Radio: A Python far too slippery for a canon

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The Independent Culture
We didn't learn much about Monty Python that we didn't already know from Long Live the Dead Parrot Tues, R4), but it confirmed a couple of suspicions. The first is that they were never that subversive or original - the wacky approach had been pioneered by the Goons - and their subversion was hardly the stuff that made the establishment quake in its shoes. ("This Monty Python," said Margaret Thatcher, after being shown the dead- parrot sketch so she would at least have some idea of the joke her speech- writers had gingerly lifted for her, "is he one of us?")

John Cleese recalled being rounded on by a tea lady in the BBC canteen and abused (here he put on his best Mrs Pepperpot voice, the shrieking, lower-middle-class old bag beloved of Python) for wasting licence-payers' money and so on.

But apart from that - and the tea lady hadn't even seen any shows, they hadn't at that point been broadcast - no one really minded much what they did until The Life of Brian. It must be hard, these days, to find people in this country who still consider that film blasphemous, but some managed it. "I love zany humour," began a voice, free of self-doubt, "that's my sort of humour."

It was Michael Saward, canon at St Paul's Cathedral. "There are some wonderful bits in Brian," he went on, "and I have to say that I've seen lots of clips of Brian, but I wouldn't go and see it as a film. Because I did actually find that that argument for me did not stand up."

This argument being the one that the film mocks credulity and stupidity rather than Christianity. His reasoning: "They would never have made the film had it not been for Jesus ... The film is actually an attempt to undermine something that is, as far as I'm concerned, very serious." But as, of course, he has not seen it, not "as a film" at any rate, he is taking his own view of it on trust, as it were.

Stephen Fry came up with the most intelligent comment: that the characters they tended to play were versions of what they might have ended up doing had they not got into comedy.

Terry Jones pooh-poohed the idea that they were all a bunch of Oxbridge intellectuals. They had the furniture of the intellectual life around them, he admitted, but that was it.

"I mean I haven't read Proust, ha ha ha, we know what we ought to have read even if we haven't read it." No, Terry, you haven't read Proust, but you've written a book on Chaucer's The Knight's Tale, haven't you?

The charge that will stick against Python is its complete inability to do anything with women. The show was narrated by Carol Cleveland, the least-remembered member of the troupe. Women, she reminded us, were for the Pythons either "young silly ladies, to be played by me", or "old silly ladies, to be played by them".

"I don't think that anybody was really trying to put the boot in," said Neil Innes. "I mean somebody said something rather nice about me. He said, `You don't really put the boot in, but you're deadly accurate with the pom-pom slipper'."

Innes, said Cleveland, was "known to some as the seventh Python, and whose musical contributions are definitely part of Python history". "Funny," she added after a pause, "I thought I was the seventh Python."

Anyway, it did get me thinking about innovative comedy. It is in the nature of innovations, of course, that they do not come along very often. But things are dire at the moment. There is the News Quiz on Fridays, and that's pretty much always funny, especially when Jeremy Hardy and Andy Hamilton are giving their contributions. It's not, nowadays, groundbreaking, but at least it makes you laugh.

Unlike the new series of Life, Sex and Death with Mike and Sue. I have a vague memory of this having had a few laughs the last time it came round, but this time - well, here's a sample joke: "Owning a house can have its ups and downs - unless you live in a bungalow." Oh, my aching sides.

There is some promise in a new series called The Routemasters, also on Radio 4. In this, a young estuary-ish bloke called Bernie, thinking he's getting on a night bus to Mitcham, actually steps on to a Routemaster which flits back and forth through time, undoing the wrongs and anomalies perpetrated by a pair of malicious time-travellers called Raymond (played by Andrew MacGibbon, who also wrote the series) and Hildegard (Amanda Donohue). The sound effects are great, and the acting is fine. They play it a bit rushed, though, as if in tacit acknowledgement of the absurdity of the premise.

And it is hardly original. It is Doctor Who crossed with The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and that's it - and while, with the latter, you instantly worked out that you were listening to something different and strange (its success never came as a surprise), you didn't quite get the same frisson with this. Still, there were some nice exchanges:

"I've just sent the bus 50 years forward through time."

"Well, it doesn't look any different outside."

"Of course it doesn't, it's Mitcham."

And jokes about Sigmund Freud appearing on Just a Minute (which is just what his grandson Clement does, remember) should keep the show trundling along nicely.