Tuesday, September 13, 2011

No Naughty Bits - Hampstead Theatre - 12-Sep-2011

Written by Steve Thompson
Directed by Edward Hall

I wondered if this play labours under a couple of misapprehensions. The first is that the business of comedy or backstage stories about comedy are themselves funny. It is more normal to depict the opposite as true, those cliches of the unhappy clown or the comedy duos or troupe that hate one another's guts. In this case the writer wrings quite a few jokes out of this fictionalised tale of a law suit brought by the members of the Monty Python troupe against the US ABC network over cuts made to a 1975 broadcast of the fourth series.
The problem here is, possibly, that because it's based on Monty Python we expect it to be a lot funnier than it actually is. An interview with the author in the programme seems to suggest that play started life as a quite serious almost documentary piece and he had to work to inject humour into it (he's rather pleased with putting his Terry Gilliam character in silly costumes). As I've said I think it succeeded in being funny – Matthew Marsh's judge, presiding over the case, was particularly good – but something made me want more and made me sensitive to occasional the dips in action or when humorous lines misfired.
I found the fictionalisation of the piece bothered me quite a lot. It wasn't just being told in overlong voice-overs at the beginning of each act, that the play was fictional that grated. It was more that I kept wondering just how much was fiction. I was prepared to allow it all to be fiction but I knew that the author had studied Michael Palin's diaries for the period and had to wonder if some of the seemingly un-Palin-like schoolboy outbursts from Harry Hadden-Paton's Michael were based on reality or ill-rendered imagination.
I also had a problem with the play failing to mention the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail which was released before the play was set and did reasonably well at the time. Maybe it didn't fit in with the author's desire to suggest that 1975 was a time when the Pythons were facing up to the fact that they had broken up and that some were facing uncertain futures. Of course crying “fiction” can cover this but I found it jarring.
I thought the other possible misapprehension in this play was the idea that this is “still an ostensibly Python-worshipping country”*. We are told by the media and comedy nerds that we should revere Monty Python, the troupe, the movies and the TV series. I am enough of a comedy nerd to be quite happy to do that but I'm not sure how many other people could say the same.
In the 40 years since Python was first broadcast in the UK it has been repeated about 3 times on terrestrial television (BBCs 1 or 2). I was too young to see the original series and did't catch it until it was repeated in the late 80s - I think it has been repeated once since then. It has been played quite a lot on satellite and cable channels over the years but not recently. Copyright disputes meant that the videos of the series disappeared from shelves in the mid-90s and the DVDs of the full series were not available in the UK until 2007.
My point here is that in spite of being told by the media that Python is important and main-stream, the reality is that the series hasn't been watched that often and might be completely unfamiliar to people seeing this play. It means that nuances might be lost on them and the play doesn't explain why we should care that the series was funny
I would love to feel that everybody could tune in somewhere to see an episode every night but it has never really been the case here and that's a pity.

*This comes from an excellent Not the Nine O'Clock News sketch about the Life of Brian controversy and you might not have seen that either.

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