What have the Pythons ever done for us? Well, given us enduring catchphrases for a start, and their appeal has seen them sell out a series of shows at London’s O2
The Pythons - John Cleese (74), Eric Idle (71), Michael Palin (71), Terry Jones (72) and animator Terry Gilliam (73) - may be old, but they're smart. When they announced last year they would be having a reunion this July, they had a predictable torrent of abuse and ridicule. So, to reassure fans that age had not withered their enjoyment of bad taste, they tipped their caps to their long-deceased colleague Graham Chapman by calling the new show Monty Python Live (Mostly): One Down, Five to Go. Being members of the celebrity establishment, they were able to deflect obvious jibes by persuading Mick Jagger (70) to sneer at them as "a bunch of wrinkly old men trying to relive their youth and make a load of money."
They emerged on stage from a police box called 'Retardis', thus demonstrating that they were making age a virtue, and they had developed politically incorrect material for a new generation steeped in feminism and anti-racism.
So 'The Penis Song' ("Isn't it awfully nice to have a penis/Isn't it frightfully good to have a dong?") was amplified to mock vaginas, and their jaundiced eyes were directed at the Chinese, their traditional rudeness and their ubiquitousness. ("I like Chinese, I like Chinese/They only come up to your knees/Yet they're always friendly, and they're ready to please/I like Chinese, I like Chinese/There's nine hundred million of them in the world today/You'd better learn to like them, that's what I say").
Organised religion got it in the neck even more than usual, with the anti-Catholicism song ("Every sperm is sacred/Every sperm is great/If a sperm is wasted,/God gets quite irate") ending with two enormous cannons shooting out bubbles.
If they haven't made multi-millions like Jagger, certainly by their more modest standards they've made a load of money from this last hurrah. Tickets for the first show in the 02 Arena in London (which has a capacity of up to 20,000) sold out in 43.5 seconds and so quickly for the next four that five extra were added. They end tonight with the show being screened live
on TV on UK Gold and on movie screens in the UK and the US.
An industry insider, for whatever that's worth, is alleging the wrinklies should pocket about €2.8m each, but that should be dwarfed by all kinds of spin-off sales and an upsurge in the popularity of their earlier TV and film work. So many comedians are remembered just for a meaningless sound-bite, but "What have the Romans ever done for us?", "There were a 150 of us living in t' shoebox in t' middle o' road", "Nudge nudge. Nudge nudge. Know what I mean? Say no more…know what I mean?" or "This parrot has gone to his maker", show how Python comedy was rooted in the absurdities of human nature whether demonstrated by mad lefties, self-made braggarts, embarrassing acquaintances or unscrupulous vendors. As a mark of respect, O2 will shortly take possession of 50 feet of fibre-glass parrot which began life suspended upside down from a London crane and today will lie on its back near Tower Bridge to celebrate the screening of the live show.
Commissioned by UK Gold, it embodies the
different colourful incarnations of the bird in various versions of the dead-parrot sketch while, as the head sculptor proudly points out, "keeping the realism of the bird whilst also adding touches like the bloodshot, stunned eyes."
Of course now that the shows have been a success, the great and good are queuing up to lionise the quintet. Last week Craig Brown, who writes brilliant parodies for Private Eye, was sticking his knife into a variety of public figures by composing appropriate quotes from them. Poor Prince Charles got it in the neck with his explanation that the Ministry of Silly Walks "involves an apparently conventional fellow performing his infamous 'silly walk' in all sorts of 'unlikely' places - resulting in this particular member of their audience collapsing helpless with laughter."
Bono, though, whose pretentiousness make him a favourite target of Brown's, gets the last word. "I always felt an almost spiritual connection with the 'Nudge nudge' sketch, because it taught me, even as a babe in arms, something truly humbling about myself, and at the same time deeply spiritual. It taught me that, as a troubadour blessed with the gift of song, I could reawaken that natural decency that exists in my fellow man with the nudge of a great tune and a bountiful voice. One small nudge - one superhuman song sung to a packed stadium full of beautiful people - and the world brings change to your door."
As, of course, does a dead parrot.