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Completely Different: Monty Python's Flying Circus Series 2 on Blu-ray

  With the death of Terry Jones, a month after the fiftieth anniversary celebrations in 2019 of the groundbreaking television series he was a part of, Monty Python's Flying Circus, there was even more examination of the team's achievements, and Jones's in particular. Not one member of Python was wholly defined by the series, as they all had more strings to their bow, but as they would have expected, it was Python that was in the headlines covering Jones's passing, and would be for them all when that big foot descended on them from the heavens. Jones had directed many of the team's films, for example, as well as his own projects.

Indeed, with his adaptation of classic children's book The Wind in the Willows in 1996 and Absolutely Anything in 2015, Jones had assembled the last real teaming of the then-surviving Pythons aside from their farewell show in 2014, an indication that though they had had their differences, they would reunite should the circumstances permit it, and also how much they respected Jones. The Wind in the Willows went on to be a cult movie, and though Absolutely Anything garnered terrible reviews, it did likewise, largely because Python fans were eager to see anything their comedy heroes conjured up.

Coincidentally, a week after Jones died, the second series of the original programme from 1970 was released on Blu-ray, a remarkable restoration that had been out in a complete set of series one to four a few months before. The sketches were now intact and looking pristine, and the repeats versions that had been widely available could be consigned to history as finally all the whistles and bells were included, excisions for bad taste as well. This second series was especially valuable as it had been repeated in the late eighties, generating a new breed of Python fans who enthusiastically embraced the material on its late-night weekend broadcasts.

Back in 1970, this was the first series to be shown at anything like a civilised hour, series one the previous year being on after eleven o'clock on Sundays, making it all the more notable that it should have caught on the way it did, but then, you could attribute than to the high quality of the sketches. Series two was on at about ten o'clock on Tuesdays, and it's no coincidence that this was the run that truly established the show as a phenomenon among the younger viewers thirsty for this absurdist, anti-establishment humour, therefore it had the sketches most associated with the programme in the minds of the general public.

Parrot sketch aside, that was from series one, but the first episode of series two could boast The Ministry of Silly Walks, whereupon John Cleese, member of the department, advances down London streets in suit and bowler hat conducting himself in a most bizarre manner. It also had the extended riff on the then-recently imprisoned Kray Twins, presumably because they could do so without fear of reprisals (!). And episode two, well, just say "No one expects The Spanish Inquisition!" and there are many who will know exactly what you are talking about, Michael Palin leading a trio of religious fanatics with poor numeracy and a soft sense of torture.

By this series, there was at least one sketch per episode that would pass into the common consciousness, and the third was blessed with Palin's déjà vu crisis as the presenter of It's the Mind suffers from repeats on television (a common complaint in those days), the fourth with the interruptions from dramatic thriller series The Bishop (Jones trying to prevent ludicrous assassination attempts on clergymen in one of the funniest instalments they ever created), and the fifth opening with fan favourite gameshow Blackmail where Palin does just that to his viewers ("...and the shop where you bought the equipment!").

That one was also notable for the ingeniously high concept "surrounded by film" sequence, but playing around with television conventions, technicalities and clichés was always a big part of the Python approach. In the sixth, that most sacred of cows was Election Night, which even in the age of satire was taken very seriously, so naturally here was posited as a battle between The Sensible Party and The Silly Party (this was also the one with Raymond Luxury-Yacht, even now a popular meme). In the seventh, it was probably the opener that endured: The Attila the Hun Show, a spoof sitcom with the historical conqueror, complete with treacly intro.

The eighth kicked off with Archaeology Today, an extremely unorthodox look at the subject that descends into one-upmanship about how tall the presenter and two interviewees are, then transforms into an Egyptian musical/brawl. Though perhaps it was the Beethoven material that was most memorable about it, the great composer struggling with a minah bird and his wife vacuuming. The ninth told us how to recognise parts of the body, and featured one of Terry Gilliam's finest animations, The Killer Cars, with person-eating vehicles bested by a giant cat, which in turn is beaten by a giant hand, in a display of solutions being part of the problem.

The tenth takes a little while to warm up as it's the Scott of the Antarctic sequence that makes up a lot of the first half, but stick with it as the pay-off is sidesplitting once it becomes Scott of the Sahara thanks to clueless Hollywood types; the Europeans aren't let off, mind you, as the episode begins with a spot-on Jean-Luc Godard spoof. The eleventh's most celebrated bit is the How Not to Be Seen sequence, though the opener, the disastrous coffee advertising campaign, is pleasing and the deeply unimpressed takedown of religion demonstrates the boys could have bite in their humour, as witnessed more famously in their Monty Python's Life of Brian.

The twelfth and penultimate instalment of series two is best known for its final sketch, as it gave the name to unsolicited e-mails, where the Vikings in the café sing the praises of spam, though it also gave us the phrase "My hovercraft is full of eels" from the mistranslated Hungarian to English phrases sketch. Lastly, we were informed for the thirteenth episode that Her Majesty the Queen was about to switch over from watching The Virginian (a US cowboy show) to tune into Python, so be prepared to stand for The National Anthem at any minute. As it is, she watches News at Ten on ITV instead, so we get once renowned (not always for the right reasons) newsreader Reginald Bosanquet standing instead. This also ended with one of the most deliberately offensive sketches they could think of, The Undertaker's Sketch, rounding off probably the most consistent series of Python; certainly, they thought so, but there was more to come...

[Those features on the Network series 2 Blu-ray box set:

Limited edition digipak packaging
Book by Andrew Pixley featuring an exhaustive episode-by-episode production history of series two
The Buzz Aldrin Show: Extended & unused filmed material
Live from the Grill-O-Mat: Extended Ken Clean-Air System filmed material
It's a Living: Reinstated content & alternative, censored sketch audio, extended Election Night Special and School Prizes filmed material
How to Recognise Different Parts of the Body: Reinstated content & alternative, censored sketch audio
Scott of the Antarctic: Extended filmed material
How Not to Be Seen: Restored animation, unused film material, extended Conquistador Coffee sketch
And Now For Something Completely Different: Vic Jamison's 1970 student film shot on location with the Python team
Interview with Ian Macnaughton: Recorded in November 1971 at Imperial College London.

Click here to buy from the Network website.]

Author: Graeme Clark.

 

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Last Updated: 31 March, 2018