I'm certainly not the first early adopter to get hosed by excessive re-releases. When I bought the complete series of Monty Python's Flying Circus in 2000, it was the crown jewel of my then-fledgling DVD collection--my first major box set purchase (and a pricy one), it sat atop my video shelf and soaked in the admiration of all who passed. Then A&E video released the "16-Ton Megaset" a few years later; it was noticeably cheaper, as I recall, but the only additional material had been released separately, a few years before, as Monty Python Live!. No, the killer was last year's "Collector's Edition Megaset", which, for the same price as the 16-ton set, included all of its contents, plus all of the "Personal Best" discs, plus two new documentaries. The completist in me was livid.
Thankfully, A&E now has done the right thing and released those two documentaries separately, under the title Monty Python: The Other British Invasion; I'm sure the highly-publicized release of the epic new 40th anniversary Python doc Monty Python: Almost the Truth on the exact same day is a mere coincidence. At any rate, it does offer those of us who bought early to pick up a pair of informative, if conventional, documentaries on our favorite crew of British satirists.
The first disc is the hour-long Before the Flying Circus; it is subtitled "a black and white documentary," and sure enough, the entire special (even the new interviews) is desaturated, presumably for maximum historical effect. Director/producer Will Yapp combines interviews with the surviving Pythons (and a couple of snippets of the late Graham Chapman) with a treasure trove of old clips and photos. The Pythons discuss their childhoods, backgrounds, and early influences--Disney for animator Terry Gilliam, the innovative British radio series The Goon Show and the brilliant stage show Beyond the Fringe for everyone else. The crew first became aware of each other as they started performing in university revues; all of the British members of the troupe worked together (albeit as writers, with only John Cleese appearing on-screen) for David Frost's That Was The Week That Was follow-up, The Frost Report.
What Before the Flying Circus has, in spades, is clips--great old snippets of their first, tentative steps into television, not only on The Frost Report but in varying combinations on earlier series like At Last the 1948 Show and Do Not Adjust Your Set, the "children's show" that got a sizeable adult audience thanks to the wry comic sensibilities of its writer/performers and the oddball animations of American Gilliam. The documentary then takes us through the forming of the group in April of 1969 and the beginning of Monty Python's Flying Circus, with a wonderfully chosen transition to color at the program's end.
The second disc gives us the documentary Monty Python Conquers America, which also runs about an hour and utilizes Python reflections from the same interview sessions (this time in color, of course). We pick up the Python narrative several years later, after the show has become a popular success in Great Britain, as both the troupe and their British boosters start to wonder whether it could ever "cross the pond." Victor Lownes, an American operating the British arm of the Playboy organization, thought it could translate, putting up his own money to finance a "best of" film, And Now For Something Completely Different. While that project failed to muster up much enthusiasm, the Pythons experienced their first underground success in the States thanks to a less-discussed sideline--they first crossed over with hippies and intellectuals not through the film or the series, but via their record albums, which started getting play on various underground and college radio stations.
Their American record promotion was handled by Nancy Lewis, who quickly became a fan and later their U.S. manager. She adds some insight, supplemented by great home movies and memories of their first Transatlantic trip--a Canadian tour, followed up by a disastrous American television debut on The Tonight Show (unfortunately, like so many Tonight Show clips, that one is nowhere to be found). The special then details Lewis and the group's attempts to shop the show to American television, specifically to PBS affiliates. They finally found success in 1974, on KERA, located not in a risk-taking "cosmopolitan" market like New York or Chicago, but in Dallas, Texas. (The station's manager? Luke and Owen Wilson's father, Bob Wilson). The show expanded from there to other PBS stations; we see some rare promo films, as well as a great clip of four members of the group doing a standing room only appearance at a KERA pledge drive.
By the time Monty Python and the Holy Grail opened in New York, they'd become an American phenomenon; mention is made of Cleese's initial reluctance to court a Stateside audience, but he tells a terrific story about the moment he realized, during their 1976 show at City Center, exactly how big they'd become. The doc closes with a fascinating (and detailed) examination of the ABC fiasco--how the bowdlerization of Flying Circus shows for rebroadcast on that network led to a legal action and, eventually, the ownership of the shows going to the Pythons themselves.
Both documentaries are well-executed, but the trouble with them now is that they suffer in comparison to Almost the Truth, which is, in many ways, the definitive Python doc. It's not just that much of the same material is covered; though Before the Flying Circus matches up almost precisely with the first episode of Almost the Truth, it has more clips and mentions a few projects (like Twice a Fortnight and The Complete and Utter History of Britain) that go unnoticed, while the bulk of the second hour is supplementary to the longer doc (and dovetails nicely from it). But these two films plod a bit; in contrast to the newer film, they're scholarly and somewhat dry, but somehow not quite as insightful or sharply analytical. We don't get the same sense of how the Pythons were molded by their backgrounds and influences, in spite of the use of the rather straightforward and often dull narration. The rogues gallery of American fans (Carl Reiner, Paul Rudd, Jimmy Fallon, Judd Apatow, David Hyde Pierce, Robert Klein, and South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone) is impressive, however; they speak with love about to discovering the troupe, and speak plainly about why they're great, and that section (dealing as it does with simple fandom) may be the set's most effective.
Both discs are in anamorphic 1.78:1 widescreen, and the image is quite good. On Before the Flying Circus, the black and white image is clean and sharp (indeed, desaturation often helps class up shot-on-video interviews like these), though the video quality of some of those early, pre-Flying Circus shows is pretty rough. Monty Python Conquers America is also crisp and good-looking, though they are again occasionally at the mercy of some less-than-stellar archival materials.
The 2.0 audio is basic documentary sound--the interviews are robust and clear, though again, some of the archival sound is, expectedly, rather thin and sometimes hissy.
We get a couple of bonus features (or, as they're called on the menu, "something different"), which is a bit of a surprise since this set is, basically, a bonus feature to the megaset; both are located on disc one. First is "Animated Gilliam" (16:19), in which Gilliam introduces and walks the viewer through his title animations for each of the four series of Flying Circus. He talks at length about his working method at the time, and as he goes through those distinctive openings, sometimes on a shot-by-shot basis, we get a pretty extraordinary peek at the logic behind his absurd imagery.
Also on the disc is a rare bit of video--labeled here as "Politically Incorrect" (3:05). This is the original pre-title sequence of series three, episode 12 ("A Book at Bedtime"), the "Party Political Broadcast (Choreographed)" sketch, which was removed by the BBC after the episode's first broadcast (some say due to their concern that it would affect an upcoming election) and never made it back in. This, the only remaining tape, is taken from an airing on WNED in Buffalo.
The two hour-long documentaries that comprise Monty Python: The Other British Invasion will surely be of interest to Python fans, and folks like me who bit early on the A&E series sets. But they do suffer in comparison to the new Monty Python: Almost The Truth documentary--a comparison only encouraged by this set's congruent release with that one.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.