Monty Python’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

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Photo copyright: via Neil Reading PR

We reviewed the opening night of Monty Python Live (Mostly) on Radio 4’s Front Row on Wednesday with journalist Stephen Armstrong. You can hear it (top item) on that link till Wed 9th July. This is some of the stuff we couldn’t fit in about its aesthetic and my theory that it’s worth comparing to a concept album.

From the moment you see Terry Gilliam’s magnificent red velvet outsize Victorian music hall set design the association with Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and the visuals of Yellow Submarine is fixed. About the only facts in the jokey programme seemed to be the Pythons’ birthdates –making them pretty much the same age as the Beatles and formed by the same aesthetic influences: music hall songs, the fading Victorian detritus of theatres and costumes, green one pound notes, bowler hats and those weird knotted handkerchiefs British men would wear on their heads at the beach till the 1970s. They now exist only within the nostalgic bubble of the Monty Python TV show. The show is the period piece and acts as a kind of last collective act of living memory.

“It’s rather like the Rolling Stones performing satisfaction,” observed Stephen Armstrong when we discussed it. “No one wants a hiphop version by Mick Jagger. What you want is a note for note rendition of the 60s single you love.” The wheeled on giant boxes — sets of living rooms and offices for the usually sedentary sketches with the performers already seated within  — are bell jar museum displays of long gone studio bound programme making: flying ducks on the wall, dragged up women in hair wraps and curlers, an arid 60s TV science show set. (John Cleese in drag as a strangely taciturn scientist is perhaps his best moment, invoking that gimlet stare for actual humorous effect.)

So the performance is a kind of concept album rendition. Some sketches had been segued quite beautifully – notably the Dead Parrot into the Cheese shop. Terry Gilliam’s surreal animations benefit from being blown up onto the giant screens either side. They still are remarkable art. There is the added poignancy of 4 old men doing the 4 Yorkshiremen sketch and Michael Palin stands out for genuine acting that creates unexpectedly moving moments — notably in the We’re Protestants sketch from The Meaning of Life in which Terry Jones in drag wistfully imagines an active sex life.

If the Dead Parrot sketch is the Python To Be Or Not To Be moment from Hamlet, Palin proves his acting skills again. It sounded totally fresh from him. And his comic timing — knowing exactly when to come in on the downward sweep of audience laughter before it’s quite apparent it’s passed the crest — is the mark of a serious professional we ought to see a lot more of in screen and stage drama.

Eric Idle showed a similarly impressive level of real acting skill (Nudge Nudge fresh and somehow sweetly sad rather than creepy now). Terry Jones seemed delighted to be there, and can still pull off a touching frustrated housewife. Terry Gilliam gurns with good will throughout and  spills his guts impressively from a high wire. John Cleese corpsed a lot and struggled vocally with a hoarseness till well into the second half. Nerves? Recovering from a cold? Weak vocal chords? His strength: the roles that play to coldness and fear (I’m here for an Argument).

The Arlene Phillips dancers were slick but, the Sit On My Face Ballet apart, too often evoked the tired retro feel of Hot Gossip in their sexy underwear by Agent Provocateur as the programme carefuly listed. (All the technical support, in every sense,  has been brought in from the most professional names.) Though the energetic young male singer leading the Finland number was rather a welcome youthful presence, as the once cute Pythons watched him and smiled as if at the ghost of their former selves.

The “camp” songs about mincing sailors seem to have (mostly?) lost their homophobic air. But is that more about modern Britain than about Python? While Carol Cleveland in the same carefully chosen and edited Dollybird roles has similarly neutralised the sometimes unpleasant sting of the originals.

The Blackmail song about the tabloid press and I Like Chinese, despite some updated lyrics about copyright and economic boom exposed their weakness. What after all is sparky about the Top Gear presenters being blackmailed for sleaziness in the face of Jeremy Clarkson’s mealy mouthed  N-word “apology” expressed through his tabloid column? The best sketches were the absurdist or the high brow (the original philosophers’ football match was played out on the film screen).

The little insert with celebrity scientists filmed on the backs in Cambridge seemed a nod to the Oxbridge intellectual seedbeds in which Monty Python sprouted. The “merch-o-meter” animation that ticked on the big screen on the interval captured the whole apologetic tone of the set up and its money making that’s characterised this operation ever since the original press conference. A clever way  — Boris Johnson-esque even — in playing the buffoon with a razor sharp focus on keeping on target. There was no shouting of punchlines, but they are under the skin of the national psyche. We were all thinking them as part of a giant mind cloud.

Stephen Armstrong: “The way they interacted it felt very warm to me. By the end when they come on in their white tuxedos [incidentally another image that evokes the Beatles - their Magical Mystery Tour film ] basically what it is: It’s 5 old men having fun in front of a bunch of people and it’s hard to be angry with that and it’s hard to be too critical. They’ve probably pulled it off – largely the same broad joke for the last 40 years.”

So it was a happening. A sixties’ “you had to be there” vibe. To see the guys do their thing. To remember Graham Chapman. And only the meanest curmudgeon could begrudge the gentle, nostalgic and generous mood of the night. In fact all you need is love.

Front Row: BBC Radio 4 review of Monty Python Live (Almost) Available till July 9th

About Samira Ahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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