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It's! Monty Python's Flying Circus Series 3 on Blu-ray

  By the time hit sketch show Monty Python's Flying Circus returned for a third series in October 1972, it was already being hailed as a modern classic, and the team were on a roll, though John Cleese was growing dissatisfied with the lack of originality beginning to creep in. It was true that there are only so many ways one group of people can come up with ideas that are silly in different ways for thirteen episodes, one after the other, but this third series would pick up awards like never before, an indication that the appetite of the public and critics alike had not been sated by the first two series. They wanted more, and that decidedly is what they got.

This series would even see them produce two episodes for German television as the popularity spread overseas, an indication of how influential they were becoming: its first American broadcast would be in 1974, when the original run was drawing to a close. But in series three, in Britain, the programme had pride of place at quarter past ten on Thursday nights, perfect for generating conversations at work and in school playgrounds alike, just before the weekend: the boys had truly achieved the big time, and some of their funniest sketches would be part of this batch, even if there were signs their fertile imaginations needed reinvigoration.

Still, the series kicked off with some of their most entertaining material, as this was the episode with one of their famous take-offs, where they took the mickey out of TV interviewer Alan Whicker, whose documentaries had been running to a certain formula for some time, with a liking for speaking to the rich. Therefore Whicker Island had the troupe dusting off their best impersonations, but before that the Icelandic saga and courtroom business was genuinely hilarious. Episode two was more problematic, as they sent up racism and Ken Russell's Tchaikovsky biopic The Music Lovers, more crass than witty, though there was good stuff here too ("It's!").

Episode three starts with the parody of The Money Programme, long-running financial magazine show here turned into a musical extravaganza, and descends into further lunacy as an expedition to Africa ends up in a nice restaurant in the jungle where the customers are in near-constant peril - there was a bit of blackface here, and also Terry Jones as a fake Chinese Luchino Visconti, but it was the argument sketch this was rightly celebrated for. Fourth was a pantomime horse obsessed instalment culminating in a reimagining of a James Bond movie as led by one of the horses, including getting into car chases and fistfights (hoof fights?). *hand gesture*

Fifth up was Exhibit A in the claims Monty Python was actually highly intellectual, as it began with the All-England Summarise Proust Competition, a concept you would largely find funny if you knew the text, though it was easy enough to get the joke. This was another one with a cast member in ludicrous blackface, but did feature Eric Idle's incredible feat of memory in the travel agent sketch. Sixth was arguably the sleeper episode of series three, with the Gumby brain surgery and the report on the Royal Navy constantly turning into a complete shambles just two of the highlights of a hilarious half hour that grew cheerfully meta even for the Pythons by the end.

Seventh was highlighted by W.E. Johns' intrepid airman character Biggles trying to dictate a letter but being distracted by his horror of homosexuality (he was played by actual homosexual Graham Chapman, getting something out of his system, seemingly), an attempt to climb a high street and the famed Cheese Shop Sketch, which runs into a Sam Peckinpah spoof (Straw Dogs was a recent release). Eighth was a change in format, the cycle tour where Mr Pither (Michal Palin) keeps falling off his bike, bores everyone to tears talking about it and somehow ends up in the Soviet Union with a man who thinks he's Clodagh Rodgers. Or Eartha Kitt. A brave move, and quite successful.

Ninth was a scrappier episode, largely focusing on a hide and seek championship that spans the entire globe and culminates in... well, that would be telling. Also included were blocks of flats constructed through hypnotism (meaning you have to believe they're still standing to live in them) and a visit to a new planet that descends into scientific lechery. This led into the pornography-obsessed following instalment, where Tudor times are policed by an officer of the Vice Squad (Palin) to prevent the Spaniards invading England with smut. Incidentally, this one held a prime example of the team's love of messing about with their own credits for comic effect.

More running gag-style humour in the next entry, where Dennis Moore (Cleese) was a highwayman who was easily distracted and only wanted his victims' bunches of lupins, until the poor he was giving them to complained they didn't know what purpose they could serve. Nice detail: the theme from The Adventures of Robin Hood repurposed for absurdities with Dennis. For the twelfth, the preoccupation veered between penguins and Scotsmen in full Highland regalia, the former set on global domination and the latter reminiscent of Spike Milligan's humour. The setting was bungling A Book at Bedtime, from the days when television would send you to bed with a reading.

To finish the series, a spoof of the kind of backslapping showbiz awards ceremony that continues to this day was in order (that Pantomime Princess Margaret had some mileage in it, huh?), with diversions to home brain treatments and blood donors a million miles away from Tony Hancock, culminating in sporting programme Grandstand reporting on wife-swapping - how seventies could you get? That was almost it for the whole series, as Cleese opted to leave for his own material, but as we know, the troupe continued to make its mark on the popular consciousness, not least because they had another album to be released in 1973, the year series three concluded.

That was Monty Python's Matching Tie and Handkerchief album, including some sketches from the television outing, but also new material. While Cleese was having qualms about the television incarnation, it was clear from this the enthusiasm of all of the team was very much in evidence, and it is considered their best work on vinyl, possibly because of a quirk in the pressing. This saw the use of a double groove on Side 2 to result in two sets of sketches, depending on which groove you played - legend had it that some fans were unaware of this, and did not hear the second Side 2 material for years until it was either pointed out to them or they sussed it.

We think of Python as a very visual comedy, after all it did rely on Terry Gilliam's animations as linking for the sketches, but he was brought in to design the album sleeve in typically innovative fashion, sadly not carried over to the CD reissue of 2006. As for the comedy on the disc, some of the choices of carry-overs from the programme may be odd, but it did include an arguably better version of the cheese shop sketch than on TV, with a better punchline for Palin; it was all a matter of what succeeded without the imagery, and they were very creative here. Some of the attacks on racism by being actually racist were regrettable, but products of their time (and maybe why Cleese later felt the need to attack political correctness, otherwise nobody would listen to this ever again), but the lunacy of the Record Shop sketch and the inclusion of Bruces' Philosopher's Song, among others, made up for them. But despite being a man down, they were not entirely finished with the small screen...

[As for the Series 3 box set, you have the following special features:

Limited edition digipak packaging
Book by Andrew Pixley featuring an exhaustive episode-by-episode production history of series three
Whicker's World: Extended Mrs. Premise & Mrs. Conclusion Travel to Paris filmed material
Blood, Devastation, Death, War and Horror: Extended The Pantomime Horse is a Secret Agent filmed material and Bus Conductor extended scene
The All-England Summarize Proust Competition: Reinstated content
Salad Days: Reinstated content
The Nude Organist: Reinstated content with extended Trees animation, studio outtakes, alternative Terry Gilliam-approved sound mix
E Henry Thripshaw's Disease: Extended Gay Boys in Bondage animation and Sir Philip Sidney sketch
Dennis Moore: Extended Redistribution of Wealth sketch
A Book at Bedtime: Reinstated content, original opening, extended Heath Tango animation
Grandstand: Extended Grandstand filmed material, studio outtakes, extended Charwoman animation, unused Betty Blood Donor animation
Series 3 Monologue Rushes.

All with a naked Terry Jones on the cover (his unclad organist was in every episode!).

Click here to buy from the Network website.]

Author: Graeme Clark.


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