Synopsis: At last, for the first time ever (well, at least since the 30th anniversary!), the condensed history of Monty Python. It’s not all parrots, grail, and Brian. This is the in-depth and true (well, yes, admittedly the almost true) story as told straight from the mouths of John Cleese, Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, and thanks to incredible research and completely analog, undigitized archives, Graham Chapman. They are all here, the dead one, too!
A cast of thousands (well hundreds. Perhaps something more in the double digits) has been assembled. They didn’t all make the cut, but rest assured they were all interviewed.
Ladies and gentleman, we proudly present the most complete, finely tuned, and well assembled “final word” on Python. Until the next time, at least.
Please not that no lawyers survived the making of this film.
eyelights: the quality of the material. the wealth of pertinent and insightful interview subjects.
eyesores: the overuse of celebrity tributes. it’s still not thorough enough.
“This is the documentary I always hoped would be made – something so complete and so faithful to the truth that I don’t need to watch it” – Terry Jones.
In 2009, Monty Python celebrated their 40th anniversary. Not ones to miss out on an excuse to make a quick buck (Cleesey has a some debilitating alimony payments to make!) they got together for a six-part documentary called ‘Monty Python: Almost the Truth (The Lawyers Cut)’.
Why it’s called the “The Lawyers Cut” (or even “The Lawyer’s Cut” or “The Lawyers’ Cut”) is beyond me; I can find no reference to it anywhere. Either someone forgot the apostrophe, or the troupe is making a statement about how painful the legal profession can be.
Who bloody knows.
But leave it to me to dig around to see if there was an “original version” out there somewhere. Even that is murky at best. There was a pared-down version made for select cinemas, but it looks like the documentary was shown in full on television in three blocks of two episodes each.
At 51 minutes in length each (including egregiously long credits that cover the whole series, not each individual episode), it makes sense. But I could not find any reference to a non-“The Lawyers Cut” version anywhere – even the cropped versions are labelled this way. So I have no idea.
In any case, the full-length documentary series is available on home video, unedited. It includes over an hour of deleted interview material, some outtakes and a handful of Python’s more popular sketches – just in case someone viewing this whopping 6-hour doc didn’t already have them.
‘Almost the Truth’ is a chronological exploration of Monty Python, from the members’ early days all the way to (then) current day. It features newly-minted interviews with the Pythons as well as with a BEVY of their friends, family and co-conspirators; it’s as though just about everyone participated.
The producers really put out all the stops here: the show is filled with period footage and archival material, much of which hasn’t been used before. They even got Sonia Jones to return for the doc’s theme music (which is based on “Brian Song”, and whose lyrics are adapted to each episode).
1. The Not-so-interesting Beginnings: The first episode begins with the Pythons talking about their childhood, with Graham’s partner, David Sherlock, speaking in his stead. There are also a couple of interviews with Graham from 1980 that will cover the rest of the show. All of the interviews were separate, save for a short train ride with Jones and Palin.
Naturally, they all talk about their influences, such as ‘The Goon Show’ (of which they were all die-hard fans, ‘Beyond the Fringe’, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. Gilliam, meanwhile, being a Yank, was more influenced by Mad Magazine, and ended up taking on Fang Magazine in university before eventually working for Harvey Kurtzman in New York City.
The rest of the Pythons found themselves working for David Frost on ‘That Was the Week That Was’ and, later, ‘The Frost Report’. Here they discuss seeing each other’s work for the first time. They also discuss ‘At Last the 1948 Show’ and ‘Do Not Adjust Your Set’, naturally, before tackling Python’s origin (how they got together, picked the name, …etc.).
Personally, I felt that this was far superior to ‘Before the Flying Circus‘. Even though I’d watched a lot of Python-related documentaries of late, I was fully engrossed here. The quality of the production, and the freshness of the material made it quite enjoyable to watch. It was almost a shame that it had to end, that it wasn’t more thorough. 8.25
2. The Much Funnier Second Episode – Parrot Sketch – Flying Circus Included: The second episode focuses on ‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus’, beginning with their initial meeting with the BBC. By all accounts, they were unprepared and had the worst possible interview ever. Thus the BBC offered them “only” 13 episodes for the first series, and no more.
As has become tradition in all Python-related documents, the origin of their name is discussed. They also talk about what they were trying to accomplish with the show and how they were dumb-founded to see their idol, Spike Milligan, already outdoing them with ‘Q5’. Still, their show was subversive enough that the BBC kept rescheduling and postponing it.
There are plenty of tributes from celebrity fans in this episode, discussing their love of Python and smooching their posteriors as much as humanly possible. At the end, they are asked what their favourite skits are. Most aren’t initially sure, but a few eventually venture out and mention some safe ones – you know nothing too obscure that would cock eyebrows.
I was surprised by the participants: Russell Brand, Steve Coogan and Bruce Dickinson. Bruce Dickinson? Really? And then there’s Nick Mason and Tim Roth later on. Seriously? Sanjeev Bhaskar, writer and comedian, was the most eloquent of the lot, detailing what he thinks makes Python work and how it crosses multicultural, societal and generational boundaries.
It’s a good episode, but there are some lapses. For instance, they don’t talk about the number of seasons or number of episodes an how it all led to there. There are also a lot of current tributes, but no reviews or reactions from the period. Since hindsight is always 20/20, it would have been nice to have some vintage commentary instead. Otherwise, it’s good. 8.0
3. And Now, the Sordid Personal Bits: In this segment, the Pythons briefly discuss censorship at the BBC, which came unexpectedly after being left quite to their own devices at first. Suddenly, their scripts were being monitored and approved.
They also talk about the BBC erasing their tapes for re-use (a common practice at the time which means many shows were lost forever). Terry Jones anticipated this and bought the Python tapes from them. Thank goodness for his foresight!
They also discussed the albums they did (but not the books). I still love the story of the 2 grooves on ‘Matching Tie and Handkerchief’, which confused people, and the “classical music” album cover they made for ‘Another Monty Python Record’.
They took turns discussing each other’s personality. It’s been done before, but it was much more elaborate here. In fact, it took up the bulk of the episode. I really enjoyed that. I loved that they were both frank and kind to each other.
Finally, there was the matter of the final series (they showed more clips from it than usual, which was nice), and the show’s end, how Eric didn’t want to continue because he felt that Cleese’s absence threw the group’s balance off completely.
Even though all of this stuff has been covered before and I’m becoming rather familiar with it, I felt that it was done spectacularly well here. Granted, they didn’t talk about series two and three or the sketches, but they do that in other docs. 8.25
4. The Ultimate Holy Grail Episode: Fans of ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail‘ rejoice! After starting off with a small bit on transiting to the US with their albums and ‘And Now for Something Completely Different‘. The latter was a frustrating experience, but it made them want to make a proper film with an actual narrative.
And so was born the idea for ‘Holy Grail’.
They did a couple of drafts, substantially changing it by the end, but they couldn’t get financing for it. Graham, however, had Tony Stratton-Smith to check with a few rock and roll band managers (notably Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin) and got them to invest in the picture, finally raising its meager budget.
Throughout this episode there are many interviews on set and lots of behind-the-scenes footage from 1974. They talk about the joys of having two directors, the issues, of things going wrong (it was their first DIY film, after all). Graham’s alcoholism also had some impact on the shooting of the picture.
The editing was a nightmare: it had over a dozen edits from start to finish. Jones discussed the impact the music had on the laughs, something he’d discovered on ‘And now…’ with the “Dirty Fork” sketch. Eventually, Neil Innes’ score got dropped and they went with what they could afford: archival music.
And there’s the ending of the picture. Eric takes the blame for that one: after all the edits, they didn’t have anything to finish the picture, so he just suggested having them arrested and the cop putting his hand in the camera – probably the biggest fun killer in modern cinematic history. His daughter hates him for it, he said.
This episode was enjoyable because there was a lot of material I hadn’t seen elsewhere, but I’ve always much preferred the nearly warts-free ‘Life of Brian‘ to the dramatically imperfect ‘Holy Grail’, so I wasn’t as involved as I could have been. But I did laugh a lot revisiting some of the picture’s gags. 8.0
5. Lust for Glory: This episode is fully devoted to the making of ‘Life of Brian’, by far my favourite Python oeuvre. Eric tell his “Lust for Glory” story (again), but this time we hear a contradiction from Gilliam, who says that the idea came up when they were out drinking at a pub. Hmmm… interesting.
In any case they talk about going to Barbados to write, where Eric was vacationing. They soon realized that there’s nothing funny about Jesus: his teachings are fundamentally sound and the real issue is how they were interpreted. They eventually worked their way to telling a parallel life story instead.
They also discussed receiving financing from EMI but that they pulled out at the last minute, leaving Python without cash right as they were going out to film. So Eric turned to George Harrison, with whom he was friends. Harrison mortgaged his house to get the picture made simply because he wanted to see it.
They also talk about the controversy, including John and Michael’s talk show appearance to defend the film. There’s lots of behind-the-scenes footage and film clips, but it’s nothing that isn’t available elsewhere. The final part focuses on tributes from celebrity fans, of which there are many. Naturally. 8.0
6. Finally! The Last Episode Ever (For Now…): The series’ grand finale begins with the Hollywood Bowl shows, with the participants enthusiastically recounting how much fun they had. They don’t talk about why they did it, how it came about. They also briefly discuss ‘The Meaning of Life‘, and the difficulties of writing it.
Then comes the death of Graham Chapman. They talk about the possibility of doing projects together in the future. Since it didn’t happen, Eric did ‘Spamalot’. The show ends with celebrity tributes lavishing praise on the Pythons. Then each of the Pythons discussed their post-Python work. Sadly Graham doesn’t chime in.
This was by far the thinnest of all the episodes, partly due to the troupe having done little since the ’80s, but also because little attention was devoted to what they did do – unlike with ‘Holy Grail’ or ‘Life of Brian’. And it completely glossed over all the reunions that they did in the interim. It felt rushed, like a poor send-off, to me. 7.75
Thankfully, the home video version also features a couple of hours of extras to help fill in some of the gaps.
In the extended interviews, which last a total of over an hour, John talks about his relationship with his parents, Eric discussed his musical influences and playing music, Terry J talks about societal change in the ’60s, Terry G goes on about his childhood and its impact on his creativity and Michael discusses his childhood and his influences.
The outtakes are a little bit more varied, with discussion about the “seventh Python”, with some saying it’s Carol Cleveland, others Neil Innes. Then there’s talk with Dan Aykroyd, whom Idle said would have fit in nicely (he was touched, a bit speechless). There’s also discussion of Elvis’ love of Monty Python, especially ‘Holy Grail’.
There’s also a visit to the Spam museum at Spam HQ, which consists of a tour of the place, the factory and their Monty Python display. We also go to a small Texas town that started having yearly Python celebrations, including silly walks down Main street and other strange activities. Clearly, Python has had a broad impact.
Confirming this even further, Bruce Dickinson (of Iron maiden fame) talks about lodging a very animated, Python-inspired complaint with the police in 1982 about the services at a German brothel. And Steve Coogan does “The Undertakers Sketch” from memory, doing all of the lines and voices himself. He’s not bad, actually.
Finally, each of the Pythons talks about one another at length, Cleese proudly discusses the origins of the “Cheese Shop” sketch, and ‘Fawlty Towers’. There’s also an unusual oddity, an absurd PSA/corporate video spoof hosted by Michael Palin (with a Terry Jones cameo) that talks about glass moulding and the future of broken bottles.
The features are rounded up by a handful of classic sketches (“The Cheese Shop”, “Dead Parrot”, “The Fish Slapping Dance”, “Lumberjack Song”, “Ministry of Silly Walks”, “SPAM” and “Spanish Inquisition”) from ‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus’ as well as a Terry Gilliam picture gallery, which is short but delightful to peruse.
All in all, ‘Monty Python: Almost the Truth (Lawyers Cut)’ is the most complete overview of the Pythons as there is currently out there – short of the massive boxed set with (nearly) everything in it. No doubt it will be outdone in the future, but fans would do well to have this in their collections. And the curious should start here.
Dates of viewings: March 24-April 5, 2015