The 10 Greatest Monty Python Sketches of All Time (plus one)

IFC recently ran a six-part documentary series, chronicling the history of the Pythons, from their beginnings in the Oxford and Cambridge revues, through to Spamalot. It was quite a treat, not least realizing how the troupe was a semi-random collection of people, who gelled into a near-perfect whole for three sublime seasons of television, at a rare moment in television history when the opportunity to make a show like that presented itself.

Of course, as with any sketch-based comedy series, it wasn’t all good: it’s a genre that inevitably lends itself to peaks and valleys, rather than the consistency of things like Fawlty Towers or Blackadder. And, especially in the abortive fourth season, there were plenty of valleys – without John Cleese, the show was lost, and those episodes are the Python equivalent of those Eastern Bloc Tom and Jerry cartoons from the early 1960’s. But the peaks were sublime; both in the TV series and the movies, they created timeless moments of comedy which have rarely, if ever, been matched. It spans generations: my father loved Python. Myself and Chris adore Python. And our son is just as much a fan, who will recite The Four Yorkshiremen at the drop of a dead parrot.

Hence, this list of my favourite Python moments – not just from the TV, but the movies as well, which can hardly be denied their significance in comedy’s Hall of Fame. However, I have excluded stuff from The Secret Policeman’s Ball and its sequels. The hard part was restricting it to ten eleven (for reasons explained later): I could easily have doubled the number without blinking. The link for each title will open a new tab where you can view the sketch in question.

I note that my preference is clearly skewed towards the more verbal side of Python comedy, rather than the physical – I think this is because the slapsticky stuff is rather too well-worn a path, from Charlie Chaplin through to Benny Hill. Hence, sketches like Upper-class Twit of the Year, often ranked highly on other, similar lists, are not ones of which I’m particular fond. It’s in word-play and their use of the English language that the true strength of Python can be seen. They manage to be immensely smart (who else would ever base a piece on summarizing Proust?) without getting pretentious (you don’t really need to know who Proust is to appreciate the results), and that’s a lot rarer than you might imagine.

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Who’s the Boss

drwho2Like most people of my age, Doctor Who was one of my favourite shows while I was growing up. My earliest memories of it involve Jon Pertwee, the fourth doctor, and his car Bessie, but to me, the show’s golden era followed in the wake of Tom Baker, who reigned supreme over Saturday evening television in the late seventies and early eighties. [If you want to get specific, the peak was probably Season 17 in 1979-80, with Douglas Adams acting as script editor and Lalla Ward as Romana – the latter being an early schoolboy crush of mine, I vaguely recall]. Interest faded slowly thereafter, though I have some fond memories of Sylvester McCoy, the last before the series went on hiatus at the very end of the eighties.

While I watched the 1996 attempt to relaunch the series, starring Paul McGann, I was supremely underwhelmed, and so didn’t pay any attention to the revival of Doctor Who when it came back to the Beeb in March 2005. Some things are best left to be remembered solely through the rose-tinted glasses of childhood nostalgia, where the bravely limited – and that’s being kind – effects are not such a distraction. Yes, I’m looking at you, Blake’s 7. However, over the festive season, BBC America scheduled a marathon of all the Christmas specials; by chance I stumbled onto the 2007 Voyage of the Damned. I didn’t realize at the time that, when originally screened in Britain, the episode was the second most-watched program of the year, and gave the show its highest ratings in almost thirty years. Having nothing much better to do, I simply gave it a chance, not expecting much at all.

For once, I was wrong and popular culture was resoundingly right. The episode took the standard disaster movie – most obviously, The Poseidon Adventure – and twisted the clichés into strengths, located in a futureverse with imagination oozing from ever scene. The writing and performances were both superb, even Kylie Minogue managing to be more convincing than irritating, and the justly-maligned effects from the original show were gone, in favour of high-quality CGI. The body-count was surprisingly high, but what really mattered were that these were deaths that you cared about, even of characters we’d never seen before. Death is something rarely shown with such harshness on American TV (except as a desperate ratings ploy), but the poignancy of the final moments, where the Doctor thinks he can save someone, only to have the hope snatched away… Okay, I’m hooked. Can the regular series live up to this?

Short answer: yes. Albeit with the caveat that this is based only on what we’ve seen, which is most of Season Four. Led by Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat, the creators have crafted a marvellous body of work, which takes the strengths of the original show, but doesn’t attempt to slavishly ape it, acknowledging that television and culture have both changed radically since the previous incarnation. Gone are the multi-part episodes with cliffhangers at the end of each segment, replaced by stories which generally stand alone, though with occasional over-riding arcs. There are occasionally ones which spread over two parts, but the flexibility this offers, in contrast to the previously-fixed format, allows the writers more scope. I would pit the two-part “Silence in the Library / Forest of the Dead” up against any SF feature film of the past decade, and it would stand up well.

drwho1At the core is David Tennant, who is absolutely pitch-perfect, capturing the essential humanity of the Doctor and his absolute alien-ness, both of which are required for the role. Striking the balance is hard [even Tom Baker probably leaned towards the latter], but Tennant does it with effortless ease. You can see why his assistants would follow him, literally, to the ends of the universe, and his benign nature, along with his vastly superior intellect, are never in doubt. It’s a beguiling combination. The companions are a good deal less passive than they used to be too – I seem to recall them spending a lot of time being rescued in the original series, but the new breed are generally competent, self-reliant and smart. Let’s face it, if the show can turn the previously-irritating Catherine Tate into a sympathetic and likable character as Donna Noble, they’re clearly doing something right.

Yet neither Doctor nor companions are mandatory. Consecutive episodes in the fourth season had first one, then the other, all but removed – first, the Doctor went on a solo sightseeing expedition, which went horribly wrong after a presence possessed one of his fellow passengers. then Donna was diverted into an alternate universe, where she turned left instead of right at a junction, and never met the Doctor. That way led to disaster befalling the entire universe, for reasons which became clear in the season finale. It helps that backing up the main characters are just about every famous British actor you can think of, from Felicity Kendall through to Sir Derek Jacobi. I was particularly pleased to see Bernard Cribbins [once I got past the ‘Is he still alive?’ reaction], as I remember him playing an assistant to Peter Cushing in one of the two movies made in the sixties, more than 40 years previously. It’s another way in which the show is aware of its history, without being a slave to it.

dalek1However, I have to admit that some of the monsters and adversaries no longer have quite the chill which they created in my childhood. When I heard the phrase, “Ex-TER-min-ate!”, for the first time in forever, I immediately flashed back to a seven-year old kid, peering out from behind a cushion at the TV. I had to explain to Chris the sheer impact of the creatures on my fragile young psyche. However, it’s fair to say that they did not quite live up to my fevered rememberings, and Chris was notably unimpressed, describing them as being more like irritated vacuum-cleaners than anything. I can hardly argue with this as an assessment, despite the upgrades which meant that their plans to conquer the universe would no longer be defeated – as depicted in a famous cartoon – by a flight of stairs. While it’s hard to imagine Doctor Who without them, this is probably one aspect of the show that would perhaps have been best left concealed in the midsts of time. [The image, right, of former companion Katy Manning, suggests I wasn’t the only one for whom Daleks hold no terror…]

All told though, the finale of the series more than lived up to expectations – you have to admire an arch-villain whose plan involves not just the destruction of Earth, or even the entire universe, but also of all parallel universes as well. Think big, that’s what I always say. It’s probably not giving away much to say that the plan was eventually foiled, though with enough of a twist on it to prove largely satisfactory. We’re not just looking forward to season five, we’re already seriously contemplatin splashing out for the first three series on DVD. Though a dark cloud on the horizon is the departure of Tennant as the Doctor after the filming of four specials this season: it’s hard to imagine anyone else taking over the role. However, if the writing remains as consistently excellent as we’ve seen, then we’re confident the series will continue going from strength to strength. I certainly wouldn’t bet against the show enjoying its 50th anniversary, in 2013.

Mike L: Only *thinking* of getting the first three series on DVD? Rush! Rush to your nearest stockist! I say that as a confirmed hater of old style Who, but the revival has been magnificent. The first series really converted me, it was respectful to the old show but happy to modernise at the expense of the fanboys.

Best episodes
Dalek – Series 1.
The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances – Series 1
The Girl in the Fireplace – Series 2
Human Nature/Family of Blood – Series 3.
Blink – Series 3

Most of those are Steven Moffat episodes, which bodes well for the future of the show. I think Eccleston was easily the match for Tennant – without spoiling things too much, there was a deep inner sadness to the Series 1 doctor and by the time you get to “Dalek”, you know why. Although Eccleston is a Serious Actor, he played it perfectly especially considering the pressure they were under bringing it back. He teams up perfectly with… ah, that would be spoiling the fun.

That series and series 2 really show off the Doctor/Rose relationship – plus the fact that Billie Piper is actually a decent actress rather than a teen pop flash in the pan.

The Death of Laserdisc

discIt came quietly at the start of the year – not with a bang, followed by weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth. Just a two-line notice in the Akihabara Times, quoting a press release on the Pioneer website [I presume, anyway – the second link is in Japanese, so I’m going on faith with that one]:

This is a sad day for all LD (Laser Disc) fans… Pioneer is stopping the production of their three latest LD players, the DVL-919, DVK-900 and DVL-K88… For your information, Pioneer sold over 3.6 Million LD players in Japan from 1981 to 2002.

I must confess, my first thought on this was not dissimilar to my first thought on hearing about The Wrestler: “I didn’t know he was still alive.” If asked, I’d probably have said that the last player rolled off the production lines in Japan at least five years ago, probably longer. But no: though the release of software pretty much petered out not long after the new millennium, laserdisc lasted for over three decades, with more than 360 million units sold. Do you think we’ll still be watching DVDs thirty years after their arrival? I sincerely doubt it.

LDs were for the truly hardcore cinephile. Hell, I started buying discs before I even owned a player: I think the first one I got was Cat People, and had to get Lino to dupe it down to tape for me. Even though it was widescreen, this did somewhat negate the point. The 420 lines of resolution they offered may seem weak now, compared to Blu-Ray’s 720, but they kicked the arse of VHS’s 250. However, there was a price to pay for this, and it came in the form of cold, hard cash. Very few laserdiscs were made in Britain, so you almost inevitably had to rely on imports, mostly from the US, but occasionally from Hong Kong or Japan. Those movie fairs held at places like the Electric Ballroom in Camden, were goldmines for these, but some of the shops on Tottenham Court Road had a few, and there were also the Cinema Store, Psychotronic Video and Eastern Heroes, who all had their moments.

These were of extremely dubious legality, since none of the imports had been passed by the BBFC; even if there were no cuts, the higher frame-rate for NTSC made the running-time different, ergo they were uncertificated. Most stores got around this by slapping stickers on them, though I vaguely recall the late, unlamented [due to their horrific over-pricing] Tower Records getting into trouble for adopting this technique. And, like most things illegal, they weren’t cheap: the most I recall paying for a single disk, was 65 quid for a copy of Flying Daggers, though there may have been a Yellow Magic Orchestra LD – from Tower, natch – that was a little higher. If you paid less than twenty pounds for a movie in Great Britain, you were doing really well.

The player will show in this paragraph
A promo film Devo did for laserdiscs

As a result of these cost and availability issues, there were overseas buying trips – most commonly to the USA, but I also recall trips to Paris, and raiding stores such as FNAC. Back in 1998, on the final leg in New York, I spent an entire afternoon in the Virgin Megastore, going through their complete stock. I ended up with so many discs, that I had to take a taxi back to the hotel. No matter the haul, all these shopping-sprees ended in basically the same way. Who can forget the ripple of fear as you approached HM Customs at Gatwick, staggering under the weight of uncertificated material? Or the thrill as you exited the ‘Nothing to Declare’ channel to freedom, intent on subverting the very fabric of British civilization with your uncut copy of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? Of course, you could order discs by mail, and enjoy the delightful game of Postal Roulette that followed. Would they arrive intact? Would they arrive at all? To this day, one of the highlights of my life remains getting HM C+E to cough up compensation, after they badly scratched a disc during one of their Naziesque inspections.

Laserdiscs were simply so much cooler than videotapes, coming as they did with extra features – again, this is now something we take for granted with DVD [“No in-depth interview with the costume designer? Wot kind of ‘special edition’ is this?”], but it opened up a whole glorious vista of experience, since VHS rarely had anything apart from the movie. The director’s commentaries were the bomb: a good one would be like having the people concerned sitting beside you, drinking a beer and telling you about the movie. Escape From New York, with Kurt Russell and John Carpenter pointing out each other’s ex-wives, would be a classic example. And much as I hate Quentin Tarantino, his and Robert Rodriguez’s chat on From Dusk Till Dawn, with input from Greg Nicotero, is another that highlights the possibilities offered by the medium.

I still watch my discs occasionally – most recently, Basic Instinct, only a couple of weeks back [Paul Verhoeven is another commentary master]. I have to admit, the video quality does look a bit dodgy, especially on a large screen, which are much more common now than they were at the time. But there’s something about a laserdisc which is more physical than a DVD, in much the same way that a vinyl LP offers more scope for design than a CD. Some of the box-sets that were released were simply phenomenal: Toy Story and Hellraiser are the first couple that come to mind, and occupy an honoured spot on the bookshelves in TC Towers. Criterion also did some impressive work, but their sets always seemed over-priced, even by the standards of the medium; I think the only one of theirs I ever got was Hard Boiled.

Laserdisc never became more than a fringe market in the West; in echoes of the VHS/Betamax battle, the technically-inferior videotape won. Though to be honest, it was never much of a battle, LD failing to capture more than a couple of percent of the market, due to various criticisms, valid or otherwise. “You can’t record on it.” “What? Turn the disc over in the middle?” “They keep falling off my record-player.” And when DVD arrived – much though I tried to deny it – I knew in my heart that it sounded the death-knell for laserdisc. However, with two bookcases, still stacked more or less floor to ceiling with the damn things, they may be gone but certainly aren’t forgotten, at least hear in TC Towers. Let’s just hope our player soldiers on for the next thirty years.

[Thanks to Alex M for being the bearer of these sad tidings!]