Photo by Paul Shammasian. ©Monty Python

In 2013–2014 I worked alongside Monty Python, filming and documenting their creative process and build up to the live show Monty Python Live (mostly)-One Down Five to Go at The O2 Arena. I have always admired Monty Python’s drive for independence and dedication to preserve artistic integrity, so it was with great pleasure to have worked on such a unique project.

Photo by Paul Shammasian. ©Monty Python
“Tell us who you are, and we will tell you who we were.”

The Python’s initial meeting took place on November 19th 2013. The group arranged a script read through in front of an “audience” of friends in a private central London location. Before the reading, Eric asked if everyone could introduce themselves. In fact, his exact words were, “Tell us who you are, and we will tell you who we were.”

As the read through commenced, the Python magic was immediate and captivating. The length of time apart as a group seemed irrelevant, as their chemistry was just so fresh and vibrant.

After the read through, the atmosphere in the room shifted to a more serious tone. The Pythons were after sincere, constructive critique. John Cleese was especially attentive to feedback, asking many times for elaboration. From the very start, the group were determined to refine and improve upon their material.

As Monty Python prepared for the official press launch, reports of the reunion had already started to make front page news. Yet despite all the excitement, behind closed doors there were clear moments of trepidation. It had been 34 years since they last performed on stage, so it was difficult to gauge how the world would react to the reunion. As the media engine prepared for take off, the Pythons had no intentions of getting carried away. Amongst all the anticipation and noise, the group had a remarkable ability to remain detached yet attentive to the unfolding drama.

Photo by Paul Shammasian. ©Monty Python
Through it all, they were able to unite their personal comedic style and express it through a singular voice. It’s this diverse combination that makes Monty Python so unique and unpredictable.

November 21st 2013. The Pythons arrived at The Playhouse Theatre at 11am to start rehearsing their routine for the press launch. It was fascinating to observe such an eclectic mix of comedic minds during a brainstorming session. Ideas were being persistently thrown around, some would stick, others would quickly be discarded. Through it all, they were able to unite their personal comedic style and express it through a singular voice. It’s this diverse combination that makes Monty Python so unique and unpredictable. It also became apparent at how spontaneous they were. This was especially true of Eric Idle, who displayed a knack for quickly seizing a fleeting thought, turning it into a gag before running with it. If he tripped, even funnier.

After rehearsals, they rushed through a sea of journalists and made their way to a private hotel bar across the road. A quick tea and sandwich break was followed by publicity photos, then onto the press launch, followed by more press Q&A.

It was now well into the night, so before being driven off to appear on The Graham Norton Show, The Pythons requested an hour of private down time. Given the circumstances, it was an unusually relaxed and quiet moment. John Cleese and Eric Idle had a quick nap, Terry Jones caught up on some reading while Terry Gilliam and Michael Palin sat together, quietly having a friendly chat. You would assume there would be more pretense, but the Pythons couldn’t have been more down to earth and unostentatious.

In the following weeks, reaction to the reunion was overwhelming. Monty Python managed to sell out The O2 Arena in a record 43 seconds. Ticket demand was so fierce that they kept adding extra dates, each one completely selling out. Despite this level of success, there was never any gloating from the Pythons. Yet again, they remained unfazed from all the excitement. Their primary focus was on their work.

During the early stages, Eric Idle (who took the role as director), worked tirelessly on every aspect of the show. From fine-tuning the music with John Du Prez, going over the choreography with Arlene Phillips to working alongside the set designers, Eric was involved in every process. Collaborating on this scale meant he was able to ensure that the Python vision remained intact. His fiercely protective temperament was a common trait amongst all the Pythons, and one that was maintained throughout the entire production.

Photo by Paul Shammasian. ©Monty Python
“Brian, he is the Messiah!”

As intense as the creative process was, there were also many lighthearted moments. One very special day that springs to mind occurred during a trip to Cambridge to film the Galaxy Song sketch with Stephen Hawking and Brian Cox. Eric had a CD of the Galaxy Song that was performed in the voice of Stephen Hawking’s computer. As Stephen listened to the song in his office, he glanced at the camera and smiled. Then, as Brian Cox listed all the major scientific flaws in the song, Stephen quipped “I think you are being pedantic”, an impromptu joke that Eric later included in the live show.

Earlier that same day, a man punting down the river witnessed the filming of the Galaxy Song sketch with Stephen and Brian. He passed at the exact moment a stand-in for Stephen Hawking got up from his wheel chair and stood next to Brian Cox. The punter shouted from the river “Brian, he is the Messiah!” to which Eric shouted back “No he’s not, he’s a very naughty boy.”

As the show date drew near, rehearsals became more intense. There were many strenuous moments, but almost all of them came from the pursuit of artistic improvement and refinement. During each practice run, the Pythons would constantly push and challenge each other. They would always scrutinize their own work, eager to find a better way of delivering a simple gesture, line or even a word. Their ability to critique themselves for the improvement of their art didn’t stop at rehearsals, but carried on after every live performance.

Photo by Paul Shammasian. ©Monty Python
Photo by Paul Shammasian. ©Monty Python
Photo by Paul Shammasian. ©Monty Python

July 20th 2014, after a hugely successful run, the curtain closed for the final time on Monty Python’s live show. It was a heartwarming farewell to the most influential comedy troupe of all time. However, it may have been their last performance as a group, but there is no doubt we will be seeing more from Eric, John, Michael, Terry G and Terry J.

As I reflect back over my time with the Pythons, the experience has only strengthened my respect and admiration for them not just as a group but as individual artists in their own right.

For me, their greatest influence is best summed up by a quote from Chinua Achebe;

“One of the truest tests of integrity is its blunt refusal to be compromised.”

This was definitely true of Monty Python, who remained resolute and unshakable till the end.