Ian MacNaughton | 85 mins | DVD | 1.78:1 | UK / English | PG / PG
The first Monty Python theatrical release (four more would follow; five if you count last year’s A Liar’s Autobiography) is a compilation of re-shot sketches from the first two series of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
Designed to launch the sextet to a US audience who wouldn’t have seen the TV series, And Now For… contains around 40 sketches, including two of their most famous: the Dead Parrot sketch and The Lumberjack Song. I have to confess, I’m really a Python neophyte — to be precise, I’ve seen Holy Grail twice, Life of Brian once, and only stray sketches in documentaries and clip shows and the like. As such, almost the entire film was new to me (the only exceptions being the aforementioned pair), so I can’t tell whether the re-shoot impaired or enhanced the quality. (In fact, I say “re-shoot”, but the film was shot between series one and two of Flying Circus, so this is actually the first performance of the series two sketches.)
The Dead Parrot sketch clearly isn’t as good — it feels like Palin and Cleese re-enacting past glories, robbed of much energy by not being shot as-live in a single take. The Lumberjack Song, on the other hand, seems to survive fine. The rest is as much of a mixed bag as sketch shows ever are — it’s become a cliché to call them “hit and miss”, but it’s true. Over 40 years on, the Pythons’ style is still so leftfield, experimental, absurdist and irreverent that one man’s hilarity will easily be another’s bafflement. For my money, it becomes a bit tiring watching sketches for so long, even with the attempts made to link them together — it doesn’t form a narrative, so much as a series of casual crossovers that would make re-arrangement in an edit impossible. In and of themselves, however, many of the skits hit their mark.
Director Ian MacNaughton also helmed the TV series but, freed of the constraints of BBC studio filming, he mercifully does more than point-and-shoot. Sometimes this doesn’t work (an early sketch, “Marriage Guidance Counsellor”, is initially shot from bizarrely high angles followed by some very flat compositions), but other times it comes off beautifully: a long track-and-pan throughout “Nudge Nudge” is flawless.
Perhaps this is showing my Python inexperience again, but, considering how everyone goes on about the brilliance of Graham Chapman, he’s far from foregrounded here. Cleese, Idle and Palin seem to get the most material; Chapman is often a kind of straight man (in fairness, often among the rest of the troupe acting this role for the benefit of a lead); Jones doesn’t do much at all, which is perhaps why he later moved toward directing. Of course, this perception could just be the result of the sketches chosen; or, for all I know, he was more talented as a writer than performer; or perhaps he came into his own later (he’s the lead character in both Holy Grail and Brian, of course). But, on this evidence alone, I don’t think Chapman would be the one to draw anyone’s attention. In fact, the thing that most struck me about the cast is that, while most of them look familiarly young, Eric Idle looks about 15.
Reportedly the Pythons didn’t consider the film a success, hampered by interfering higher-ups and a ludicrously low budget (according to Wikipedia, this was “so low that some effects which were performed in the television series could not be repeated in the film”!) Ironically, US reviews were mixed and the film did little business at the box office (a 1974 re-release, after the TV series had turned up on PBS, was a greater success), while in the UK it was popular enough to turn a profit, despite the fact it contained nothing new for British fans — “indeed many were disappointed that the film seemed to belie its title.” Indeed.
It’s difficult to know what And Now for Something Completely Different offers fans today. With the TV series readily available on DVD, I imagine it more often pays to re-watch the original versions. Equally, as noted, this is technically the first outing for some. Perhaps it’s just a curio; a different perspective on familiar material. For newcomers… well, as one, it’s difficult to say how much it offers a grounding in the Pythons’ material. Is it a best-of? Some of their most famous stuff isn’t here (presumably it came in the latter two series), and almost an hour-and-a-half of sketches gets a bit much. Indeed, it’d probably work better in more bite-size chunks; say, 30 minutes at a time.