When it’s on: Wednesday, 29 August (10.00 pm)
A bit like punk rock, I feel as though I missed out on the comedy of Monty Python a little. We’ve still got the TV series, the films, the audio spin-offs and so on to enjoy, and in my cupboard there’s an over-arching boxset that covers pretty much the lot, but I wish I’d been around at the time in order to experience the seismic cultural shift delivered by their work. Was it anything like growing up in the 1980s, I wonder, when safe, middle class sitcoms clashed with the alternative scene? I really don’t know, especially as The Meaning of Life, their last collaborative effort before the sextet split to work separately on their own projects, was the one film released when I was of an age to enjoy it.
It doesn’t help that it’s an uneven piece of work, mixing the very funny with stuff that’s (absolutely intentionally, I’m sure) just crude. There’s an undercurrent of bitterness to it all that bubbles up a little too often, submerging the comedy in meaning. That said, there are moments in it that are just brilliant, even if I miss the linear narratives of The Holy Grail and The Life of Brian as the Pythons revert to a sketch-based format, with the loose theme of ‘existence’ linking everything. Still, if anyone was to sit me down and attempt to explain the meaning of it all, I’d rather this lot than most. Their conclusion, that there isn’t one obviously, is probably about right and flies in the face at the near-profound heights they occasionally hit in the intervening 108 minutes.
Those sketches in full…
The Crimson Permanent Assurance
Billed as a support feature because it has no real relevance to the central theme, Terry Gilliam’s chief contribution is a joyous rip-off of matinee cinema, focusing on a group of Permanent Assurance ageing clerks who mutiny against their young, corporate overlords and turn into pirates.
Part 1 – The Miracle of Birth
A biting satire about NHS budgets and Thatcherite reforms forms the strongest segment of the film. From the patient dehumanising hospital scene, the action turns to the Third World (i.e. Yorkshire, though Lancashire’s Colne fills in) and a massive family of children that exists because their mum and dad are Catholics and aren’t allowed to use contraceptives. As Michael Palin’s dad explains to his enormous brood why he needs to sell them for medical research, he naturally breaks into song, the fabulous Every Sperm is Sacred, which features a beautifully choreographed musical sequence. Well done Terry Jones! As though this wasn’t enough, the camera cuts to a house across the street, where a pompous Graham Chapman explains to his wife (Eric Idle) why they can have sex as often as they like without bearing children – they’re Protestants, you see. Chapman at his most blustering ensures the material reaches sublime heights, and there’s even added value in the way Idle quivers when he hears mention of French Ticklers.
Part 2 – Growth and Learning
More brilliance, as the film centres on a public school assembly, complete with bored kids, overbearing masters and rambling lectures about not rubbing linseed oil into the school cormorant. Better still is the scene in John Cleese’s classroom, where he’s delivering a sex education lesson to boys who look as though they would rather be anywhere but there. A fantastic Q and A about foreplay ends in a live demonstration of intercourse between a naked Cleese and his wife (Patricia Quinn).
Part 3 – Fighting Each Other
A lovely segue from Jones’s face contorted in muddy agony on the rugby pitch into his equally forlorn features in the trenches of World War One introduce this segment. Jones is a Sergeant being presented with a series of increasingly outlandish gifts by his men before going over the top. The point is the usual one of lions led by donkeys, further illustrated when the action moves to a scene straight from Zulu. Whilst the common soldiery struggles against thousands of native warriors, a disinterested officer class concern themselves with the fact one of their number has had his leg bitten off. It starts well, especially the insouciance of Idle’s attack victim and the discussion of a tiger being to blame (‘Tigers? In Africa?’), but loses its way towards the end when they encounter two men dressed in a tiger costume and no one appears to know how to end the sketch so it just fizzles out. Goodwill is ensured by the appearance of Palin’s screaming Sergeant Major, who steadily lets his regiment avoid a march across the yard via a series of feeble excuses.
The Middle of the Film
The point where it starts to lose its way a little. Palin in drag gives us an opportunity to watch a segment of film and find the fish, which leads into a surrealistic piece so bizarre that I’m going to go with the Wikipedia explanation, that it was filmed using a ‘fisheye lens’, which at least suggests a point, however alienating is will be to most viewers.
Part 4 – Middle Age
A good idea on paper doesn’t translate so well on the screen. The sketch both satirises the image of dumb Americans and the lost art of communication between middle aged couples, who go into a restaurant, only instead of being served food they’re given conversation topics to discuss. There’s some mileage to be had from Cleese’s over-eager waiter, but it falls a bit flat.
Part 5 – Live Organ Transplants
The attacks on Monty Python following the release of The Life of Brian are of course legendary. Malcolm Muggeridge’s infamously pompous discussion during Friday Night, Saturday Morning must be seen to be believed. I think it’s in this spirit that the Pythons conceived this sketch, a grisly removal of someone’s liver as a consequence of him holding a donor card. Film something in sickening detail and watch the complaints roll in, seems to be the sentiment, only it’s shocking rather than funny. It’s sort of sad also that it builds into a real highlight, Idle’s superb Galaxy Song and some lovely graphical work hinting at the real meaning of life.
Part 6 – The Autumn Years
Another ace Idle song that gets lost in the gratuitousness. His pastiche on Noel Coward is a brilliantly put together tune about how good it is to have a penis, which is quickly overshadowed by perhaps the film’s most notorious sketch, the entry of the titanic Mr Creosote (Terry Jones beneath an entire latex factory of padding) into a posh French restaurant. Creosote intermittently vomits and stuffs his face, quickly emptying the establishment, whilst Cleese’s endlessly courteous Maitre D’ tries to keep him happy. Ultimately, the diner comes a cropper when faced with a wafer thin mint, but then the hanging denouement must be one of the most played clips on YouTube so it’s highly likely you’ve seen it in some shape or form. It’s pretty funny too, not least because it’s perfectly played by Cleese. Jones pops up again as a cleaning lady and tells Cleese about his/her attempts to discover the meaning of life. It’s all done in rather gloriously understated rhyme before ending in an anti-Semitic sentiment that forces Cleese to pour the bucket of vomit she’s cleaned onto her head. The camera then follows Idle’s waiter on a journey out of the restaurant and into the countryside, a weird little scene that takes a while to complete and builds up to nothing. Strange.
Part 7 – Death
More censor-baiting business with Chapman pursued to his death by a horde of topless beauties, which is surprisingly less fun than it sounds. Things improve when the Grim Reaper visits a remote house to tell a dinner party they’re to follow him after eating infected salmon mousse. The interplay between Cleese’s grumpy Death and the argumentative guests is lovely. Once in the afterlife, there’s a nicely conceived Barry Manilow impression by Chapman to round things off.
Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life: ***