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The Emperor's New Clothes (03/02/13)

The dead parrot! Mrs Sartre!! How did we manage before 'Monty Python'? Very well indeed...

My experience of totalitarianism is limited. Too young to have known Nazi Germany or Mussolini's Italy, I was certainly old enough to have visited Franco's Spain, but insufficiently Spanish to have lived there. And by the time I got to Russia, the geriatric state corruptees had been replaced by younger corporate ones. For some faint inkling of what it is to be in an oppressive, near-fascist, atmosphere, I have to reach back to Cambridge in the early 1970s and the evening of the week when Monty Python's Flying Circus was broadcast. This may seem a trivial – even tasteless – parallel, but allow me to explain.

Monty Python, now part of the citizenship syllabus and still worshipped by many, was one of the least funny programmes ever made. Its humour was often cruel, and seemed to largely consist of squawking repetitive catchphrases at the top of their Oxbridge voices. It was The Goon Show stripped of warmth and invention; a show peopled with characters so lacking in character that they might as well have been played by puppets. And its sketches so clearly telegraphed in advance their laboured journey towards the lack of a punchline that no intelligent person could watch the opening exchanges of the famous "Dead Parrot" item and not know the avalanche of synonyms that would follow.

None of this would have amounted to much, to anything more than one insignificant undergraduate's opinion, had it not been for the fact that in the Cambridge of that time, Python was a cult. To be in college when the massed fans of the show held their weekly rallies in front of the television was frightening; all that uncritical adoration, all those hoots and shrieks of synchronised laughter. You could stay in your room, but you had to emerge some time, and run the gauntlet of endless braying of excerpts and phrases from the thing. But worst of all was the faithful's reaction to us few dissidents, made to feel, with our straight faces and lack of hysteria, like the sole citizen of Pyongyang who doubted mountains danced at the birth of a Kim, or like the only teetotaller at the drunkards' ball. It really was a cult; a complete cult.