Monty Python’s Forgotten Member
‘Monty Pythons flying Circus’ (BBC 1969 -1974) was a surreal TV programme which changed the face of comedy not only in Britain but the world. Its popularity stretched across Europe and The United States. Many of it famous sketches, which often mocked the establishment, are still re-run on television today alongside DVD’s, Albums, several books plus screen documentaries discussing the programmes influence with its six famous members John Cleese, Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Eric Idle, Graham Chapman (1941 – 1989) all Cambridge & Oxford graduates, with Terry Gilliam providing the clever, entertaining and innovative animation in the series which was often used to break up the sketches.
Once the TV series was finished Python entered the world of film gaining the same applause for a series of well crafted, funny, if at times controversial movies ‘Holy Grail’ (1975), ‘Life of Brian’ (1979), ‘The Meaning of Life’ (1983). The team also reshot some of the best sketches for the film ‘And Now for Something Completely Different’ (1971)
Nearly all comedy dates and often represents the time it was created in yet much of Pythons work still stands up as credible with only a few items one would raise their eyebrows to when judged by modern day standards.
Actress Carol Cleveland was hired to feature in just a few sketches but soon became the comedy troupes most significant female performer and with her sexy looks a favourite with men. Carol recalled her life and career to members of The Boundary club. Cleveland recalled her first day on ‘Python’ saying she was very nervous at first as she had seen the guys in other TV comedies and found them ‘very witty’. She was taken by John (Cleese) but later came to really like and admire Michael Palin as he was so down to earth. When she first got the scripts to the first series she read them but found them ‘odd with no endings’. She couldn’t see the humour. Yet on the day of rehearsals the ‘guys were falling about laughing’. She actually rang he mum to say ‘I don’t think this is going to last more than a few episodes’. ‘How wrong I was’ she confesses.
Carol was part of the ‘Python’ team who toured the UK & America (1976 & 1980 Hollywood Bowl) with their live show, playing to packed houses often shouting the words of a popular sketch back at the group on stage. The weakness of Python was their writing of female roles. Once, Michael Palin came up to Cleveland during rehearsals and said, “Carol, I’m sorry we don’t have more for you to do, but we’re just not very good at writing parts for women.” Which they weren’t.
Carol was born in London, but California raised, she trained at RADA with people like Ian McShane (her first love) John Hurt and Lynda La Plant (who came better known as a TV writer). She is often referred to as the seventh member of ‘Python’ a title she fights over with Neil Innes who contributed music to their albums ‘Monty Python’s Previous Record’ (1972) and ‘The Monty Python Matching Tie and Handkerchief’ (1973), he played a major role in performing and writing songs and sketches for their final TV series in 1974. The two are friends and joke over the title.
‘Python’ was a double edged sword for Carol’s career, she feels it may have stereotyped her as some ‘glamourpuss’ actress. Although she went on to act in several high profile shows at the time including ‘The Saint’ ‘The Persuaders’ and ‘The Avengers’. Having worked with Roger Moore a few times she confirmed ‘he was a joker’. He once dropped his trousers to her while she was filming a take on ‘The Saint’ – the crew roared with laughter. She also worked on one of the ‘Pink Panther’ films in the seventies with the highly talented but volatile Peter Sellers. They were filming out in Gastaad in Switzerland she recalled, some of the cast decided to go out to dinner but were uncertain whether to invite Peter. One carefully went up to him and asked him if he wanted to join them. ‘Of course,’ said an enthusiastic Sellers who regaled the group with hilarious stories all night. When the bill came Peter insisted on getting it. The next evening, they went off again. Seeing Peter sitting alone at a table in the hotel, they went over, well known actor Victor Spinetti asked him to come, saying ‘Its own turn to treat you’. They were met with a sharp-tongued Sellers who screamed ‘No .. I don’t want to .. Just go away and leave me alone’. This was typical behaviour from a very unpredictable but highly talented Peter Sellers.
In 2013, Carol received a call from Eric Idle, saying the team were getting back together again for a live show at the O2 in summer 2014. She was delighted and excited. The tickets sold out in 43.5 seconds online, four more shows were added, with even greater demand. Finally, the team decided on ten sell out nights. The show was a mixture of past sketches with twists, containing ensemble of 20 singer-dancers entitled ‘Monty Python Live (Mostly)’ later shown at cinemas and released as a DVD. Carol realised this was the last time the team (now well into their seventies) would perform together ‘so make the most of it’. She was pleased to be cast in some of the rejigged roles Graham Chapman (who sadly died in 1989) originally performed in, such as ‘The Spanish Inquisition’ & ‘Spam’ sketch. Cleveland enjoyed the run ‘very much’ but found John (Cleese) even more moody, but Michael a continued delight.
In 2014 Carol brought out her autobiography ‘Pom Poms up’ which recalls more stories from her life & career.
Monty Python – The Marriage Guidance sketch
Monty Python – Disturbing sketch
Matthew Willetts MA is the Director of Comicus who has over 35 years experience in television, film, theatre, and comedy club/cabaret entertainment, working as a performer, screenwriter, producer and agent. He lectured at Southampton Solent University in Comedy, Screenwriting, Television, Theatre & Radio. Matthew can sometimes be seen and heard on TV & Radio and often quoted in the national press and media publications. As well as speaking regularly at festivals and industry conferences, he has been a judge at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and the Montreux Television Festival.