In which one of the Whingers boasts of a personal involvement in editing one of the Python’s work. But we’ll come back to that in due course.*
Steve Thompson‘s (Doctor Who, Sherlock) play No Naughty Bits has an intriguing premise: for the first US national broadcast of Monty Python’s Flying Circus in 1975 the network edited out the ruder elements for the American market. Michael Palin was coaxed into flying to New York with Terry Gilliam to persuade ABC to reinstate the cuts. When negotiations failed they ended up making their case to a Federal Court judge.
It’s a relatively starry cast. The very likeable Harry Hadden-Paton (Posh, Flare Path) manages the almost impossible task of persuading us that he is Palin (Michael, not Sarah) and Sam Alexander is a pretty convincing Gilliam too. The show also features WEW favourite Clive Rowe (The Fantasticks, oh dear) as the Pythons’ amiable American lawyer Osterberg. Phil thought Issy van Randwyck (ex-Fascinating Aida, aka Mrs director and artistic director Edward Hall) miscast as a network executive although Andrew wasn’t bothered.
But anyway, the casting wasn’t the problem. The problem was mostly the script which – especially given its subject matter – just wasn’t funny enough.
Phil was so bored he started to play lookalikes. Alexander’s Gilliam, probably because of the 70’s fashions, began to look like Robin Askwith and HH-P’s Palin a young Gyles Brandreth. Charity Wakefield‘s Nancy** reminded him of Mork and Mindy‘s Pam Dawber. But most startling was van Randwyck – when did she turn into Sandi Toksvig?
It wasn’t until Matthew Marsh turned up as the judge in the second act court scenes that the Wingers started to titter. Not only does Marsh get the best lines but his deadpan delivery all but steals the show.
The design has a suitably Gilliam cartoonish look, and there are some wonderful (or terrible, depending on your take) 70s shirts on display but topping and tailing the play with a couple of cod Python moments fell flatter than Phil’s feet. Perhaps director Edward Hall should have made more of this business during some of the clunking scene changes (this was only the second preview but you would think they were doing it for the first time). And no fewer than two park benches were trundled on. Worse still, one of them had a man dressed in a Santa outfit sitting on it which Phil will swiftly add to his list of theatrical bêtes noires.
To be fair there were highlights: the use of a trap-door (you don’t see that nearly often enough these days) and the sight of HH-P sucking on a Zoom lolly (almost certainly a theatrical first) but mostly it just made the Whingers reminisce about how good Ron Hutchinson’s Moonlight & Magnolias was and why can’t someone bring that back. And that’s not a random comparison: at one point No Naughty Bits tried to pull off the same coup de theatre so spectacularly dealt in M&M but the Hampstead’s was sadly mis-timed so that the detritus fell after the end of the blackout in full view of the audience. Yes, preview etc etc, but it just seemed emblematic of what Phil confidently branded (after a few drinks in the bar) “a damp squid”.
* When flat hunting in London Phil viewed a property scattered with Terry Gillam movie props and posters. Spotting the Brazil poster he commented that he’s seen it only the day before and how much he’d enjoyed it. The thrilled vendor turned out to be the film’s (and other Gillam movies) editor Julian Doyle. Quizzing Phil more, in a presentiment of the Whingers, Phil was forced to admit that it was a little long and that the horsemen burst through the walls a few too many times.
It transpired that the movie was soon to open in the US and the Americans had demanded cuts in the running time so they could fit in more screenings per day. The editor agreed completely about the horsey bits and phoned Gillam (who was apparently reluctant to make cuts) on the spot to pass on his comments.
For the record, despite bidding in a Dutch auction (this was 1985), Phil didn’t get the property or any compensation for his editorial prowess.
** The £3 programme is good read, especially the back story by the real Nancy (Lewis Jones) on promoting the Pythons and their US breakthrough.
According to the quite interesting QI documentary shown this weekend, Michael Palin was the original choice to chair the show before Stephen Fry was approached.