The Early Days of Monty Python
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because a new glimpse at the incomparable John Cleese doesn’t turn up every day.
John Cleese playing an arrogant newsreader being beastly about a French trade union leader on screen. Unrelated Victorian erotica in the background and a booming voice-over self-importantly announcing the name of the show. It’s pure Monty Python — except it isn’t. This surreal scenario, in which the “French” Marty Feldman comes out of the screen to interact with a now surreally masked Cleese, is from the final episode of At Last the 1948 Show . Brits loved this satirical half-hour of sketches that preceded Monty Python’s Flying Circus by a year, and were largely written by the legendary duo — Cleese and his college mate Graham Chapman — who would go on to be one of the principal writing partnerships behind the Pythons.
What’s special about this last-ever episode is that, like the very first, it’s been lost for nearly 40 years. “Until 25 years ago, we thought all but two episodes had been wiped,” says Dick Fiddy, a British Film Institute archivist and head of the BFI’s Missing Believed Wiped project. The new find brings the number of episodes reclaimed to nine of the original 13, and comes from the archives of the show’s executive producer, the late David Frost, a renowned journalist and satirist in his own right. Other missing footage has turned up everywhere from Sweden to Australia.
… loudly mocking every kind of authority figure, from lawyers to policemen, accountants to newsreaders.
Fiddy explains that Frost, for whose mainstream satirical program The Frost Report each of the Pythons had written, was keen to set these mad creatives free from the restraints of TV editors. What distinguished At Last the 1948 Show and the sister show Do Not Adjust Your Set , featuring Michael Palin, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and, later, the animations of Terry Gilliam, is that the writer-performers were guaranteed no outside interference — Frost wanted to give these comic talents their creative head.
Some episodes of At Last the 1948 Show can be purchased on iTunes.
Cleese took that freedom onboard in spades, loudly mocking every kind of authority figure, from lawyers to policemen, accountants to newsreaders: “He knew how to play pompous, and he knew that kind of figure very well,” says Fiddy. “In fact, he was on that path himself at university and might have emerged a lawyer if he hadn’t been rescued by comedy.” It was also on At Last the 1948 Show that Cleese introduced the silly walks that were one of the distinguishing features of his Python years.
At Last is slightly dated by its punch lines and laugh track, but without it, Python fans would have been deprived of the Ministry of Silly Walks, “What’s the worst thing you can call a Belgian?” — mocking their European neighbors mercilessly was a linchpin of the later show — and the promise, originally from pretty co-star Aimi MacDonald, “And Now for Something Completely Different.…” While all those precious lost episodes aren’t yet available to the public online, you can whet your comedy appetite with the Four Yorkshiremen sketch, which the Pythons used to open their reunion stage show last year, here in its original form.
This OZY encore was originally published Dec. 2, 2014.