Monday 9 October 2006
Miles Kington: How a few Idle moments led to the birth of 'Monty Python'
After we had waited for three hours, John got very cross. Instead of waiting for Barry Took, why didn't we just create a show by ourselves?
Like everyone else this week, we too are serialising Michael Palin's diaries, The Palin Years. In this first instalment, we learn how Monty Python got started ...
May 1969. Arrived at the BBC with Terry Jones, and explained that we had an appointment to see Barry Took. We were put in a waiting room while someone went to see if anyone knew who Barry Took was. While we were waiting, three other young men came in, who turned out to be Eric, John and Graham, whom we did not know at all, even though we had often worked with them before, on shows such asDo Not Adjust Your Clothes. They also had come to see Barry Took. After we had waited for three hours, John got very cross and said this was ridiculous. Instead of waiting for Barry Took, why didn't we just create a show by ourselves?
Eric said he wanted nothing to do with it. Terry and I said it might be fun to do a sitcom about five writers waiting so long to see Barry Took, that they ended up marrying each other and settling down in Esher. John said he hated sitcoms. Graham got out a hip flask and started drinking heavily. This is our first major quarrel. And we haven't even formed a team yet! I am not sure if this bodes well.
June 1969. We had a meeting to decide on the name of the programme. Eric wanted to call it Idle Moments. Terry wanted to call it Jones Moments. I wanted to call it Waiting for Barry Took. John wanted to call it Aspects of Humour, Based on Notes by Henri Bergson. Then Graham Chapman turned up, very drunk, so we all went home.
September 1969. John sprang a bombshell on us all today. He wants to leave Monty Python. We were stunned. We haven't even made the programme yet. We didn't even know it was called Monty Python. And yet John wants to leave already! We persuaded him to stay until we had created a golden age of TV comedy, and then he could go. He agreed.
February 1970. I went round to Terry's house to do some writing. He had gone round to my house. To while away the time, I wrote the "Spanish Inquisition" sketch, though it started life in a very different form, with someone saying to the Pope: "This is a dead cardinal! You have created a dead cardinal! This cardinal has gone to limbo!" and the Pope saying: "He is not dead! He is merely meditating!", and so on.
March 1971. Meeting at TV Centre. Trouble with BBC censorship. They say we cannot use the word "Inquisition" on air. Terry says, why the f*** not? Well, says the BBC man, the Spanish Inquisition is something that comes within the remit of a BBC history programme, and the sketch would therefore have to be done by a history producer, not a comedy producer. If we agreed to change it to "Nobody expects the Spanish Customs and VAT Service!" it would be quite all right. John explodes. "I do not believe it!" he says. "I do not believe it!" This catchphrase later becomes the backbone of another TV series, though John never bothers to sue.
May 1972. Eric came up with an interesting idea today. He says we should invent a missing Python member. He says that all the most famous groups have a missing member. Pete Best, the fifth Beatle, for instance. Then there was the Fourth Man in the Cambridge spy ring. Why didn't Python have a missing member? Terry said we did; it was Graham Chapman. Terry Gilliam asked why he couldn't be the sixth Python? We told him not to be silly, as he was American and had never been to Oxford or Cambridge.
June 1973. John sprang a bombshell on us today. He wants to leave Python. Terry sprang a bombshell on John today. He said: "OK, John, piss off, then!" I sprang a bombshell on them both. I said I wanted to leave and go travelling around the world. Could this be the beginning of the end? As the meeting breaks up, Graham arrives. He is drunk. He tries to cast the casting vote, but misses.
Michael Palin's 'The Palin Years' is available in good bookshops in the Sahara, the Himalayas, South Pole etc etc.
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