Sunday, May 13, 2012

Monty Python's Flying Circus and Me

I was twelve the first time I saw Monty Python's Flying Circus on TV. They were doing a very silly sketch about a world where everyone is dressed as Superman, going about menial activities such as catching the bus, visiting the laundrette, etc. Then one of the Supermen fairly uneventfully falls off his bike, but the bike is damaged. And there is instant consternation in the world of Supermen. The word spreads quickly. 'There's been a bicycle accident!' 'Oh no!' 'If only Bicycle-Repair-Man were here.' WE cut to a closeup of one of the Supermen sitting in the laundrette. It is the handsome-looking young MIchael Palin and we hear him ponder:.'But how can I turn into Bicycle-Repair-Man without revealing my secret cover?' Then: 'Look!' he cries, cunningly,  'I think he's over there!' He points out of the laundrette window and all the other supermen obligingly look in the direction in which he points. There is a very fast costume change. The Michael Palin Superman changes from his tight outfit into a set of tatty overalls with BICYCLE REPAIR MAN written across his chest. The other  Supermen turn and raise their heads in amazement. 'Bicycle Repair Man - but how?

Bicycle Repair Man takes small steps but manages to move very quickly, thanks to the wonders of undercranked film. On the way to the 'disaster' he passes three other Supermen digging up the road. 'Oh look - is it a stockbroker?' says one. 'Is it a quantity surveyor?'asks another. 'Is it a church warden?' opines the third. Then they all seem to sigh lovingly, happy that the world is in good hands. 'No, it's Bicycle-Repair Man!'

Our bike accident victim Superman clasps his red-gloved hands in joy when he sees Bicycle Repair Man hobbling hastily down the street. 'Bicycle Repair Man! Thank Goodness you've come!' Not to be distracted, for BRM knows his stuff, he gently shifts the bike accident Superman to one side then has a hasty examination of the bicycle frame and wheels, nods knowingly, having made the miraculous calculations in his head, then takes out a little pouch of spanners and so forth that he rests beside the bike. The film is again undercranked and he proceeds to repair the bicycle, watched by a growing audience of Supermen who cannot believe the miracle they see. As BRM repairs the bicycle, various appropriate splash panels fill the screen.
One of the observing Supermen gasps, 'Why! He's mending it with his own hands. Another gasps, 'See how he uses the spanner to tighten that nut!'
It is all over quickly, A humble BRM hands over the repaired bike to its owner, who naturally asks, 'Oh! Oh bicycle repair man how can I ever repay you?
And BRM, true hero that he is, says, ''Oh, you don't need to, Guv. It's all in a day's work for Bicycle Repair man!'

And that was when I fell in love with the show. Actually, it was after seeing some of Terry Gilliam's beautiful animations that I truly fell in love with the show. Dad had pretended not to like it, but he consulted the TV guide to inform us that this peculiar show was called Monty Python's Flying Circus and that it would be on again next week. How on earth would I be able to wait for a whole week to see these brilliant people again?

I was lucky. Not all the Python sketches were as cheerfully silly as Bicycle Repair Man and I suspect that if I had tuned in halfway through 'Communist Quiz' I probably wouldn't have watched the show again. I had to find other people who liked this show, so we could discuss it. And Father continued to refuse to admitting like it. He even did that mean thing of asking me, 'What's funny about that?' after a Gilliam animation which was probably about a bowler-hatted gentleman bouncing around on a big tit or something. Finding like-minded python fans was a difficult task as I was young and living in the Latrobe Valley and attending the undeniably shithouse (at the time) secondary school called Maryvale High. There was so much bullying there that teachers walked around the schoolgrounds back to back. Windows, originally glass and spectacular, were rapidly replaced with nasty plastic, because so many kids had been thrown through the glass ones; after several near-drownings, the elegant school fountain was drained. There were thuggish gangs. And Latrobe Valley kids were big from breathing all that poisonous air that Australian Paper Manufacturers were happily pumping into the atmosphere. Everyone who has been to the Latrobe Valley in the sixties and seventies will remember the reek of the valley, thanks to APM's 'Neutral Suplhide Semi-Chemical Pulp Process'. The whole place smelt like one gigantic fart, or for the more delicate among us, 'rotten cabbage.' But if there was no wind to move the mix of sulphur smell and fog away, the valley smelt of pigshit. Simple as that. There was an enormous piggery near Traralgon and they never really worried about the noxious smell they were making, since most of the time APM's fart smell would mask it. Still days were the ones to worry about. Back in those days, the Environmental Protection Authority was not very strong, rather like The Salvation Army only without tambourines,  and I think that 2000 dollars was the maximum fine you had to pay if caught doing something especially un-environmental, like wiping out a species. I suspect the fine didn't bother APM all that much. It was like paying protection money. The EPA were probably viewed by APM management as a slightly daft and irritating mafia. 'Look at this!' the EPA would grumble once a month, 'You've killed all the animals with your deadly fart smells. That's a two thousand dollar fine right off!'Dad used to come home from work reeking of fart, but we all grew used to it, as indeed you can get used to anything disgusting after a while. Look at Saturday mornings on Channel Nine. And my father was always fiercely loyal to APM, because they were good employers, he reassured us. They weren't psychopathic, like banks, and the people who worked there were generally a very good type of person.

Though I do remember Dad telling me one story about a slight oversight on the part of one of the workers there. APM decided it was time for a good clean-up, so they arranged for vast quantities of filthy leftover poison to be taken somewhere (possibly a nearby asteroid) and dumped, so at last it would wipe the superior looks off the faces of the EPA men and prevent the constant fines. Dad told me he was, of course, part of this operation and that a friend of his had  found a container with a label that was something like this:
I asked Dad what had happened to this dreadful bottle of poison and Dad said that his well-meaning mate had tipped it down a toilet. And not one of those self-enclosed pan toilets,  but one that was connected to thousands of pipes, then to the surprisingly lovely Dutson Downs sewage processing farm (you think I'm lying but there really is/was such a place as Dutson Downs which had, I recall unreliably, an elegant well-trimmed garden with elegant streams of odouress brown running through it, for all the world like something from Willy Wonka. (My parents don't recall this place, so it might well be a figment of my dangerous imagination.) Back to the poison business, I don't know how many animals died, when that bottle was flushed down the lavvy, but  myth records that one of the three-legged oil-drilling platforms off the coast near Sale, turned over.
Despite the attractive art deco cooling towers or Hazelwood power station, the other thing one couldn’t help but notice on the Latrobe Valley skyline was the forests of TV antennas. In Traralgon where I lived, our TV antenna was twice the size of the house, because people were desperate to pick up some of the Melbourne stations and possibly watch something entertaining. (I remember trying to watch The Avengers through a snowstorm of static because Channel Seven in Melbourne was the broadcaster.) We had the regional ABC of course (thank goodness) and a local broadcaster caller GLV10, though their modus operandi seemed to be to force people to watch the ABC.

I merely give you all this background information to forewarn you of how difficult it would be to find someone in The Latrobe Valley who might have been as impressed by Monty Python's Flying Circus - especially the cartoons - as I was. Then it occurred to me that the quest was probably simple enough. I merely had to associate with the other kids at Maryvale High who were getting bashed up as often as I was (two or three times a month) In an effort to avoid being bashed up (by groups of boys who were a lot bigger than I was - APM sulphuric mutation had already set in) I tried to work out if there was any similarity between these groups of victims that I perhaps shared and could self-eradicate. The similarity seemed to be that they were all just a bit different from everyone else. They spoke with funny accents or had long hair or were shithouse at sport or were aboriginal. I wish I could remember the name of the first of these kids who did indeed watch and love Monty Python's Flying Circus. He was a smart English kid with long straight blond hair (a hanging offence back then) and we formed our own little Monty Python Fan Club. Now, what you know as a Monty Python fan is probably a hellish bore who bails you up at parties and does the words from all the sketches until you walk away. I do remember the name of the worst bully. It was David Dundon and I presume he is still going through life being an aggressive, mean-spirited prick. There's a good chance he's dead or in prison. Either would suit me, and probably be better for the world in general.

There's an ill-considered scene in the movie, Sliding Doors, where we are expected to believe that the only-just-good-looking John Hannan has a table in fits of laughter by quoting word-perfectly the 'Spanish Inquisition' sketch from series 2 of Monty Python. Now, had this movie even the ghost of versimilitude (which I guess is  lot to expect from a movie that features Gwynneth Paltrow twice) people would be looking away in embarassment or pouring bottles of deadly, really deadly-no-honestly poison over him. Because Python bores really were and still are quite horrible. But with the blond boy and me (I'll call him Ken, since it wasn't a sexual relationship even though he was handsome, and Ken is about the least sexual name I can think of) it was salvation. It was permission to believe that the world really was a terribly silly place, and thugs were likely to turn out to be mincing nancy-boys, or vice versa. So, I spent two whole years in The Latrobe Valley with only one person with whom I could share Monty Python. Then I won a scholarship and ended up here, and of course I found so many boys with whom to share Monty Python that I rapidly became intensely unpopular, but at least I wasn't bashed up for it. Monty Python also seemed to make it okay to be smart. Half the time we didn’t know the references but would encounter them later in life. I actually tried to read Either/Or by Kierkegaard because his name turned up in a python sketch. I was horrible company.
But in 1973 I survived a year at Maryvale High School, triple-time winner of the worst, most relentlessly violent school in the Southern Hemisphere award, thanks to Monty Python. If it weren't for that show, I'd be dead. So of course I was desperately keen to see the movies borne of the show. My favourite by far is the first 'best of' one, because it gave me the chance to see Terry Gilliam's animations in full colour on the big screen for the firs time. My very least favourite is The Meaning of Life, of which the pirate short is the only thing I enjoy, I'm indifferent to Monty Python and The Holy Grail, even though it was lauded by my Carey schoolmates at the time, so much so that by the time I got to see it, I was pretty much familiar with every joke, which had been acted out by the initiated. But I saw another movie at about this time and it really did make me laugh out loud. I didn't know it was possible to be so funny in ninety minutes. The movie was called Sleeper and its inventor was Woody Allen. So my affections were turned elsewhere. The Python show did make me want to be an artist, and for a few years I was doing Gilliam-style pictures (though I could never work the airbrush properly) and Max Ernst style collages. There's a touch of Gilliam in the pictures I did for my first book. And it was via Python that I got to learn about some of the more obscure yet no less brilliant artists, poets and comedians of England in the sixties. I met superpoet Roger McGough, thanks to the fact that Gilliam illustrated one of his books. It was Sporting Relations and it was but a mild foretaste of the wonderful world of McGough. (My proudest moment is during the Humourists read Humourists event at the first Melbourne Comedy Festival. Roger came on and read some of my stuff. We hasn't yet met and he didn't know I was in the audience at The Atheneum in the front row. And through McGough I met Charles Causley and so on and so forth.)

I've met all of the original Pythons except for GIlliam and Idle. I suspect I'd have more to talk about with the former than the latter, largely because the former has actually been doing interesting and original new things with his life, not just riffing on Python for the last fifty years.

The point of this story? My friend John Clarke dislikes Monty Python (the movies more than the TV series I think) and I found it hard to argue cogently with him. So this is my riposte, as it were.
It is now an ex-riposte.
It has ceased to be.


Scot of the Antipodes said...

Well said, Doug.

The Valley hasn't changed much since the seventies, really, if you squint. Hazelwood's still reminding us that we're carbon junkies and the mill is still rolled back on one arse cheek on the couch, letting it rip. Actually, that may have been me. Sorry.

As you know, I was at Maryvale. I was a Python junkie. If we hadn't been ten years out of phase we could have become critical mass and the nancy boys would have ruled. Well, ruled the library, at least. My Dad, a Pom, also didn't get Monty Python, but he does enjoy country music and is leaving for Norfolk Island on Friday to do some line dancing. That could be a Monty Python skit. Possibly even include the return of Bicycle Repair Man or a Terry Gilliam cartoon featuring a line dancing scrotum.

There's a prickly grace to everything you write. I'm loving The Life of a Teenage Body Snatcher for it's stolen teeth and its nancy boys and its wayward glass eyes and twisty family trees. Bravo.

You're licensed to call David Dundon a cunt, but I'm glad you didn't. That would have lowered the tone of the piece. If there's one thing a year at Maryvale would have taught you, like a night in bed with Chuck Bukowski, it's the incredible efficiency and poetic power of 'cunt'.

(My spell check rewrote that as 'count', the soft cock)

pierre alexandre said...

doug,thanks for the entertaining reminicenses...monty python was way over my head when first viewed and it took several episodes to appreciate what they were trying to do,this was not helped by having two classmates obsessed with the show and re-enacting every thing they watched,i suppose it was like a cult for some,'all is vanity'...i now know what a blog is as i keep hearing these words blog,twitter,hash tag and often feel like an alien on my own planet where the technology has surpassed my comprehension....later