
arts + ents
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Girls on the verge of a nervous breakdown: Florence Pugh and Maisie Williams star in 'The Falling'
Film
Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls

TV

The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence