Michael Palin Says That the BBC Never Liked Monty Python

Michael Palin Says That the BBC Never Liked Monty Python

According to a Monty Python legend, the relationship between the iconic British sketch group and the broadcasting channel that launched their careers was never a pleasant one. I guess the BBC bigwigs felt personally victimized by “Upper Class Twit of the Year.”

Despite becoming one of the most enduring and influential comedy shows of all time, Monty Python’s Flying Circus only ran for four series and 45 episodes from 1969 to 1974 before unceremoniously sputtering out. And, for the entirety of those four series, the iconic surrealist sketch group found themselves at odds with the network executives who objected to their iconoclastic, irreverent humor and constant digs at U.K. institutions, such as the BBC itself. In recent years, John Cleese has taken to publicly accosting the broadcasting giant, even accusing them of “canceling” Monty Python (in the modern culture war sense), though Cleese is not exactly known to think before he tweets.

Ahead of the release of his three-part docuseries Michael Palin in Nigeria, the youngest living Monty Python member expounded on the group’s problems with the BBC and gave an assessment of the channel’s current state that would make Cleese giddy — Palin recently told The Guardian that, if Monty Python tried to make their sketch series today, “It would have been censored at source.”

When Palin and his pals first met with the BBC in 1969, it seemed like a dream come true. “It was remarkable,” Palin recalled, “We were chaperoned by Barry Took who was very keen on the work we’d done individually. He said: ‘Well, I’ve got a suit on and I can take you to the BBC and find you someone we can talk to. We were ushered into a small room and Michael Mills, who was head of comedy, came in after quite a good lunch I think, because he was in quite a good mood, and he asked us various questions about what we wanted to do. None of which we were able to adequately respond to.”

“It was the world’s worst job interview,” Palin said of his first major meeting, “Was there going to be music? We don’t know. Were there going to be guest artists? Well, we don’t know. Were there going to be women in the show? We don’t know.” Despite their unprepared state, Mills took a liking to the scrappy sketch comics and made them an offer — said Palin, “At the end, Mills stood up and looked down the table at us and said: ‘I’ll give you 13 shows but that’s all.’ It was the best sentence anybody’s ever said to me in my life.”

Though Monty Python’s Flying Circus had the backing of the BBC’s head of comedy as well as the support of the TV writer, presenter and comedian Took, who is often referred to as the "Father of Monty Python" for his part in bringing the group together and putting them on a platform, many, many others at the channel had an adverse reaction to the show despite its early success. Many executives loathed Flying Circus for both its tone and content, with one member of BBC management famously describing the show as “disgusting and nihilistic” while it was still in its first series.

Today, Palin says that the state of the BBC is even worse than when the BBC tried to ban them from mocking the U.K. national anthem and stop them from writing silly sketches about the Queen. When The Guardian asked him if the sketch show could ever get off the ground today, he said plainly, “No. The BBC was much more buccaneering back then. There were individuals who could make decisions on their own if they wanted to take a chance with something others didn’t like. And, to be honest, most people in the BBC hierarchy didn’t like Monty Python to start with at all. But you could do it and it would be respected.”

“Now there would be far more investigations into what you wanted to do, people checking content and that you’re not being rude about people. I don’t think it would have gone anywhere today,” Palin added. He then went on to agree with his collaborator Cleese’s many public criticisms of the state of censorship in humor, saying, “It’s very important that people can escape, in comedy, from the conformity they’re forced into.”

If the BBC won’t let its viewers escape conformity, then there’s another U.K. government agency that could definitely help, one silly step at a time.


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