Saturday, January 7, 2012

Blog Article #46: An Article about Spam written by Throat Warbler Mangrove

Which of course is Raymond Luxury Yacht spelled out above phonetically. Monty Python’s Flying Circus is, to me, about going back to the basics. I would venture to guess that if you are an American who eventually got into British television; this series had to be at the top of the first few memories of watching any British program. I am pretty positive that very few Americans will say that their first British program they ever watched was something like It’s Midnight, Dr. Schweitzer (1953) or anything like that! For me, this was one of the early programs. Not as early as Benny Hill which I was watching a long time ago but this was close. I started watching British television in earnest after I had gotten into Doctor Who in the early 1980s. After I started to get into it, I was thirsty for more programs to watch. I started to watch more and more offerings that KTCA was giving me. If I am not mistaken, by the time it left KTCA, Monty Python’s Flying Circus was being shown on Sunday nights. Before I had a chance to watch it on there, it ended. They had what they called the Monty Pythonathon for the final night it aired. So I missed out on it there.
Being a young 13 year old lad growing up in the rolling hills of St. Anthony Village going to a Catholic school called St. Charles I was very happy when we finally got cable TV. Looking through the TV listings of all these new channels offering up new and varied programs, I came across Monty Python’s Flying Circus being shown on MTV later in the evening. It didn’t take long for me to get hooked. I love comedy and this was comedy but comedy done in a way that I had never seen it done before. It opened my mind to different things. Different styles of comedy. Most obviously, how one sketch could run into the other. These sketches never ended. I was thinking about it when I was watching these two episodes recently whether this is ingenious, lazy, or both? I think the hardest thing about writing sketches is how you are going to end it. How does it wrap up? I think very few sketches end well. If you watch Saturday Night Live (and I don’t know why you would), the sketches tend to fizzle out at the end. At least I think so. Suddenly, Monty Python’s Flying Circus just eliminates that problem from their sketches. When they get bored with their sketch, maybe they walk through a door and suddenly they are in a Terry Gilliam animation or someone enters the sketch, such as Graham Chapman’s Colonel, and breaks it up. Plus there is nudity! As a 13 year old, I really thought I was getting away with something here while a gentleman walks into a shop and is helped by a topless woman behind the register. The comedy of that scene passed me right by as I was fixated to total topless-ness.

As I was thinking about it more and more, I think this series really cemented my love for the BBC. Obviously, the majority of the other British shows I was watching were made by the BBC but Monty Python’s Flying Circus was a show that kept showing us the BBC from an insider’s point of view. In particular, BBC Television Centre. These sketches often broke out of the confines of television or at least television production. Characters could be seen waiting for their cues on the side of the set as the camera shows them on the sidelines waiting to come in. Or in the case of the episode Spam, the priest in the Ypres 1914 sketch is taken out of Television Centre by ambulance to the Hospital for Over Actors. They were showing us a BBC I loved and showing us a BBC that sadly does not exist anymore. When I picked Monty Python’s Flying Circus to watch, I had some dread. I have seen these so many times. Even though I haven’t watched the show regularly in about 10 years, I knew the lines so well. Would I enjoy myself?
Spam 15.12.70
Monty Python’s Flying Circus can be a mixed bag for me. I have to be honest and say that a lot of the animation interludes often bore me. Sometimes they are really good but a lot of times, I just wished they would get on with the rest of the episode. A case in point is the Art Galleries Strike animation where all of the famous works of art are striking. It is interesting but never does much for me. I feel guilty for saying it as I think I may be committing a cardinal sin for speaking against this animation! If this is horrific to you, don’t let me tell you about my dislike for Monty Python and the Holy Grail! Don’t get me wrong, I am fully aware that this animation has brought us many iconic images. Also, stylistically it is great.
For everything that might not interest me, there is much I find brilliant. The Dirty Hungarian Phrasebook sketch is great. To say that John Cleese made this sketch is not even worth saying at all. Of course he made this sketch! His body movements and what he is saying are counter-acting each other as he tries to speak to the tobacconist and eventually police officer with less than perfect translated English. Some great Hungarian translations include:
“Do you want to come back to my place, bouncy bouncy?”
“Drop your panties, Sir William; I cannot wait until lunchtime!”
And the all-time favourite I had forgotten about:

“My nipples explode with delight!”

This sketch actually has a reasonable transition as the policeman arrests this tourist and this same officer is now seen telling his story in court. One thing Python has always done well is doing television satire especially current affairs program. This is why the World Forum sketch is so good. A very solemn and serious Eric Idle as the program’s presenter sets the stage for what is going to be a major historical television event of epic proportion as he introduces Karl Marx, Lenin, Che Guevara, and Mao Tse-tung. Idle turns to Karl Marx, “And the first question is for you, Karl Marx. The Hammers - the Hammers is the nickname of what English football team?” Fantastic stuff!
Finally, there is Spam. One of the most famous songs the Pythons ever did. It stays in your head days after you hear it and has a great chorus of singers that bring a lot of depth to the song. Too bad it is really poorly executed in the episode. It feels very cluttered. Don’t get me wrong, it is still funny but not well realized. Not nearly as good as the re-recorded version I heard first years before on Dr. Demento. Spam is all fine and dandy but what to do if you find out the Queen is going to be watching?

Royal Episode 13 22.12.70
Another reason that this series help cement my love of the BBC years ago is this episode. The premise is that it is understood the Queen will be watching this episode at some point and everyone should be ready when she tunes in. We even have a specially made opening credits animation to mark this momentous occasion. I find this really funny because it tricks the viewers (from that time) into thinking that some of this program might be live. If you think about it, you know that is not the case but you know some people out there at the time of broadcast probably thought it was real. Of course we know it was not real because Her Majesty was probably putting the finishing touches on her Christmas speech. That and of course the episode itself was made in October even though broadcast in December. Funny enough, Spam was made in June. Royal Episode 13 was made as part of the third series production block. I talk about how the animation has never really been funny to me. One exception is this fantastic animated sequence with bold images to introduce……The Insurance Sketch. My favourite from this episode was The Undertakers Sketch. A man (Cleese) brings his mother’s remains to the Undertaker (Chapman). The Undertaker gives the man three options to "burn 'er, bury 'er, or dump 'er in the Thames". The Undertaker after looking at the body suggests eating her. The man is at first shocked, then thinking about it, agrees and says that he is a bit peckish. The Undertaker then suggests that if the man is still feeling a guilty they can dig a grave for her and the man can throw up in it.

The BBC did not like this sketch. According to the article on Wikipedia, they agreed to let Python do it as long as the studio audience booed during the sketch and rushed the set at the end of the sketch. Really? The article makes it sound like it was the BBC’s idea to have the heckling and the rushing at the end. I can see the BBC objecting to the sketch but I would think it was Chapmen and Cleese, who wrote the sketch, suggesting the audience interruptions and not the BBC.

To show how far the BBC did not like this sketch, it was excised from the master 2” tape and that is how it was seen for years. When the BBC released the second series on video in 1985, they found that the sketch existed on a NTSC copy of the episode. So the sketch was converted from NTSC back to PAL and a new PAL master was created which is what we all have now.
Speaking of PAL, anyone who knows me well knows that although I live in the US, I am a PAL snob. What that means is that all my TVs can play PAL. Even my HD set. All my DVD players output in PAL and my first choice for buying British television is buying the R2 DVDs. It goes without saying that I wanted to buy Monty Python’s Flying Circus in PAL. I have the A&E R1 sets but when the complete series came out in the UK and came down to a reasonable price, I jumped at it. Everywhere I look says the series was restored. Not quite. In fact, the discs look terrible. It really ruins my enjoyment of the series and ruined my enjoyment of watching these episodes for this article. When I was done watching them, I took the disc and first made sure it wasn’t an SVCD instead of a DVD. Seeing it was a DVD, I assumed it was a DVD-5 instead of a DVD-9. A DVD-5 has 4.7 gb of space where a DVD-9 has 8.5 gb. Well, it was a DVD-9. I took out the A&E set to see how the quality compared. It looked so much better than the Sony R2 set. On the R2 set, all of stuff shot on video looks like it has film grain to it! I know it’s not grain but compression artifacting. The A&E set video looks like video. It is really pretty decent regardless of the text on the back of the case saying, “Now in glorious digital DVD format so that you, the digital aficionado, can enjoy the original scratches, pops and hisses with crystal clarity.” Just basing it on the DVD in question between the two sets where the episodes I viewed live on, here are the differences:
I know these are not the exact same frame but if you grab these full size, you can see how much worse the Sony set looks.
A&E R1 set: Disc 8, DVD-9, 4 episodes on the disc using 6.64 gb of disc space. Below is the bit rate for the disc with an average bit rate of 6.56 mb/sec

The Sony R2 set: Disc 4, DVD-9, 6 episodes on the disc using 7.95 gb of disc space. Below is the bit rate for the disc with an average bit rate of 4.25 – 4.75 mb/sec.

So, with regret, I need to let my R2 set know that its services will no longer be required and I will be using my A&E set as the new “master” version of this series until something better comes along. But will there be something better? I’m not so sure. There certainly is room for improvement. I believe film sequences exist for some of the episodes; the episodes could be cleaned up and film retransferred. The excised NTSC clip from Royal Episode 13 could be RSC’d and added back to the original 2” master. The Unofficial Doctor Who Restoration team will be available soon to work on new projects. Why not this? I have never seen the 3 volumes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus released on DVD by the BBC in 2000. The first volume was one of the original DVDs released in the first wave by the BBC. My assumption is that it probably is not too bad quality wise and certainly a lot better than the piece of crap released by Sony! This series deserves so, so much better.

Next week: We move away from British television for a week. I am continually fascinated by the Disney Theme Parks. We focus on Disneyland as we look at an episode of Disney’s Wonderful World of Color! Disneyland After Dark. Is the episode as cool as the title suggests?
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Mr. Smoketoomuch (pronounced Dave G) said...

You are entirely correct about the ending of sketches - the Pythons have stated that they deliberately went from sketch to sketch and used the animation because having actual endings woudl be too much effort to be done well.

As for the quality of the R2 set vs the A&E R1 set - I assumed the R2 would be better, and have not even looked at the R1 for years. At least the R2 set is in order, not completely jumbled up like good ol' A&E.

By the way, if I say you have a beautiful body, would you hold it against me?

Greg said...

You will have to tell me how the R1set is jumbled. They certainly put it out on way too many discs. My philosophy is that I could generally care less about extras, I want the episodes on disc to be the best quality. Even if the episodes were out of order, I rarely watch a ton of episodes at once. I just want the best quality.
If I had it my way, the Doctor Who releases would always be at least 2 disc sets. First Disc would be just episodes (up to 6 episodes at the very most) second disc could be extras. Nothing drives me crazier than compression artefacting on a DVD. This Sony set really misses the mark. Have you not noticed how bad it looked before?

Dinsdale G. said...

Now that I look into it again, it seems my memory is playing tricks on me - I guess the episodes were ordered properly. Oh well. I never claimed to be perfect, I just paid others to say it for me.

Greg said...

I think some of the Sony episodes (and I only mean 1 or 2) are completelyuncut where the R1 may have a couple slightly cut episodes. Picture quality wise I still think it is better.