I LIVED in the US for three years in the 1990s. Early on, I made a wise decision: I had to think of American English as a foreign language. This came after I accepted I had to ask for “gas”, not “petrol”; for clothes “pins”, not “pegs”; and – when ordering lunch – “tomAYto” on a bagel, not “tomAHto”. It felt weird, but if I’d been in Italy I would have asked for “pomodoro”. I also came to understand that some sayings or expressions would simply not be understood. One of these was, “I’m sorry: he (or she) is from Barcelona”. This, of course, comes from Fawlty Towers, the British comedy series created by John Cleese and Connie Booth in the 1970s. Hotelier Basil Fawlty (Cleese) would often apologise for Manuel (Andrew Sachs), the hapless waiter, by rolling his eyes and saying “He’s from Barcelona”. As everyone of my vintage seemed familiar with Fawlty Towers, this came to be a catch-all apology. But not in the US. The first time I said it there it caused bewilderment. Then, realising my mistake, I wondered if the person I was addressing might be Hispanic – and had taken offence. I scrapped Barcelona references from then on. Also anything from Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
Cleese was a founding member of the troupe that first appeared on British TV in 1969 and then, like influenza, spread throughout the world. Monty Python… was hugely influential, especially in comedy circles. The TV shows and subsequent movies (starting with Monty Python and the Holy Grail in 1975) left many, many buzzwords. Uttering “lumberjack” or “only a flesh-wound” can still reduce those in the know to hysterics, while leaving the uninitiated mystified. Five decades later, the influence of Monty Python is still evident on TV and in movies, whether it’s a mixture of animation and filmed footage or outrageous non sequiturs. The five surviving members of the circus, however, have never been able to escape it. In many respects this is a nice problem to have – leading to lucrative reunion shows two years ago – but all are still best known for work they did long, long ago. Yes, Michael Palin made a name for himself as a TV travel guy and Cleese created Fawlty Towers and then A Fish Called Wanda (1988). But, to many, they are both still irrevocably linked to the famous dead parrot sketch, in which Palin, as a pet-shop owner, tries to convince a customer (Cleese), that his recently-purchased bird is just resting, not deceased. (It’s easy to find if you want to look it up.)
Now, Cleese and another ex-Python, Eric Idle – the musical one, composer and singer of ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’, from the movie Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979) – will soon be touring Australia and swapping showbiz stories. Both gentlemen are now in their seventies. Many people here, no doubt, will be happy to buy tickets and enjoy what Barry Humphries (who lived in the UK during the Python era) might well dub “a nice night’s entertainment”. But others may wonder if this pair of old-stagers might be better off staying home. Are they running the risk of becoming the comedy equivalent of a “heritage” rock band on a never-ending greatest hits tour? Could they possibly need the money? Idle surely doesn’t. He was the man behind Spamalot, the reinvention of Holy Grail as a smash-hit musical. Cleese? Ah, now he’s a different story. It might be argued that he’s had as much success with marriage (he’s now on his fourth) as Basil Fawlty had with hotels. He has talked publicly about huge alimony bills, which he clearly does not regard as anything to laugh at. That’s “laugh”, by the way, not “laff”.
Alan Attwood, Editor
For more on Monty Python's hilarious history, the lawsuit around Spamalot, the upcoming Australian tour and Cleese's alimony woes, check out our cover story in Ed#504 of The Big Issue. Available from your vendor today!