Return of the Pythons: their PBS premiere

Bring out your dead, practice your silly walks, and steel yourselves for something completely different, yet strangely familiar. PBS is launching a video onslaught of Monty Python humor—the classics as well as the humorists’ annotated favorites and an acclaimed sequel of sorts.

PBS has scheduled Monty Python’s Personal Best, a pastiche of new material and clips from the TV series and movies, for Feb. 22, March 1 and 8. Separately, PBS will release all the naughty bits — the 45 original 30-minute episodes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus — this spring. And Fawlty Towers Revisited, a pledge special celebrating the comedy starring Python John Cleese as the world’s least hospitable hotelier, has been available to SIP (Station Independence Program) stations since early December.
It’s been 30 years since the Pythons came to American public TV and 30 since Cleese became Basil Fawlty.

Funny thing is, the Pythons are returning to PBS when they were never really there in the first place. “I’m delighted that they’re coming to PBS, but sort of the little secret that most viewers don’t appreciate is that this is the first time they’re coming to PBS,” says John Wilson, PBS co-chief programming executive. “They had always been directly syndicated to stations in the past and not a ‘PBS offer,’ if you will. While public television and PBS get the credit, it was really the stations that introduced Monty Python to America.”

What’s the impetus for the current onset of unexpected Spanish Inquisitions, clueless twits and Hell’s Grannies? In a word, Spamalot, the Tony-winning musical “lovingly ripped off from the motion picture Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” now in its ninth month on Broadway.

“The idea of doing Personal Best had been floating about for several years, and when they were working together on Spamalot the notion to do it resurfaced,” says Ron Devillier, co-founder and president of Devillier Donegan Enterprises (DDE), which is distributing both Personal Best and Flying Circus. “After Spamalot opened [in March 2005], we started getting lots of calls about the series: ‘Where is it? When is it going to come back on? Is PBS getting it?’”

PBS didn’t get all of the project, as it turned out. A&E Home Video has released two Personal Best episodes and plans to release more early next year.

Devillier is also the person responsible (if that’s the proper term) for bringing the Pythons stateside in 1975, after it had ended its five-year run in Britain. “I was vice president of programming for KERA in Dallas when Winn Nathan, a friend at Time-Life Films [which then distributed BBC programs], called to say he had some BBC shows that nobody was interested in,” says Devillier. “He sent two or three boxes of tapes, and I came into the station early one Saturday morning to go through some. The next thing I knew my wife was throwing gravel at the window of the screening room — it was 7 o’clock at night. I came out and told her I had just seen the funniest series I had ever seen in my life, and we were definitely going to buy it.”

Clips of the “The Lumberjack Song” and “The Argument Clinic” were enough to persuade KERA’s president at the time, Bob Wilson (whose sense of humor evidently rubbed off on his sons, actors Owen and Luke Wilson), but the KERA Board responded to the clips like a flock of defunct parrots. “Nobody laughed. They just didn’t get it. We came out of there and Bob said, ‘What do you think?’ and I said, ‘Well, they didn’t walk out,’” says Devillier.

KERA nevertheless scheduled Monty Python’s Flying Circus for the May 1975 sweeps, slotting it at 10 p.m. on Saturday. “Our average Nielsen rating was about a 1, and if something big came along we maybe got up to 2.5,” says Devillier. “When the May sweeps books came in, the first week was a 6, then it was a 7.5, then it was an 8, and we could not believe it. That was how it all started.”

Python fever spread rapidly; by summer 130 PBS stations (and commercial stations in Houston and Las Vegas) had picked up the show and aired them through 1980. In the meantime, Devillier had moved to PBS, rising to v.p., network programming, and the Python troupe had sued the BBC for allowing ABC to re-edit episodes for its Wide World of Entertainment series in a way that destroyed their continuity. In a landmark ruling upholding artistic rights, in the late ’70s British courts awarded the Pythons ownership of the program once the original contract with the BBC expired in 1980.

By 1983, Devillier and Brian Donegan had formed DDE to produce original programming for PBS and to distribute other shows, and the blokes were ready to re-release. “They asked me to come to London to talk about distributing it,” says Devillier. “They had just turned down Warner Bros., and John Cleese said, ‘We’re going to let you distribute it—provided you change the name of your company to Ron’s TV Sales.’”

For Monty Python’s Personal Best each of five Pythons — Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Michael Palin, and Terry Jones — produced and wrote a one-hour special intermingling their favorite sequences with original bits. Palin, for example, expounds on the trendy British sport of fish slapping, and Gilliam, the American-born animator, inverts the original shows by using live action to link his surreal cartoons.

The troupe collaborated on the show for its sixth member, Graham Chapman, who died in 1989. “In my opinion, it’s one of the best shows because you get incredible insight into how smart and thoughtful these guys are,” says Devillier. “But it’s all in bad taste. They don’t let him rest in peace.”

The Pythonesque offshoot, Fawlty Towers Revisited, is an 80-minute pledge special — including pledge breaks — co-produced by Iowa PTV and the BBC. Hosted by Andrew Sachs (a.k.a. Manuel, the hotel’s harried Spanish waiter), the show consists of equal parts clips and interviews with the cast and crew.

While the Fawlty Towers opus consists of only a dozen episodes — each lasting 32 minutes, a highly unusual break from BBC practice — that were first shown in two seasons separated by a four-year gap, the program has exhibited remarkable staying power. Five years ago it was voted the greatest program in British TV history in a British Film Institute survey of U.K. producers and critics.

Fawlty Towers is virtually timeless,” says Julius Cain, writer and co-producer of Fawlty Towers Revisited and v.p., sales, of the BBC Sales Co. “We know that because we’ve had it in distribution in the U.S. since 1977 and we’re still selling the show all over the place.” Public TV stations reaching half of the population are carrying it, Cain said, and the series has sold well in home video.

Wilson says the earlier Python series holds up well, too. “The Python shows were groundbreaking sketch comedy because they avoided the main pitfalls of sketch comedy—namely, how you end the things. The Pythons would just have a policeman walk on the screen and say, ‘Enough of that. It’s gotten silly.’ And that’s still funny today.”

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