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Monty Python - The Holy Grail of innovation

As well as being awesome, there is a lot to learn from studying the development of Monty Python's Flying circus (it also gives you a great excuse to watch the movies again).   

Looking back at it now, it would seem that the success of the group was inevitable, but reading Michael Palin's diaries, will show you just how uncertain, and how organic its development.  How to write and produce with a team of 5 young male Oxbridge graduates and an American animator, all of whom had different motivations, values and beliefs.  At times this differences made them pull together and at other times fight with each other for control or for the expression of the 'right' vision.

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Perhaps it was the fact that they were driven people, with different motivations that caused them to move forward.  Certainly, one thing did unify them - their open mindedness when it came to innovation.  This seems to be a crucial aspect of their development and perhaps, this was most tested when they made movies - the 'Holy Grail' being the best example of just how tough they had it in the early phases and how hard they pushed to be innovative.

The Quest for the Holy Grail

Getting increasingly fed-up with making a tv series (without John Cleese since season 2), the python team looked for a new challenge for all six of them - Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Graham Chapman with John Cleese returning to the team.  They decided to make a film, and with a bit of research and chatting together they went with one based on the British Legends of King Arthur.

They'd previously made a sketch-based film 'And now for something completely different' that had aired in the US, but were keen to make a 'proper' film.  They did this by forming their ideas, researching their material and drawing on their strengths both in writing and production.  They drew on the influences of cinema at the time to both capture the reality and the grimness of the middle ages (reference the mud eaters scene!) which provided the counter-point to their extreme, generally anarchic humour.  But, what's seen as a work of genius today and one of the most referenced comedies of all time, faced many challenges in its production.  When you look at these challenges you can see how some of the constraints they presented, actually made the film more innovative (well, I think so anyway).

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Money was a massive issue throughout the project and impacted a lot on the final story (especially as Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam spent most of their money on smoke machines).  But the limited resources did drive them, forced them even to be innovative.  Consider the coconuts.

The fact that knights don't have horses and instead have their squires make horse noises with coconuts was driven by the fact this this both a)funny, but b) they couldn't afford real horses.

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Challenge 2 - Reputation

A lot of what Python did is still seen as controversial today, so back in the 1970's this was even more keenly felt.  This meant a lot of established institutions didn't want to work with the team in the development of the film.  This perhaps isn't surprising, but it did provide another constraint.  Two weeks before production and after Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones had scouted venues in Scotland, the National Trust banned filming in their historical sites because, according to Terry Gilliam, 'we wouldn't respect the diginity and the fabric of the buildings', which, as he pointed out, were buildings where people historically were tortued, disembowled, hanged, burned as witches etc.

This lead to everything being filmed at one main castle; Castle Stalker, which was privately owned.  And it set up another joke; before the 'Spamalot' song, Patsy says that 'Camelot' was only a model.  Which is true - it was a 12-foot high cardboard cutout.   (We can debate whether the decision to ban the team filming in National Trust properties led the development of 'Spamalot'!)

Challenge 3 - Organisation

This was the first story-based film the team had made together.  As a result they needed to mesh together their smaller scenes and sketches into an overall narrative.  This was difficult, they were all young men and very successful, each with their own creative opinions.  This led to 'Terry's' being the joint directors (a challenge because Terry G focused on visuals and Terry J focused on jokes).  There were also tensions over the lead actors, John Cleese felt he should be Arthur, whilst the rest of the team felt it should be Graham Chapman because he was a better 'straight' actor.  This lead to a recurring tension as Chapman was struggling with alcoholism during much of the filming, further driving friction through the already hectic shooting schedule.  Did these tensions over roles made everyone work harder in everything they did, and so spur on better performances and funnier jokes?

The challenge with organization was also seen in how the final film was cut.  There was such a limited budget they couldn't afford to commission quality music to accompany the film.  This meant initially they used a very rough and ready, small-scale musical production and this combined with the running order of the early cuts left those who watched the film with a sense of 'profound depression' which is about as fair off the mark as a comedy can get.

Using challenges for innovation

Thankfully, through lots of hard work and faith, more editing (with lots of audience testing), the right sequencing and the use of library music, led to a film that not only 'worked' as a comedy, but also went on to break box office records in the UK and US.

In its final form, the film is really very funny.  It is something of an oddity but for me that's part of the appeal.  I've not seen a film starting with a focus on 'medieval realism' ending with contemporary police arresting King Arthur.  To some this could be a bit of a challenge, narrative rules are subverted considerably, but, given that's what Python was about, it works.

What's more interesting is that by experiencing all these challenges, by having conflicts and resolutions amongst themselves just to get the final project delivered, the team ended up closer and the film funnier.  The lessons they learned in developing Holy Grail paved they way for them to make 'Life of Brian', which is probably their best film and perhaps one of the best comedies of all time, maybe down to the strength of the ending.

Personally in all I strive to do, I take a lot of solice in how the python teams abilities developed.  I feel there is a lot of debate about how best to innovate these days, but because some of the processes that drive it can both be uncomfortable and risky few people actually 'do it'.  So, here's to the crazy few that try. 

Personally in all I strive to do, I take a lot of solice in how the Python's abilities developed as they faced their own challenges.  I feel there is a lot of debate about how best to innovate these days, but because some of the processes that drive it can both be uncomfortable and risky few people actually 'do it'.  So, here's to the crazy few that try. 

And remember, without the Holy Grail these words would never have been said.

'He's not the messiah, he's a very naughty boy!"