Humour and Classical Music
3. Monty Python

by David Barker

The first two columns discussed the use of humour in a piece of otherwise serious classical music … so now for something completely different: how totally serious pieces of classical music have been incorporated into comedy.

I did say that these columns weren’t going to be chronological, so let’s jump from Beethoven’s lost penny to 1969 and Monty Python’s Flying Circus (I am going to assume that I don’t need to explain who or what this is). The show was a reaction against all things staid and pompous in 1960s Britain, and classical music was well and truly in the firing line.

The very first episode has John Cleese as Mozart, in the role of a serious TV show presenter introducing a “documentary” on famous deaths. There is no reason why it should be Mozart, but that, of course, is what Monty Python is about. In the same episode, there is a spoof on arts programs of the era, where a famous modern composer Arthur “Two Sheds” Jackson is interviewed, but to his growing frustration, there are no questions about his music, just his nickname.

Parry’s Jerusalem gets the Eric Idle treatment in Episode 4 of Series 1. In the guise of a somewhat oily variety show host, Idle, accompanying himself on the guitar, begins by singing “Did those teeth in ancient times …” before breaking off to welcome viewers. The teeth refer to the “title” of the episode, and links to a gag at the very end. A few sketches later, he returns, this time singing the words correctly, though with the distraction of being kissed by a scantily clad blonde. When we see them again, they are in bed, and Idle sings the first verse again, this time sans teeth references, before a passionate kiss ends any further singing.

Jerusalem returns in Series 1, Episode 8, during a sketch about a newly-wed couple (Terry Jones and show regular Carole Cleveland) attempting to buy a bed. The sketch’s premise is that if the word “mattress” is said to the mattress salesman (Graham Chapman), he puts a paper bag over his head, and the only way to stop him is to sing Jerusalem. At one point a full choir (supposedly the assembled masses in St Peter’s Square) is required to get him to remove the bag. (I feel that I should mention, even though it has nothing to do at all with classical music, that one of Python’s most famous sketches of all – the Dead Parrot – features in this episode).

Episode 11 of the first series sees the Pythons “descend” into toilet humour. The sketch is prefaced with a slide reading “The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra Goes to the Bathroom”. When Michael Palin knocks on the door and asks “Have you finished in there yet”, he is answered by the opening bars of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, a composer and work the team would return to in Series 3. This is immediately followed by a “letter of complaint” from a viewer about the lavatorial turn the show has taken. Shortly afterwards, one of Terry Gilliam’s animations has crowds running from the Royal Albert Hall before the roof lifts up, and a balloon ascends, displaying the advertisement “Acme Toilets as used by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra”.

For me, the best Python sketch involving classical music comes from the eighth episode of the second series. Beethoven, played by John Cleese in a way that gives us a preview of Basil Fawlty, is seated at the piano, working on the opening to the Fifth Symphony. He has got those famous first four notes right, but is working on the four-note reply. On a stand nearby is a mynah bird (very obviously stuffed), which irritates Beethoven with its noise, and also goads him about his approaching deafness (“Just you wait”). Beethoven shoots the bird (not fatally, “Right in the wing”) and screams in frustration that he can’t get anything done. As he returns to the piano, his wife (Graham Chapman in his most arch shrieking voice mode) walks in and asks if Ludwig has seen the sugar bowl. He yells at her that he hasn’t and to go away. He continues to work on the theme but his concentration wanders and he starts to play something rather down market, before dragging himself back to the job at hand. His wife then comes back asking about the jam spoon (which was in the sugar bowl), and gets the same response. His next attempt gets the four notes right, and he screams “I’ve got it” in exultation. He plays the notes again, before his wife arrives again, asking whether he wants peanut butter or sandwich spread for his tea. This totally disrupts his thought process, and before she has gone, so has the idea. He desperately tries to remember those four notes, but to no avail, and his wife returns with a vacuum cleaner (electric of course). There is banging on the wall from next door, and Beethoven eventually gives up and says he is going out. His wife reminds him that the Mendelssohns are coming for dinner and he should buy some pikelets. The final line is “Shakespeare never had this trouble”, and the scene changes to Eric Idle as Shakespeare (who unaccountably seems to be Jewish), doing the dishes, and saying “You wanna bet”, He also points out what the correct notes should be. In return, Beethoven suggests the name Hamlet, for which Shakespeare thanks him and says it’s a much better name than “David”. He calls out to Michelangelo that he can use the name “David”, but the response is that he (Michelangelo) has thought of a better name, and we see the famous sculpture on a plinth with the inscription “Michelangelo’s Fifth Symphony”.

The next sketch (though perhaps it is better regarded as a continuation) begins with Mozart (again seemingly Jewish) talking about not wanting his son to be a composer, better that he be a sewage attendant or rat catcher (which is what this part of the sketch is about – Colin Mozart, Rat Catcher, played by Michael Palin). Who should his customer be but Mrs Beethoven? They find Beethoven sitting at the piano again, the mynah is back on his perch and rats are everywhere, including on Beethoven’s head. The rat catcher’s means of extermination – a machine gun! Beethoven continues to compose and complain about the noise, while shots are fired around the room. The final touch – Graham Chapman and Eric Idle, in their recurring roles as two 1960s British housewives in head scarves, agreeing that Beethoven would have been glad when he went deaf, and the sketch closes with Beethoven holding a piano accordion close to his ear, while the mynah sings a music hall song. It may not be as famous as the Dead Parrot or the Ministry of Silly Walks, but it is right up there.

The last episode in Series 2 is called the Royal Episode for, as John Cleese solemnly explains at the start, it is thought that the Queen will watch the show at some point. Appropriately then, the normal surreal opening credits are replaced by the British coat of arms and the usual music (see below) by Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 (they are of course ended by the huge cartoon foot coming down). The other classical reference in the episode is a performance of Strauss’s Blue Danube, where at the end of each bar, one member of the orchestra explodes until only the conductor remains. It is filmed in a field, which I suspect was due to what passed for health and safety in those days, given the amount of smoke and flame generated (no CGI back then). I like to think that someone in the group knew about Haydn’s Farewell Symphony, and morphed that into this sketch.

The final involvement of classical music in the series (as far as I know) came in Episode 2 of Series 3, with the Life of Tchaikovsky sketch, presented as part of a fictitious TV show, but not this time an arts program, but in the wonderfully incongruous The Farming Club (a forerunner of the BBC’s Countryfile perhaps). Eric Idle and John Cleese are the studio hosts, and in a script that probably would fail the “politically correct” test these days, there is the wonderful line, intoned in all seriousness by Cleese, that “Tchaikovsky was born in 1840 in a Ken Russell film just outside St Petersburg”. By the time he finishes his account of Tchaikovsky’s early life, Idle has dozed off, and the camera moves to Michael Palin in the campest of guises (making John Inman’s character in Are You Being Served seem like Sylvester Stallone). We then have Graham Chapman and Terry Jones as more down-to-earth “scientific experts” on his physical aspects “if you can imagine the size of Nelson’s Column … then Tchaikovsky was much smaller”. The climax of the sketch is “a performance of the First Piano Concerto by Sviatoslav Richter”, which, of course, it isn’t. The gag here is that “Richter” is handcuffed inside a bag and has to escape while playing.

For those of you who have not seen Monty Python’s Flying Circus, I am conscious that these scenes sound absolutely absurd (they’re supposed to be) and not necessarily funny (they are definitely funny, but require the visual genius of the members of the group to make them “sing”, if you will pardon the expression).

And what of the music of Monty Python? The show’s famous theme is John Philip Sousa’s Liberty Bell, chosen partly because it was out of copyright, and the BBC wasn’t interested in spending any more money than necessary on a series it fully expected to be a flop. A further classical connection comes in the form of Geoffrey Burgon, a composer perhaps best known for his haunting music for the 1981 TV adaptation of Brideshead Revisited, who wrote the film score for Life of Brian (though not the famous song Always Look on the Bright Side of Life which was Eric Idle’s work).

I can’t provide any links, as copyright covers all of Monty Python; the Beeb may not have thought much of it at the start, but very quickly came to appreciate its value. Indeed, I decided against even including any images; the very extensive Wikipedia page has only two taken from the show, which come with lots of fair use justification. You may be able to find some of the above sketches out there somewhere, but to quote Francis Urquhart (House of Cards), I couldn’t possibly comment.