TV blog: Python at 50

Benjie Goodhart / 06 September 2019

This week BBC Two celebrates 50 years of Monty Python, while an Antiques Roadshow special remembers the outbreak of WWII.

Python at 50: Silly Walks and Holy Grails, Saturday 7th September, 10pm, BBC Two

My dad never watched much TV. In that respect, the apple hasn’t so much fallen far from the tree as fallen from the tree and taken a transatlantic boat journey. He was a high-powered and intellectual man (again, apples and trees…) who watched the news, Newsnight, Panorama and the occasional documentary.

But he was also someone who had a tremendous sense of humour, and loved to laugh. Some of the happiest memories I have of my childhood involve sitting down with dad to watch The Goodies, or being allowed to stay up late on Christmas Eve to watch Some Like It Hot. But our most regular gig was watching repeats of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

I wasn’t born when the first ever episode went out, in the fairly unpromising slot of 10:55pm on a Sunday night, back in October 1969. It wasn’t until the mid-1980s, as a kid of 11 or 12, that my dad introduced me to the mysterious and surreal delights of Monty Python, tempting me away from my Rubik’s Cube or Space Invaders and into a world of cross-dressing lumberjacks and dead parrots. I’m not sure whether, initially, I got the humour, or whether I was just tickled by watching my dad giggling and guffawing, but those repeats, on a Sunday evening on BBC Two, quickly became the highlight of my week. I have loved Monty Python ever since.

To mark the 50th anniversary of that first episode, BBC Two is showing an evening of programmes dedicated to the troupe. At 9pm there is a repeat of the documentary Monty Python: Almost the Truth - The BBC Lawyer's Cut, which features interviews with the five surviving Pythons, and archive interview with Graham Chapman, who died in 1989. It is described as showing their rise from “humble beginnings” which isn’t an entirely accurate way of describing a collection of privately educated Oxbridge graduates, but it’s an effective and diverting watch nevertheless.

At 10pm, there is this new documentary, Python at 50: Silly Walks and Holy Grails, which is merely a collection of old footage and past interviews all cobbled together with a voiceover. I say “merely a collection of old footage”, but it is, frankly, an absolute delight. It features the Pythons at work, at play, being absolute twits and being deathly serious. It even features Michael Palin getting slightly angry at one point, which must be an almost unique moment in human history.

There is extensive footage from the group in Tunisia, filming The Life of Brian, as well as archive of documentaries, profiles and chat show appearances from them collectively and individually. The film is absolutely bursting with riveting revelatory nuggets like the role Cilla Black played in Graham Chapman’s big break, the fact that John Cleese never liked the Silly Walks sketch, or that Eric Idle originally wrote the “nudge-nudge, wink-wink” sketch for Ronnie Barker.

The archive footage involved is magnificent (which is just as well, as the entire programme is made up of archive footage) including little-known gems such as Palin and Jones’ spoof appearance on Tomorrow’s World, or John Cleese’s Doctor Who cameo. And there is a glorious sequence where John Cleese reveals the real-life inspiration for Basil Fawlty.

But the Python story wasn’t all cheerful surrealism and standing ovations, and the truth isn’t sugar-coated here. In a selection of old interviews, John Cleese talks candidly about how part of him always felt that comedy was an undignified way of making a living, and about his mental health. He explains that it was something of a nervous breakdown that eventually saw him walk away from Monty Python. “Without the full group,” reflects Idle, “it never worked quite as well.” There is also a remarkably candid interview with Graham Chapman on Parkinson, where he discusses his alcoholism (four pints of gin a day) and his homosexuality.

In mixing the serious with the ludicrous, this film manages to convey the essence of what Python was all about. Taboo-busting nonsense with an intelligent and artistic heart, we will not see its like again. That it also took me back to happy evenings spent watching the box with my late father was just an added, and very treasured, bonus. Thanks for the introduction, dad.

Monty Python is turning 50 this year. For details of all the anniversary events, special releases, and exclusive merchandise, visit

Antiques Roadshow, Sunday 8th September, 8pm, BBC One

Some people have a very odd impression of Saga Magazine (and website). They seem to think it’s all recipes for boiled sweets and advice for treating lower back pain. When I tell people I write a TV blog for Saga’s website, they seem surprised not only that Saga readers own and operate computers, but that they watch telly. They seem to think that anyone over a certain age listens to Gardener’s Questions and The Archers, and then goes to bed with a Bronte hardback and a full-length nightshirt.

Once they have got over the shock, they often ask the same question. “How often do you review Antiques Roadshow?” Once I have pummelled them about the head and body with an exquisitely-crafted 18th-century fire poker valued at £5000, I am able to tell them that I have written about Antiques Roadshow once in the years that I have been doing this job – to mark the show’s 40th anniversary. Except now I’ll have to say I’ve written about it twice. So be it, je regrette rien, because this Sunday’s episode is an absolute corker.

Tuesday of this week was the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War. To mark this sombre and noteworthy occasion, this special Antiques Roadshow from Dover Castle is looking back at the story of the first year of the war. Right away you know this isn’t any regular episode of Antiques Roadshow, because instead of the jaunty plinky-plonky theme tune and shots of antiques precariously perched in motorbike sidecars driving through verdant country lanes, we have stirring orchestral strings and the white cliffs of Dover.

The antiques involved include ones brought along and filmed at past shows, and ones specifically brought to Dover Castle for this moving episode. Tastefully, and entirely correctly, no items are valued in this episode. Normally, the entire point of the show is to guess how much the antiques are worth, and to speculate on how long after they get home the owners will sell their treasured family heirloom and book three weeks on the Algarve. But the items brought in tonight are so personal and poignant that such levity would seem wildly misplaced.

The stories and items in this beautifully researched and meticulously judged episode are each remarkable in their own way. Particular highlights include the man who has brought in the naval messages that his grandfather had kept from September 1939, which revealed how quickly events snowballed out of control. The first, at 8:05pm on 1st September, came after Germany had invaded Poland. It read simply “All practices are cancelled until further orders.” Only two days later came the fateful message: “The following, received from Admiralty: Hostilities are to be commenced.” Ten short words that set into motion six years of hell.

Other extraordinary moments include a story of unimaginable heroism from a naval commander, complete with the actual Victoria Cross that he won, now owned by his grandchildren, and the tankard discovered in the wreck of his ship decades later by a salvage team. There are moving stories of heroism and tragedy from Dunkirk, and a look at the man who masterminded the operation from inside the very walls of Dover Castle.

A rare moment of lightness in the programme comes from a look at some of the old recipes that were suggested to people, that they might make their rations a little tastier. It didn’t seem to work. As far as I can ascertain, most recipes for desserts involved rather large quantities of mashed potato. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m as keen on mash as the next man, but I generally prefer it with a sausage than in an apple pie.

The story is told of the child evacuees, and Fiona Bruce meets one veteran, Ray Palmer, aged 95, who has the rare accolade of having been both a child evacuee and a soldier on active service in the war. And then, at the end of the programme, is just about the most agonisingly sad story you will hear in this or any other programme, complete with a letter that will break your heart. To see resident expert Bill Harriman moved to uncontrollable sobs by what has been brought in should tell you all you need to know about the power of the artefacts, and about how the stories of wartime tragedy can echo down the ages and never lose their poignancy.

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The best… and the rest:

Saturday 7th September

Live International Football: England v Bulgaria, 4:30pm, ITV: Mark Pougatch presents commentary of England’s Euro 2020 qualifier. With a 100 per cent record so far, and against a comparatively weak Bulgarian side, this should be a cakewalk. Which, clearly, I have now utterly and irrevocably jinxed.

Strictly Come Dancing Launch Show, 7:10, BBC One: How can it possibly be that time of year again? Surely Stacey Dooley et al are still out of breath from the last series? Anyway, tonight is the phoney war, where the contestants are paired with their partners. Those involved this year, from a panoply of B-listers, include former England goalkeeper David James, presenter Anneka Rice, and Olympian James Cracknell.

Around the World by Train with Tony Robinson 1/3, 8pm, Channel 5: Tony Robinson’s cunning plan sees him travel across the globe on some of its most iconic railways in three feature-length episodes. Tonight’s leg takes him from France to the Himalayas.

Sunday 8th September

Treasure Island with Bear Grylls 1/6, 9pm, Channel 4: The series which sees ordinary Brits marooned on a desert island for five weeks takes a wicked twist this timer around, with cash prizes totalling £100,000 dropped on the island. Only those who stay the course will be eligible for the money.

Monday 9th September

Aldi vs Lidl: Supermarket Wars, 9pm, Channel 5: A look at the battle for the bargain-hunting public between these two huge German brands. You wouldn’t catch my mum in either, she’s more a Waitrose type, don’t you know?

Tuesday 10th September

Live International Football: England v Kosovo, 7pm, ITV: If you thought England v Bulgaria was a foregone conclusion, this is a real David v Goliath match-up. Except in this version, Goliath tramples all over David and then eats him.

Suicidal, 9:15pm, Channel 5: Laudable-sounding documentary which follows six men who have either considered or attempted suicide, as they undergo potentially life-saving treatment.

Thursday 12th September

Watchdog, 8pm, BBC One: Series nine squillion of the campaigning consumer show, fighting for our rights and generally taking on the bad guys of the commercial world.

Hairy Bikers: Route 66 1/6, 8pm, BBC Two: The hirsute duo fill their panniers with herbs and spices and hit the road once again, this time along the legendary trans-American highway.

Friday 13th September (my birthday, please send all gifts care of the editor)

The Great Model Railway Challenge 1/8, 8pm, Channel 5: James Robinson and Tim Shaw present another series of the rather charming show that sees model rail enthusiasts do battle to create the best railways and landscapes.

Gogglebox, 9pm, Channel 4: Return of the ever-popular show that sees people watching telly watching people watching telly. Oddly, it works.

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