Thomas Canning silly walked to London to find out about the biggest reunion of 2014 and whether it will be something completely different. Or not.
It was an odd feeling, opening the email that invited me to a Monty Python press conference. The excitement of seeing one of, if not the greatest comedy troupes, live in the flesh, met in equal measure with the feeling of “Oh God, what are they trying to flog now?”
Luckily, a helpful “leak” to the media before the official launch meant that, on Thursday I found my excited self sitting among a gaggle of UK and international journalists, ready to hear about the plans for the Monty Python reunion show.
The show, which will be held on 1 July 2014 at the O2 Arena in London, was announced in typically anarchic style, with Warwick Davies acting as MC and originally announcing that the show would be held in Qatar, followed by Meryl Streep, following a bribing (sorry – bidding) process organised by Sepp Blatter. The new show, Live (Mostly) – One down, Five to go, will be their first live show since they played the Hollywood Bowl in 1980 and the first time the group would perform without Graham Chapman, who died of cancer in 1989.
When asked about why they chose to do this now, the five performers, who have a combined age of 357 quipped that it was mainly to pay off Terry Jones’s mortgage, before agreeing that now seemed the right time, especially given individual working commitments and their advancing age. Michael Palin even joked that they had a second sign that said ‘Two down, four to go’, in case they needed it.
Fans who are lucky enough to get tickets have been promised a spectacular that will have “comedy, pathos, music and a tiny piece of ancient sex” according to Eric Idle, who will be directing the show. Carol Cleveland, who performed with the Pythons in their TV series as well as in their three movies, will also be on stage with them. The show is expected to include a number of old favourites from the TV series and previous live shows, refreshed for the modern audience, plus new material that hasn’t been performed live before. Summing up their position, John Cleese provided an anecdote of people booing at a Neil Diamond concert when he played a few tracks from his forthcoming album rather than the old favourites.
Although no specifics were given at the press conference (I think it’s certain that the Dead Parrot sketch will get an outing), Cleese’s old age and artificial knee and hip means that the Ministry of Silly Walks is not looking likely. Terry Gilliam will also be refreshing some of his off-the-wall animation for the show and Arlene Phillips will be choreographing dance numbers to help make the “boring bits more interesting” though Gilliam was quick to note that the “boring bits” will be the sketches rather than the animation.
When asked about performing without Graham Chapman, all five agreed that they will miss him while on stage. “We’ll miss Graham quite a lot” says Idle, “but we will be incorporating him and trying to perform with him at one point. We have told him we’re going to be on, and if there is a God then he’ll show up.” Gilliam also joked that there will be medical teams on standby “to ensure that no-one joins Graham before the show is over.”
With media from across the world attending, and many asking them to visit their particular country, it was clear that the reaction to this reunion had taken the Pythons a bit by surprise. “It’s been pretty amazing so far” said Terry Jones, with Terry Gilliam noting that the nicest bit has been getting messages on his Facebook page from all across the world from people wanting to know more, and saying how great it is.
So far, the London date is the only show, but should they be able to sell out the O2, then other shows could be planned. “I’d like us to tour the world, I’ve been doing it personally for years.” said Palin, a reference to his extensive travel programmes. “We’d like to do Europe” said Jones, with Idle quipping “Maybe as a camping holiday or something.” America will probably get a look in, as well as Australia, although Cleese retorted that “The only problem is that there are planets closer than Oz.” Asked why the Python style of humour travelled so far and wide across the world, Idle noted that the sketches are often just a general satire on life, with each country translating it into their own. Terry Jones joked that, in Japan, the translation of the show was ‘The Gay Boys Dragon Hour’ so who knows what they were watching. “Its not topical, its just physical and silly.” added Palin, with Cleese noting that often the characters they play are recognised in different cultures in ways that they they personally don’t seem to understand.
Will this comeback work? I feel it will.
If asked whether they were worried about milking the old material, Idle joked that they think “the cow died years ago” as the last time they milked it was in 1980 for the Hollywood Bowl show.
John Cleese mentioned that the Hollywood Bowl was one of the most enjoyable times he had performing. However, he stressed that this is no ordinary show like others in a West End where people don’t know the script, but more like an event, as people know all the material and enjoy the entire experience. Reminiscing about the Hollywood Bowl show, Cleese explained that the shows had more of a festival atmosphere rather than a normal performance. Palin noted that they have recently re-read some of the material and agree that it is still funny.
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For people unable to get tickets for the show (which will cost between £27.50 and £95 each – £300 cheaper than the Rolling Stones as Eric Idle pointed out) the show will be filmed for a future DVD release (as well as a behind-th-scenes documentary). Despite this, there are no plans for any further episodes of the iconic TV series though. “The problem is trying to get us all into one room together for long enough” said Cleese, “We would need to be together for around 4 months spread across a year, which at our age and with our commitments is just impossible.” Asked whether they had any ideas for material in the intervening years, Palin noted that ideas come and go whenever they meet up, and Cleese stated that he has had ideas for sketches but has nowhere to perform them.
As the press conference ended with their well-known theme tune blaring through the speakers, the question of “will this comeback work?” rippled through the assembled media. Personally, I feel it will. Unlike other comebacks in recent years, all five Pythons still perform regularly. John Cleese has been touring Australia with a one man anecdote show, Michael Palin and Terry Jones still write and act on TV and Eric Idle has toured the US with a show of Python songs (as well as performing during the London 2012 Olympic closing ceremony). Were they announcing brand new material or a 40 day residency, I would have different thoughts. However, refreshing the old material to accommodate recent news stories and events will ensure that unknown sketches that they previously performed (the Crunchy Frog sketch could easily be updated to include a reference to the horsemeat scandal, for example) while firm fan favourites like the Lumberjack song could just be placed in a new setting to keep it fresh.
Also, a one-off arena show, rather than a travelling show, allows them to be more ambitious with the staging. Although no specific sketches were mentioned at the press conference, Eric Idle did note that the film, The Meaning of Life was written after the last live shows in 1980 and therefore material from that film may be included. While this is likely to be The Galaxy Song, it could also be a hint that, as part of their spectacular, they could perform the Mr Creosote scene on stage. If this is the level of ambition that they are considering, (and if there is one thing about Monty Python, you should never underestimate them) this very well could be the theatrical, as well as comedy, event of 2014.
Tickets for the show at the O2 Arena in London go on sale on Monday morning at 10am and can be bought from www.montypythonlive.com