Roll up, roll up for the funniest Circus of ’em all

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Sanjeev Bhaskar, the star of The Kumars at No.42, has a funny story to tell about the early days of British comedy and, particularly, the manner in which it eventually converted his parents.

Speaking in the second episode of the documentary, Monty Python’s Flying Circus – Almost the Truth (Prime, Sundays, 8.30pm), Bhaskar said his parents were initially horrified by the idea of men dressing up as women and saw nothing funny about the Flying Circus series at all.

Dickens was funny, apparently, but Monty Python was just subversive.

They, at least, weren’t wrong there. Given the period in which Monty Python started screening, the anti-establishment bent of the humour was not so much cutting as cutting edge – mocking everything from churches and the upper class to the military and old people.

But Bhaskar, whose parents fled India for England soon after partition in 1947, said he was startled one night to find his mother, instead of tut-tutting about the irreverence of the show, bursting into loud laughter at one of the early sketches.

“It was the fish-slapping dance,” he said, as the documentary makers showed an excerpt from the old scene.
Michael Palin, in safari suit and pith helmet, skips towards a similarly dressed John Cleese and lightly slaps his face with a couple of pilchards, all in time to a simple melody. After repeating the gesture three or four times, Palin stands back at attention waiting for Cleese to have his turn. Cleese produces what looks like a giant halibut and pole-axes his colleague with one swipe, knocking him off the pier and into the river.

“My mother suddenly started roaring with laughter,” said Bhaskar. “So there you are. The fish-slapping dance talks to people across the generation gap, across the cultural divide.

“They should package it up in Mpegs and drop it into war-torn regions – it might even find a solution for Palestine.”

Almost the Truth is a six-episode series that was produced last year to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Flying Circus gang and their revolutionary contribution to the world of television comedy.

All the main characters appear during the six-part series: Cleese and Palin are there, Terry Gilling­ham, responsible for most of the off-the-wall animation, provides his reminisces, as do Terry Jones and Eric Idle. There’s even archival footage of the late, great Graham Chapman.

The opening episode involved the Pythons’ pre-Circus days, last week’s concentrated on the difficulties of getting started and some of the resistance met, and this Sunday’s will look at the subsequent controversy, fame and censorship they attracted.

With numerous sketches being replayed throughout, and non-Circus comedians such as Bhaskar, Russell Brand, Steve Coogan, Dan Aykroyd and Alexei Sayle recalling the effect it had on them as young viewers, there are almost as many laughs now as there was when it initially screened.

Look out over the coming weeks for the Python’s transition to film, the movies, the controversy over The Life of Brian and The Meaning of Life, and eventually the tragic death of Chapman and the end of an era.