In 1969, five young British comedians and one young American animator came together to make a television show. Without much of an idea of what they were going to do, they were given a series by the BBC to do it in, and after hunting around for a name -- "Owl-Stretching Time" and "A Horse, a Spoon, and a Basin" having been bruited and vetoed -- they settled on "Monty Python's Flying Circus."
The 40th anniversary of this event is being marked by an excellent six-hour documentary series, "Monty Python: Almost the Truth (The Lawyer's Cut)," which begins tonight on the Independent Film Channel.
The group's communal creative life span stretched from 1969 to 1983, but once a Python always a Python: Not only did the five surviving members -- John Cleese, Eric Idle, Michael Palin, Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam (Graham Chapman died from throat cancer in 1989) -- consent to talk for the camera for the new film, but they also reunited onstage last week in New York for a public "conversation" at the premiere of a feature-length "theatrical cut."
Despite its equivocal title, "Almost the Truth" beats any Python documentary yet made for comprehensiveness and depth. It is at its heart the story of six men and their sometimes contentious, sometimes gleeful relationship to one another, their work and their culture, as told by themselves, the people they worked with and the people they influenced. But it also makes room for silly walks, upper-class twits, a dead (not a resting) , the Four Yorkshiremen, the Fish-Slapping dance, flying sheep, Arthur (King of the Britons), a taunting Frenchman, Brian (who is not the Messiah, whatever you may have heard), Mr. Creosote, the All-England Summarize Proust Competition, various pepper pots and policemen, a cross-dressing singing lumberjack and a naked man playing the organ. From "Flying Circus" to "Holy Grail" and "Life of Brian" and beyond, their best work remains -- after 26 to 40 years, depending -- timelessly funny.
"It's partly having the time, telling a story over six hours," Terry Jones said recently, on the phone from the U.K.; Jones' son Bill Jones co-directed "Almost the Truth" with his producing partner Ben Timlett.
"It's cut very well, so it really moves. But it's also just having the time to go into areas that other documentaries don't. They did three-hour interviews and I thought, 'My God, how on Earth can you talk about Python for three hours?'
"But it went surprisingly quickly, and we got into areas that I don't think we'd necessarily been into before, about 'What was it like when you were growing up?' and 'What was your relationship with your father?' I found it absolutely fascinating hearing Mike talking about his parents and Eric talking about his mother and being sent away to school."
Born between 1939 (Cleese, who turns 70 this month) and 1943 (Idle and Palin), the Pythons are about the same age as the Beatles, with a similar involvement with their time. (If the Beatles were a rock band with the instincts of a comedy troupe, Python was a comedy troupe with the dynamics of a rock band.) While their paths were different, their experience of 1960s Britain was not: a shift from black-and-white to color, from sensibility to Surrealism.
In the documentary, Idle recalls seeing "Beyond the Fringe" -- the groundbreaking satirical review that made stars of Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett and Jonathan Miller -- in London in 1962: "They attacked everything that I'd just spent 19 years being oppressed by: royalty, police, authorities, teachers -- every single authority figure was pilloried and destroyed, and my life just changed."
Python, with its "now for something completely different" aesthetic, embodied that liberation. "We'd been obeying conventions we didn't really agree with for a very long time," Cleese says in the film of the new comic possibilities. "It was really like somebody opening the gate to a field of flowers, none of which had been picked."
The group approached the documentary with varying degrees of caution. "I wasn't particularly keen," said Palin, also by telephone from the U.K. (but a different phone), "partly because I thought a 40th anniversary is too obvious for Python to do -- we should have had our 39th or our 43rd but not the 40th. But there always seems to be more material that comes out every time one talks about Python, and things evolve over the years -- we kind of mellow slightly. Maybe now we're less defensive about talking about each other. And so I feel very glad that we did do it, because there's quite a lot to say -- much more than I ever expected.
"I look back at my diary now," continued Palin, known post-Python for his globe-trotting travel programs, "and I recall the uncertainty of it all -- we were going to give up in '71. We were going to give up in '72. It reminds me how tenuous Python was. It never really established itself as the primary thing we were going to do with our lives. And yet when you look back at it from 40 years, it seems that there was sort of a seamless sweep of Python work and achievement from 1969 right through to 1983.
"I think we forget that at the time it was absolutely instinctive. There was very little calculation about what we wrote. Nobody said, 'Let's deal with the Spanish Inquisition now' or 'Let's do Freemasons today.' I remember Python as always being made and produced and acted on the edge of laughter."
That comes across in the documentary.
"I thought it was important to see them laughing, to see them enjoying themselves and enjoying their memories as well," said Bill Jones, by (yet another) phone from the U.K. (As to growing up the son of a Python in the 1980s, "At my school there was another dad who was in a children's TV series called 'Grange Hill' -- he was the famous dad and my dad was just some old bloke.")
"I think we caught them all at a really good time," Timlett added (on the same line as Bill Jones). "Terry Gilliam had just finished 'The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus'; he was in this wonderful place where he's just finished his movie, he really likes it, and no one's reviewed it yet. John Cleese was incredibly happy, even though he'd just got divorced. And Eric was also fantastic; he's just such a good performer."
But as good as they may be feeling about it these days, the past will stay past. They are doing other things -- acting, directing, writing books and newspaper pieces, this, that. Cleese is a busy character actor and sometime lecturer at Cornell. Jones co-wrote an opera, of all things, "Evil Machines." Idle -- who spun "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" into "Spamalot!" and recently staged "An Evening Without Monty Python" (Python sketches played by others) -- says in the film, "People say, 'Let's get the Beatles back together. . . .' Well, you just want to be young again."
But that's only part of it. People just like happy endings. We are moved by the sum that is greater than its parts. We like to see old friends end as friends.
"Is it a good thing to go over all this stuff?" Palin wondered aloud. "I don't know. Are we learning anything else? Probably. But will it change the way we look at Python? Absolutely not."