||The fourth series of Monty Python's Flying Circus of 1974, its title shorted to simply Monty Python, was one man down before they even began it, as John Cleese had refused to appear, instead going off on his own projects such as the upcoming classic sitcom Fawlty Towers. He thought the concept had run its course, and though he retained a writing credit, some of his ideas still being used on the programme, he would not return to the team until later in the year to make the feature film Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Thereafter, the television show was effectively over, but they would regularly reunite to make more movies, albums and stage shows, as well as pairing off to create new entertainments, some of them, like Michael Palin and Terry Jones' Ripping Yarns, on the box.
That’s when TVs were boxes, of course, and not gigantic panels to hang on your wall. But Python's farewell to the small screen occurred in late autumn of 1974, just as Holy Grail was being shot, at nine in the evening on BBC2. It was generally considered the least of the four series, but much of it looking back was very funny indeed: take the first episode, which "replaces" the usual shenanigans with a series called The Golden Age of Ballooning, a heavily promoted historical drama starting with the Montgolfier Brothers who keep getting distracted, either by their ablutions or the supposed King of France (Palin with a Glaswegian accent) who wants to steal their plans. This featured a pre-Mr Creosote gag with a balloon that was utterly inspired and must have crossed everyone's mind.
Episode two was one of the strangest things ever broadcast on mainstream television - and this was before eighties Channel 4 - titled Michael Ellis which never reveals who that is, but instead keeps haunting Eric Idle who visits a department store to buy a pet ant and becomes caught in a Kafkaesque nightmare. The worst thing about this is the tiger in the cage, but mostly it's baffling. The third instalment was a send up of that endless series of war movies Britain continues to churn out, this one depicting what happens when the inevitable occurs and the participants refuse to take it seriously anymore, leading to incomprehensible banter dialogue from the pilots and a court martial that descends into a singalong of definitely not the Cole Porter tune Anything Goes.
Fourth up and the themed episodes were dismissed for one harking back to the sketch format the team so rigorously lampooned for the past five years. It starts with William Shakespeare's Hamlet deciding he wants to be a "private dick" and going in for psychoanalysis, but alas, the shrinks are all obsessed with sex. And so it goes, with a lawbreaking copper and the Queen Victoria Handicap. But after that, an instalment that returned to the themed, story style, all about Mr Neutron (Graham Chapman) who is the most powerful man in the universe and used to satirise the gung ho attitudes of American politics (remember the Vietnam War was sputtering to a close) as they are determined to destroy him, yet he is relentlessly suburban and mild-mannered. The world is destroyed anyway.
The last ever episode was really only themed because of the digs at The Liberal Party, then under the leadership of Jeremy Thorpe who showed up as a man in a rubber mask to wave at the camera - this was before the scandal that brought him down. Another reference that may need explaining is the opening spoof of The Family, here refashioned as The Worst Family in Britain contest, parodying the fly on the wall documentary series where viewers were invited to sit in tutting judgement on a working class clan. Other than that, Douglas Adams was notable in the credits, but unlike the other episodes, this wasn't the funniest, or near it. They had planned to make fifth series, but instead diverted their energies into their King Arthur movie, a wise move as it was a major success.
1979's Monty Python's Life of Brian was their most controversial project yet, a ridiculing of both Biblical epics and religion in general, though their last film as a team, 1983's Monty Python's The Meaning of Life, returned them to the safety of the sketch format. But there was another album between those, the aptly-named Monty Python's Contractual Obligation Album (1980) which they did to fulfil their deal with the record company. Despite including a couple of sketches previously seen on television, it was largely new material they opted for, whether because that's what they were ordered to do or because they had more enthusiasm for the project than the title suggested. Interviews indicated it was the latter, as they embraced the typical album and made many of its tracks original songs.
Well, almost original - they got into legal difficulties when the Gracie Fields favourite Sing as You Go was rewritten by Chapman as Sit On My Face, a hymn to oral sex, though they were ironed out and the tune was allowed, but the variation on John Denver's Annie's Song that heard the light entertainer and country rock star being strangled was taken off the album before it was pressed, and has never been restored (the Pythons replaced it with a gap of silence and an apology. Other songs included Idle's I Like Chinese (sounding as if he likes Japanese as well), Jones's mournful, comically overextended I'm So Worried, and censor-baiting efforts like Never Be Rude to an Arab or I Bet You They Won't Play This Song On the Radio. Cleese was only heard in a couple of sketches, one, the Bookshop, rerecorded from the TV series. It may not be the funniest comedy album ever, but the songs were genuine earworms, and it deserves another listen just as Series 4 deserves reassessment.
[Series 4 of Monty Python is released on Blu-ray by Network with the following special features (the best extras of all these releases, in my humble opinion):
Limited edition digipak packaging
Book by Andrew Pixley featuring an exhaustive episode-by-episode production history of series four
The Golden Age of Ballooning: Extended Barry Zeppelin filmed material
Michael Ellis: Deleted Icelandic Honey Week filmed material, extended Toupee Department and Football Pundits filmed material
LE War: Repeats extended voiceover & unused M2 filmed material, When Does a Dream Begin (clean closing titles)
Hamlet: Extended Queen Victoria Handicap filmed material
Mr Neutron: Reinstated content, extended Mr Neutron Takes Tea filmed material
Party Political Broadcast: Extended Fanshawe-Chumleigh Dinner Party filmed material, deleted Ursula Hitler filmed material
Restoring Flying Circus with Terry Gilliam
In Vision archive interview from December 1974
Birds Eye Peas, Harmony Hairspray and Close-Up Toothpaste product relaunches.
Click here to buy from the Network website.]