Before the Flying Circus

Before the Flying CircusSynopsis: Rare vintage footage and interviews trace the pre-Monty Python influences that honed the with of the future Pythons and shaped their destinies as the world’s most innovative comedy partnership.

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Before the Flying Circus 7.5

eyelights: its new interviews with the troupe’s surviving members. the rare footage.
eyesores: the quality of the archival footage.

‘Before the Flying Circus’ is a 55-minute documentary that was produced in conjunction with the release of the large Monty Python ‘Complete Monty Python’s Flying Circus: Collector’s Edition’ boxed set from 2008 – which, ironically, is no longer “complete” because the Pythons always repackage everything with new tidbits.

In fact, this set was the only place one could get ‘Before the Flying Circus’ at the time, a frustrating fact for long-time fans who already had everything else. Thankfully, A&E repackaged this with the box set’s other exclusive documentary, ‘Monty Python Conquers America’, in a double-disc set called ‘The Other British Invasion’.

This particular documentary doesn’t appear to have been broadcast anywhere. At least I can’t find any information to that effect anywhere: there is no information on the imdb, A&E no longer distribute Python’s material, and all other sources provide no insight whatsoever. I suspect that it was only made for the boxed set.

In any event, it’s an interesting and informative feature that explores the troupe’s backstory, the years preceding its formation (their family history, their youth, their influences, their various career paths, and the many circumstances and forces that brought them together over time). It maps the creation of Monty Python very well.

Interestingly, the film is subtitled “A black and white documentary”. To situated younger viewers in a time before colour was invented, the whole programme has been desaturated – including the new interview segments with the remaining Pythons (of which there is an abundance, as the whole thing is driven by their recollections).

Personally, I thought that this was a nice touch, if a bit half-hearted – I think that the producers should have taken the gag to its natural extension, perhaps adding grit and fuzz to the image. Be that as it may, at least it makes the final product distinct from the many other documentaries on Monty Python, even if the content doesn’t.

Naturally, fans will already be familiar with the stories, but there was enough new or rare footage satisfy them. I especially liked that it included bits from the various members other projects prior to Python, including ‘The Frost Report’, ‘At Last the 1948 Show‘, ‘Do Not Adjust Your Set‘ and ‘How to Irritate People‘, amongst others.

Unfortunately, the quality of the footage was bloody awful – worse than the DVD sets that were released three years prior. I’m not sure it was a question of rights that left the producers of ‘Before Flying Circus’ to use substandard material, but that was rather disappointing. On the flip-side, they included some rare Terry Gilliam animation.

Speaking of which, there are a couple of special features on the disc, one of which is called ‘Animated Gilliam’: Over the course of 16 minutes, Gilliam explain his process for making Monty Python’s animation, after which he went through each of the four series’ opening credit sequences, providing information on their sources and inspiration.

When possible (his recollections were a bit fuzzy).

Another special feature, and probably an essential one for fans, is a three-minute bit called ‘Politically Incorrect’, which serves up “A Party Political Broadcast on the behalf of the Conservative and Unionist party”, a pre-show sketch that has inexplicably been cut out of the 12th episode of Monty Python’s third series.

‘Politically Incorrect’ begins with a text intro which doesn’t shed much light on the matter, speculating that, although it was part of the show when it was first broadcast in November of 1973, it was cut by the BBC for the repeat of October 1974 due to the oncoming election. It suggests that the BBC might have considered it confusing.

In any case, for some reason they claim that this opening skit is not available anywhere else now except in a PBS broadcast from Buffalo, NY. It doesn’t explain why it wasn’t re-integrated into the episode for home video, or why only that particular PBS station has a copy – not the Pythons themselves, nor the BBC who once had it.

The skit is brief, but amusing. It’s a spoof of a political broadcast with John Cleese playing the political leader, sitting at his desk soberly trying to win over audiences – that is, until he gets up and continues his speech while doing a choreographed number that isn’t all too unfamiliar to fans of ‘The Ministry of Silly Walks’.

After a few moves, he is interrupted by the director, played in his classic limp-wristed fashion by Eric Idle, who shows him how to get the moves right – after which he continues the test run with the help of four line-dancing politicians in bowler hats and suits. It’s veritably silly, but it’s good. It’s a shame it hasn’t been restored properly.

Strangely, it is not only not re-incorporated into its original episode, but it is also shown on a fake television in a smaller size – instead of in its full glory. There is no explanation for this, but one may speculate that the quality of this leftover didn’t allow for a full screen treatment. Who knows. I wish this was explained.

In the end, ‘Before the Flying Circus’ is a worthwhile addition to any fan’s collection. While it may be of only marginal interest to the casual viewer, it provides a good overview of the Pythons’ early days. Considering the inclusion of some rare footage throughout the programme, as well as in the special features, one would be remiss to skip it.

Date of viewing: March 14, 2015

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