More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2014 (28 August to 7 September)
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As Spamalot may have been (the writer does not know), another Eric-Idle-engineered piece, centred on big musical numbers (which, in the case of Monty Python (Almost) Live, were very impressive - with a talented cast of singer / dancers), this show was, for all that it offered, uneven.
No doubt some of the unevenness could have been levelled out by the editing of the Live show to be (Almost) Live, which seemed a marked advantage (as it does for, say, NT Live broadcasts, though others see these things differently).
From the start, we had the dubious benefit of a kangaroo (with an obviously human face) on stage, which eventually found its place later on (please see below). In the meantime, its locomotive human bobbed around, in an irritatingly jolly fashion, which seemed to sound the inappropriate note that the show was going to be cuddly, which, in places, it flatly contradicted, e.g. with the penis, vagina, arse* group of songs (can one seriously write that in a review ? yes, as this is Python…)
It was the same Idle with Michelangelo's Last Supper, where John Cleese was too strong, as when he is allowed to be (such as with that whack with the mammoth fish on the edge of the quay, The Fish-Slapping Dance, and one of Cleese or Idle robbed Idle of the strength of the lines about the 28 disciples, and the 3 Christs – along with Idle’s outclassed cheery quattordicicento painter guise, they plummeted, unable to compete with Cleese, as The Pope, blithely saying fucking.
In this early part of the show, some of the humour – in what seemed to be new material – just did not work, and, by definition, was not the best of Python (e.g. the tame misunderstanding of Oz Arena for the O2 Arena, dutifully delivered by Michael Palin), as one might expect the show to aim to be. ‘Every sperm is sacred’ (from The Meaning of Life (1983)) was a huge production number, with a great dance routine, although not quite to rival the energy and scope of the film, and it also had new lyrics (in places). Another big set-piece, ‘I like Chinese’, was similarly impressive, but – if it was Python – taxed this writer’s familiarity. It started seeming marginally racially offensive, only to turn out not to be*.
Wherever the philosophers’ song came from (with the Bruces as philosophy professors**), Palin seemed, as observed, the only one who had obviously learnt his lines (such as they were) : Eddie Izzard was probably brought on stage at this part, but he just seemed star struck, and contributed nothing other than his awe. Linked with footage of the German and Greek Philosophers’ Football-Match, and sensationally going back to the match as Socrates scores in the final seconds, it worked well as a combination, because of the sheer shared incongruity : when parts of original Python shows were given oxygen to thrive by a suitable setting, both were enhanced.
A re-enactment of the Crunchy Frog Sketch at the premises of the Whizzo Chocolate company had the visually and aurally coarse element of Terry Gilliam, as Superintendent Parrot, farting and retching, as his senior officer (Cleese as Inspector Praline) recalled what he had eaten from the assortment. By the time that sweetmeats such as the crunchy frog were reached, Terry Jones was reading impassively from the card, and, cracking up with Cleese, swallowed and lost losing the impact of Ah - now, that's our speciality (Spring Surprise) - covered with darkest creamy chocolate. When you pop it in your mouth steel bolts spring out and plunge straight through both cheeks.
Up until the interval, the show had been pretty good, and the choice of archive Python had been well made : The Fish-Slapping Dance is always a killer (however many times one has seen it), because of Cleese’s all-too-adept bludgeoning, and included amongst Gilliam’s wizardry were the teasingly postponed / interposed full frontal nudity, the pram that swallows people, and the Rodin ocarina.
However, one strange note sounded was by a caption flashed up that said ‘Munich 1972’ – the year of the Olympic massacre, most notably ?
Palin in Blackmail was smarmy, but the sketch did not have the bite and impetus of that in the t.v. series, and just felt a bit weak. Another piece of shrapnel on stage was what looked like Mike Meyers : no doubt that he was pleased to be there, but he had nothing to do, and added nothing.
Great moments of the second half (as far as they can be recalled) were :
* The Exploding Blue Danube, which (although it probably was not as clever as it looked) was very entertaining
* The Spanish Inquisition, kept together, again, by Palin – with his not inestimable, dogmatically precise zealot prelate (to give the Pythons their full complement, lines on introduction, such as One on't cross beams gone owt askew on't treddle, had been given to members of the cast)
* Moving into Idle opening a fridge, and doing his pink-suited number, ‘The Universe song’ (alias ‘The Galaxy song’)
* One Professor (Brian Cox) being rammed by another (in Stephen Hawking) and accused of being pedantic (for correcting the detail of the preceding song)
* The Dead Parrot Sketch linked up with The Cheese Shop Sketch and finishing with Do you fancy coming back to my place ? (from a little t.v. moment when Cleese, as a Police Inspector, meets another Python in the street) : Palin and Cleese on top form, trying to make each other corpse with ad libs, but Palin getting the upper hand by recalling where they are and telling Cleese 'Your next line is...' - very funny, and in the spirit of Pythons' four re-enactments for Amnesty International (The Secret Policeman's Ball) between 1976 and 1981, although, perhaps notably, Idle was never involved in them***
* Inevitably, ending with a lively, shimmering version of ‘Always look on the bright side of life’
A good way of spending a couple of hours, and an encouragement to dig out that huge boxed set of the t.v. series – and Just the Words, the nicely curated scripts in two volumes (which has provided information of the episodes above)…
* Just how much it was Idle’s patent show and with his songs, when it could have celebrated Python more widely, than promoting purchase of the films on the flier, by incorporating clips from them (or were their copyright limitations ?)
* Would everyone have known who Carol Cleveland was ? She may have substituted for the original Connie Booth to Palin’s lumberjack, but she was never introduced. Although she did an admirable few other turns, she had always been the token glamour in the t.v. series (when the pepperpots, etc. could not be suitable sirens), so it was a shame that the team did not put the record straight by officially acknowledging who she was.
Reference material :
Blackmail - Episode Eighteen (recorded 10/9/1970, transmitted 27/10/70)
The Bruces - Episode Twenty-Two (recorded 25/9/1970, transmitted 24/11/1970)
The Cheese Shop Sketch - Episode Thirty-Three (recorded 7/1/1972, transmitted 30/11/72)
The Crunchy Frog Sketch - Episode Six (recorded 5/11/1969, transmitted 23/11/1969)
The Dead Parrot Sketch - Episode Nine (recorded 7/12/1969, transmitted 14/12/1969)
Exploding Blue Danube - Episode Twenty-Six (recorded 16/10/70, transmitted 22/12/1970)
The Fish-Slapping Dance - Episode Twenty-Eight (recorded 28/1/1972, transmitted 26/10/72)
I’m a Lumberjack - (Episode Nine (recorded 7/12/1969, transmitted 14/12/1969)
The Philosophers’ Football-Match - From Monty Pythons Fliegender Zirkus (made for German t.v.)
The Spanish Inquisition - Episode Fifteen (recorded 2/7/1970, transmitted 22/9/1070)
* Is that taken from The Meaning of Life (1983) and – as only Idle could – ‘updated’ ? (It was an irritation that the text of this, and of the philosophers’ song, were not kept in front of the camera for long enough – perhaps a last-minute bid to protect the innocent ?) If it was, as other pieces / songs were not straight renditions (unlike those that were – insofar as those performing them could manage it – meant to be straight renditions), but had been modernized (one was not always sure why) :
After all, I’m a Lumberjack is just as offensive to the trans audience as it has ever been, but no changes had been introduced to the sacred text (except the tease, in the preceding Lion-Tamer sketch, that Mr Anchovy really wants to be a Systems Analyst). Palin was jeered as ‘disgusting’ by one in the choir (uncelestial), whereas another song (‘I like Chinese’) was cute in pretending to be, but not actually being, racist. In fact, the interjection that followed the sketch on t.v., from Cleese voicing over a letter from Brigadier Sir Charles Arthur Strong (Mrs), had said Many of my best friends are lumberjacks and only a few of them are transvestites
** Which was the only connection with The Bruces, an insignificant piece, made no more or less significant.
*** It is understood that only Jones and Cleese took some role (of whatever kind) in all four shows, with Palin registering three, Chapman two, and Gilliam one. Apart from a brief cameo in the 1989 show by Palin and Cleese, there has been no engagement with any later Amnesty shows.
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Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)