Two and a half years ago filmmaker UK producer Andrew Winter heard a pitch for a doco series that seemed, at least at first, a natural – a complete history of Monty Python, that would cover not only the TV series and famous films, but also detail the origins of the group and its strange and silly style of humour.
“At the time I knew the Pythons 40th was coming, in 2009,” Winter remembers. “We wrote a treatment, and re-wrote it and re-wrote it and we sent it off to the Pythons…and they said, 'No!'”
As well they might. The group – Michael Palin, Eric Idle, John Cleese, Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam, and Graham Chapman – last worked together under the Python nomenclature in 1983 on the feature The Meaning of Life. Wary of hype and careful to maintain a strict quality control on anything associated with their name, the former Pythons are prickly and cautious about their history; another documentary seemed redundant, especially after the excellent book Pythons Autobiography, which was published in 2003. And besides, Chapman died of cancer on the Python's 20th anniversary in 1989.
“Essentially they didn't want a puff piece,” he says. Winter was able to revive it by getting the US Company IFC involved and pitching it as 'a Beatles anthology type thing'. “It was to be made for a US audience,” says Lipton, “and the intention was to really cover in depth, the sort of stuff that gets glossed over – their early life and stuff like the fact that a couple of the group started off in kids TV!”
The Pythons stipulated that the series would include interviews with die-hard non-fans. “The reality was that it was very hard to find people who didn't like them and harder still to find people who were willing to be interviewed about it,” Winter says, with a laugh. The Pythons turned out to be total professionals. He says they were gracious, modest and punctual and rather than being bored with it all, they came to the interviews with a vigour that impressed the filmmakers.
The resulting six-part series of one-hour episodes, Monty Python Almost The Truth – The Lawyers Cut is delivered in the slick, high gloss style of the Eagle Rock brand (the producers of the excellent Classic Albums series). Winter says that it is very much “an official biography, authorised but not censored”. What's fresh about it, after countless mini-docs on DVD extras, and various other series over the decades, is that given its epic running time, Winter's colleagues could dig deeper; one can see how the relationships within the group work. Indeed this is the single outstanding highlight of the show; though the surviving members may be skilled performers, in the final edit, it is impossible for them to hide their complex emotions. Envy, admiration, frustration, freely mix in their (always funny) anecdotes.
“I think they worked very well as a team,” says Winter. “But, yes, clearly there were personal tensions.” And typically, they hide their feelings behind a joke: “I'm always mistaken for Michael Palin,” says Idle at one point, interviewed in the series, “and whenever I am, I say yes, I am Michael Palin, now f**k off you ugly old bastard, because I am trying to destroy his reputation for niceness, one person at a time.”
In wide-ranging interviews, archive material and choice comedy clips, the series avoids the obvious pitfalls; it doesn't do the Python's "greatest hits” and aside from a somewhat tasteless opening sequence, it doesn't try too hard to be funny and wisely lets the comics do the jokes. Still, some of the editing is Pythonesque (there is a priceless moment when one of Cleese's former law professors bemoans the fact that Cleese was a terrible loss to the profession). Instead Lawyer's Cut gets very serious about comedy. A large amount of screen time is given over to deconstructing Python's style of comedy via interviews with Python admirers like Steve Coogan, Dan Akroyd and Steve Merchant. Winter and directors Bill Jones, Alan G Parker and Ben Timlett dig into the roots of Python and for Python fans, who and what they turn up will hardly be revelatory: Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, Beyond the Fringe, The Goon Show…yet, reading the transcripts of these brilliant writer-performers is nothing like watching them and Lawyer's Cut, produces one great clip after another that testifies to the fact that Python might be exciting and brilliant – but they were hardly the first to inject surrealism, and violence into Brit comedy. More characteristic of them, was an obsession with the quiet, heartless snobbery of the lower middle-class (and more than one interviewee here makes a rather neat one to one psychological take on the fact that the Python's seemed to be attacking their ancestral cultural roots!)
Winter says it took over a year to un-earth such visual treasures – indeed, the research never really stopped in the two and half years of the series production.
“They broke all the rules,” says Winter of their legacy. “They threw away the necessity of punch lines and they were the first comedy group to really use the medium of TV (as a vehicle and a target) for humour.” In making the series Winter was struck by the way that the Pythons seemed unconscious of the impact their style was having on the pop culture. “They were driving pop culture and yet (they had no idea how they'd grown in the minds of their audience.”)
Today, the Pythons look back on their peak period, 1969-1975, with some fondness – but for all of them it was a long, long time ago; Idle has pursued music and met with a huge Broadway success with Spamalot; Palin has performed and developed features and appears regularly on TV in various travel and infotainment programs (which has to be a bit of Pythonesque in-joke), Jones directed features like Erik the Viking and The Wind in the Willows as well as an opera; Gilliam has moved from one epic fantasy project to another and Cleese, always the most famous of the group, his celebrity has only increased with his involvement in high profile animations like Shrek and a couple of the recent Bond films. “(Its easy to forget) that for them – Python – was really only a small (fraction) of their working lives.” Still, Winter says they have a rebellious streak. At the New York premiere of Lawyer's Cut, the members were still making digs at the BBC. “I think they always resented the fact that the BBC got them cheap…but we paid them a lot of money to appear in the interviews – the first time they've ever done that – so they are happy and they got paid at a good industry rate, too.”