I had queued for hours with hundreds of others until, finally, I stood before a real live Python. He smiled up at me and my now wife and asked: “Hrqu aidgl a blaggg poldai oa alg paegys?”
“Excuse me?” is what I meant to say. Instead, I gawped silently like a grazing goldfish. My brain had decided to shut down just as I was about to engage in conversation with one of my heroes.
I blame Brian Cohen.
That “naughty boy” is the one who introduced me to all things Pythonesque – the silliness; the walks; the smashing of fourth walls; the streams of consciousness; the genius wordplay; the endless list of animals. Lots of animals. And Mounties. And animals.
Poor Brian had an awful time of it. He began life missing out on epic baby shower gifts, lived under the thumb of his butch mum, and was constantly mistaken for some other guy with a beard. At least Brian died happy soon after enjoying a singsong. But the time he did, I was enthralled by the groundbreaking humour and naughtiness from the minds of John, Michael, Eric, Terry, Terry, and Graham.
Growing up in Ireland in the early ’80s was great fun, except for one thing – Life of Brian was banned here. This ensured that every Irish citizen found a way of watching the film. Young people made it their business to seek out dodgy VHS copies and see what all the fuss was about. We may not have understood all of the controversial jokes, but we definitely got the madness. Favourite parts for us were the Stoning; the Graffiti; the bits with nudity; any parts with cursing; the Aliens; and, of course, Pilate’s “vewy gweat fwend in Wome”…
I was instantly hooked. I wanted more. We dressed up as middle-aged pharmacists and laid siege to the local video store. After minutes of bloodless combat we ran victorious through the streets, holding aloft the mighty Holy Grail. The grainy copy with a wonky soundtrack failed to prevent us from devouring its every word and silly face. Later, we recreated scenes – pretending to have coconut shells to pretend we had horses – and developed slight speech impediments from too much Frenchiness. We pointed at things – any thing – and said “One day lad, all this will be yours”. I dreamed of cows and holy hand grenades and maidens and tenacious (though crap) knights and peasants turned into newts but getting better and collectors of dead bodies and a scene that I can still recall word for word to this day, which starts with a king mistaking a young man for an old woman and descends into an angry rant on imperialism and the political woes of society…
We roamed through HMV and Golden Discs, snaffling up cassette tapes (remember them!) of Monty Python Sings and film soundtracks. Waterstones’ shelving was molested for any books featuring the Pythons. But, of course, it was the Flying Circus re-runs that sated our appetites. From its rich vein of comedy gold we mined such joy as the Ministry of Silly Walks; the Spanish Inquisition (though nobody expected it); Gilliam’s collages of classic nude art; random explosions; penguins; footballing philosophers; lots of nudging and winking; a stiff-upper colonel; marauding grannies; and – the sketch of all sketches – a deceased colourful bird. However, the travails of a man returning an expired Norwegian Blue is not my favourite sketch. The one that makes me laugh time and time again follows the same template – customer v proprietor, with customer getting more and more frustrated by proprietor’s behaviour. To get the true genius of the Pythons’ way with words, witness Palin’s ability to wring a laugh out of a pause (especially after “Double Gloucester?”).
Which brings me careering into Eason’s bookstore on O’Connell Street, Dublin. In 1999… about lunchtime.
Michael Palin cleared his throat and repeated his question to us: “Did you think I did well on the Late Late?” (My wife had just told him that she saw him on the talk show the previous night.)
My mouth opened and closed. Nothing. I could not speak. What was wrong with me?! There was THE MICHAEL PALIN sitting, signing books and I couldn’t speak a single coherent syllable to the man.
People in the queue behind us shuffled impatiently. Palin’s PR lady-person moved closer, perhaps sensing trouble. I noticed that I was holding something and looked down. In my sweaty fist I gripped the cassette and tape of The Ultimate Monty Python Rip Off. Silently, I held it out to the great man. He chuckled to himself as he scanned the inlay card and scribbled his signature with a flourish.
Outside, I mumbled to my now wife; half-apology, half-gibberish. To take my mind off my epic impersonation of a clam, she asked what Palin had written on the card. I took it out and read it…
“Best Fishes, Michael Palin.”
To close the circle, I made sure we got two tickets to the Python reunion at the O2 in London this weekend. There was no way in the universe that I was going to miss that. I envisage it shall be a feast of silliness, mirth, madness, animals, and lots and lots of spam.
After all, it’ll be the final chance to see (almost) the full Monty.