Monty Python followed in the tradition of The Goons (Peter Sellers) and Beyond the Fringe (Peter Cook, Dudley Moore) by pushing social satire further and helping to lead a wave of surrealism in 1960s. An overview of the comedy scene in 60s UK continues below. Related Spy Vibe posts: Satire Boom, The Prisoner Fallout, Wonderwall Blu-ray, Surreal/Satire Boom, Peter Sellers 3, Peter Sellers Beatles Blooper.
Satire Boom: With the rise of youth culture and a questioning of traditional class roles, social satire became the new frontier in late 1950s/early 1960s British humor. Following in the footsteps of Peter Sellers and The Goons, who offered a wild send-up of British characters and institutions, young comedians like Peter Cook and Dudley Moore of Beyond the Fringe and the future members of Monty Python became the acerbic voice of the generation. Some of the popular targets included class, the generation gap, authority, official media, media styles/conventions, education, family, and the job market. Comedy fans may recall Beyond the Fringe skits like The Great Train Robbery, Sitting on the Bench, and my fave below, One Leg Too Few. Film fans may remember John Schlesinger's Billy Liar (Tom Courtenay/1963) for its blend of satire and fantasy. John Lennon played a key role in this satirical climate, with his James Thurber-like published books of cartoons and poetry, In His Own Write (1964) and A Spaniard in the Works (1965).
Surrealism Boom: Surrealism experienced a rather major renaissance in the early-mid 1960s. Long before the mind-altering psychedelia that we associate with the 1960s was introduced, influential artists like John Lennon were already thinking outside the box. Inspired by the surrealism of Lewis Carroll, Lennon and others challenged the status quo with a playful and eschewed view. One figure who loomed large in this movement was an American ex-pat in London named Richard Lester, who had worked with the Goons on television projects. At the dawn of the sixties, he collaborated with Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan on a short film called the Running Jumping & Standing Still Film (1960). John Lennon, a fan of The Goons, loved the movie and kept Lester in mind when it came time for The Beatles to make a motion picture. Seeing a clip from Running Jumping below, I'm sure Spy Vibers will recognize a gag which echoed through Monty Python skits years later. Fish-Slapping dance anyone?
Richard Lester was picked to direct The Beatles in A Hard Day's Night (1964), also groundbreaking for its surreal segments, and he continued to helm the films, Help! (The Beatles/1965) and How I Won the War (Tom Courtenay/John Lennon/1967). Lester also teamed with James Bond composer, John Barry, in two major pieces for the 1960s, The Knack... and How to Get it (Rita Tushingham/1965) and Petulia (Julie Christie/1968). Fans of The Monkees might recognize a scene inspired by The Knack, where the characters wheel a bed through traffic.
Lewis Carroll: The surreal and whimsical work of Lewis Carroll (1832-1898) resonated throughout the Arts in early-mid sixties England. John Lennon often listed the author as an influence on his own imagery (see I am the Walrus below). A notable celebration of Lewis Carroll came in 1966 with the BBC's production of The Wednesday Play. With a soundtrack by Ravi Shankar, this surreal Alice film starred a who's-who of British talent, including Peter Sellers, Wilfrid Brambell, Leo McKern, Sir Michael Redgrave, Eric Idle (Monty Python), Sir John Gielgud, and all four members of Beyond the Fringe: Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Alan Bennett, and writer/director, Jonathan Miller. Spy Vibers will recognize a number of actors in the film for their appearances in the satirical/surreal spy shows, The Avengers and The Prisoner.
The 4th Wall: An element that is pointed out when discussing the performance style of 60s surreal spy show The Corridor People is the breaking of the fourth wall, or when actors speak directly to the audience. This was not a new technique. Eugene O'Neill is one playwright who employed it in his play, Strange Interlude. This was parodied in the 1930s by the Marx Brothers, where Groucho actually speaks of "corridors." The convention was also seen in the wartime and post-war comedies of Bob Hope and Warner Brothers animation studio. The sudden, snappy interplay between character and viewer was hip again in the 1960s and seen often in British films. This convention of storytelling had an element of participation that I believe created a deeper level of engagement with the largely young audience. Where we watched Truffaut's Julie Christie interact on-screen with a TV soap opera in Fahrenheit 451 (1966), films like Alfie (1966), How I Won the War (1967), and The Knack...and How to Get it (1965) actually put the movie-going viewer right into the action.
Python: Emerging from the comedy scene in university and honing their craft on shows like At Last the 1948 Show and Do Not Adjust Your Set, the Python troupe pushed the elements of social satire and surrealism further for a new generation. Like Beyond the Fringe before them, they had a knack for turning class roles and media conventions on their head. Their records did a good job capturing many of their popular skits and scenes from their feature films. The group always had an amusing meta and cynical perspective on their recordings-as-product, which was illustrated in their tendency to use titles like Monty Python’s Contractual Obligation Album, Total Rubbish, The Final Rip Off, and even show titles, like Eric Idle's Greedy Bastard Tour. Some favorite Python highlights below: Bookshop, Four Yorkshiremen (original w Marty Feldman), Argument Clinic, and Northern Playwright.
Additional Viewing: Essential faves from the satire/surrealism boom also include The Wrong Box (Michael Caine/Peter Cook/Dudley Moore/1966) Monty Python's Flying Circus (1969-1974), Not Only But Also (Peter Cook/Dudley Moore/1965-1970), Bedazzled (Peter Cook/Dudley Moore/1967), The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer (Peter Cook/1970), and below: The Bed Sitting Room (Richard Lester/Peter Cook/Rita Tushingham/1969) and Magical Mystery Tour (The Beatles/1967).
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