Not just Pythons and Beans: Post-Python comedy in the UK
When I worked in Macedonia, I was once approached by a man who asked where I was from. ‘Ah, Great Britain! We like very well your Monty Python and your Mr Bean!’ Although it was nice to hear that he was pleased with British comedy, it made me sigh a little, as it was neither the first nor last time I was to hear these two acts extolled. Occasionally, my students ask me about which Monty Python sketches are my favourite, and they are shocked to hear that I’m really not that bothered with the Pythons. The reaction is often as if I’d said the Queen should be fired… How
can anyone of British blood not worship the Pythons? Well, to be honest, by the time I was old enough to stay up after 9pm, the Pythons had pretty much had their day. Their TV work was old and, while still influential and enjoyed by millions, new acts were making their marks with younger generations. The biggest effect Python were to have on me directly was when I saw ‘Life of Brian’ as a 14-year old, and my first cinematic full-frontal view of a naked woman (and a man, for that matter!). British comedy can range from gentle and affectionate to harsh and bitingly satirical; but quite often, and no disrespect to anyone who has written about British Comedy, the same acts seem to be mentioned: “Python”, “Mr Bean”, “Yes, Minister!”, etc., often at the expense of many other influential acts and TV shows. So in this article I’m going to look at some other acts, including some Python contemporaries and some post-Python series, and suggest how they might be useful for teachers and students.
Contemporaries of Monty Python: The Goodies
The Goodies were a trio consisting of Tim Brooke –Taylor, Graham Garden and Bill Oddie. These three gentlemen were one of the most successful British comedy groups of the 1970’s. They met whilst studying at Cambridge University along with several members of the Pythons. Like them, they joined the famous dramatic society of Cambridge University, The Cambridge University Footlights Club (whose past members include Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie and Salman Rushdie!) and later worked on several TV and radio shows along with future Pythons and other famous British comedians, such as Marty Feldman. During the 1970’s they created The Goodies. The idea was that a group of three men had rather bizarre and extraordinary adventures each week.
These often parodied well-known TV shows or films but were also simply just crazy ideas. For example, one show involved a spoof western, with the three fighting it out with squirty ketchup bottles, trying to win the Clotted Cream Mines of Devon. In another episode they parodied King Kong, with a giant kitten (Kitten Kong) destroying London. Their ideas were often as radical, if not more so, as the Pythons and they have commented that they were even censored more because their show was considered a family one. Indeed, as a kid, you just HAD to watch The Goodies each week. They also produced some books and had a hit record,
The Funky Gibbon: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iAmx_XdQky8;
Goodies: Kitten Kong http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jr6CyU-Ev_M;
The influence of Python was, and is, huge. Many comedians have spoken of their debt to them. One of the most influential shows of the late 1970’s/ early 1980’s (1979-82) was a programme called “Not The Nine O’Clock News” (because it aired at the same time as The Nine O’Clock News, but on a different channel, and was inspired by a parody newspaper called “Not the NYT”). NTNON was a satirical sketch programme, which poked fun at political figures, current affairs and celebrities. It could be very outrageous, and sometimes offended people by dealing with very serious events in a humorous way. For example; Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan was mocked in a parody advert for the “Russian Tourist Board”, where tanks were shown with a caption, “Visit Russia… before Russia visits YOU!” The programme often came under fire for some of its sketches, especially if they were parodying sensitive political events. The team behind the programme were Pamela Stephenson, Griff Rhys Jones, Mel Smith (who died this summer) and some guy called Rowan Atkinson (whatever has become of him?). The sketches often involved some great character work, especially by Atkinson, often parodying politicians of the day or particular figures, such as priests or school masters. Stephenson often portrayed famous female newsreaders of the time, so much of the comedy comes from a recognition of these people. However, a lot more comedy comes from scathing satire of the period. In this way it can be a useful tool for anyone working with
students of British politics and social history.
I’ve included a few clips of my favourite moments, but they may need some explanation. For example, during the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, an American tennis player called John McEnroe was one of the world’s top players. He was also famous for losing his temper and having tantrums on court. He often disputed calls by the umpire and linesman that he had hit the ball out of the lines
(“You CANNOT be serious!”) and famously insulted an umpire by saying “You’re the pits!”. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wcWNsS6wEps.
NTNON decided to see how breakfast in McEnroe’s household might look… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=koE_e_LX4c0.
Another clip had a bitingly funny parody of a famous debate about the Monty Python film “The Life of Brian”. The film had been labelled as “blasphemous” by many people, and John Cleese and Michael Palin appeared on a TV show to discuss the matter with the famous critic, Malcolm Muggeridge, and a bishop. Many arguments were brought up by both sides, but the discussion was notable as Muggeridge and the bishop had totally underestimated the intelligence of the two Pythons and simply appeared patronizing and pompous. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1ni559bHXDg. NTNON turned the argument on its head, having an interview with a priest who has made a film about Monty Python http://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=asUyK6JWt9U. Other subjects included police brutality and political chat shows.(Constable Savage)
(President/ John McEnroe)
The third programme which filled a gap left by the end of NTNON was the unbelievably vicious “Spitting Image” (1984-96). This programme involved the use of large, grotesque, latex puppets to satirize current events and celebrities. Such was the daring of Spitting Image that nobody was safe from almost any topic. The Royal Family were regularly lampooned, with the Queen Mother usually being showed as a gin-swilling drunk, Prince William (then a baby) being portrayed as a screaming brat and the Queen herself often appearing. Likewise, politicians received no mercy. Margaret Thatcher was famously portrayed as a cigar smoking, power-suit wearing dictator with a cabinet of snivelling ministers (who in the last episode all had to have sex with her!). Ronald Reagan was cast as a complete imbecile whose brain runs away and crawls into the head of a dead Leonid Brezhnev (no, good taste was not a feature of this show).
Apparently, politicians and celebrities used to watch Spitting Image to see who got parodied… and to see if they were on it! As a number of people said, while it was never pleasant being portrayed on the show, it did come across as a kind of compliment, showing you were worthy of their scorn. The singer Boy George once commented that the one thing worse than being portrayed by Spitting Image was being ignored by it.
What was especially interesting was that at times Spitting Image was actually seen to be voicing public opinion on political events before the press did. One particular instance was their skit on the bombing of Libya by American planes in the early 1980’s. To achieve the airstrike, President Reagan had been granted permission by Margaret Thatcher to launch the raids from US airbases within UK. Many people criticized this and it was suggested that Thatcher was bowing down to American power. She was, in effect, Reagan’s pet poodle. The Sunday night before one newspaper published a headline suggesting this, Spitting Image broadcast a sketch where Reagan was seen as a shepherd and Thatcher, his pet sheepdog (who ends up licking his bottom!). The Iron Lady seemed rather upset at being called a poodle and tried to convince everyone in an interview later that week that if she had been a dog it would have been more of a bulldog.
Reagan and Gorbachev:
Spitting Image documentary:
All of the above mentioned shows were extremely popular, in some cases controversial during their time; and they all have been quite influential. The main problem with them now is that some of the material is outdated because the names and events are historical as of today. Likewise, some aspects of comedy have changed and what was seen as suitable a few years ago is now seen as offensive (racist, sexist, etc.). If you are interested in using any of these programmes in class, there are a wealth of episodes on YouTube, many of which are quite timeless or only require a little pre-teaching. They could be particularly useful with students of history and politics, as well as for discussing matters of comedy and satire.