So you are a fan of Monty Python’s Flying Circus and want to collect all their television shows and motion pictures? Here is a guide to what to buy.
You may want to start with some of the programs the same cast starred in in the years prior to Monty Python. A&E video has released box sets of the known surviving episodes of “At Last the 1948 Show” with Cleese and Chapman and “Do Not Adjust Your Set” with Palin, Jones, Idle and Gilliam. It was first suggested in the book “Life of Python” that the BBC liked both shows and wanted to combine the cast from both when creating Monty Python. The comedy in both shows are very similar to what would follow in Flying Circus. An important predecessor was a one shot show called “How to Irritate People” hosted by John Cleese. Written entirely by Cleese and Chapman with some material suggested by Michael Palin who also acted on the show. During the first season of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” material from this show would be reused. A sketch about Cleese attempting to return a broken car to a used car dealer played by Michael Palin would be rewritten as the Dead Parrot Sketch. Another sketch about a restaurant would also be rewritten as the restaurant sketch. Two sketches that were lifted intact and repeated in the Monty Python series were a game show where the prize is a blow on the head with a mallet and one sketch that was repeated word for word was the Management Training Course sketch with actor Tim Brooke-Taylor playing the part that Graham Chapman plays in Python even though Chapman also acted on the show. “How To Irritate People” comes separate in it’s original VHS release but part of a set with two other John Cleese television specials on DVD, “Romance with a Double Bass” and “The Strange Case of the End of Civilization as We Know It”
“Monty Python’s Flying Circus” has been released in it’s entirety on DVD. The problem is that A&E chose to remaster the entire series using the 1st generation BBC Broadcast video tape masters. Here is the problem. In 1972 the BBC allowed Time Life Television to use the masters to make masters for syndication in America. Shortly after the BBC decided to edit the masters to remove material that some viewers had complained about for the shows rebroadcast. The edits were made cutting the master tape itself and are permanent. The Time Life masters, although second generation, are complete and unedited. In future there should be a fully restored release of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” but as long as A&E owns the distribution rights to the series there is no reason for them to go through all the expense of remastering the series again just for a few missing seconds. If you are able to find the 22 volume VHS release of the series from the 80’s on Paramount Home Video then you will find unedited versions of each episode. The A&E version does have one advantage. Some of the episodes are recently rediscovered studio masters of the series. The studio masters were the episodes as recorded live in the studio prior to them being edited down to a half hour removing the sketches that did not get as many laughs from the audience and tightening up the pacing of other sketches. This allowed A&E to release episodes longer than on the Time Life masters. These do not include the edited episodes though.
Also released by A&E video was “Monty Python’s Personal Best” each hosted by members of Monty Python. The shows are basically a collection of each cast members best sketches and there are plenty of overlaps in material. Die hard Python fans will only be interested in these tapes for the host segments otherwise it is nothing new. Two other box sets released by A&E have most of the other Monty Python television appearances. One called “Life of Python” has two shows. “Python Night: 30 Years of Monty Python” was a program that aired on BBC2 hosted by all the surviving Python members which celebrated their 30th Anniversary with documentaries, new sketches, tributes from other celebrities, and a short movie the Pythons made for the BBC back in the early 70’s that has not aired since then. The second disc in the set has the second lost German episode. For some reason the set does not include the show “Life of Python” as advertised which was a Python produced documentary released on their 20th anniversary. The second box set is called “Monty Python Live” and has a full screen version of “Live at the Hollywood Bowl”, “Monty Python: Live at Aspen” where they all showed up on stage to receive a comedy award and be interviewed, “Parrot Sketch Not Included” which came out the same time as “Life of Python” and was a collection of random sketches from the series hosted by Steve Martin with a cameo by the entire Python cast in their final televised appearance before Graham died, and the first lost German episode.
Their first movie was “And Now For Something Completely Different” which was their television sketches redone for the big screen. According to the book “Life of Python” the movie was produced because they thought that the BBC would never syndicate their television show to the United States and wanted to introduce their unique material to that market. It ended up not being distributed in the United States until long after the series was in syndication and “…The Holy Grail” was a hit in theaters. It was released in England where it was a minor hit and convinced EMI to back the Holy Grail movie. So far there has been no deluxe version with any extras such as any outtakes or deleted material and no trailer. It is presented in letterbox though.
“Monty Python and the Holy Grail” has been released in an anniversary addition with bonus material including some new sketches made for the DVD. It included the commentary track originally made for the Criterion Laserdisc release by directors Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones as well as a new commentary track from John Cleese, Michael Palin, and Eric Idle. It also has the original trailer. The only outtake from the movie was re-edited back into the film for it’s Criterion release which has remained in the movie ever since.
“Pleasure At Her Majesty’s” was a special that documented a concert that both members of Monty Python and Beyond the Fringe performed at for Amnesty International. It was later illegally released in America as the movie “Monty Python Meets Beyond The Fringe”. Up til now the only way to see this movie was on video tape either under it’s bootleg title or from Rhino “Pleasure at Her Majesty’s” Recently Amnesty International announced they would be releasing all their concerts in one box set including 1st generation copies of this early Python concert.
“Monty Python’s Life of Brian” was released on Criterion on Laserdisc and has been the same for all of the subsequent DVD releases. The deleted scenes are poor video copies made by Terry Jones back in the 80’s. A story circulating says that the company that bought Hand Made Films either threw out, destroyed, or lost all of it’s film library including the film negatives that included all deleted scenes. Supposedly the company was short sighted and thought that only the VHS masters were of any value and that there was no sense in paying for the storage of the rest. This would explain why there are so few extras and no deleted scenes in Criterion’s release of “Time Bandits” while every other Terry Gilliam film they released had all the deleted scenes. Also missing from all releases is the Python short “Away From It All” which was shown with “….Life of Brian” when it was released in the theaters. A copy of “Away From it All” has turned up on Youtube so it is not completely lost. The DVD and Laserdiscs do have the BBC documentary on the making of “….Life of Brian”
As said before “Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl” is included in the “Monty Python Live” box set. While it is the best copy of the movie currently available it is taken from the full screen VHS master and not the wide screen movie release. There is no bonus material such as the trailer that was banned from television broadcast. The film itself was copied from a video tape master when it was originally filmed to be shown on television. It would be interesting to see the original uncut concert as recorded on video tape with all outtakes. Supposedly they are being held by HBO if they still exist.
“Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life” was released by Universal in a special edition by Universal with all outtakes and deleted scenes, trailers, and some new sketches written for the DVD.
“A Concert For George” had the surviving members of Monty Python reunited on stage. They appeared at this tribute concert because George Harrison had saved “….Life of Brian” by financing the film after EMI dropped it.