It's impossible to fully comprehend the importance of 'Monty Python's Flying Circus'. Their significance within the comedy landscape is so enormous that it's unfair to compare anyone else to its creators. Of course there were great comedians before them, and there have certainly been great comedians since, but with their 45 episodes of television from 1969 to 1974 - and the four films that followed - they represent a singular moment in the evolution of the form, a bolt of lightning that seemed to come from nowhere, and despite endless efforts (even by themselves), they remain impossible to replicate. Over 50 years later, their work still has the capacity to scramble your brain, blast your senses and leave you crying with laughter.
The television series didn't come out of nowhere though; it was a series of circumstances that, over the course of many unrelated projects, brought six fiercely funny young men together who also happened to share piercing intelligence, uncompromising perfectionism and prodigious skills as performers. It was a perfect storm of talent and circumstance that would cause a revolution in British comedy, and eventually comedy around the world. I sometimes wonder what it would have been like to tune into that first episode in a world mere seconds before Python, with no idea or reference for what you were going to see, an assault of energy, wit, anarchy and nonsense where the audience was not simply viewer but participant. Python wanted you along for the ride, but you had to keep up with them, otherwise they were going to leave them behind.
One of the great riddles of Python is what it is about their work that makes it so extraordinary, why they are one of those very rare cultural moments that transcends generation, gender, language or culture. It's even baffling, when through the lens of contemporary understandings of all those things, and despite many moments of insensitivity to them within the four seasons of the series, that they haven't become an outdated cultural artefact. Perhaps the reason for their singular nature is that, underneath the absurdity and nonsense on the surface is a foundation of rigorous dramaturgy and biting social commentary. Pythonesque comedy (as it has been coined) is somehow about nothing and everything all at once, a left-wing commentary on class, elitism, sexism, racism, even homophobia, driven by the fact that Graham Chapman, Terry Jones, John Cleese, Michael Palin, Eric Idle and Terry Gilliam fully understood the taboos they were breaking and the comic conventions they were decimating, mixed with an affection and respect for the very people and social groups they are lampooning.
Python does away with the punch-line, and as such forces us to actually work with them. A punch-line lets us know what we're supposed to laugh at, what the point of the joke is, but by denying us that, we're actually forced to listen, engage and debate with the sketch, to have to muddle through its density to understand what it means. Suddenly, two men slapping themselves with fish or a race full of Queen Victorias or a penguin on your television set blowing up have a deeper sense of meaning because we have to find that meaning for ourselves, if we want to. In some ways, Python has a lot in common with Lewis Carroll's 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland' - a work from, and commenting on, a very particular time and place, but that has endured in the years since, often dismissed as nonsensical. There have been many imitators of Python, as there have been of Carroll, but they all revert to the idea that Python is about yelling a lot, putting on a funny voice and doing something pointless and silly. They ultimately fail because they have missed what is at the very heart of Python, that it is about something, that there is logic to the nonsense, and their enduring power - as with Carroll - is that they are speaking with such specificity to their time, and consequently speaking for all time, addressing the fundamental absurdities of human behaviour on all levels. Woven into the DNA of the yelling and the cross-dressing and the silly walks and the funny voices is perhaps the most intelligent comic writing of the last century.
Part of the majesty of Python is how these six young men use themselves so fully as the canvas on which to paint their little comic masterpieces. Each of the Python's works (even the individual television episodes) are a complete universe in themselves, and they wickedly occupy every corner of it. There is no star, no one sticking to one comic or performance lane. They are each as invested and complicit in the realisation of their creation as the other, perfectly in sync with the energies of the group and themselves as individuals. It's hard enough finding a group of performers who can work this holistically in a single film; that these six men maintained it across many decades and across multiple mediums is still staggering, and that, even at their worst, they somehow still made work to be admired. It's also telling that, even though they all went on to great careers on their own, none have done anything to match the blinding brilliance of Python. That bolt of lightning was captured in a bottle, and such a thing is likely never to be seen again.
Revisiting the four seasons of 'Monty Python's Flying Circus' is returning to one of the Rosetta Stones of comedy. There are all the iconic sketches, rendered in their infancy with no understanding that they are going to become legends retold in schoolyards and university campuses and pubs and offices and lounge rooms forever. There are also the forgotten gems, those little moments that take you by surprise with their alarming swiftness and energy. We also get to see them in context, within the narrative of each carefully constructed episode, see how they evolve and recur over time, marvel at the way Python are able to manipulate time, place, object, physicality and the laws of nature with thrilling abandon, how a sketch can be in 1960s London and during the Great War at the same time before a cut-out cartoon cat comes along and eats a house, and all of it somehow making perfect sense.
It was a perfect storm of talent and circumstance that would cause a revolution in British comedy, and eventually comedy around the world.
I've been watching 'Monty Python's Flying Circus' since I was a kid, but nothing about my love for it is built on nostalgia. I find myself more intrigued, amused, baffled and inspired with every rewatch, find new things I've never noticed before, and continue to marvel at the absurdity of its existence. Python speaks to the intellectual and primal all at once, to our desire to make sense of the chaos of life while also encouraging us to embrace it, calling out hypocrisy with a fury that hits our hearts, minds and funny bones all at once. I still sit there watching with dumbfounded awe that any human beings could have conceived of this thing, and so incredibly grateful that their work, unlike many of their contemporaries, hasn't been lost to the mists of time. To be very subjective and personal about it, I think 'Monty Python's Flying Circus' is a miracle.
PICTURE & SOUND
This release from Via Vision makes use of the recent restoration of the series by Network Distribution, one of the most extensive ever undertaken for a television series. Rather than simply upscaling the pre-existing SD versions, they returned to as many of the original elements (or as close to) as possible, which included 2" quad tape for the studio sequences shot on video, and 16mm for the animation and film inserts. It's important to temper your expectations, as there was no way the series was ever going to look crystal-clear in HD, but as someone who has watched the series in unrestored television broadcasts and on DVD for years, I found the 1.33:1 1080i (to match the original PAL video format) transfers to be a revelation. The image is clearer than it has ever been, especially moments sourced from 16mm, and an enormous amount of damage and film artefacts have been removed, but what is most impressive about these transfers are their stability and colour. Transitions are cleaner and the wobble in the image has been minimised, and now the whole series bursts with a bright, striking colour palette that hadn't been noticeable before. The restoration work done on this series is astounding, and deserving of such an important piece of television history.
For a closer look at the restoration process (especially with Gilliam's animation), be sure to check out the featurette 'Restoring Flying Circus with Terry Gilliam' (17:47) on the disc for Series 4.
The transfer is accompanied by an LPCM 2.0 mono track, and is likewise an impressive restoration effort, offering the aural insanity of the series in the clearest presentation so far.
There have been a number of excellent contemporary documentaries on the Pythons (particularly the tremendous six-part series 'Monty Python: Almost the Truth (Lawyer's Cut)'). None of that material carries over to this set, but what we have instead is a treasure trove of unseen outtakes and extended material recovered from various archives, some of which has been restored to their relevant episodes but most featured as extras for their relevant series. I won't go into detail on every singe item (there's a lot here), but what they offer is a raw peek behind the curtain of the making of the series in action, and the pedantic attention to detail that went into it. This extra material hasn't been restored to the same standard as the series, but has been upscaled at least, and demonstrates further just how remarkable the restoration of the series is. Hidden amongst this material are archival interviews and publicity material.
The Via Vision set differs in presentation from the original Norwegian Blu-ray release from Network last year. The four series are presented in a handsome hardbox with the individual series in plastic cases inside, offering much less cumbersome packaging than the original. The downside is that we don't get the extensive booklets that came with each season, but the written material on the restoration efforts particular to each series are reprinted inside the sleeves. It always felt unlikely that we would ever get a release of this restoration in Australia, so the fact we have all the on-disc material at the very least makes this an event release from Via Vision.