And Now for Something Completely Different (1971)

2013 #51
Ian MacNaughton | 85 mins | DVD | 1.78:1 | UK / English | PG / PG

And Now for Something Completely DifferentThe 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. LumerbjackFor 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.

And now...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.

3 out of 5

Clockwise (1986)

2008 #76
Christopher Morahan | 92 mins | DVD | PG / PG

ClockwiseClockwise, so I’m told, was written after John Cleese (who, I should point out, isn’t credited as the writer) attended Robert McKee’s famous screenwriting seminar. What this means for your average viewer is that Clockwise is expertly constructed. More importantly, it’s also very funny.

The first 15 minutes are a little dubious, but it soon becomes apparent that some of McKee’s principles are being followed (if you’re aware of them, of course) as this opening serves to establish the everyday life of Cleese’s character, headmaster Brian Stimpson. The point of this soon becomes apparent: when everything goes to hell over the next hour-and-a-quarter, the viewer can fully appreciate the impact on Stimpson’s existence. And all go wrong it does, in a manner that’s rather reminiscent of Fawlty Towers — not in the sense that Cleese is repeating himself, but rather that you could replace Stimpson with Basil Fawlty and merrily carry on along much the same path; though, I hasten to add (to this over-punctuated sentence) that Stimpson is not a clone of Fawlty, but he is prone to ending up in similar accident-and-misunderstanding-based farcical situations.

I imagine that Clockwise is less well known than it deserves because it is so very British. The humour — largely based around issues of punctuality, politeness, and social custom — is particularly British, as are the countryside settings and the finale set at a public school conference. And, in the first instance, everything goes so spectacularly wrong thanks to our wonderful language’s multiple meanings for the word “right”. From this point Cleese & co escalate the hopelessness of the situation beautifully (and very much in keeping with McKee’s ideas of good structure), gradually crafting more absurd events and dragging in more and more characters, most of whom come together in that finale. This final section perhaps goes on too long, with a rather inconclusive ending, and it lays on the anti-public school gags with a trowel — though that suits me just fine.

Some have argued that Clockwise is more like a series of sketches than a cohesive whole, but all the independent scenes are connected by a common goal, meaning very few (if any) feel genuinely out of place or inelegantly shoved in. The calm pauses between the comic scenes also allow it to remain hilariously funny so consistently — an all-out assault of comedy, no matter how good, can become rather wearing. Again, this ebb-and-flow is something the filmmakers may well have picked up from McKee.

While you could probably use Clockwise as a mini masterclass in applying some of Robert McKee’s structural principles, that’s thankfully not the be-all of it. Very funny once it gets going, this is one that fans of Fawlty Towers will likely especially enjoy — and, really, who with a sense of humour isn’t a Fawlty Towers fan?

4 out of 5