It broke the form of television comedy, so it is only fitting that its half-century is celebrated in equally nonconformist style.
Michael Palin, the sole Yorkshire constituent of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, went on record yesterday as saying that “something will happen” to celebrate the show’s 50th birthday next year. But not necessarily on the date itself.
Instead, he suggested, a 51-and-a-half year party might be more appropriate.
“There are plans being hatched to flog our wares – you don’t miss an opportunity for an anniversary,” he said.
“But I feel celebrating a 50th is rather un-Python. We should be celebrating the 53rd or 51.5 year.”
The first episode of the show was broadcast on BBC1 on October 5, 1969, to muted reaction from a studio audience unsure of what they were watching.
The subtitle, Whither Canada, had been one of the working titles for the series itself, and the half-hour of sketches included a parody of television commercials about housewives not being able to tell butter from margarine, and an interview with an artist who had two garden sheds.
The BBC had commissioned an initial run of 13 such programmes, despite its stars, by their own admission, not being to articulate to the head of entertainment what would be in them.
Palin, now 75 and from Sheffield, said of the anniversary: “We talk to each other. We have management in place who are sort of coming up with suggestions and things, so there will be things.”
The Pythons, minus Graham Chapman, who died in 1989, last performed together in a series of sell-out shows at London’s O2 Arena in 2014, called Monty Python Live (Mostly).
Palin, who wrote many of the show’s sketches with his old university friend and co-star Terry Jones, said: “Now of course Terry is unwell, Terry has got dementia, so he can’t really take part, so there’s fewer of us. But something will happen.”
The initial transmission, recorded in colour but screened at first in black-and-white, followed runs of earlier series, mostly on ITV, involving members of the future team
Palin and Jones appeared with Eric Idle on the children’s series, Do Not Adjust Your Set, whose cast also included David Jason. Chapman and John Cleese, alongside Tim Brooke-Taylor and Marty Feldman, were the stars of Rediffusion’s At Last The 1948 Show.
The Pythons, without the American Terry Gilliam, had also worked together as writers on David Frost’s topical BBC sketch series, The Frost Report.
Palin, who returns to the screen next week in a Channel 5 travelogue series, Michael Palin In North Korea, recalled in his diaries that Cleese had called him to suggest that the two teams collaborate. He agreed, having been told that the offer of a late-night show on ITV could not go into production for another two years because no studio space was available.
Audiences at the BBC’s Television Centre were slow to warm to Python and bemused by sketches that had no ending or even beginning, in the usual sense. The first few shows were recorded before any had been transmitted, but after a few weeks the laughter had become infectious, and by the time the first series was repeated in London and the North West the following year, it was a cult.