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Monty Python Live (Mostly) - The O2 Arena, Greenwich, London on Wednesday, 16 July 2014
If you've not yet read any of my reviews before, be warned that they are play-by-play accounts, and when I particularly enjoy them, I accidentally go into excruciating detail. So for first timers, skimming may be advised.....
It is a rare thing that has an adult eagerly looking forward to it for weeks with a sense of fun and happiness that six year olds must feel when anticipating Christmas or a trip to Disneyland. It is also a rare thing that makes you feel fully justified in spending more than you have spare on one ticket. But when these rare things come along, you can’t let them pass you by. This ‘unmissable’ element is something I only felt once before when Simon & Garfunkel played Hyde Park. I knew I’d better be there as that rare opportunity wouldn’t be repeated. Ten years later, there was a truly once-in-a-lifetime event that I again knew to be unmissable: Monty Python would be performing live together at the 02 Arena, an unlikely and final reunion of a legendary phenomenon.
Still, it was out of my reach. The original show sold out in seconds and tickets to the added shows were reported to have all disappeared as well. Then Terry Jones tweeted to say the press reports were wrong and there were still tickets available—and just after I’d been paid. Even giving up a fair amount of food and comfort for a while wouldn’t get me a ticket for a choice seat, but I managed the next tier down. Poor but happy, I couldn’t have been more excited, and I lived contentedly on sparkling anticipation.
There was a party atmosphere on the Thames Clipper boat that I took from Greenwich, where I’d spent a lovely afternoon on Wednesday, 16th July 2014, to the O2 Arena. It was clear we were all Python fans; we didn’t have to dress as lumberjacks (not in this heat!) to reveal ourselves.
As we approached the venue and the moment, I felt fortunate. In a sense, the Python stage show Spamalot had brought us here in that it led to the Monty Python and the Holy Grail producer taking the Pythons to court for a cut of the play’s proceeds, and a way to cover the costly legal bills was to do a night at the O2. I loved the fun of Spamalot as soon as I saw the ushers banging coconut shells together to clip-clop their way around the theatre, but I felt frustrated that I was watching familiar Python sketches performed by people who were not the Pythons. I kept willing them to be, but they never were. And at the time, there was no hope of seeing the real Python troupe together again. But tonight, it really was going to be them performing. What bliss.
The same sound sense of humour that had the Spamalot ushers clip-clopping around had been applied to the magnificent merchandise stall at the O2. The sign above it said ‘Stuff for Money’, and quite a variety of stuff there was: romper suits for babies; t-shirts including one with a blue dead parrot under the words ‘pining for the Fjords’; polo shirts with the Lauren polo pony replaced with the Python foot and no other explanation; mugs reminiscent of the artwork for Where the Wild Things Are, tea towels and £20 (£20!) programmes. The £20(!) programme included a welcome signed by all the Pythons, which began ‘All of us, except, I think Eric and Terry Gilliam, and possibly John, want to say how pleased we are to see you all here.’ It also included Alan Yentob interviews of each individual Python, in which Michael Palin pointed out that they each played at least 12 parts in the show, and the quick changes were likely to be the most difficult thing. ‘I haven’t actually practised taking my trousers on and off quickly….Wish that I had that sort of life.’
The £20(!) programme also had a would-be disconcerting Special Notice slipped into the front with the current date explaining that some of the cast were indisposed. And so tonight, the part of John Cleese would be played by Kevin Bacon, ‘Michael Palin’s role this evening will be taken by Morgan Freeman’, Joan Collins would stand in for Carol Cleveland, who had gone on holiday, ‘and unfortunately, Terry Gilliam will be playing Terry Gilliam.’ A good start. (It would, of course, have been one (cynical) way for them to approach it, if they took all the money and then chose not to turn up, a bit Kraftwerk. If you pay a fortune to see Blithe Spirit because Angela Lansbury is in it, but her understudy is on that night, they don’t refund your money. But the Pythons probably would have got bad reviews and been hunted down and stoned. Not that seeing Morgan Freeman and Kevin Bacon do the dead parrot sketch wouldn’t have been an intriguing experience, but that isn’t why we came.)
These would be the Pythons, not like Spamalot, and not even like those old repeats of their television show that we’ve watched for decades. The actual real Monty Pythons would be on stage before us. Graham Chapman was, of course, no longer quite able to take part (hence the references on the £20 (£20!) programme and posters to ‘one down, five to go.’), but he would be there in spirit and film, and fabulously, Carol Cleveland, the original Python blonde (when it wasn’t also Connie Booth) would grace us with her exuberant presence. I think they even had the original Albatross.
I knew that Eric Idle had put together a big show that included a lot of song and dance numbers performed by a troupe of youngsters, which I hoped wouldn’t dilute the show too much, but no one could blame a group of men over 70, no matter how youthful, for having a few minutes off their feet rather than giving an intensive performance solidly for three hours, or for needing a bit more time to change from a lumberjack to a 1960s northern housewife. After all, they had more time for that when filming the television series. Plus the dancers were choreographed by Arlene Phillips, who was insanely replaced as a judge by the BBC in that awful dance show that everyone else loves, when ironically Auntie confirmed that she sees no value in women over 40, regardless of their immense experience and knowledge. She’s choreographed numerous stage musicals, iconic music videos and the film Annie…oh, and some film called The Meaning of Life. So the dancing tonight would be skilfully staged and they’d surely shell out for decent dancers.
So what we got to see in the end was a slick, fantastically fun show. There was corpsing, delightful times when the Pythons laughed and one needed to prompt the other on lines, and there was the occasional possibly assisted prop failure—all an extra extravagance. It would have seemed a lesser show without that aspect; it added to the celebratory atmosphere, showing that we were all at the same party. It was all staged perfectly, and the three big screens never failed to show what you wanted to see, the side screens sometimes giving a different view from the main one. So, for instance, if you wanted to stare at the penguin on the telly as well as Terry Jones’ stockings and Cleese’s bountiful bosom, the view was all there for you to drink in. And I positively gulped it down. (Wait a minute, that sounds a bit gross.)
Also, this was a new and improved Python. They’ve had 40 years’ more experience, they have hindsight to see which sketches were favourites, they chose precisely which ones should be performed live and which archive clips should be shown on screen, and they performed the much adored sketches with more now developed talent, but mostly stuck to the original lines and heart of what we loved. If you go see, say, Van Morrison perform, he’d probably refuse to play Brown Eyed Girl and, if he performed Moondance, it would be a vastly different version, when you kinda wanna hear it like the album. I don’t understand why people who went to see Jessie J at Glastonbury that time she had a little girl from the audience sing all of Price Tag didn’t feel cheated. That’s not what you paid to see. The Pythons understood and had this down pat, and although the original troupe gave off an air in the 70s of being above caring much about anything (also called ‘youth’), they put their all into every detail of this show. It was focused on pleasing the crowd. They gave us all of the most famous, most beloved sketches, delivering the lines we all know and love, but with a few improvements, surprises and cracking combinations, using the improved talent of the more seasoned performers they are now, whilst retaining the honest soul of it all.
At the beginning, as I waited in the arena with the rest of the jovial crowd for this momentous occasion to start, we were so excited that we were taking pictures of the empty red dressed stage, just because that was thrilling enough. We were children waiting for our birthday party to start. Little did we know how much better it would get as we sat listening to cheerful music that you might come across in a park bandstand on a summer’s day. Large TV-style cameras were focused on the stage from the end of our aisle, and loads of others were in the middle of the far area facing the stage. Naturally, cameras are needed to project the close-up images on screen, and on Sunday the event would be live-streamed into 2,000 cinemas and on the UK’s Gold channel (which I get, thank goodness), but one could hope they were recording all the nights so they could pick the best bits and issue a perfect DVD.
Naturally, we let out a child-like roar when the lights went down, but it would be about six minutes before we saw anyone. It wasn’t a pretentious Michael Jackson-style delay. I had noticed the conductor and live orchestra in the pit, half of which seemed to be filled with drums, and was reminded that this was indeed a show. Shows come with overtures of all the music you are about to hear, so that you are familiar with the tunes and subconsciously like them more when they crop up in the show. But this overture, often with a choir singing off stage, contained the already very familiar: ‘Every Sperm is Sacred’, ‘Spam Spam Spam’ and the ‘Lumberjack Song’, leading into ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.’
We didn’t mind the wait; we were excited and this was music we loved. The musical director turned to us and conducted 20,000 people gaily clapping to the beat, until the tempo changed to something a bit more Candide meets chilled Island. It then led to a few bars of a chorus that sounded a bit like ‘(Off we go into the) Wild Blue Yonder’ then a Muzak Three Dimension version of the Spam song. It was all part of the party; we were still eager for Santa to pop down the chimney with our gifts, so we were happy to observe the preliminary carolling. The end of the overture was greeted with thrilled cheers as we’d just unwrapped the present and were about to lift the lid to reveal the gift we’d longed for, our new source of happiness (and surely world peace).
As the Space Odyssey theme was played, the massive screen at the back of the stage started to show a slightly twisted version of a familiar looking cinema logo that said ‘20th Century Vole’, with the usual lion replaced by a chirruping animated vole, of course. We were kids in a candy shop, giggling along. Next some large planets in a galaxy appeared on screen, and the head of the Python who required the ‘mostly’ to be added after ‘live’ in the title, Graham Chapman, suspended in space before the famous Python foot kicked it to zip about the universe, playing pinball with the planets. Then something that might have been mistaken for the Doctor’s Tardis, had it not been labelled ‘Retardis’, zipped about the universe within a modern Terry Gilliam (I assume) animation that resembled the style of the opening credits of Have I Got News for You?
The large screen had a small narrow upper platform at its base, a sort of first-floor stage, with two sets of stairs either side leading down to the lower main stage with curtains behind it. Now, spotlights flashed around the audience to a slight variation (a bagpipe version?) of the Monty Python theme tune, and a 3-D version of the Retardis, by which I mean a real thing, moved out from the back curtain onto the main stage and opened to reveal— at last—the five surviving Monty Python troupe: John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin. They were all dressed a bit like a Mexican Mariachi band—or at least in Spanish-like tuxedos with black Spanish hats and the odd red cummerbund. Remaining somewhat in that character, they spread across the edge of the stage to acknowledge our euphoric roars, each adopting silly poses, as the words ‘Photo Opportunity’ flashed up behind them, so we obliged. No flash photography was allowed, but quite a few flashes (vs flashers—that came later) got busy around the arena, just this once. They were, of course, joined on stage by a giant kangaroo, or someone dressed as a kangaroo, but that didn’t faze us as we tried to get to grips with having Monty Python not on our telly in a 1970s time warp, but in the flesh before us. What a treat.
The Pythons all gathered in a team huddle as though concocting a plan for the evening. When they broke the huddle, John Cleese (the real John Cleese live just in front of us!) began to address us in Spanish. They were all now wearing their Spanish hats apart from Cleese, who was wearing a Viking hat. Mind you, the British Museum taught us at its recent Viking exhibition that Vikings never actually wore those horned hats, plus this one was furry. So John Cleese really was addressing us in Spanish wearing more of a Highland cattle scalp.
In between Cleese’s Spanish lines, Eric Idle and Terry Jones strummed acoustic guitars they’d picked up from stands behind them, and the others shook their big maracas, animatedly reacting by calling out with trills and Olés, all sometimes singing a brief line (beautifully) like one of those bands that torture you at your restaurant table on holiday.
For those of us who don’t speak Spanish (assuming John Cleese did), his words appeared in translation on the giant screen just above him. The subtitles were, as you can imagine, very silly indeed. Phrases about loving large figs logically led to a llama theme, with expressions like ‘Llamas are dangerous so if you see one where people are swimming, shout!’ Naturally, a big white stuffed life-sized llama was then pulled across the stage with the smashing original Python girl (better than a Bond girl!), Carol Cleveland, riding it, which was amazing and garnered cheers throughout the arena. For her, not the llama. They wandered past and went off. The kangaroo had left by now; we wouldn’t want a llama and a kangaroo on stage at the same time, as they might fight. After all, I’d heard somewhere that llamas were dangerous. Plus they spit.
The Pythons then also walked off the stage through the curtain behind them as we applauded. The orchestra burst into the full-fledged Monty Python theme. (I find I always expect that flatulent raspberry splat when I hear ‘The Liberty Bell’ march on Classic FM, but for some reason, they never play the right version.) Like eager children, we clapped along to the music that seemed fully electrified with the excitement emanating around the arena, but we stopped immediately when the great raspberry punctuated the end and left us in a moment’s silence as a new set rolled out from the back.
And what a vision! It was the four Yorkshiremen (minus Gilliam), all in white dinner jackets now, holding cigars and lounging in wicker chairs in front of a sunset. Everyone whistled and cheered at the sight of an old friend, a famous and seminal routine so adored through the years.
With sketches like this, if any of these incredibly youthful septuagenarians (NB 70 is the new 40) forgot their lines, we would gladly say them for them. It would be like a Robbie Williams appearance at a festival; they could say one line to cue us and then just hold the microphone towards the crowd and let us do all the work. Of course, they were wearing Les Miserables style mikes subtly plastered to the sides of their faces, and it would have been less entertaining for us, but they didn’t need our help anyway.
The sketch truly delivered. It’s a tricky ask, really. It’s like returning to your favourite city wanting to relive the romantic weekend when you got engaged in your youth, trying to recapture that feeling 40 years later. The chances of finding the same magic are slim. Whereas this evening with the Pythons was better than the first trip. They’re all vastly better performers now with the knowledge of what appealed to us the most, and they expanded those joys and pruned out the fillers. This was truly the best of Monty Python, and a special glimpse of a rare specimen live in its natural habitat.
‘Who’d have thought, 40 years ago, we’d all be sitting here doing Monty Python, eh?’ Idle began. You know the routine—they then hilariously competed to have the most awful previous life in poverty. They started simple, speaking of having to have ‘Cold tea. Without milk or sugar. Or tea. ….The best we could manage was to suck on a piece of damp cloth.’ (Annoyingly, some evil late people then came through on my aisle, apologising loudly and repeatedly as they aimed for two distant seats, so we all had to stand and shuffle our bags and so missed a fair bit.)
And then the famous competition got ‘serious’. ‘Cardboard box?’ the Pythons continued. ‘You were lucky. We lived for three months in a rolled up newspaper in a septic tank’…..‘We used to get up out of the swamp at three o’clock in the morning, drain the swamp, eat a hard-boiled twig, work 19 hours at mill…’ ‘Paradise! We had it tough.’
Oh the joy of it! Even though we knew the gist of it, every line was punctuated with joyful laughter. Mind you, if something’s hilarious and beautifully performed, it doesn’t always matter if you know the punchline, and they surprised us with elaborate exaggerations. (Weirdly, the odd confetti piece fell near Eric Idle and others during the sketch; I presumed a leak from suspended confetti cauldrons to be used later.)
After the final line about how young people today just didn’t believe how they all used to have to live, the set rolled back behind the curtain and the Pythons undoubtedly rushed off to change, as we were entertained with a bit of Terry Gilliam’s original animation.
One slight problem with this ingenious show throughout was that it was so beautifully packed with happenings, one thing led to another so quickly that there wasn’t time to applaud what had just finished. So the four Yorkshiremen deserved a massive five-minute boom of approval, but we were suddenly engaged watching the new film on the screen as the Pythons slid off, and we didn’t want to miss anything so we stayed silent. And perhaps we’re all of an age where we have a short attention span. I hope the performers were aware that that was the only reason we weren’t causing deafness with applause and measured their success on the prodigious laughter during the sketches and the adoring atmosphere that prevailed.
The animation was the one where a man chased his fleeing, flying mouth, then held up a sign saying ‘And now the Fish-Slapping Dance’, which led to a clip of a favourite old Python sketch with Palin in safari gear dancing up to Cleese alongside a canal and periodically slapping him in the face with a fish before Cleese retaliates with a giant one that knocks Palin into the canal, and then turns to animation to show a Nazi fish eating Palin underwater. Which would be hard to enact on stage.(Most of these clips are available on YouTube, but of course you should buy one of the new Python box sets instead…..)
As the end of the clip showed a ship being sunk, we were faced with words on screen that were a sort of quick promotion for cruise ships, perhaps a jocular nod to the BBC’s Balanced View policy, although later in the show, we found that whimsical promotions of other unlikely things were delightfully thrust upon us. At the end of this brief diversion, there was silence in the arena. I felt we should have applauded then as we’d had the pleasure of seeing Gilliam’s work and a favourite sketch, but everyone just waited to see what happened next.
…Which was that Eric Idle, in a red satin dressing gown over a bow tie, delicately clutching a long cigarette holder, strolled on with Terry Gilliam on his arm, and Gilliam was dressed as a glammed up old woman with a scarf around her head wearing huge rings. They were greeted with hundreds of wolf whistles. ‘Good evening ladies and gentlemen,’ Idle said in a 1930s RP Noel Coward voice. ‘You look and smell divine.’
In this character, Idle welcomed us to Monty’s Musical, ‘the show that leaves you wanting less’, and asked us to give a big hand to Terry Gilliam, which we did. Gilliam looked like one of those awful women in the follies on a 1930s Poirot-style cruise, and s(he) moved to a white piano that had slid onto the far side of the set. It sounded as though Idle then said, ‘Hello, I’m Martin Scorsese’. What mattered most was his next line, ‘Here’s a little number I tossed off recently in the Caribbean’, from The Meaning of Life, which got the people cheering.
He sang, Noel Coward style, a quick ditty along the lines of ‘Isn’t it awfully nice to have a penis’, (the brief ‘Penis Song’) punctuated by Gilliam’s piano, with close ups on the screen showing the latter’s long painted nails and bejewelled fingers dancing about the keys. Idle ended with, ‘But don’t take it out in public or they’ll stick you in the dock, and you won’t come back.’
The audience roared, then Idle weirdly said, ‘I’d like to thank the navy. And here they are’. We laughed nervously, the Pythons left the stage, the orchestra drummed up a march, and a few dozen performers, our first glimpse of the company, marched on to the upper ‘passage’ dressed in navy sailor outfits. They continued singing about the joys of having a penile unit, listing all different nicknames for it (I don’t mean ‘Bob’ or ‘Stud’; I mean slang), busily dancing à la South Pacific.
The female sailors then sang a new (modern equal opportunities) verse about how great it was to have the female equivalent, a front bottom and its many worse words, all of which appeared on the screen in front of a Union Jack so we could sing along. Even the full c-word was included (‘but never call it C---, or you won’t come back’). So Monty Python remains edgy. I wondered if the cameras would cut to the dancers at that point when it’s screened live on Gold on Sunday before the watershed, rather than show the words. (Actually, they cut that whole number altogether and had Michael Palin dressed as an old woman killing time until it was over, but the later repeats will show the original number.)
Lyricist Eric Idle had really plunged into his Thesaurus of Naughty Parts for this one. I’m not sure how many of us sang along, but there was plenty of noise coming from the stage with two-part harmonies performed by energetic talents. If I had any criticism, it seemed to go on slightly long. Really, it lasted only a few minutes, and it was perfectly lively, but the Coward-style ditty was much more amusing to adults than turning rude words into a big production number. Still, it can’t be said that Monty Python doesn’t dabble in silliness—they’re very silly boys-- and it was all in good spirits and earned plenty of cheers at the end of a fine performance.
Cleese then briefly appeared on the upper part of the stage as a naval officer without arms (but with a dog collar), and he bellowed out commands, ending with ‘Company, camp-it-up!’ Following a trumpet fanfare, the sailors chanted away rather incomprehensibly in a monotone for a while as they manoeuvred about the stage, waggling hips. (When watching the live show on Gold the following Sunday, I was able to hear that they were chanting stereotypical camp phrases like ‘I’ll scratch your eyes out, dear’, but in the arena the night I was there, I couldn’t make out a single word.) I think this ended in a human pyramid. They paused to let Cleese speak more, and his soldier reminisced about how when the time came, he gave his arms gladly, singing and laughing. Land of Hope and Glory played as he carried on with a patriotic speech in that vein until he was wonderfully interrupted by the late Graham Chapman on screen, also in uniform as The Colonel, demanding that the sketch be stopped because it was too silly, before establishing (after claiming that he likes a good laugh as much as anyone) that actually most people like a good laugh more than he does. Everyone applauded when they saw him, the final piece of the jigsaw in the O2 Arena tonight. Graham Chapman actually didn’t look out of place, as you might imagine, by being so young in the clips, because he looked so old for his age then, and the others look so young for theirs now.
The soldiers had respectfully looked up to watch Chapman, and then marched off, and we were entertained with a wonderful old Python sketch on screen. It was another that would have been a bit tricky to reproduce on stage, for health and safety and shower timing reasons if nothing else. It was the delectable coverage of the Batley Townswomen’s Guild re-enactment of the battle of Pearl Harbour, which basically involved all the Pythons dressed as women running at and clobbering each other in the muddiest field—an early precursor to mud wrestling, but not quite as sexy in anyone’s mind. The audience guffawed from the start, and it was grand to rejoice in some of these classic sketches again, although I hadn’t actually remembered that one.
In fact, there may have been many subtle references during the evening that I missed. I loved the Python shows and many of the Python films—I adored the Holy Grail even as a nine-year-old kid, particularly the Knights Who Say Ni and the bloodthirsty cute little killer rabbit. But I’ve never been someone who could recite lines verbatim or sing along with the songs (other than ‘Lumberjack’, which has been the default song on my brain for weeks). My exposure to Monty Python was usually as a child after midnight on the public broadcasting channel in the States, which also showed old repeats of Are You Being Served, where I never got the double entendre, and early EastEnders. I loved Python without realising for some decades that the hilarious characters were making fun of certain English stereotypes that I got to know later. They were just divine on other levels.
Next on the O2 screen came a quick Gilliam animation—the one where the hand tries to sneak up on a statue to remove its carefully placed fig leaf, which had people laughing with each try. It stopped when ‘Censored’ was stamped across the screen and my favourite Bach Brandenburg Concerto played as a new set slid downstage to reveal John Cleese as the pope sitting on a gold and red velvet throne, with a picture of the Vatican on the screen behind him.
Terry Gilliam in a Baldrick-style level of cleanliness and fashion (with exposed brain) grunted to the Pope that Michelangelo was there to see him, with a detailed explanation of who the artist was that I believe included reference to his penis size, a prominent theme of this part of the show. When Pope John dismissed him Fawlty-style, Gilliam changed to a high camp voice and said, ‘I’m terribly sorry love, I’m just trying to help out’ as he left.
I have to say that, overall, Gilliam made more of a contribution than I ever gave him credit for—not just the animation. The animation entertained me more as a child than it does now--it was seminal stuff then, although some had that Yellow Submarine feel about it, so I underestimated him a bit and completely forgot that he is in so many sketches (and added to a few others tonight). Plus he has the ability to create some truly hilarious characters (nobody expected such a good Spanish inquisition!). He even sings and plays piano. The man does terrifying and menacing or silly and camp with ease. His talents as an acting Python have been underrated. Perhaps just by me?
Now, Eric Idle as Michelangelo remained standing to the right of the stage in blue velvet, holding a palette, listening to Pope John state his dissatisfaction about the Last Supper that he had just painted.
‘Was it the jelly?’ Michelangelo asked. They carried on with a hilarious discussion where Pope John expressed his unhappiness with Michelangelo’s artistic licence, demanding a new painting without kangaroos, llamas, steel bands, trampoline acts, mariachi band, 28 disciples, and one that had two fewer Christs. Michelangelo explained that this was not the Last, but the Penultimate Supper. ‘You want a bloody photographer, that’s what you want.’ At the end of the argument, he called the Pope a ‘Bloody fascist!’ Cleese’s Pope had the crowd howling at his furious ‘I’m the head of the f***ing Catholic Church, mate!’
This led to Idle singing the introduction to ‘Every Sperm is Sacred’, which got applause as the crowd recognised the first line of a song I’m sure we all hum even when we don’t mean to, another from The Meaning Of Life. ‘The one thing they say about Catholics is they’ll take you as soon as you’re warm….’, he sang, and man, can Idle really belt things out and in a bass voice now. He has a formidable range that I hadn’t really clocked given that most of it’s comedy and I’m usually busy laughing. As he reached the familiar chorus, numerous archbishops and nuns came on, belting out the chorus, singing sweetly when required, and the stage turned blue (in many ways—we even had a nude man rush on and off to illustrate one of the lines) as a huge stained glass back drop appeared on the screen, with spermatozoa instead of saints in the pattern. There was even a pair of legs holding a lit-up small stained glass window on the upper ledge, enabling Carol, I think, to stick her face through so it was a singing saint in the window, and the Pope chased the returning kangaroo off the stage. The throne was then pulled back to give the company more room to dance, leaving us with Idle as a wandering minstrel on the upper level, adding to the ‘Every sperm is needed’ line: ‘even in O2’. (The equivalent of shouting, ‘Good evening, Glastonbury!’)
The nuns and archbishops danced about athletically, soon ending up in white long johns and bloomers but still sporting their mitres and wimples and veils. Some dazzling drumming with flutes and whistles kicked in as the company did an Irish dance in line, which looks less impressive in thermals than it did in Lord of the Dance, before returning to the marching version of the song.
Naturally, two giant pink and white penis-shaped cannons were wheeled onto either side of the stage, and they eventually fired off their load (forgive me, but, you know), spewing white foamy stuff (or bubbles?) over presumably some of the audience who got great seats and part of the orchestra, and big balloons as well, as the nuns and bishops formed a kickline . I didn’t see the giant pink penis on my side actually spewing anything out, and I thought I heard Idle laughing into his mike, so maybe there was a penile malfunction (call for Viagra), but the other one gave us plenty to watch. Incidentally, if you were one of the people covered in, uh, stuff spewed out by the penile unit, the £20(!) programme may help you with a whole page suggesting what to do after the show, starting with ‘1. If you have been injured or maimed at all during the Show, go straight to hospital.’ And ending with ‘6. Above all, don’t go running home and telling everybody…This Show is perfectly safe, and there is no real need to wear protective clothing at all.’
Idle didn’t even look as though he was breathing heavily when he finished that number. I mean, I know he wasn’t leaping into the air whilst singing as the youngsters did, but he’s a pretty impressive showman with stamina to match his stage presence. I liked him all the more after this evening.
As the undoubtedly exhausted energetic performers left the stage, we clapped to the beat and then just applauded happily as a new set slid on that was straight from early Coronation Street, with vile brown patterned wallpaper and three ducks on the wall (I never did get that trend, but then I wasn’t in the thick of it). At a spartan kitchen table, Palin sat sporting a moustache and a brutal uptight dignity, a three-piece suit and what might be a Yorkshire accent (I’m American; I don’t get them all right--you have so many!). Terry Jones was seated nearby as a splendid elderly lady, who frankly seemed way too old for Palin’s character, but then Palin looks decades younger than he is in real life, and women do appear to age more than men. Plus I feel I’m analysing the attraction in their marriage a wee bit too much.
‘Bloody Catholics, filling up the bloody world with bloody people they can’t afford to feed’, Palin said in a deep voice, putting the audience in a state of great laughter from his first line. He then explained through a series of answers to his wife’s eager questions that they were Protestants and thus could have more sex than Catholics if they wanted to because he could go buy a French Letter or Romanian Tickler. He explained that ensuring that she would not be impregnated when he, ahem, ‘came off’, was what being a Protestant was all about, a line the audience adored. He was oblivious to the fact that his list of absurd nicknames for ways to protect himself got her quite excited. This sketch, I think based on a Chapman/Idle scene in The Meaning of Life, was fairly brief but was beautifully performed as prime character satire. Palin ended the sketch by saying he was a Protestant because that was what God wanted. Then on the screen above him, an animated vision of God, albeit a threatening Brian Blessed looking one, appeared and grumbled that he was sorry that he invented people as we were so boring and thought of nothing but sex, and as this was supposed to be a funny show, they should get on with it (I think he meant get on with the show, as opposed to….anything else.).
As God spoke, the northern dining room disappeared, and we were diverted to the screen to watch a priceless original Python clip. But here was another example where dear Palin and Jones deserved a great deal of expressed adulation but got none as we were directed to different media that moved on the show with no pause for applause.
The next beautifully chosen sketch, particularly grand when seen en masse with thousands of fellow gigglers, was of the Munchen 1972 Silly Olympiad with phenomenal games such as the 100 Meters for People with No Sense of Direction (terrific gag when the gun goes off), an incontinent marathon, and a freestyle for non-swimmers, who promptly disappear beneath the water as the commentator refers without pausing to fishing out the corpses before the next meet starts. Giggling filled the dome as the games continued, and when the film stopped, we applauded. It was only 40 minutes in; they’d packed in an enormous amount already. We felt like the privileged few, laughing freshly at things we may have heard before. It was so joyful.
Now on stage was an office with John Cleese seated at a desk, and Michael Palin arrived, seeking a new path in life. Cleese was a careers advisor who said that experts had decided from the results of Palin’s test that he should be a Chartered Accountant, as they found him to be appallingly dull and tedious company, which was just right for that job. A sensational Palin, who could light up his eyes on cue (he’s long been an skilled actor, serious and comic, after all), said how disappointed he was as he was already an accountant and really wanted to be a lion tamer. What qualifications did he have? ‘I’ve got a hat.’ He amusingly referred to the precise tax claim forms he could use for hat expenses as Cleese suggested that he might want to work his way towards lion taming from accountancy via insurance so it wasn’t such a big leap, and he doubted that the first question the circus people would ask if he put Palin’s man forward for the job was, ‘does he have a hat?’. The timing and chemistry between the two of them was exceptional.
When it transpired that Palin had confused lions with anteaters, Cleese pointed up to the screen, and in a split second, a huge close-up stock clip of a roaring lion appeared above them and scared Palin (‘Oh, sh*t!’) into confessing that he never really wanted to be a lion tamer. The arena applauded and cheered as we knew what was coming in this new transition to one of most prized numbers of all time. ‘No. I wanted to be…’ Palin said as we held our breath, ‘….A window dresser!’. (I think he ad libbed a new job each night.) We laughed, and he didn’t keep us waiting long before announcing that he really wanted to be, of course, ‘A lumberjack!’ There were screams of delight as he ripped off his dull accountant’s jacket and shirt like a Chippendale to reveal a lumberjack’s plaid shirt with braces, and put on a trapper hat, exactly as he appeared in the old Python sketch.
We clapped to the beat, such excited little children, as a smirking Cleese and the office disappeared backstage. Palin moved centre stage to put his arm around the smashing Carol Cleveland (who took over the role from Cleese’s wife Connie Booth in the TV series). She wore pigtails and a gingham dress as the illustrious sight and sound of 10 singing Mounties joined them on stage, two of whom were Pythons—the two Terrys. I always thought part of the real joy of the sketch was having some Pythons discreetly mixed in with a choir of incredible singers (mind you, most of the Pythons have revealed themselves to be exceptional singers). I also love how the lumberjack counts amongst his most enjoyable pastimes eating his lunch and going to the lavatory. If only I had such fascinating hobbies.
We didn’t sing along initially as it was just too majestic to spoil; we wanted to lap up every drop of this heaven. I mean, the glorious Lumberjack sketch, so well preserved, so perfect—live just there in front of us! And--this is a killer--for one of the last times ever. I find myself humming the tune on any given day; it’s always been my favourite Python song, and I just relish the whole staging of it. This was a dream and we all adored it. Some gorgeous trumpets kicked in most audibly just before poor Carol ran off crying after saying ‘Oh, Bevis, and I thought you were so butch!’ (an update on ‘rugged’ from the original). The Mounties followed in disgust, but ran back to finish the last chorus and held out the last note of the penultimate line for an age. This was true happiness.
We applauded heartily and whistled. It was just tragic it was behind us forever now. Wonderfully, as the Mounties and Palin went off, a band of LED writing circled the arena in the stands saying things like ‘Why not visit Canada this year? It’s not as dull as it sounds’. I think it even referred to having exciting mayors, and noted as a perk that it was second only to Finland in the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) guide book. I sure was sold.
Again, we didn’t have much time to give the Lumberjack sketch the long applause it unquestionably earned, as animation began to play a split second later. It’s great that we were never there twiddling our thumbs in darkness, but it wouldn’t have hurt to give some sketches a long, well-deserved stint of applause while we watched the animation. Perhaps they should have anticipated that we are all too old now to multi-task.
The animation, to Hawaiian music, was the Dynamo Tension advert from a1969 episode showing a skinny guy how to inflate his muscles after he got sand kicked in his face by the muscly bully who carried off his buxom love interest. It even contained the original canned laughter. It’s all part of Python’s heritage and the evening would have been emptier without these nods to the original series.
That led us to the philosophy section of the programme, first moving straight into another clip of the 1972 Munich Olympics (which made me realise how Big Train had been so influenced by the Pythons—but then who wasn’t?). This time it was the Philosophers' Football Match, involving Germany vs the Greeks--Nietzsche vs Socrates etc, with Confucius as the referee timing the game with an hourglass, but nothing much happened ‘til the Greeks figured out the value of kicking a ball into goal. People giggled along heartily. After all, we had recently been robbed of the pleasure of the World Cup (though some of us weren’t too bothered) so any football was a welcome joy.
That was interrupted with about 15 Bruces walking onto stage to the tune of Waltzing Matilda, with the previously seen big kangaroo. The Bruces are a load of Pythons and others dressed in beige shorts as outback Australians with cork hats holding tinnies of Fosters, who were all professors of different areas of philosophy apart from the few who were in charge of the sheep dip. As they gave their G’days, they were greeted with thrilled applause by fans who had long since missed them. Idle said ‘Welcome to the Oz Arena!’ til he was corrected with ‘O2, mate’. In between chants (‘sheep, sheep, sheep, we love you!’) and Amens, they made the odd long-loved joke that still had the Arena laughing: ‘We find over here, your English beer is just like making love in a canoe. It’s f-ing close to water.’ That was probably the cleanest joke, apart from maybe how to tell an English batsman (they’re the ones in the pavilion), and certainly not the one about getting Viagra mixed up with sleeping tablets, nor the one involving a Sheila getting a mobile mixed up with a vibrator. They did, however, do away with the original ‘No poofters’ rules that featured in the original sketch, as it is no longer 1970.
The people in the pricey seats on the floor were particularly enjoying this sketch because two Bruces dipped into coolers and threw foam (I hope—health and safety, you know) tinnies of Fosters out to them as they apparently looked thirsty (maybe because the O2 took their water bottle caps away, she says still fuming at that). Palin handed some foam tinnies to some of the younger (ensemble) Bruces so they could throw them even further into the audience, but they didn’t manage any better than the older ones. Palin, after all, revealed himself to be quite fit and muscly in some of his lesser clad moments later.
One of the Bruces was a woman, Carol, and beside her was the only Bruce not in Steve Irwin shorts. He wore jeans, but the rest of his kit matched the others. Bruce Idle (holding a guitar) said that Guest Bruce had paid a fortune to dress up like a prat for charity. We applauded the noble gesture with envy, and Carol Bruce held a mike up to the jeans Bruce, who revealed that his name was John and he was supporting the Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital. We heartily applauded the cause. The marsupial then had to be told off for getting a bit friendly with him, and it was chased off.
(The £20(!) programme also contained an insert saying tonight’s Guest Bruce was auctioned for charity, with a few words about the Great Ormond Street Hospital. At the end of the show, people were collecting for the Great Ormond Street as we left, and we all seemed happily to be giving. The charity Bruces in the first five shows apparently raised £20,000—wow, that’s like 10 programmes!-- for NSPCC, Shelter, The Roundhouse, Maggie’s Centres and The Mercury Phoenix Trust. The charities represented this week in addition to Great Ormond Street would be the Stammering Centre, Nordoff Robbins and the Evening Standard Dispossessed Fund. What a noble thing.)
Later, after Rude Bruce (Gilliam) lecherously offered to give Carol Bruce a hand, Bruce Idle told him to get off, or to F-off, and red carded him whilst telling him to go join Luis Suárez of Barcelona, which got cheers given England’s departure from the World Cup thanks to the mad Spanish biter.
The Bruces, with Idle on guitar (and an orchestra in the pit) then all sang a song that started off a bit like the chorus from the Strawbs’ ‘Part of the Union’ but was the Python’s Philosophers’ Song. It started with “Immanuel Kant was a real puissant / Who was very rarely stable. / Heidegger, Heidegger was a boozy beggar / Who could think you under the table.’ Clever. They stopped the song to invite us Bruces in the crowd, who they thought seemed to be in a playful mood, to sing along, with Bruce Palin helpfully holding up a tiny sheet of paper he pulled from his ‘tight’ pocket so we could see the lyrics. When they found that to be a bit lacking, the lyrics were put up on the screen and the whole arena joined in with a wonderful chorus on stage.
Behind them, on the upper ledge, was a row of the cardboard cut-out (or maybe bigger budget and more high-tech now) big-jawed Bruces that had been used in the past, with their mouths opening and shutting to sing along with us. After we all finished merrily singing, the Bruces went off stage to a reprise of Waltzing Matilda and we returned to a clip of the Philosophers’ Football Match (one of the extras playing looked like a young Stephen Fry, but wouldn’t have been.)
Next, a xylophone introduction led us to the delectable Trade Descriptions Act sketch, written in reaction to the then new 1969 legislation. Graham Chapman featured in the original sketch but Terry Gilliam’s Constable Parrot was in the Hollywood Bowl version. Tonight, Terry Jones still expertly played the very proper Whizzo Chocolate proprietor, Mr Milton, and the Hygiene Squad officers in uniform were John Cleese as the Police Inspector and Gilliam as Constable Parrot. It was great fun, particularly as it was the first time in the evening one of the Pythons corpsed, much to the delight of the crowd.
The chocolate suspiciously had purple packaging as though it were, well, one of its competitors. When criticised about the inclusion of a raw Crunchy Frog in his assorted box of chocolates, Milton said ‘we use only the finest baby frogs, dew-picked and flown in from Swaziland…’ (I think the original said Iraq, but that presents a different image now). Jones was reading this spiel from a card, which meant that he got the precise important words correct, and it worked because it looked natural to read the description from the product details. He continued: ‘…..cleansed in the finest-quality spring water, lightly killed, sealed in a treble milk chocolate envelope and lovingly frosted with glucose.’
When Cleese asked why he didn’t even take the bones out, Milton replied in an indignant Victor Meldrew voice, ‘If we took the bones out, it wouldn’t be crunchy, would it?’, which the audience nearly said with him. No artificial ingredients or additives were used, he insisted to an outraged Cleese-Inspector.
Parrot asked to be excused, it having been revealed that he’d eaten one of the lightly killed crunchy frogs, and when he wasn’t, he launched into what seemed like a 10-minute, well, what my mother used to politely call when we were kids ‘toot’, but it was quite a bit bolder than that. The audience loved it and applauded at the end as though he’d sung an opera. Cleese took shelter in the cleaner air on Terry Jones’ side of the set.
Whenever Jones had to give a detailed description, such as a whipped bladder ‘garnished with mouse poo’, he read it (in character) from what passed as the description card from the chocolate box. Just after Gilliam’s Parrot rushed off stage feeling sick, Cleese, without skipping a beat so it seemed like his next line at first, said to Jones, ‘I don’t have my lines written down. What’s the next thing?’ As you would expect from Cleese, he’d managed to incorporate a bit of a dig when faced with being human himself.
The crowd roared with laughter and applauded, not least because Cleese then started to giggle at the situation and seemed to melt into a choked belly laugh. Jones remained dead serious for much of the time, but with the occasional strangled smile creeping in, and he prompted Cleese whilst still in character. Cleese, as the Inspector but wearing a sheepish smile, then said ‘Sorry about that’ to Jones and turned to us in a military move to say the same. It was a minor transgression, and it actually added a lot of extra joy to the night. He then shouted his next line at Jones and carried on perfectly with the sketch, with Gilliam returning to hear the mention of Cockroach Cluster and Anthrax Ripple before vomiting rather graphically into his helmet (apparently he fills his mouth with beef stew when he’s off stage), and then is forced to put the helmet back on his head. (Even if it’s beef stew, yuk. And so no long quiffs and quick changes for Gilliam.)
At this stage, Terry Jones started fighting laughter (in vain) and struggled to stop. It’s hard to hide such a thing when almost 20,000 people have clocked it and burst out laughing themselves, which started Cleese off again. Jones struggled to read the next description from a card as he was laughing so much, so Cleese snatched it from him, looked at it and handed it back, trying to deliver his own lines as they both chuckled for a bit. We applauded as they struggled through the rest of the sketch. We loved it. Cleese brought it all to an end by telling Jones not to talk to the audience as it was against a section of the Sketch Comedy Act, and off they all went. Fantastic.
Next we had Palin and Idle (the latter dressed in a white striped jacket suitable for Three Men in a Boat) on a sort of late night arts talk show entitled ‘Blood Devastation Death War and Horror’, with a blood-spattered photo of a nuclear bomb blast as the set. Palin started by saying that, later, he’d be speaking to a man who does gardening, but first he was speaking with a man who spoke only in anagrams. It must have been incredibly difficult for Idle to learn his lines, even if he first did so as a youngster decades ago, talking nonsensical versions of Shakespeare plays amongst other things, and tricky for Palin to take his cues from gibberish. When Palin pointed out that one of Idle’s words was not an anagram but a spoonerism, Idle snapped, ‘If you’re going to split hairs, I’m going to piss off’.
We ardently cheered them as Palin and the set rolled off stage and Idle stood and introduced another musical number. Again, I mused that I needn’t have worried that the balance of the show might be tipped towards favouring musical filler rather than Python pleasure. Frankly, without the musical numbers, it might have been a quiet theatre piece dwarfed in the O2, and Python has long been linked to music. Also, the transitions between scenes were all so clever. Was that down to Gilliam’s set design in any way, multi-Python input, or was it all Idle’s wicket keeping as director?
Plus I forgot that I like singing and dancing on stage when it’s done well, and I hadn’t realised that most of the songs would be Python staples, many featuring Idle up front dazzling the crowd with his energy. He is a pretty remarkable singer and clearly worked hard not just putting together the overall show but holding the stage for much of it with the ensemble. He is the Python songwriter, not a sketch writer. He said in Monty Python: Almost the Truth that he saw himself as the wicket keeper of Python. Not the star batsman or star bowler, but he still managed to influence the game. (He also said that he is often mistaken for Michael Palin, and when people on the street say how much they love him in the travel programmes, he tries to destroy Palin’s reputation for niceness one person at a time by saying, ‘Yes, I am Michael Palin. Now f**k off, you ugly a**’.
Here, he began singing I Like Chinese from Monty Python's Contractual Obligation Album from 1980. It may not be PC (but when was Python PC?) and was incredibly simple but catchy (a bit like Connie Francis’ Who’s Sorry Now but upbeat), but it turned into a big stage number in a vibrant set with an impressive looking backdrop (by virtue of a busy animated snapshot of Chinatown) and the dancing singers in strikingly bright costumes. (Even the costume designer, Hazel Pethig, is a notable part of the Python reunion, as she first worked with them in the 1960s and worked on Holy Grail and Life of Brian and some of their solo projects like Time Bandits and A Fish Called Wanda). They carried at various stages dragons and kites or puppets one might see in a Chinese New Year parade or a Chinese circus. Idle was singing about the darkness of the world: ‘It’s depressing and it’s senseless and that’s why…..I like Chinese’. It was, at least, a beautiful, vibrant set, with a great deal of acrobatic action.
During the brief tap dance, Idle joined in by jigging about a bit in his sneakers. At the end, the other Pythons came on in suits and grabbed various implements. Palin had a giant red and white brolly, Gilliam and Cleese had one of those long ribbons attached to a stick that counts as an Olympic gymnastic sport, and they were giving it their all. Jones had a flag and Carol came on still dressed as a Bruce. I liked how all the Pythons were enthusiastically taking part and seeming to have fun with something I could imagine one or two boycotting as being beneath them or only half-heartedly swirling their ribbon—but no. Suddenly an Elvis emerged up front, ending the song in late (but thin) Elvis style. The Elvis walked straight off and let the Pythons spread across the front of the stage again (we had Palin and Gilliam on our side), drink in the adoration and spoil us with their presence, and then the orchestra started playing the Python theme and they left us. It was a sensational way to take us to the interval, and the first act had lasted just over an hour. And God, it was amazing. It was hard to think what treats we hadn’t yet savoured.
As a woman, I spent much of the interval queuing for the loo, and two women queuing in their late 40s sported Python Gumby knotted handkerchiefs on their head. Nothing else Gumby, just that. I’d seen tweets on other nights showing clusters of lumberjacks in the house, but this was the only fashion tribute I’d come across. Once free of that mission, I was feeling rather faint as I can’t go long without water, and the evil O2 bouncers had taken the cap from my then full bottle as I arrived. I usually avoid venues that are so stupid; it means you have to dump or scoff your drink there (or take it, open and exposed, into the loo and wherever else you go) and then buy another for about £200 from the venue. I’d mainly had my water for the long, hot journey home but do need regular sips, so I now begrudgingly joined a queue for the bar, though I find they usually sense I’m a teetotaller and refuse to serve me. Indeed, with the £3 in my fist, desperate to trade it quickly for some still water, I stood second in the queue for an astonishing eternity as five barmen discussed whether they were out of the tonic the people in front half-heartedly wanted. No nearby ice cream stalls nor wandering beer sellers sold water, which seemed mad in this heat.
Increasingly urgent warnings that the show was starting, and the entire level of the arena long having cleared of punters apart from the loathsome two in front, made me focus on how I didn’t pay a fortune and sink my heart into this evening to miss any of it while I stood outside being angry. So I went back to my seat and hoped the nice people around me would prop me up if I fainted, or maybe give me a salt lick to use. So the previously excellent O2 went down in my ratings, although I’m still glad Monty Python didn’t play Wembley.
If it hadn’t been for that vain thirsty trek, I might have been able to find the giant blue dead parrot that was somewhere in the O2 Arena for the occasion. It would have been neater to see it when it was in Potters Field Park near Tower Bridge, but it left there quickly, perhaps pining for the fjords, and when I reached the O2, there was no time for parrot hunting.
But back to the fun….
In my seat, I was painfully reminded that the acts started with the orchestra playing an overture, so I could have given my quest for water a bit more time, but still probably would have missed the whole second half at that rate. But never mind, the Pythons would cheer me and blow away the woes of the world. And, of course, they did.
Incidentally, the Musical Director conducting the orchestra was John Du Prez, who has a long history with the Pythons and has co-composed a great deal of their—and other—songs, and with Idle won a Grammy for the Best Musical Show album for Spamalot. (Here was another ‘behind the scenes’ part of Python’s history, so the Python reunion was not just of the five men out front.) Most notably, though, in the early ‘80s Du Prez was in Modern Romance of Ay Ay Ay Ay Moosey fame….and Best Years of Our Lives!
The second act started with another definitely not PC song by Eric Idle, ‘Sit on My Face’ (to a Gracie Fields tune) from Monty Python's Contractual Obligation Album. This one has such racy puerile lyrics that not only would Lily Allen blush to sing them, but apparently legal action was taken against a radio station in the States that played the song, which the FCC had ruled as ‘actionably indecent’ as it could be understood even with the English accent. The singers do sing out ‘And we sit on our faces in all sorts of places and play 'til we're blown away!’ –and those are rather the tamest of the lyrics. Of course, I don’t know what any of that means. At least it’s not the more disturbing French translation. But the memorable part of this number in the past has been when it was sung by four waiters who turn to reveal their naked bottoms, even when sung at the tribute Concert for George Harrison in the Royal Albert Hall.
Here, it sounded so much more innocent. Only the company were on stage, no Pythons, and it started with a ballet in the mist that then became deliberately choppy with cartwheels and silly rather than graceful movements. It was a bit hard to make out what they were singing, and then some lyrics appeared on screen with a bouncy smiley face encouraging us to sing along. It sounded bright and cheery and the production looked like something that might feature in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, although the blue-clad nymphs were crouching down to the, um, waist of the pink-clad nymphs as they danced not entirely cleanly, with of course the kangaroo front and centre wearing a blue tutu. A sign had prefaced it with an explanation that it was Act 2 – Spam Lake, performed by the English National Radio Ballet. It’s a good thing that it was just radio or I would have seen some dancing where the girls did handstands and spread their legs wide while the boys holding them pretended to bow their faces to indulge….not that I know what any of that means. The audience did seem to clap along. Carol Cleveland came on looking very buxom and pink.
Carol actually is rather buxom with incredibly long legs, still sexy at 72, and I mentioned Bond Girl before….there is actually a photograph of her from long ago in the £20(!) programme that shows her looking very like, say, Ursula Andress in her Bond days. Although she’s not in a bikini in the picture, parts of her suggest she was feeling a bit chilly in the t-shirt she was wearing. (Forgive me; it’s the mood of the radio ballet wot dunnit.)
Then a sort of cardboard Hershey’s Kiss looking iceberg moved slowly from one side of the stage to the other for some reason I didn’t get. (When I saw the televised show, I decided that it was maybe meant to look like a shark fin, a nod to Jaws—and maybe Airplane!—as it moved along the dry ice mist. So, okay, that is amusing.) At one point Michael Palin and Eric Idle rather inexplicably appeared on that upper ledge in front of the screen dressed in navy boiler suits and waved their arms about, perhaps to encourage us to sing while pointing towards the words, but mainly I think it helped delight us that we were in their presence; it made the sketch endearing and more joyous, more Python. Off they went, and Palin sometimes seemed to leave the stage with a bit of a Morecombe & Wise skip dance. And why not? When else can you leave somewhere that way?
Brilliantly we next saw the perfect woman, Terry Jones, sitting on a sofa with her knees wide apart, knee hi stockings partly covering her awful legs, a scarf wrapped around her head, and John Cleese as a similarly lovely woman beside her, but with bare legs, huger breasts and a more noticeable moustache.
Michael Palin was then heard as a radio continuity announcer saying that we’d been listening to the new series of radio ballet, Spam Lake, and now for a new series of historical dramas, beginning with The Death of Mary Queen of Scots, Part One. We and the two lovely ladies on the sofa heard Greensleeves then a rough thug’s voice say, ‘You are Mary Queen of Scots?’ and a Terry Jones style woman answer in the affirmative before screaming and shouting as she’s clearly being attacked at length, then there’s calm and Greensleeves again, then an announcement for episode 2 and more fighting. ‘And now, Radio 4 will explode’ Palin announced, and the radio on a table near the women did indeed explode. So the show had pyrotechnics even!
Given the recent indisposition of their radio, the women agreed they’d better watch the telly, and I gleefully realised that there was a penguin perched on top of it, which appeared in close up on one of the side screens. We all waited in eager anticipation for one of my favourite lines. ‘What’s on the telly then?’ came a lovely, weirdly high voice, then a long, perfectly timed pause. ‘Looks like a penguin’ came the beautifully shrill response. They mused whether it had come from next door, or a zoo, although only David ‘Attenburgh’ would be able to say which zoo, but it couldn’t be from a zoo else it would be stamped ‘property of the zoo’. Then there were arguments—how could you stamp animals at the zoo, like a Siberian tiger? ‘They stamp ‘em when they’re small’. ‘What about when they moult?’ ‘Siberian tigers don’t moult’. ‘But penguins do.’ It was lavish fun and we laughed throughout. During that sketch, I thought how remarkable Jones’ talent for grimaces and grumpy faces was. Even the orchestra seemed to be giggling.
Palin appeared on the big screen above them, so we could see him but the women could not, and it must have been pre-recorded as he paused slightly more than you would when interacting with the ladies. In the voice of a Radio 4 continuity announcer, he said ‘Well, it’s just gone 8 o’clock, and time for the penguin on your telly to explode.’ And it did. The women mused about how he would have known that was going to happen. ‘Just an inspired guess’ Palin told them.
The two ladies then grumbled about how ‘He knows everything, that Michael Palin,’ and as this was a Cleese sketch, they added a typical Cleese joke that he instils in most interviews: ‘Have you ever seen him in one of those (yawn) travel progr---‘ and they were both lost in yawns and nearly nodded off. Everyone laughed and cheered, a bit rudely. So Palin announced that he had to switch them off and introduced a Professor Gumby, whose programme would tell us about the forgotten art of flower arranging.
I do want to pause to gush a bit over the endearing Terry Jones, who as I said was a marvel at mastering a potent scowl, the epitome of a toffy City worker of that period in a bowler hat, and naturally the perfect (ugly) woman. And after all, if it weren’t for him tweeting about tickets being available (and just after payday before I’d spent it on dumb stuff like food and insurance), I’d not have been there at the O2 at all. So he’s my new hero.
So he and the other wonderful old woman, John Cleese, rolled off the stage with their set as a bright orange flower arranging set, just a counter in front of a pink wall covered with hideous 70s-style big plastic flowers, slid on. We had Terry Gilliam dressed as a (Professor) Gumby, with sweater vest tucked into his rolled up trousers held up by braces, knotted hanky on head, teeth and fists clenched, and unintelligible shouty/muttered language. He picked up flowers and called them by the wrong names, then incomprehensibly talked us through his art, violently grabbing the flowers like a fiend and jamming them bud-first into a vase, before fiercely whacking them in further with a big mallet. The thrilled audience cheered as he was carried off by two men in brown coats (with ‘Eat More Pork’ on their back) who had previously been subtly pushing the sets about, and his set moved off as well.
(Looking at Gilliam in this get up made me think, Madness was clearly emulating Monty Python in some of their videos, weren’t they? Their men dressed as women in eg ‘House of Fun’ are a Gumby/Pepperpot combination. No doubt a loving tribute that everyone else was aware of before me.)
Next, a hat stand was placed centre stage, and two sombre High Court judges in long wigs and red robes processed formally towards it. It was Michael Palin and Eric Idle. They chatted in high camp voices, ‘you what, love?’ and Idle began to disrobe first, hanging his wig on the hat rack. He eventually revealed a black lacy sort of leotard undergarment with black stockings, to huge whistles from the audience. He continued the chat as though all was normal, and Palin said, ‘The cheeky devil, I had to make him turn Queen’s evidence,’ as he nonchalantly revealed a sexy little red satin number to more cheers.
The joy of the live, modern performance, and perhaps retribution for the yawns in the earlier sketch about Palin’s travel shows, had Idle next say, ‘Tell me, did you handle the Cleese divorce?‘ to towering laughter. ‘Which one?’ (cue knowing groans and applause from the audience). As he had had four wives, one judge wondered if Cleese was a Muslim. ‘No, it’s just the way he walks,’ Palin explained in a camp Alan Bennett voice. Each line was punctuated by reams of laughter and applause from us.
‘What about the Python case?’ Clearly a reference to the Holy Grail producer’s legal win that got him more money from Spamalot. Palin said, ‘Look on the bright side, it got them to the O2’. Absolutely. [I think that wasn’t in the telly broadcast on the final night, so maybe it was just an ad lib, or perhaps their lawyers advised against it. I think the plan was to do one night to pay off the lawyers, and an ill-advised gaffe might get us even more.] ‘They only did it for the money though,’ one judge said, agreeing with some unkind press reports. ‘Yes, they had to pay us lawyers, didn’t they?’ ‘What do you usually give for sex in a public toilet?‘ ‘About 10 quid’ and off they went skipping arm in arm in their sexy gear.
Next came an old Gilliam animation from an early Python series, where a sign appeared on screen announcing ‘Full Frontal Nudity’, with loads of nude women, albeit animation, but slow pans down exposed breasts and other bits…..And it struck me that it seemed a bit awkward sitting in a giant arena watching this live with thousands of people, quite different from seeing it as a kid on PBS at midnight with just me in the room. It seemed racier now….but harmless.
That was interrupted by the distinctive and much adored call of the Cleese: ‘Albatross!’ as he appeared on the far edge of the stage in his pink outfit and blonde wig, holding a tray with the ‘bloody seabird flavoured albatross’, he said when Terry Jones came up in a bowler hat and asked for details since she wasn’t selling choc-ices. Cleese in full-on beloved OTT mode grew increasingly agitated with Jones’ City man’s questions—‘No, you don’t get f-ing wafers with it!’ Whether in a suit or dress, no one does over-the-top fury better than Cleese. I gather it’s the real original Albatross, too, that one of them nearly had to smuggle back into the country, which can’t have made easy hand luggage. Jones finished the sketch by poking Cleese in the breasticle, I think, accusing him of not even being a proper woman. As he walked off, Cleese shouted after him, ‘Don’t you oppress me, mate! You’re a racist!’ and left, as Jones moved over to another set.
Which got an instant cheer as die-hard fans knew what happens in the Frog and Parrot pub, particularly once Eric Idle came to sit beside Jones, wearing a neckerchief, loose fake moustache and crested blazer. Idle’s smarmy expression caused the audience to cheer as they recognised the much loved ‘nudge, nudge, wink wink, say no more’ sketch, and laughed before Idle even started enquiring whether Jones’ wife was a goer. Pretty quickly, his moustache split in two and part of it came off, so he tore it all off and put it in his pocket, to the prolonged cheers of the audience. (As I gather he also tore the naughty ‘tache off on other nights, this may have been deliberate spontaneous comedy, or perhaps it accidentally happened the first night and went down so well that he carried on with it, although when you think about it, they could hardly use a strong adhesive for a minutes-long sketch after a super-quick change. But who cares; it was tremendous. We loved it. It was superb entertainment, which is why we were there.)
Anyone else doing this sketch would have failed it. These were the originals and the characters were perfectly portrayed. (Surely this was the precursor to the Fast Show’s ‘Suits You, Sir’ sketch, maybe a close second in its day.) It was particular fun when Jones looked like he was going to laugh when he said that his wife was fond of a bit of cricket. Of course, It ended with Idle blatantly asking Jones if he had ‘done it with a lady’--and then, ‘What’s it like?’ and we raucously cheered. The show proved that predictable is not a flaw. We know the words to our favourite song and just want to hear the performer sing it when we see him live. That’s the pure joy of it and why we’re there.
Then a big production number started as the last set left, with the women of the company dancing in incredibly revealing Agent Provocateur black lacy basque sets with black stockings and thigh high boots, shaking so much bare booty at us that it would impress men in a lap dance club. It even made me wonder for a second where the line is drawn between satire and the exploitation or objectification of women, but I know that’s not a dutiful Python fan’s view, and I mustn’t be a prude. They were characters in a sketch, of course, just costumes. And after all, this sort of sketch was from the Benny Hill era (sort of). Meanwhile, the fully clothed boy dancers danced about flashing their macs to reveal ‘boo’ signs over their t-shirts.
Idle patter—by which I mean dialogue spoken by Eric Idle’s character in the last sketch—sampled and remixed into an incredibly catchy theme tune (‘nudge, nudge, wink, wink’—rhythmically sung a bit like the ‘uh-huh’ backing vocals in Grease’s ‘Summer Nights’, with a bit of ‘say no more’ thrown in), punctuated by women’s voices singing ‘Blackmail’ formed the theme song for a twisted game show. (This ditty has weirdly been stuck in my mind since the show; it was catchy but probably suitably brief.) Then Palin came down the central stairs with practically a bouffant brown hair style and a tiger skin jacket with a black sequined lapel, transformed into a sleazy lounge lizard. It was the Blackmail show, where people had to ring in quickly to pay or have their secrets revealed on television. Palin spoke of a surprise about to be sprung on an unsuspecting prominent member of the English folk dance movement who wrongly believed he was here for a crack addicts convention, and poor Gilliam was shown on ‘secret camera’ back stage tied up with a gimp-dummy in his mouth, dressed in a string vest, diaper and a baby’s bonnet, while scantily clad women whipped him. He was then brought out on stage. Palin said he would pay the price of our right to know everything about him (a comic, biting social observation by a modern celebrity) and told Gilliam’s character that his career was now in ruins, but at least his wife would stand by him, and she was in the audience tonight. The camera then fell on an unknowing random woman in the audience who appeared on the screen and smiled once she twigged.
Host Palin then pointed to a jigsaw picture on the screen that started slowly revealing who it was—clearly it would be the Top Gear team, but then the phone rang. Palin said, ‘Hello Jeremy….. if your cheque’s in the mail, you won’t be in the Daily Mail’’, hung up and said, ‘Lovely man, deeply flawed’.
Then it was time to play, ‘I’m a celebrity, or am I?’ A man was brought on with a bag over his head. He was dressed scruffily, with awful tapered trousers, a purple t-shirt and casual jacket that made me think that only someone they pulled in off the street could look like that. I knew they’d had Warwick Davis on before (on the final night, it was Mike Myers), but this was clearly nobody. A clock ticked as we were put under pressure to guess if he was ‘celebrity or non-entity’, and they removed the bag to reveal…..comic actor and screenwriter Simon Pegg, of Spaced and Shaun of the Dead fame, looking wholly chilled. (Lee Mack later said that he had an hour’s notice when he was the Blackmail guest. Maybe Pegg was in the bath when they rang, hence his confusing non-entity ensemble.)
Palin said that Pegg was one of our greatest actors and talents, and now he was on Blackmail, so what went wrong? Pegg explained that, in 1996, he’d made love to an Australian. ’Oh, my GOD!’ Palin said, recoiling in horror. ‘Yes, it was a Bruce,’ Pegg said. ‘In November, I found myself in Sydney.’ Quick-witted Palin said ‘I’ll bet he was an ugly brute!’ which had us laughing. Pegg continued to elaborate: ‘Pretty soon, every time I heard a didgeridoo, I’d get an erection.’ He rather crudely phrased his tale of coming back to London to get bar work just so he could, shall we say, make love to his co-workers.
Palin doubted whether people would now come and see Pegg’s new movie Absolutely Anything—‘There’s a plug,’ he said, interrupting himself. ‘I threw that in for nothing.’ and Pegg laughed. ‘I’m in it, too,’ Palin told us, and that Terry Jones directed it, ‘so there’s another plug’. (According to the Internet Movie Database, all the Pythons are in it as extra-terrestrial voices.) But Palin said people had homes to go to, so he thanked Simon for revealing all in Blackmail, and they all said goodbye. The theme tune came on again and everyone left.
We were then offered a quiet set like another intellectual late night television show, this being ‘Science Today,’ with Eric Idle the interviewer and John Cleese as Miss Ann Elk, an uptight woman with a broach and tweed suit who was due to reveal her theory about the brontosaurus. She spent most of the time coughing and saying ‘the next thing I will say will be my theory, it belongs to me and it’s mine’, interrupting Idle constantly with coughing, eventually turning red as though choking. The sketch had its slow moments, but everyone laughed along, particularly one time when Cleese almost laughed but caught himself by turning stern and shushing us, which of course caused more tittering. This sketch reminded me of one or more from the glory days of Saturday Night Live and the Not Ready for Prime Time Players in the 70s, perhaps with Gilda Radner, and no doubt this brilliant lot influenced that brilliant lot. Eventually the theory was revealed about brontosauruses being thinner at both ends than in the middle, and as Idle was wrapping up, she coughed and introduced her second theory, which is that dentists could teach your teeth how to dance.
(S)He pointed to the screen above them, the stage went dark, and another traditional Gilliam animation appeared featuring a pink man’s head. Once again, the Pythons were robbed of applause at the end as we concentrated on the next thing. The pink head smiled and his teeth moved about like piano keys, and the audience laughed ardently as though it were new to them and the funniest thing they’d seen.
That was a brief interlude, and we next had Carol as an elderly woman sitting on an elegant Victorian sofa in a room with flowery wallpaper, and the young lad in the company who took on any non-Python speaking parts came out and said in a Yorkshire accent (I guess?) there was ‘trouble at mill’. She kept asking him to repeat his explanation of the trouble until he finally said it in a posh accent so she could understand, so she asked why he hadn’t just said that to begin with. He said, he didn’t know, he’d just been told to come in and say that; he didn’t expect a kind of Spanish Inquisition. We whistled enthusiastically and applauded, and I thought how the film Sliding Doors has even further sealed this spectacular sketch into legend.
The stage went red as Palin, Gilliam and Jones burst through the door dressed in red as Cardinals (the bishops, not the bird): Palin with a red hat, Gilliam grimacing maniacally in a red hood, and Jones in a leather air pilot’s helmet. Palin deliciously, predictably started to get the counting wrong when itemising the weapons in their arsenal of terror, so they went out to come in again after the lad half-heartedly repeated their cue. After they took centre stage again, the boy slipped out the door and left his granny alone, as you do. ‘Amongst our weaponry….’ Palin started, before giving up and asking Cardinal Biggles (get it? ‘cause Jones was wearing a pilot’s hat. Although why he was wearing a pilot’s hat is another puzzle) to try it, which he did sheepishly and splendidly badly. Gilliam, whose viciously wicked looking cardinal spoke in a gentle, camp voice, was asked to read out the charges from a scroll, and started with the cost of a massage. Once corrected, he lowered his voice to something ominous and crouched over the old widow to accuse her.
Biggles was asked to fetch the rack, and Jones produced a dish drying rack, as we laughed. Palin looked disappointed but told him to lash her to it, as Gilliam cackled wickedly like the pigs in Angry Birds. They laid the rack in her lap, and when Jones hesitated as he was unable to give the rack a turn on Palin’s command, Palin splendidly shouted a whisper at him ‘I know, I know, I wanted to ignore your mistake…. Just pretend!’ As Jones mimed turning a handle on the side of the dish rack, Terry Gilliam looked as though he was stifling laughter and had to turn away.
The ‘blasphemous’ widow’s later torture was to be taken to (prepare yourself if you are of a sensitive disposition) The Comfy Chair! The lights went red again as they took her to the kitchen, shouting to her to ‘Confess!’ In order to increase the level of heinous torture by another notch, Palin threatened to show the woman the fridge! Jones opened it to get her a terrifying glass of milk with which to threaten her, which presumably was amidst some of the last weapons in their armour.
(Why I mention in detail what everyone knows, I don’t know….I just adore it so, I’ll enjoy reliving it later. Palin’s stunning presence and command of the stage, his adaptability and skilled comic reactions, particularly shone through here.)
Marvellously, when the fridge door was opened, Eric Idle burst through it, with smooth white hair, a pink three-piece suit and gloves, looking like KFC’s Colonel Sanders without facial hair, and he began singing the spectacular ‘Galaxy Song’ (the intro of which sounded a bit like Bright Side of Life) from the Meaning of Life as the Spanish Inquisition subtly left through the same portal in the fridge.
He sang to the undoubtedly confused and relieved woman in the comfy chair, picked up a blue globe from the side table, and it flew up and away (on a visible wire) and appeared in animation that zipped around the galaxies now showing on the big screen. The circular layered lighting rig in the centre of the arena then dropped down slowly over the audience and covered us with blue lights swirling around like falling stars. I’m sure we were all enchanted by the magic of the song we adored and the lively effects.
Idle gently waltzed on stage with the old lady, who was having quite a day, and their image seemed to be projected onto the screen behind them to make it look as though they were dancing in the Milky Way, [cue an OMD song—nearly], although I think the screen image was pre-recorded. Idle boomed out the last lines, ‘And pray that there’s intelligent life somewhere out in space because there’s bugger all down here on earth’. The thrilled crowd roared its appreciation.
I remembered during the waltz that I’d seen the song discussed in a telly programme --perhaps the astronomy one with Brian Cox and Dara O’Briain-- how it was full of actual facts, but some of them were no longer up-to-date. After Idle and Cleveland left the stage, Brian Cox appeared on the big screen in a pre-recorded film perhaps from Oxford talking about the issues he had with the statements in the song, which was ‘pathetic, really’, and the ecstatic crowd cheered him. Then we saw Stephen Hawking approach in his electric wheelchair and run him down, saying that Cox was being too pedantic. Hawking then finished singing the song (yes, he’s got rhythm if not a multi-octave range) and we watched as he drove away into the distance until his chair lifted into the sky and disappeared into the outer galaxy. The words ‘to be continued’ appeared on the screen. (On the last night, Hawking was shown to be in the audience at this point.) What a canny way to tie up everything; it was like having a DVD extra instilled into the show.
Then came a snippet of vintage Python animation by Gilliam featuring a dancing Venus and other collages with jiggling limbs, with pre-recorded laughter presumably left on from the 70s. This led to the most extraordinary solution to the fact that we would miss the funny walks that Cleese was understandably no longer capable of doing. Arlene Phillips, I presume, (or Gilliam?) created this perfect vision: the large screen turned bright red with dancers in silhouette coming on from both sides in symmetry with Fosse-style bowler hats, doing the funny walks, with huge high tangled ‘kicks’—being young John Cleese en masse. It was like astounding graphic art, a peerless effect, and I take my bowler hat off to Phillips and the dancers. They danced to a short song that was mostly like a chant about the drive for money, ‘work, work, money, money’, and they rhythmically hit themselves with their briefcases when they came down to the stage. The song wasn’t instantly thrilling but the dance was spectacular, as ‘Ministry of Silly Walks’ appeared on the screen. Then, weirdly, although it made a wee bit more sense once I realised a line in the song mentioned the Grim Reaper, someone dressed as death, covered in torn black rags and carrying a scythe, walked along the upper ledge then just walked off, not stopping for a chess challenge or anything. The dance ended with them all lying on the floor after singing ‘work work work until you die.’
[At one point it struck me that everyone on stage seemed to be white, although I think I spotted some exceptions at the end, and looking out at the 20,000 pairs of arms waving in the air later, all the flesh seemed white. I’m sure there were others, but does Monty Python mainly appeal to us white middle class types? We were a variety of ages though, mostly 40s and 50s, but many older, and there were even some children.]
Following this impressive interlude, the dancers rushed off stage, and Michael Palin had to dodge them with difficulty, feigning irritation, as he came on to what was now a set of three separate offices. Carol was at one desk and welcomed him with ‘Are you here for an argument?’ to the roaring euphoria of the crowd, which nearly drowned out her next line: ‘Or would you like a blow job?’ Palin’s character paused, and she determined he was there for an argument just as he said, ‘Wait—what was the other option?’ She quoted the prices and terms, and sent him to the gentleman in the first office. (Palin truly is the master of timing and stellar expressions.)
The first gentleman was Terry Jones, who leaned over Palin and opened with the likes of ‘Shut your festering gob, you tit’, until he realised the mistake and said, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, this is abuse. You want next door’. We cheered. Here they were replaying this hilarious, original sketch for us, like reading to a child craving its favourite bedtime story again. (And here Terry Jones was a perfect old fashioned City toff again, with a demeanour that instils a fondness for him and implies that he would be cuddly off-stage. But he may be wicked; what do I know?)
The first two offices disappeared as Palin moved to the final room, the one we cared most about, where John Cleese was seated. ‘Is this the room for an argument?’ Palin said. We could have said Cleese’s line with him but didn’t want to spoil it: ‘I’ve told you once!’ Pure gold. Palin paid him, then they spent so long just talking over each other, saying either ‘no you didn’t’ or ‘yes I did’, I wondered if someone had forgotten their lines, until Palin said it was futile as he’d come for a good argument, not just contradictions, so then they argued about the definition of an argument.
As Palin explained the process of arguing, the audience relished the fact that Cleese was stifling laughter himself. Palin then paused his line to chide Cleese, saying in character, ‘It’s not funny!’, which of course made us burst into applause and whistles. Cleese then suddenly hit a bell and said ‘Thank you, good morning’.
Of course, as Palin argued that it hadn’t been five minutes, Cleese looked upward and ignored him as he couldn’t argue with him without being paid again. So Palin paid him, Cleese put the money away and seconds later argued that he’d not been paid so refused to take part. Eventually, he was tempted back into arguing when Palin’s logic was, ‘if I didn’t pay, why are you arguing?’ Cleese turned up his nose and said, ‘I could be arguing in my spare time’.
Then weirdly, Terry Gilliam appeared on the far side of the stage, high up near the top of the screen, dangling from a wire cheerfully singing an upbeat big band version of ‘I’ve Got Two Legs’ (a bit like High Society Calypso), as best one could in a probably painful harness, wearing a top part of a tux with no trousers, just a modesty-saving fig leaf, red socks and a huge prosthetic paunch. We barely paid attention to Cleese and Palin anymore, so I didn’t notice that Cleese had picked up a shotgun and fired it at Gilliam until the bang made us jump. Gilliam’s paunch burst into trailing entrails, his head flopped down, and he was pulled off stage via his wire to happy music, as we ‘awwwww’d’ for his misfortune. Michael Palin held his head in his hands. I don’t know about him but I wouldn’t really want to argue with the man holding the gun anymore.
As the argument set left us to the lively jazzy sound of the orchestra with impressive brass, captions appeared on the screen saying things like ‘Have you ever considered a holiday in Finland? ….my cousin went…he was bitten by a moose’. The captions then apologised for the dull captions, explaining that the sets were being changed. ‘Ah, I think they’re ready now,’ finished it.
Below, lights revealed the beloved Spam set, with Jones a first-rate argumentative waitress in blue and a smock, a spam menu behind her. (Terry Jones may be my favourite woman.) Carol Cleveland, in a more demanding grumpy role, and Eric Idle sat at the table, as Jones ran through his menu of ‘spam spam spam’ (he has a unique way of spitting it out) up to ‘lobster thermadore with a béarnaise sauce and brandy with a fried egg and spam.’ Cleveland, of course, said she didn’t like spam so struggled with the menu (that’s how I feel as a vegetarian sometimes) whereas Idle ended up ordering ‘spam spam spam spam spam and spam’.
Just as I was drinking this all in, loving every second, a child of about seven who was two rows ahead started whining loudly, which went on for quite a while and got worse ‘til eventually strangers started shushing him because we were missing one of the most iconic Python sketches of all time being performed before us, and for the last time we’d see it live. I suppose he was brought because Monty Python appeals to all sorts of ages at some level; when you’re a child, you don’t really notice the nudity and racier jokes—and most of Python is just silly, clean fun, but it was a long time for a youngster to sit still.
Ratty child and latecomers excepted, I have to say I had the most terrific people around me. Unusually, no one was talking the whole way through, standing prematurely, blocking my view with a camera as they filmed it all for YouTube, spilling their beer on me or battling for the arm rest. We were all just happy, good-natured people who shared something remarkable-- our history of loving Python, our appreciation of the amazing event before us and the privilege to be there, sprinkled with a newfound pure happiness and sense of ease. We all watched attentively and laughed together, and they didn’t even treat me like the freak I was for uncontrollably scribbling notes about everything. The guy beside me sweetly giggled like a girl throughout the whole gig, and I loved that. Pure unadulterated fun.
Eventually Grumbly Child was hushed and we caught the last taste of Spam. Then this beloved old friend of a sketch was taken over by a load of male and female Vikings singing ‘the Spam Song’ as though it were an impassioned hit musical number from Les Miserables. The Terry Jones woman shouted ‘Shut up! Bloody Vikings!’ as you do. They wore (incorrect) Viking helmets and some carried Finnish flags. The head Viking with an imposing voice was the Trouble at Mill boy, a.k.a. Sam Holmes, who has the look of a young Jude Law and has toured in Spamalot as Sir Robin. The Vikings came down the steps as though invading the Spam diner, as the Pythons (I’m including Carol in that) disappeared. The song merged into one about the greatness of Finland, ‘The Finland Song’ by Michael Palin and John du Prez, where the Vikings sang: ‘Finland, Finland, Finland / The country where I want to be / Pony trekking or camping / Or just watching TV’.
In surely the best stage transition ever, amidst all the organised Viking chaos and spam singing, just as they were about to reach their final line, Cleese appeared in a spotlight, towering above the others, holding a giant bird cage. His voice boomed out with an aggrieved ‘I wish to register a complaint!’
Shrieks nearly shook the arena. As his presence cleared the stage of Viking detritus, the pet shop set rolled in, and Palin walked on in a brown work jacket to join Cleese on the other side of the counter.
As the lights went up on the shop, Cleese greeted Palin as ‘miss’, then explained he was sorry for the mistake; he had a cold. Then they performed the sublime Dead Parrot Sketch, one of the greatest comedy sketches of all time, just as we wanted it. Ah yes, the Norwegian Blue—beautiful plumage. Their facial expressions were even the same as in the 70s, with the same treasured dialogue. ’I’ll tell you what’s wrong with it, my lad; it’s dead.’ ‘There---he moved!’ ‘Norwegian Blues stun easily,’ and ‘No, no, he’s probably pining for the fjords’. We savoured every drip like a rare old whisky. Every line we knew so well still had us giggling. Palin was so in character that it was easy to believe he was a spiv and not think of him as the actor or presenter. We adored the famous dialogue. ‘The Norwegian Blue prefers kipping on his back’. ‘This parrot wouldn’t voom if you put 40k volts through it. It’s bleeding demised.’ ‘This parrot is no more, he has ceased to be, he’s a stiff, bereft of life, he rests in peace.’ (I always think how Cleese had such admirable nerve to say at Graham Chapman’s memorial service that, as the co-author of this sketch—you know, it would have been a faulty toaster if Chapman hadn’t intervened—Cleese said that Chapman had ceased to be. He was ‘bereft of life, he rests in peace. He's kicked the bucket, hopped the twig, bit the dust, snuffed it…’ leaving those who were previously tearful in fond laughter. Watch it here:. I also love how Michael Palin referred at the service to Chapman’s notorious tardiness by saying that he liked to think that Chapman was there with them in spirit, ‘or at least he will be in about 25 minutes’.)
Tonight, once Cleese ended his delicious diatribe with ‘this…is an ex-parrot,’ we roared our approval with prolonged whistles and applause. Palin then surprised us with, ‘Right, well, I’ll get a replacement then, and he walked into the back, out of our view. Cleese wandered stage left, away from the ‘shop’ and then mused quietly aloud, ‘It’s funny to think that Sir Isaac Newton invented the cat flap,’ and sniffed.
(Do look into this yourself, but it seems it may be 19th Century urban legend that Newton, who died in 1727, had made a big hole for his mother cat and a small one for the kittens, when the kittens could just use the big one, too. Some Newton biographies say he did not keep a cat, but a contemporary said in his memoir that his door definitely had two plugged holes of suitable sizes. Perhaps he kept no cat but made the hole for feral cats or his neighbours’ cats that would be welcomed in to kill rodents. Or he may have been a secret cat keeper.)
So after Cleese shared this observation with us, Palin returned from out back and eyed him suspiciously. ‘You been ad-libbing?’ he asked. We laughed madly. ‘Yes, but not very well,’ Cleese replied. Palin returned to the sketch, planning to lead it through an important transition. ‘I’ve had a look around the back’—but then couldn’t help himself and interrupted his own line. ‘Did he really invent the cat flap? I thought that was Eric Newton.’ (I thought it was Fig.) Cleese explained that he’d done so after inventing the optics, and Palin, still in character, said it was a natural progression, innit, from optics to cat flap. Cleese said there should be a statue of him with a cat, and Palin lowered the tone a bit with, ‘Did he have a pussy himself?’ Surely he meant that in the innocent Mrs Slocombe way. Cleese just stared at us with an appalled look as we laughed.
‘Anyway,’ Palin said, ‘These people have homes to go to, so…’ and then he started to laugh. He stared above him to regain his composure, then said to Cleese,‘ I’ll just whizz on a bit.’ They paused to figure out then touch base as to where they’d left off, with Palin saying, ‘Oh yeah! I’ve been out back, and we’re right out of parrots, but all is not lost, because I’ve got a selection of---‘ and then he started laughing again, to the raucous approval of the crowd, which eventually applauded. He recovered and explained that he had a selection of – and Cleese started to move away, shielding his smiles, so Palin ordered him to stay there. He then repeated and finally finished the line—‘a selection of cheeses’! The audience cheered at the familiar introduction to another favourite sketch, plus by now the line was a real achievement.
‘You name it, I’ve got it.’ ‘Brie?’ ‘No.’ ‘Camembert?’ ‘No’ Cleese had the luxury of being able to just think up random cheeses rather than memorise loads of lines, but on the other hand, you can easily go blank or forget the ones that lead to punch lines. ‘Wensleydale?’ ‘Yes!’ ‘Oh, I’ll have Wensleydale, please’ until Palin explained that he’d thought Cleese was addressing him, as his name was Arthur Wensleydale. They played magically together—with just the right length pauses and mischievous eye contact. ‘Stinking Bishop?’ Cleese asked. Palin lowered his voice aggressively, ‘What’d you call me?!’ When Cleese explained that it was a popular West Country cheese, Palin said that this was the east country ‘so we don’t get much call for that. ‘
He pointed out that Cleese hadn’t asked him about cheddar. Cleese just gave us a look of futility, then started to say his line but struggled when he noticed Palin was trying to stifle giggles. He regained his own pompous dignity and started again, ‘So, he said expecting the answer no—‘ more laughter from both of them, so we joined in, and Palin nearly doubled over and seemed to pretend to scrape something off his shoe. Cleese tried to continue by adding ‘…or words to that general effect,’ as Palin nodded along with him, both trying to get a grip. Cleese repeated the very beginning of the line again and Palin laughed. Then Cleese managed to finish it: ‘Do you have any cheddar?’
With wicked timing, Palin barely let Cleese finish before jumping in with ‘no.’ Armenian string cheese? Palin said he had Armenian G-string cheese, but the wife was wearing it. Then, merging a third classic sketch into this one, he gently enquired whether Cleese wanted to come back to his place, and Cleese paused only briefly before saying he thought Palin would never ask, and off they went arm in arm. We applauded for ages as they left, the ad libbing and corpsing making the classic joy of the sketches that much sweeter. Old and improved comedy.
They may not be buddies in the real world but Cleese and Python make a magnificent team when partnered in sketches; they play well off each other and have heavenly chemistry (naturally, I don’t mean romantically. No doubt knowing someone from youth and having to work so closely with them for some time can give you some insight to their being, even if you dread what you see.). Palin did seem to be in a terrific number of the wonderful sketches, and BBC Radio 4’s Front Row mused that he had carried the show, but really that’s unfair. We all know Michael Palin’s enormously versatile and talented, and it’s impossible not to admire him. His expressions, quick wit and timing are first rate, and he’s probably more the jobbing actor than the others (in addition to the—I won’t yawn—travel presenter and writer). But I don’t think any single part carried the whole even remotely. I suppose some people may have their favourite Python the way people had their favourite Beatle, but of course we were there to see them all together, and no one was shouting out for their preferred Python and holding up signs saying ‘I love Terry G’ or anything. Not the night I was there anyway, and we were far too busy being civil, as I mentioned, and melting in adoration and pleasure.
It was, after all, the greatest ever ensemble with equal input, and they’ve all developed just as well in their growth as performers since their original Python days. I’ve gushed about Palin, and his supposed twin Idle is a renowned songwriter, musical creator, comic actor and writer with big ideas who thought nothing of taking on weaving this great tapestry together, with an asteroid named after him. Gilliam is not just the guy who cut up a few collages and made them move, but he’s a big time award-winning screenwriter and Hollywood director (Brazil, for goodness sake!). Terry Jones is an adorable and phenomenal character actor, director, presenter, writer and poet. Cleese, well what has he done since Python? Nothing we can think of. It’s not even on screen as I write this now.
No one was a bitter old bald and paunchy long forgotten accountant or van driver whose life depended on this reunion and who didn’t fit in. They’re all seasoned, justifiably revered performers, not has-beens who disappeared from view and came together to see if they could still pull off an ill-advised last hurrah. Nothing like it. It’s proof they’re probably geniuses. And how is it that they’re still all so beautiful and well preserved? Riches? Success? Continuing to work? The money to keep magic ageing portraits in their loft? Regardless of how they have managed to change so agreeably physically, they all excel at what they do, so we saw a superior show than they would have delivered decades ago.
Next on screen in the arena, we were shown the old Python sketch of the exploding version of the Blue Danube, where an orchestra played the waltz in a field, and one by one, the musicians exploded to the beat, leaving wheat fires. Next came the familiar Gilliam animation with the unseen baby in a pram that eats everyone who leans in to say it’s lovely, until a hand from above turns it to face its evil nanny who tries to run away.
‘And now some music’ appeared on screen, with an animation of Rodin’s The Kiss, where the man ended up playing the woman’s thigh as though it were a recorder. Next the screen showed what looked like a young Jeff Goldblum, but was in fact a totally transformed and nearly unrecognisable Graham Chapman with false teeth and curly hair in a shiny sequined white tuxedo like Tom Hanks wore in Big, descending some steps in a clip from Meaning of Life. He introduced the song he started singing for us: ‘It’s Christmas in Heaven’, with angel (vs angelic) women lining the stairs, wearing dresses with big fake nude breasts on them, and then we cut to a scene of suited men leaping into a pool like synchronised swimmers. It was yet another wonderful way to include Chapman in the reunion.
This moved seamlessly to Viking/MillBoy Sam Holmes taking up Chapman’s part pretty much in the same get-up and glowing teeth, coming down the stairs that were now in the middle of the stage, which was again misty with dry ice. He was buffeted by several fake-nude-breasted (Well, I guess it was the era of Benny Hill…ish) Santa-costume clad women wearing wings who danced down the stairs, all singing that surprisingly catchy song. Sam in white tux then led Carol down the stairs, and she was looking gloriously fit in a red sequined leotard and long red gloves, a bit like a bunny costume without ears. Other men in the ensemble were dressed in white suits with tails and waltzed around with tinselly Christmas trees.
Then the Pythons all came down in sort of David Niven gear, wearing white dinner jackets and black bow ties and black trousers, looking smoothly elegant (despite, I noticed for the first time, Terry Gilliam seeming to sport a long grey ponytail.) Loads (and loads!) of confetti snow fell over them as they joined in with the song. They looked like our best ever friends, and we were all rapt with this spectacle, thrilled to be with them, although this looked ominously like a big finale that would lead to their departure. (The sequence put me in mind of the Beatles’ ‘Your Mother Should Know’ sequence in the Magical Mystery Tour, but with fewer swirling petticoats, and the Pythons were smoother.
The five Pythons came right up to the front of the stage, stood in a line and held hands as they bowed in unison, and we went wild and carried on cheering for ages. Then Carol and the white sparkly guy (Sam) joined them and bowed, they all thanked the orchestra and musical director. From one angle, their proximity to the winged Santa breast dancers made it look as though Terry Jones and Eric Idle were wearing angels’ wings (so we could start some ‘Paul is Dead’ rumours later, but I’d rather not even nod towards that sort of thing, though Paul McCartney has done rather well in the end). And that’s probably a better look than sporting the fake nude women’s breasts.
All the dancers also bowed before everyone went off to leave the Pythons with us, blowing kisses, as we continued to roar. They continued to bow in unison, then waved, seeming happy to enjoy the reunion and, I hope, the apt adulation as well. They went off, with one of them (Palin, I think) patting the nearest Python, which I think was Gilliam, on the back as they went.
Lest we wonder or worry that it was all over—not that anyone looked remotely inclined to try to beat the crowds by running for their train now as we often do--the screen kindly displayed the message ‘Two minutes until the spontaneous encore’. (Singer Boo Hewerdine does something similar at his gigs but without the graphics). The lights were shining on us, and we spent those two minutes standing and cheering.
Then the Pythons came back on punctually as promised, with Eric Idle holding an acoustic guitar. He began to sing with almost a Spanish trill at the start, ‘Sooommmme----‘ and we quickly recognised probably the most famous Python song ever: “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” from that frightfully blasphemous (not) film Life of Brian. This song can bring all nationalities together as shown at the 2012 Olympics Closing Ceremony, it cheers people at funerals or as their warship goes down, helps set a Guinness World Record (the world’s largest coconut orchestra, of course), has been covered by the likes of Harry Nilsson, Art Garfunkel and Green Day, and now managed to leave us cheerful when something we’d so looked forward to (for decades!) and rejoiced in was coming to an end. Idle barely reached the chorus when we plunged in, as did the other Pythons, who also clapped, shuffled and snapped to the beat. All of the audience was standing, no matter how far back or high up, and 20,000 people sang along and cheerily waved their arms side to side with this ultimate feel good song born of a crucifixion.
In case any of us had been on another planet and didn’t know the chorus, the words came up on the screen. The cameras kept falling on groups of people in the all-singing, ceaselessly beaming audience and projecting it on the screens, which made everyone sing out even more enthusiastically in case they were next. Somehow the Pythons without guitars suddenly found conductors’ batons in their hands and began conducting us, as Du Prez conducted them from the pit. We sounded smashing en masse anyway, sparkling in our joy, but the song was improved when the ensemble returned to the stage, now dressed in much more tasteful white outfits, adding wonderful mega-harmonies, with triumphant trumpets ensuring it sounded amazing. Michael Palin and Terry Gilliam got so into their conducting that it counted as dancing and was super to see. Carol came on again in her red bunny-like outfit. At the end, after the Pythons again paid tribute to Carol, the ensemble, Sam the head Viking and the orchestra, everyone else left the Pythons to remain to take more bows in a row together. Then finally, nearly tragically, they skipped off stage, full of smiles as the Monty Python theme filled the arena, and we clapped to the beat for a bit.
On the screen, the words ‘Graham Chapman 1941- 1989’ came up, and still on our feet, we all let out a mighty cheer in his memory. That was soon replaced with ‘Monty Python 1969-2014’. 2014! It’s true, it was the week of its demise, and we were there. It was a peaceful end, a great way to go—in white dinner jackets with everyone adoring you and singing along at your behest.
This really was the end of the evening, joyous but sad. The second half had run about an hour and 10 minutes; the whole show had lasted almost three hours. (I guess the corpsing and ad libs added some time, along with our delighted reactions when there was a chance to offer them). It really should have been heart-breaking when it finished, and perhaps if it had been Sunday, the last show ever, I would have found room amidst my jubilation to feel gutted. Happily, as it wasn’t the last night, there was the promise of seeing it screened live on Sunday and no doubt a DVD release (Yes! In November) to help us through the next few decades ‘til they reunited in their 90s.
Incidentally, I feel the Pythons and team deserve colossal credit as they could have been cynical money-grabbers, as so many people are now, and made some exclusive Pay per View deal or sold the rights to a satellite company that would use the forthcoming show to flog pricey packages to people who were desperate to see it. Instead, they made their last hurrah hugely accessible across the world in cinemas and on a cable channel many of us get in the UK. They were true gents to share this fabulous fun so readily.
The last thing to appear on the screen that night was beautifully written in gentle script: ‘Piss off.’ Which is a useful clear message and easier to understand than waiting to see if the house lights are staying up or wondering if there may be another encore. I’d suggest that some bands might adopt that practice, but then it would be unacceptable from anyone else.
It honestly felt as though we had spent time with dearest old friends. Friends who had promised an unforgettable, magical evening and then actually delivered it, meeting truly insurmountable expectations. I’m so pleased they pulled it off and I got to be there, and I could stop worrying that anyone was going to pull out or, God forbid, fall ill before my night came up, and no shows had been cancelled. I wandered around in a blissful, dreamy state for days afterward, with the usual minor stresses bouncing off my new sugar coating. The glow and joy from this evening would surely keep us all floating for a long time. I’m still smiling, and normally I’m a grumpy old fool who walks around scowling. They’ve fixed me.
My only slight sense of sadness, now creeping in, is that I had adored being surrounded by the Python frenzy in the run up to the shows, seeing them promote them on Graham Norton’s programme and elsewhere, and I initially thought I had no hope of being there but just loved their exposure as a team again. It was amazing to belong to that world for a while, and I do prefer their older selves, and was pleased that they brought Chapman here with us. But having had a visit from these dear old friends who have now returned home, I shall miss them terribly, and the house seems a lot emptier.
But I look forward with relish to their next projects as individuals. And when they want to retire, God forbid, they have left us plenty to enjoy
I must just mention that the £20 programme turned out to be excellent value. It’s sizeable, packed full of goodies, partly devoted to ‘Monty Python Through the [St]ages’, and just as much careful thought and skilled enterprise has gone into making it something special, rewarding and hilarious as they put into the shows. I also got a giant t-shirt to sleep in but find I can’t bear to take it out of the bag (I know that makes me like a Big Bang Theory geek preserving a boxed Spock toy), and a mug, which I’ll use soon once I accidentally break the 2012 Olympics one. I won’t tell you how much that tally with the ticket and other costs came to (and thank you to my employer for the advance!)….but I will tell you that it was all absolutely worth it. I’ll be smiling for years. I’m just so grateful that they gave us this utterly perfect, thrilling reunion, and I hope they feel pleased that they did. My final wish is that they are all well and sprightly enough to consider a 50th or 60th reunion, even if they choose to rule it out.
I’ll go away now.
Copyright © 2014 by TC. All rights reserved.
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