Pythons on Netflix

The Pythons: Terry Jones, Graham Chapman. John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, and Michael Palin. Wikimedia promotional images.


The documentary series Monty Python: Almost the Truth (Lawyer’s Cut) is available on Netflix. Originally airing on BBC and the Independent Film Channel, in 2009, it is just six episodes, a total of 360 minutes, with interviews and clips of the troupe’s work. For Python fans and those interested in show business and the arts, it is worth a look.

The six episodes cover, in turn, “the not-so-interesting beginnings” (Oxbridge and early professional work); the Flying Circus era; “sordid personal bits” (Graham Chapman’s coming-out and his alcoholism, eg); the making of Grail; the making of Brian; and the making of Meaning of Life (their last feature film), as well as the death of Chapman at 48 from cancer.

Netflix also currently streams all 45 episodes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Monty Python’s Life of Brian, assorted clips shows, touring performances, older documentaries, and a critical look—at least 15 different films or series of a Python bent.

Even the “not-so-interesting beginnings” of Almost the Truth are pretty interesting. These guys were, after all, educated at Oxford and Cambridge; John Cleese was a lawyer; Chapman was on his way to being a doctor. They could be erudite and witty, make up skits about Proust or songs about drunken philosophers, but also be as scabrous and scatological as anybody (on the air, at least).

This moves-in-all-circles quality was their revolutionary allure to the young, and their danger to authority. Like Flaubert, they were eager to stick a pin in any pretension or hypocrisy, and did not care if it was high or low. And their ambition only grew, as they became more successful. Despite in-troupe bickering that made their work unfocused at times, they managed to go from surreal goofiness to Arthurian legend, then Christian dogma, and eventually the meaning of life itself. (Cleese speaks of “the 90-minute prize” of single-topic films that everyone in show business wanted and they reached.) One simply does not see Carrot Top making similar choices.

In the early days, the Pythons say, the BBC was more like the RAF: a sort of raffish gentlemen’s club, with the brass determined not to be late for the pub at the end of the day. The Pythons were handed an unbelievable 13 episodes for their Flying Circus as a start, with virtually no oversight. (The oversight did not come, in fact, until about the third season, when BBC executives began to hear about their popularity and began to try to micromanage.) As a result, they were allowed to stumble their way forward into a style and a method, since they gleefully admit they did not know what they were doing.

The documentary gives a good idea of their personalities, which for me came as a bit of a surprise. (Chapman is represented by old interviews and by his partner. Terry Jones, who died of dementia only five months ago, in January 2020, seems too quiet in the documentary.) The Pythons were not all fast friends, for instance, and took little interest in each other’s personal lives. At best they worked in writing teams. Eric Idle seems genuinely sour. (I think of the songs he has written, such as the one at the end of Life of Brian, which has the line, “Life’s a piece of shit / When you look at it….) Cleese acts very much in interview like an imperious barrister. And they all had many creative disagreements. Still, despite what could have become old-man grudges against each other, they are often generous and affectionate. (Michael Palin especially acts as peacemaker.)

There are also many guest interviewees, including Russell Brand, Dan Ackroyd, Steve Coogan, Seth Green, Tim Roth, Stephen Merchant, the guys from Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd (who put money into Grail), and the widow of George Harrison (who financially saved Brian).

We get to see how the Pythons affected culture from the Sixties on—or not. As Eric Idle says, “One forgets the sort of fanaticism in America.” Protests by the religious right lined the streets for Life of Brian, in defense of American mores, and the film was banned in North Carolina because Strom Thurmond’s wife heard from a friend that it was “anti-religious.”

Because I am always interested in how narrative fills a form, I like best those sections of the documentary that illustrate the Pythons’ own choices and discoveries. Holy Grail in particular seems to have been the project that gave them the most discoveries about what they could do.

John Cleese, for example, says in the context of Grail that people interested in movies are “fundamentally fascinated by the visuals…when in fact it’s a total experience, not just a visual experience. And people say to me, ‘But movies…are a visual experience,’ and I say to them, ‘Life is a visual experience, but here we are sitting talking.’”

The Pythons obviously had an interest in the visual (Pasolini’s films are especially admired here), but as six sometimes conflicting personalities they also brought interests in comedy, dialogue, storytelling, musical scoring, animation, acting, directing, writing, history, culture, and philosophy.

They reminisce about the “bring out your dead” scene in Grail, with its muddy, cruel, cynical handling of the plague dead, and the characters’ understanding that the man passing among them must be a king because, “He hasn’t got shit all over him.”

Terry Gilliam says, “Nobody had done comedy like that before, where you were so immersed in the time and place. And the filth. The jokes work better if you really believe in that world, so when they say, ‘How do you know he’s a king’…that works because the world is just steeped in mud and filth and depredation. And that was important to those jokes.”

Olivia Harrison, George’s widow, says, “Obviously, Monty Python’s tapped into something that’s just a common denominator. And just like I think Beatle music tapped into something…it’s just really kind of difficult to put your finger on, in order to label it.”

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.