The Prehistory of Python

by Harry on April 13, 2006

I’ve promised to give a talk at the local High School on the pre-history of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. This is something I know a depressingly large amount about, not least from endless listening to the nostalgia strands on BBC7. But I wouldn’t have agreed to give a talk on it but for the delightful discovery that there are surviving episodes of both the immediate predecessor shows, Do Not Adjust Your Set and At Last the 1948 Show (Region 1, NTSC, believe it or not: Brits here and here). 1948 is more like Monty Python, not quite as good but containing, for example, the original version of the 4 Yorkshiremen sketch (with Marty Feldman!). DNAYS, though, is wonderful. It was a kid’s show, with Idle, Jones, Palin, David Jason, and Denise Coffey, and the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band appearing in various roles as well as themselves. The legend is that they did whatever they wanted because the kiddie-time slot meant that the executives didn’t bother to watch (those were the days!). I’d heard a great deal about it, and have long owned the album from the show (but the more or less complete bonzos is a better deal and contains Tadpoles), but I always imagined that it was lost to posterity. Wrong. 9 episodes survive and they are, really, exactly as the legend suggests. In fact, apart from not being in colour, they have aged better than Monty Python itself. The sketches are shorter, better structured, end with punch-lines, and the sense of anarchy is more palpable. You can see them enjoying themselves, and there is no sense, as there is in the later Pythons, that they are straining rather to get a laugh. The other marvel, though, is seeing the late lamented Viv Stanshall perform; I’ve always preferred Neil Innes to Stanshall, in the same way that I prefer McCartney to Lennon, but Stanshall commands the screen whenever he is on it. Brilliant. The local high school kids have a treat in store.



marcel 04.13.06 at 3:26 pm

I don’t know any of the people you are talking about, so I am grateful for the McCartney/Lennon reference. As a result I suspect that I would prefer Stnashall to Innes, but wonder if I would actually like either.

McCartney over Lennon? blech!


marcel 04.13.06 at 3:27 pm

And I’d probably prefer Stanshall to Stnashall.


gbp 04.13.06 at 3:57 pm

The prosperity of a jest and all that, but I’m frankly stunned by your judgment. I recently rented the pair of them and laughed immoderately at the 1948 show but found DNAYS–an interesting archeological exercise.


jet 04.13.06 at 4:32 pm

Did anyone else, after reading the title, think this was going to be about how the success of Perl led to Python?


Harry b 04.13.06 at 4:53 pm

Marcel, Neil Innes is the main force behind The Rutles, a band that pastiches the Beatles (extremely well) and also wrote a number of songs for the Monty Python movies (and maybe appeared in one or two). Stanshall moved into very odd things after the Bonzos. I imagine if you look round the internet you’ll find some excerpts of Sir Henry at Rawlinson End. The Bonzo album Keynsham is their best — full of melody and fun.

Yes, I’m a bit embarrassed that I prefer McCartney to Lennon. I’m middle aged. I used to be embarrassed that I liked Steely Dan, but I’m not any more. This has the makings of a good independent post, now I think of it.

gbp: I do like 1948, just not as much as DNAYS. I don’t know how to defend that preference ordering. My kids (9 and 5) agree…. actually, I can’t say why I liked it so much without sounding like I’m protesting too much, so I won’t.


harry b 04.13.06 at 5:00 pm

jet — no-one who knows me would have imagined for a second that it would be about that (I had no idea what you were talking about, so googled it). I am the least technologically competent blogger in the world; possibly the least technologically competent person using the internet.


Uncle Kvetch 04.13.06 at 6:24 pm

I used to be embarrassed that I liked Steely Dan, but I’m not any more.

That’s the spirit! 8^)


gbp 04.13.06 at 7:05 pm

Harry: tastes will differ, of course. I’d certainly recommend that people check out both. My opinion might have been affected by watching too many of them in one night.


jet 04.13.06 at 9:33 pm

Yes, first I saw the title and thought the subject was a short essay into the realm of formal language theory. Then I saw your name as the writer and thought, by gods, that man Harry is a blazing genius. Not only is he an accomplished philosopher, he’s dabbled enough into Computer Science to have opinions.

So for a second there, you had attained a god like status.

But you’ll have to settle for perplexing author of most disturbing books. I keep trying to make it through Justice, but I get attacks of paranoia that this type of thinking will take over and the slackers I, er, pick up the slack for will get paid the same as me, or something else just as injust.


Peter 04.14.06 at 9:19 am

Harry — If you prefer DNAYS because the sketches end with punch lines, you’re not getting something very profound and essential about MPFC. A key comedic innovation of the Python team was precisely the ever-present jump-cut, mid-sketch, to another sketch. Sorry to say, but if you feel the absence of punch-lines, you’re not fully appreciating the Python comedy.


harry b 04.14.06 at 7:29 pm

peter — I don’t think I said I prefer it. I said it has aged better. Yes, that was a great breakthrough, perhaps the one truly original thing they did, and sometimes it works brilliantly. But sometimes it seems lazy, and sometimes desparate. I’ve watched a great deal of Python recently, and although their highs are about as high as you can get, I think the highs obliterate some quite ordinary stuff. There are other things that make me uneasy too which I mihgt write about later. Galton and Simpson seem much fresher to me, as do Clement and La Frenais (at least in “Whatever happened to the Likely Lads”), though never as funny as the best of Python.

gbp: Yes, I have watched them very sporadically (at the request of my children who, aware that there are only 9 of them, have wanted to eke out the pleasure). Similarly The Goodies (more on them later too). In fact, on reflection, I’ve been watching Python more intensely, so perhaps that mars my judgment of them!

jet — I still owe you a series of posts trying to win you over fully to egalitarian liberalism… Thanks for struggling with the book; at least it’s disturbed you!


jet 04.14.06 at 10:10 pm

You owe me nothing for you promised me nothing. But if you find some time to write those posts, I would greatly appreciate it. As for Justice, I have a feeling it is the means, not the ends that we would disagree about.

As for winning me over, I’ll be a tough nut to crack. I went from working on a pipeline, to working in a warehouse, to driving tractor-trailers, to selling everything I owned and working a part time job to put myself through a tiny cow-college and getting a degree in 2.5 years. I now make what I consider a ridiculous amount of money.

If I would have realized that the rewards for my efforts were merely some philosophers deciding how much cheese was needed to string along this mouse, I never would have bettered myself. For if I do not “own” the fruits of my labor, then what is to keep those mighty philosophers, high up on mount Olympus, from deciding that I am a much more productive individual and there will be little or no loss of productivity in lowering my incentives (in the name of equality)? Does it really just boil down to property rights?

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