Python at 50: Silly Walks and Holy Grails, review – half a century of fish-slapping and 'nudge-nudge'

Gerard O'Donovan
Pythons in their pomp: at the Hollywood Bowl in 1982 - HULTON ARCHIVE

There were some wonderfully funny moments in Python at 50: Silly Walks and Holy Grails (BBC Two, Saturday). Such as Michael Palin, Graham Chapman and Terry Jones making life impossible for a local TV news reporter during a Monty Python shoot in remotest mid-Seventies Yorkshire, or John Cleese delightedly sharing with fellow Pythons his tax-deductible new hair implants, or Terry Gilliam wearing the briefest (and possibly snuggest) cut-offs ever worn by a working film director, on the set of The Life of Brian in Tunisia.

This programme was the sole “new” element of BBC Two’s evening celebrating 50 years of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. But unlike the rather po-faced film that preceded it (a repeat, produced for the 40th anniversary) this was a source of more or less constant silliness and delight. There were many familiar examples of Python perfection. Clips of the “dead parrot” and “fish-slapping” sketches, the Ministry of Silly Walks and Eric Idle’s “wink-wink, nudge-nudge, say no more” – none of which ever seem to get tired.

But it was the other clips, the rare archive gems of the Pythons in off-guard moments or enjoying their fame that really charmed. Like Gilliam explaining on Nationwide, in 1970, how he created his animations – a remarkably funny clip that had added poignancy by summoning up perfectly a world where computer graphics did not exist yet, and everything was done on paper and manipulated by hand.

There were thoughtful sections, too, notably a Parkinson interview in which the gay Chapman, who died in 1989, talked about his alcoholism and coming out to friends and parents – dealing with social attitudes that seem not just decades away, but an entire world away, in retrospect.

Elsewhere there was “serious” footage of Cleese and Palin going head to head with an infuriated Malcolm Muggeridge over The Life of Brian, and an anxious-looking Jones fending off Joan Bakewell’s accusations of grossness over the Mr Creosote scenes in The Meaning of Life.

A reminder that, in their day, the Pythons could be controversial. But as clip shows go, this one struck an enjoyable balance between wallowing in nostalgia and cracking up with fun. Anyone left in any doubt as to Python’s comic genius need only have looked across to BBC One, where yet another repeat of the feeble Mrs Brown’s Boys was under way.