No one expects
the Spanish Inquisition another repackaged Monty Python Collection. Or maybe they do, if they've been paying attention to the recent surfeit of A&E multi-disc boxed sets that are deluging retailers like twits at a twit convention. The good news is, unlike some of the other big A&E releases which contain only repackaged material, this new set not only contains all of the original Monty Python's Flying Circus episodes, but also the previously released Monty Python Live set, the Personal Best collections of each of the Monty Python madmen, and some new bonus content as well.
If you're older than 35 or so, you probably have distinct memories of stumbling across Monty Python's Flying Circus on your local PBS station sometimes during the mid to late 1970s. If you're younger than 35 or so, you probably grew up thinking there had always been a Monty Python. In fact it's sometimes hard to really appreciate how groundbreaking the show was when it first aired. I distinctly remember the first episode I ever saw--the one in which several successive television narrators are never quite able to finish their teleprompted spiel, and it struck me like some great psychoanalytical treatise, interspersed with knockout jokes, both physical and verbal, every few seconds. In fact over the years I came to love Python as much for its non sequitur-filled segues as I did for any individual sketch it presented.
Python remains inarguably the most influential comedy troupe, and probably comedy television program, of the past 40 years. So much of the Python patent insanity has passed into public consciousness that mere mention of such Python-esque phrases like "wink, wink, nudge, nudge, say n'more" elicit knowing glances from virtually everyone. And of course one need only mention brilliant skits like "The Dead Parrot" or "Ministry of Silly Walks" to enter into a long discussion of what was actually the most madcap moment from Python's television years.
As I mentioned in passing in my review of a more lamentable British sketch comedy show called Alfresco, there was a unique and very fortunate entrainment between the five Python members, Eric Idle, John Cleese, Terry Jones, Graham Chapman and Michael Palin. While Chapman and Cleese had been writing partners for years, notably on David Frost's various shows, and the others had written together and separately (including for Frost), something magical happened when the five of them came together and started not only writing, but performing, as a unit. One need only watch some of their previous television efforts where at least some of them worked together to see proof that, while that typically crazy Python humor was certainly nascent and in evidence, it hadn't yet blossomed to full flower. In fact it's very instructive to watch Don't Adjust Your Set and At Last the 1948 Show (both available on DVD sets) for that very reason, if no other--you can literally see the seeds from which Python's particular genius ultimately grew, sometimes in fact in sketches that were later reworked for the Flying Circus.
There are so many weird and wonderful moments throughout the four seasons of Flying Circus that it's virtually impossible to mention only one, but I'll choose one of my all time favorites, not only because it demonstrates Python's unique genius in seguing from one absurd moment to the next, but perhaps more importantly because it has provided a catch phrase for my own family. In this most excellent sketch, some hoity toity types are watching a presentation by various architects of a new housing development. Architect John Cleese steps to the dais and begins describing the various features of his apartment building, stating, "And here the residents will be transported down the moving walkway to the rotating knives." He's stopped and the officious official asks incredulously, "Knives? Did you say knives?" "Yes," replies a sanguine Cleese, adding, "rotating knives." It turns out he had only designed slaughterhouses before this project. Now as if that weren't funny enough, the skit then takes a total left turn and starts riffing on secret handshakes and the mysteries of the Masons. It's utter lunacy and perfectly representative of what you have in store in any given episode of Monty Python's Flying Circus. But there are of course literally scores of other superbly insane moments one could select to equal effect, like the unbelievably intelligent and funny "Summarize Proust Competition" to the "No one expects the Spanish Inquisition" sketch alluded to in my opening paragraph.
Each of the members has their own very special contributions to the success of the series, whether it be Chapman's daffy army personnel, Cleese's ridiculous bureaucrats, Idle and Jones' wacky British housewives, or Palin's theater of the absurd television commentators. There are so many wacky and wonderful characters here, not to mention the brilliant animations of Terry Gilliam (who also appears in supporting roles), that Monty Python is an unending kaleidoscope of mayhem and madness, never less than hilarious and often surprisingly thought-provoking in its own insane way. If you've never seen Monty Python's Flying Circus, now is the time to get it in this new, slimmer boxed set that also includes some great bonus content. If you have the previously released set of the television episodes, you may indeed want to double dip for the space savings of this set as well as the extras included. If you've been a fan but haven't wanted to indulge, now's the time, before your Norwegian Blue is an ex-parrot.
The 14 discs of episodes are full frame and some show fairly considerable damage, especially in the filmed sequences. Colors are acceptable, and sharpness is similarly acceptable in the taped sequences. These transfers look like they were ported over from the previous DVD release of the series, so if you've seen any of those, you'll know what you're in for--a perfectly average television presentation. The Monty Python Live footage is split between the pretty bad looking Hollywood Bowl material and the much more recent, hence incredibly sharper and better looking Aspen material. The two extra documentaries, both enhanced 1.78:1, offer the best all around visuals of the set, at least insofar as the contemporary interview segments go. All of the Personal Best compilations rely on the television sketches, interspersed with then contemporary interviews, which of course look sharp and with good color.
The television series' mono soundtrack is perfectly fine, always easy to understand and lacking any egregious damage or even hiss. It's not state of the art, but it works just fine. The newer features offer a standard stereo mix that's perfectly fine for the proceedings--nothing exceptional, but nothing to complain about. No subtitles are available.
This is a very handsomely packaged set, despite it being less than half the size of the previous boxed set that contained only the television series. This set is contained in a box which houses two foldout bookcases, one containing the 14 discs of the original series, the other containing the previously released Monty Python Live set, the Personal Best compilations, and, of most interest to true Python-files, the two new documentaries. These documentaries are a treasure trove of really fascinating material. "Before the Flying Circus" contains personal histories of all the members, how they met, and how the show came to be. "Monty Python Conquers America" deals with the troupe's invasion across the pond, and relates the serendipity of them becoming as famous as they became. There's an incredible amount of information here, including everything from Buddah Records' pot parties, to, incredibly, the connection between Owen and Luke Wilson's father and Python's television success here in the states (I won't spoil the surprise for you). "Before" also contains a nice Gilliam-hosted review of the four different title sequences, as well as a "politically incorrect" sketch on British conservatism (mixed with interpretive dance) that was excised after the original broadcast, but which made it to the US via a second generation tape for a pledge drive--it's absolutely hilarious). There's also a little booklet that has program information, helping to make up for the fact that the individual episodes aren't separately boxed and labelled as they were in the previous DVD release.
There's nothing else to say other than, "Knives? Did you say knives?" "Yes, rotating knives." Get this set, it's an easy entry in the pantheon of DVD Talk Collectors Series titles.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet