It is easy to forget that the men who make up what began as Monty Python’s Flying Circus started out as writers. John Cleese said as much when asked if “they ever made things up on stage.”
“No, no,” responded Terry Jones immediately. “We aren’t improv actors. Everything is scripted.”
“You see, we all started out as writers,” added Cleese.
We were at an “add-on” Q&A session in a private room at the top of a bar in the O2, London’s rather amazing entertainment venue, following a performance of Monty Python Live (mostly). Originally meant as a meet-and-greet, the opening night enthusiasm had forced them to hire security and change it to strictly a Q&A session. We lost the selfie opportunity but we still got the swag, the free drinks and the lively roving band. We managed to snag the high, long table by the side of the small stage, so they walked directly past us, closely escorted by burly security guards and one fussy publicist.
Obviously tired after performing a full evening (more on that later), they were relaxed and affable. Predictably, some of the questions were trite or inane but they handled them graciously, taking seriously questions like why they changed certain words and lines. “Well, after all, we need to change things up,” said Eric Idle. “Otherwise it’s a bit like church, everyone chanting along.”
The O2, an arena, was packed to the rafters and filled with floor seating. Two large video screens flanked the stage, and a third one lined the back center. The stage itself made liberal use of Terry Gilliam’s genius art style with a proscenium and red curtain, a tall stairway and a second level. The audience’s excitement was palpable. Some were madly taking selfies in front of the stage, others were putting the finishing touches on Spam or Silly Walks Minister costumes. (We avoided them.)
The stage show they gave us was a satisfying two hours: A fantastic live orchestra. Hilarious full-on production numbers with a dozen chorus boys and girls. Explosions, video and Terry Gilliam flying through the air. Oh, and Carol Cleveland. And the skits! There is a deep feeling of contentment that comes over you when you see the Four Yorkshiremen (“Luxury!”), the dead parrot sketch, the exploding penguin and the Spanish Inquisition in (sort of) rapid succession. And Graham Chapman interrupting a sketch – digitally.
“The boys” obviously enjoyed themselves. They may not be improv actors but it is a rare treat to see 70-something actors trying to make each other laugh on stage. And the audience loved it. By the time they returned to the stage for the “spontaneous encore” of “Always Look On the Bright Side of Life,” it did feel a little ecclesiastical.
As the Q&A wore on, it was remarkable how little the select audience was listening as they jockeyed to get the microphone. I like to think that the Pythons noticed that our little table was paying attention. (Especially after my daughter stumped them by asking which skit they like to watch.) As they walked out, each of them looked directly at us with a nod. Michael Palin hesitated for a moment as he passed, as if he wanted to say something, and John Cleese gave us a grateful look and a weary wave.
As we tiredly gathered our things and left the O2, empty apart from a few fans clustered at the cartoon-tent surrounded merchandise wall, I realized that, in the end, it was really just about our love for the Pythons, and not the show at all.
Photos by Glenn Wallace