Monty Python: The Albums (Part 3)

Just as Matching Tie and Handkerchief was hitting British record stores at the end of ’73, the second draft of the Monty Python and the Holy Grail script had been completed, and producers and investors were being rounded up. The script still needed more work…and Python Productions needed an influx of cash. The prestigious 2,200-seat Theatre Royal in Drury Lane in London’s West End offered the Pythons good terms for performing their live show over a two-week residency in February. 

Shaggy ’74 Python, captured with a fish-eye lens no less. Is that four or is it five buttons undone on Chapman’s shirt?

As soon as their Drury Lane run was announced, overwhelming demand caused the length of the residency to be doubled.

They fine-tuned the set list from their British/Canadian tour the previous year. The official title of their Drury Lane run was Monty Python’s First Farewell Tour (Repeat) (with “NOT CANCELLED” stencilled over the posters). The experience was less like a night at the theater, and more like a rock concert by a veteran band. The audience wasn’t necessarily there to see something original, they wanted the hits

From February 26 through March 23, 1974, the Pythons trod the theatrical boards, night after night, as audiences lapped up (and often recited along with) “Nudge Nudge,” “Bruces,” “Travel Agent,” “Argument Clinic,” “Dead Parrot,” “The Lumberjack Song,” and plenty of other stuff. Neil Innes was on hand to provide some musical interludes, but regular Python supporting player Carol Cleveland was unavailable. Her parts were covered by Australian actress Lyn Ashley, who had done a few bits on the TV show, and at the time was married to Eric Idle. (Her credit at the end of the Flying Circus episodes in which she appeared simply read “Mrs. Idle.”) The audience was often dotted with celebrities, including members of the Beatles, the Who, and the Rolling Stones, but despite the theater having a designated “royal box,” no members of the royal family showed up. The royal box was occupied nightly by a pantomime dummy of Princess Margaret.

Neil Innes

“It was the nearest any of us got to a proper job,” says Terry Jones. “We would kiss our wives good-bye, work the night shift in the theater, get roaring drunk afterwards, roll home and do it all over again the following night.” At least a few mornings were spent tightening the Holy Grail script into its third (and final) draft, which was completed on March 15.

On the final night, Jacquemin set up his recording equipment, and the result was Python’s first real live album (their 1970 debut album made for the BBC, although performed in front of a small audience, doesn’t really count). The atmosphere is audibly electric, with over-the-top enthusiasm from the crowd, and superbly-performed comedy classics from the cast. Neil Innes, caught up in the final-night excitement, improvised by singing several lines of “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” from The Sound of Music right in the middle of the “Election Special” sketch. The Pythons found the moment funny enough to leave on the record, and paid the necessary Rodgers & Hammerstein royalties. 

Monty Python Live at Drury Lane 

Released: June 28, 1974 (U.K. only)

Produced by Andre Jacquemin, David Howman, and Alan Bailey

Track Listing:

Side One

1. Introduction

2. Llamas

3. Gumby Flower Arranging

4. Secret Service

5. One-Man Wrestling

6. World Forum (Communist Quiz)

7. Idiot Song (Neil Innes)

8. Albatross

9. The Colonel

10. Nudge Nudge

11. Cocktail Bar

12. Travel Agent

Side Two

1. Spot the Brain Cell

2. Bruces/Philosophers Song

3. Argument Clinic

4. I’ve Got Two Legs (Terry Gilliam’s Song on a Wire)

5. Four Yorkshireman

6. Election Special

7. The Lumberjack Song

8. Dead Parrot

A small amount of studio work was required later to put in some narration and links. These sorts of extra little clean-up tasks were usually taken on by good sport and all-around team player Michael Palin.

Four Yorkshiremen

The Pythons were quite aware that the audiences that flocked to the Theatre Royal were there to see their favorite sketches, but they wouldn’t be Python if they didn’t include some surprises. The whole show opened with “Llamas,” an obscure, 90-second deep-cut sketch from the first series of Flying Circus, in which a group of flamenco guitarists and dancers provide a partly-sung public service announcement in Spanish about the dangers of the deadly aquatic llama, with much stomping, guitar strumming, castanet-clicking, and exaggerated rolling of rs. “Tiene dos orejas, un corazón, una frente y un pico para comer miel. Pero está provisto de aletas para nadar. Las llamas son más grandes que las ranas.” (“It has two ears, a heart, a forehead, and a beak for eating honey. But it is provided with fins for swimming. Llamas are larger than frogs.”) When the Pythons staged their massive reunion show at London’s O2 Arena in 2014, they chose to open with “Llamas.”

From the vault of really old material came “Four Yorkshiremen,” which would remain in every iteration of the Python stage show from that point forward. First written by Cleese and Chapman for 1967’s At Last the 1948 Show, the four Yorkshiremen of the title relax in comfort, sipping wine and wearing white dinner jackets as they compare, in thick Yorkshire accents, how deprived their childhoods were. (“There were a ‘undred and fifty of us living in a shoebox in t’ middle of t’ road.” “Cardboard box?” “Aye.” “You were lucky. We lived for three months in a paper bag in a septic tank.”) “Secret Service” was also lifted from the 1948 Show, but it didn’t have the staying power of “Yorkshiremen.” Another old sketch that became a beloved part of the Python Live repertoire, “Custard Pies,” was left off the album because it was just too visual. (A relic from Jones & Palin’s old Oxford Revue days, “Custard Pies” was so popular it was borrowed by the Cambridge guys for their revue),

Due to the fact the Michael Palin — the original performer of “The Lumberjack Song” — had often lost his voice by the end of a show, Eric Idle ended up taking over that closing number from him. “The plaid shirt and suspenders suited both of us,” Palin says. (He reclaimed the part for the O2 shows.)

The big misfire, in my opinion, is “Cocktail Bar,” a rejected (for good reason) third series sketch that re-writes “Crunchy Frog” into a collection of disgusting cocktails such as the “The Special” (with a “twist of lemming”), “Mallard Fizz,” “Dog Turd & Tonic,” and the “Harlem Stinger,” which if the audio is to be believed — no photos or videos of the sketch exist — features Terry Gilliam in blackface (or at least doing a cringe-inducing minstrel show voice). There’s also a few dated Nixon jokes. (The Pythons usually avoided using topical references.) It’s good to remind ourselves that not everything Python did is worthy of uncritical praise. Someone in the group liked this clunker enough to want it in the show, and it wasn’t voted down.

By the time Drury Lane was released in June of 1974, the Pythons had returned from rainy, windswept location filming in Scotland with the independently-produced Monty Python and the Holy Grail, co-directed by Gilliam and Jones, in the can. Months of editing work and previewing were needed to whip it into shape, and after summer holidays, the Pythons would be getting down to work on their fourth and final series for the BBC (without the participation of their most visible member, John Cleese, who was already formulating his plans for Fawlty Towers).

And big things were afoot in the United States…

In March of 1974, Nancy Lewis had been put in charge of Python’s music publishing company, Kay-Gee-Bee Music, and basically handled all of their record stuff in the U.S. In her dogged attempts to gain American exposure for the team in any way possible, she arranged a re-release of And Now For Something Completely Different onto the cult “midnight movie” circuit, where it finally turned a tiny profit wedged between Pink Flamingos and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Lewis also discovered that Time-Life Television had the American broadcast rights to BBC productions. The problem was that all British TV was recorded in the PAL video format, and all American TV was in the NTSC format, and transferring the material in that day and age was quite costly. When such a transfer was occasionally done, it was done mostly by the American public broadcasting network (PBS) for the BBC’s most prestigious, high-brow stuff like operas, classical concerts, and plays staged for television, which had been airing successfully on PBS as Masterpiece Theater since 1971. Like the BBC, PBS did not stop shows for commercials, so the material could be aired uncut.

Lewis also learned that Time-Life Television had no interest in paying to convert Monty Python’s Flying Circus into the proper format for American broadcast. “‘There’s no market here to justify the cost of converting it,’” Lewis remembers the Time-Life people saying. She tried to convince various PBS executives to give the show a chance. “I had to beg them, I had to take people over to the Time-Life Building to screen episodes.” Many of them personally loved it, but wouldn’t authorize buying such an odd, off-kilter show. Many others did not love it. The head of the local New York PBS station, WNET, swore his station would air Python only over his dead body. The head of Boston’s WGBH heard some good word-of-mouth about the show, and actually flew to London to meet the team and screen some episodes. “And when the lights went up, he’d turned white,” remembers Cleese. “He was like someone who’d seen a ghost, or perhaps seen his career disappearing into the mist. He was hardly speaking, he was so scared. He was nice, but he was just rattled by the thought of putting out a show that was as strange as Python.”

The Pythons did have some big-wheel Americans in their corner early on. George Schlatter. Jerry Weintraub. Carl Reiner. All at one point or another offered to give the Pythons a chance to do a glamorous, Americanized version of their show. The offers were declined, because it would entail too much compromising and toning down of their quirky material.

“[America] just wouldn’t understand it,” insists Eric Idle. “Besides with its nudity and its naughtiness it would never be allowed on TV there. So when some serious American producers approached us, we laughed. It appeared they wanted us to do our show for America. We laughed more. All right then, could they buy our format? Now we really laughed. ‘We don’t have a format.’ ‘Then let’s not sell it to them.’” 

The impasse was broken by the producer of The Dean Martin Show, Greg Garrison, who wanted to do a compilation TV special featuring “comedy from around the world,” including a segment of Flying Circus. The Pythons were reluctant to have their material shown in random snippets. Lewis assured them the special would likely be aired only once, during the summer doldrums. They agreed that Garrison’s deep pockets paying for the necessary videotape conversion of all three currently existing Flying Circus series, so he could pick and choose whatever he wanted, may just be worth it. (The resulting TV special, Dean Martin’s Comedy World, ended up using about thirty seconds of Monty Python material.)

Ron Devillier, 1975

Thanks to Garrison, correctly-formatted tapes of the Python material were now easily available. Ron Devillier, program manager of PBS’s KERA Channel 13 in Dallas, had been tipped off by a friend who worked for Time-Life that the show was something special. Devillier agreed to check it out. Two massive boxes of videotapes arrived at the KERA office. Devillier popped by on a Saturday to give them a quick look. “I wound up up falling in love with them,” says Devillier. “I stayed all day watching those damned things. I was enamored of the show. I don’t know why. They just hit my funny bone. I told [Time-Life] I’d like to buy them.” KERA’s president and general manager Robert Wilson agreed, after Devillier showed him “Cheese Shop” and “The Lumberjack Song.”

One more hurdle had to be cleared. KERA’s rather stuffy board of directors, headed by the formidable Betty Blum Marcus, president of the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts and wife of the chairman of the Neiman-Marcus chain of high-end department stores. The board wanted a screening, and this was arranged. Devillier paced nervously outside the screening room. After awhile, the board filed out, completely expressionless, followed by Wilson.

“Well, no one walked out,” shrugged Wilson.

“Nobody laughed?”

“One person did.”

“Who?”

“Betty Marcus.”

The show was greenlit for Dallas public television. KERA began airing the first three series of Monty Python’s Flying Circus to American audiences on September 22, 1974, uncut and in their entirety, making Devillier a true hero in the Python story. “It just seemed right,” says Devillier. “It wasn’t that it was a perfect time, but Dallas was such a buttoned-down city, and I thought this was a wonderful tonic.”

As soon as other public broadcasting stations saw that KERA wasn’t burned down, or Devillier wasn’t stoned by angry mobs on his way into work, PBS executives and other employees who secretly loved the show but afraid to put it on could now open the floodgates (yes, including WGBH in Boston and WNET in New York — no word on if the WNET guy threw himself out a window). A respectable portion of the American viewing audience — even in Dallas — seemed to quite enjoy a TV show that its own creators believed could never work in America. 

Not long after PBS began showing the first three series, the six-episode fourth series aired on the BBC, and was the Python’s TV swan song. These episodes were later bought by ABC, who absolutely butchered the material, chopping huge chunks out, and randomly mashing them together into two “comedy specials.” Everything was made worse by interrupting what was left of the comedic flow every ten minutes for a commercial break. The Pythons were appalled, and filed a major lawsuit. ABC technically won. They were allowed to air their edited version of the shows, but an appeals court decided they could never do so again. And there was a silver lining. Rather than paying out a settlement to the Pythons for allowing ABC to re-edit the shows without consulting them — that little nugget was in the fine print of their contract — the BBC simply offered them full ownership of all 45 episodes, which in those pre-home video days was the equivalent of the BBC getting off scot-free. To the network’s surprise, the Pythons eagerly took the deal. The BBC had no idea they were sitting on a future home video and streaming gold mine. For the time being, the fourth series — uncut — ended up getting put into the PBS rotation.

“PBS was great,” says Terry Gilliam. “We were being seen and building an audience, which would pay off for the movies. And it was the one place where they would show it without commercial breaks, the way we wanted it.” Four of the Pythons agreed to do a quick promotional tour for PBS Pledge Week in March of 1975. Chapman, Gilliam, Jones, and Palin appeared in the various PBS studios across the country, sitting for interviews and working the phone banks, taking viewer donations. They returned from KERA in Dallas with a stuffed armadillo.

The Pythons had delivered the first strike that broke down American barriers. They were now poised to deliver the knock-out blow.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail opened in the United States on April 27, 1975. Even with Python burning up the PBS airwaves, no major U.S. film distributor would touch it. It ended up getting released by the tiny Cinema 5. For the first time, the impact of Monty Python on the American audience was on public view. Lines to see the film were immediately around the block, and it ended up making $5 million on its initial release (remember these were 1975 dollars) — off a $400,000 budget. “We never made any real money until Holy Grail came out in America,” confirms Cleese. The movie has since entered the canon of classic comedy films, alongside Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, and Mel Brooks, and continues to be enjoyed (and endlessly quoted) by Python fans in their millions around the world.

It wasn’t easy to get there. The footage they shot mostly in Scotland the previous spring had a lengthy post-production process. The sound was a particular nightmare, and was constantly tweaked and remixed. The authentic medieval score composed by Neil Innes and performed on lutes and recorders was reluctantly dropped, replaced by deliberately cheesy, bombastic “epic film music” from a stock music library. (It just worked better.) Holy Grail had no less than a dozen preview screenings, gradually becoming tighter, faster, sillier. 

At some point late in the post-production process of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the Pythons decided the film needed a suitable audio companion piece — an album worthy of their stellar run of earlier albums. A “soundtrack” album that was not just songs (there were only a couple in the movie), or the score (which was stock stuff anyway), but the best dialogue sequences, wrapped by a clever framing device, and frequently interrupted by original sketches only tangentially related to the film.

The Python Prime Directive regarding non-TV or movie projects remained in place. “There was a real sense that we didn’t want to shortchange the audience,” says Michael Palin. “I felt that if someone had paid to see the film at the cinema, when they bought the album there should be much more on it than just clips from the film.” Per usual, approximately half the running time was original to the album.

The Album of the Soundtrack of the Trailer of the Film Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Released: July 18, 1975 (U.K.); July 21, 1975 (U.S.)

Produced by Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam, Andre Jacquemin, and David Howman

Track Listing:

Side One

1. Introduction (Executive Vesion)

2. Introduction, Part II — Tour of the Classic (Silbury Hill) Theatre

3. Live Broadcast from London: Premiere of the Film

4. Arrival At Castle

5. Bring Out Your Dead

6. Constitutional Peasants

7. Witch Burning

8. Professional Logician

9. Camelot

10. Camelot Song

11. Arthur and God

12. Classic (Silbury Hill) (Live from the Parking Lot)

13. French Castle

14. Bomb Scare

Side Two

1. Introduction (Non-Exective Version)

2. Executive Apology for Non-Executive Introduction

3. The Story So Far

4. Brave Sir Robin

5. The Knights Who Say “Ni!”

6. Marilyn Monroe

7. Swamp Castle

8. Tim the Enchanter

9. Drama Critic

10. Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch

11. Executive Addendum

12. End of Quest

The first thing the listener hears is a smooth-voiced announcer fawningly congratulating them on buying the “executive” version of the album, which, among many other “quailty” features, has a center hole specially created “to fit exactly onto your spindle with all the precision of finest Swiss craftsmanship.” (Conflicting, perhaps, with the large label on the back of the album cover that said “WARNING: This album can only be played once!”)

The main framing device for the album is hardly “executive” — an audio replication of a mundane 3:10 matinee showing of the film (filled with “several people”) at a slightly run-down cinema, the “Classic (Silbury Hill),” in the non-descript town of Andover in Hampshire. We are taken on a short tour of the cinema lobby, the lavatories, and are introduced to the concession salesgirls (“Eunice and Maureen Zappa”). We are then treated to a news report from the film’s actual premiere in London’s West End, ending with a multi-car pile-up on Old Compton Street which results in the gruesome, fiery deaths of several celebrities.

We finally hear the opening moments of the film from our place in the last few rows of seats…but continue to also hear the Classic (Silbury Hill) audience, who greets the film’s opening line (“Whoa, there”) with gales of delighted laughter. We also continue to hear the Classic (Silbury Hill) narrator, who helpfully says things like “Well…it’s still mainly visual, so far…Ah, here is some dialogue…” He then proceeds to completely talk over the film’s first sequence. The listener can just make out the film characters discussing coconuts as the narrator describes the scene in detail, until another member of the audiences shushes him.

The next few sequences play uninterrupted, and the audio is lifted directly from the film. John Cleese’s professional logician then speaks up, first meticulously analyzing the logic of the witch-burning scene (“universal affirmatives can only be partially converted” etc.) before drifting into an angry, Cleesian rant about his emotionally needy wife. (Michael Palin later remarked a copy of this sketch should have been sent to Cleese’s therapist.)

And so we hear (some of) the film unfold over the course of the album, focusing on the dialogue-heavy sequences (so no Black Knight or Castle Anthrax). There are frequent interruptions by events at the Classic (Silbury Hill), such as a detailed look at the parking lot, a projector breakdown (under rather unusual circumstances), and a bomb scare. We also get two failed but colorful attempts to re-cap “the story so far” at the start of side two, along with an apology for a “non-executive” introduction (“the brusque tone was intended for buyers of the cheaper version”), an interview with a film director who insists the quite dead Marilyn Monroe is the star of his latest film (“Surely Miss Monroe was cremated?” “We had to use a stand-in for some of the more…visible shots”), and input from some drama critics.

On location for Holy Grail, May 1974

Holy Grail fans know how the movie ends. Embarrassed by the French taunters one last time at Castle Aaargh, King Arthur summons his army, and leads a massive chage…which is stopped by the modern-day local police department. Everyone is arrested, and the screen goes black. 

The album doesn’t quite make it that far. After the incident at Castle Aaargh, we hear Terry Jones say, “Well, that’s it, really. The film ends mainly visually.” And side two comes to a close as we hear Jones’ footsteps walk off and go out the door.

Production of the album came at a difficult time for the Python team. Cleese had long since announced he would do no more TV projects with them. Now, after the shortened fourth series which many had felt did not live up to their usual standards, Eric Idle followed suit. In fact, at a particularly argumentative meeting in February of ‘75 (as recorded in Michael Palin’s diary), Idle was contemplating leaving the group altogether. Word leaked, and the press began running with “Python Breaks Up” stories — all just before what was going to be their great cinematic triumph! 

Whatever issues they were having were put on the shelf as work on the soundtrack album commenced. Andre Jacquemin’s new sound production company finally got access to a real studio. No more garden shed! All six Pythons met at Sunrise Studios on Wardour Street, London to record the new material over a few days in late March 1975. 

“As Terry G. had directed some of the film it was good to have him at my side while we trawled through the actual soundtrack, and all of us were still writing sketches at the time,” says Palin. “There were also plenty of leftover sketches from the [fourth] television series. If two or more of us were in the studio, I would pull out some of these unused sketches and record them. A lot of the extra material on the Holy Grail record was from this tranche of material, but we only used it if it was somehow relevant to the project. The sketch about digging up Marilyn Monroe…was one of those that seemed to work. Both Terry and I wanted the album to be able to stand alone.” 

“We produced the album in the same way we did everything,” adds Terry Jones. “Instinct and exquisite taste.”

New York, April 1975

As Cleese was in the middle of making Fawlty Towers (and probably wouldn’t have come anyway), it was five Pythons that made another trip to the U.S. to promote the film (the second one in as many months for the four of them who did the PBS tour). Terry Jones vividly remembers a New York City police horse biting a massive chunk out of his furry coat.

That spring, the Pythons went their separate ways. At this point in their careers, all six wanted to stretch their wings, and solo projects were in the air. Palin & Jones began scripting a comedy-adventure series called Ripping Yarns starring Palin, Cleese’s Fawlty Towers was set to premiere that fall, and six episodes of Idle’s Rutland Weekend Television were already finished and would be on the air as soon as May (co-starring Neil Innes). Gilliam had begun outlining ideas for first feature film as a solo director, Jabberwocky. Chapman had been working with future Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy creator Douglas Adams for some time, and the two of them created a sketch comedy show, Out of the Trees, which didn’t make it past the airing of the pilot episode.

They agreed they weren’t “breaking up,” or finished as a team. It’s just that Pythonic activity would now have to be slotted in among everything else they were starting to get up to as individuals. There was a tantalizing notion of taking their live show to the U.S. sometime the following year, and during the Holy Grail soundtrack recording sessions, they decided their next film (whenever it happened) would be a Biblical epic.

The Holy Grail soundtrack album slipped out in the middle of summer ’75, just as the film’s theatrical run ended…and loyal fans might be wanting a souvenir. It becomes yet another classic Python album. Perhaps the final one?

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