By Dan Wooding, Founder of ASSIST and the ASSIST News Service
EALING, LONDON, UK (ANS – April 9, 2015) – This week marks an important time for the millions of Monty Python fans around the world, for it was 40 years ago today (April 9),when their “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” movie, a spoof of the Arthurian legend, was launched on an unsuspecting world.
It soon became a comedy classic, and CNN reports that on the day of its first American screening in New York, a thousand people were in line by 8 a.m. This was thanks to the popularity of their TV shows aired on American TV, and the movie became a box-office hit, making $5 million – more than 10 times its budget.
So, how was it that I came to write the very first story about this rather “silly” group of Englishmen, and one token American, Terry Gilliam? Well, I’m glad you asked.
It came about, believe it not, after working for the Billy Graham-owned British newspaper, The Christian, and one fateful day, we were all summoned to a meeting and told we were being “let go,” and the paper was promptly shut down. It came a terrible shock for all of the staff.
A year earlier, I had moved to London from Birmingham, England, with my family of Norma, and our two sons, Andrew and Peter, and had enjoyed every minute of my time with the paper, which was at the time, the world’s oldest evangelical newspaper. I had even interviewed Coretta Scott King at St. Paul’s Cathedral at the memorial service for her late husband, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Because of my rather poor academic background, I didn’t think I would be able to get another newspaper job, but then I discovered that Bert Munday,the editor of the local weekly, the Middlesex County Times in Ealing, London, had an opening, and its editor, Bert Munday, turned out to be a big fan of The Christian. In fact, both papers were printed around the same time each week, and he would pick up a copy to read it. So when he heard that I worked for that paper, he immediately offered me a job.
After a few weeks, Mr. Munday, called me into his office and told me that he was appointing me as the South Ealing reporter for the County Times.
“We haven’t had even one story from South Ealing for six months now, and so I want you to start digging around for stories from there for us,” Munday said.
It didn’t take long for me to discover that the reason that they hadn’t had any stories was the fact that the previous reporter used to go fishing instead of “fishing” for stories in this small part of the newspaper’s circulation area.
I began to wrack my brains as to where to start, and then it suddenly came to me that probably the most famous place in South Ealing was the Ealing Film Studios, the oldest working film studio in the world. It had defined the British Film Industry, with the first screen version of Hamlet in 1912, and also through the 1940’s and 1950’s classics, The Lady Killers, The Lavender Hill Mob, Passport To Pimlico, and Kind Hearts and Coronets.
These films starred people like Alec Guinness, Stanley Holloway and Margaret Rutherford. In fact, Ealing Studios has produced five of the top 20 highest grossing British independent films in the UK including the St. Trinian’s franchise. (Even today, it is being used and many of the indoor scenes for “Downton Abbey” are filmed there.)
So it was natural that I would make the Ealing Film Studios my first call.
The BBC had recently taken over the sound stages and when I arrived at the front office and explained that I was “looking for stories”, the receptionist called the BBC press officer and she told me that a “crazy” group called Monty Python’s Flying Circus, where about to start shooting a new series for the BBC and added, “How would you like to write the first story about them?”
Of course, I would, even though I had never heard of them before. So, after gathering the relevant material, I headed back to the office, and wrote up what turned out to be the very first story about them. Soon, I was being invited to join them as they filmed their strange antics in the streets of Ealing and I later was invited to many of their film launches.
Some years after this, I joined the Sunday People, a large-circulation British tabloid, and in 1977, was invited to a screening and party for the launch a new movie called “Jabberwocky” a fantasy film co-written and directed by Terry Gilliam, and starring Python regular, Michael Palin, as a young cooper who is forced through
clumsy, often slapstick misfortunes to hunt a terribledragon after the death of his father. The name is taken from the nonsense poem “Jabberwocky“ in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass (1871).
After watching the film, I joined some of the team backstage and as the booze flowed freely, I began asking them what their next film was to be and one of them said, “It’s called ‘Life of Brian,’ and we are sending up Jesus.” On further investigation, I found out that it was to be the story of an unsuspecting guy born down the road from Jesus who finds himself hailed as a messiah and ends up crucified.
In fact, it was a satire on organized religion, first century politics, and zealotry and, not surprisingly, after it came out, was picketed in cities across the United States, and was banned in Ireland and Norway.
So armed with my quotes, I wrote up a story for my paper with the large headline, “Monty Python Sends up Jesus.” After it came out, the financier of the film, who was Jewish, decided to pull all the money out of it and so they were faced with trying to find someone else to fund it.
And that’s where George Harrison comes into the story. He mortgaged his estate to help fund the movie, and Eric Idle, one of the Python team recalled later, “He paid for it because he wanted to see it,” adding, “The most anybody’s ever paid for a cinema ticket in history.”
Harrison, through his HandMade Films, went on to fund other movies that featured some of the Python team, but probably never knew the back story of how he came to be approached to dig deep to pay for it.
Years later, my eldest son, Andrew Wooding, who was over on a visit from the UK, found out that Michael Palin, would be signing books in Pasadena, California, and went along, armed with a video camera, and told Palin, “My Dad helped to launch your career” and asked him if he would mind recording a message for, which he promptly did.
When he arrived back at our home, he told me to sit down to watch the video. Suddenly, Palin came on the screen and said, “Dan, on behalf of the whole Monty Python team, I would like to thank you for helping to launch our careers. None of us could have imagined what was going to happen in the years to follow, so again, a big thank you.”
More recently, I was on a local radio station speaking with the rather amazing John Cleese and we talked about those early days at the Ealing Film Studios.
I am not sure what many of you think about Month Python’s Flying Circus, who always started their program with: “And now for something completely different.” In Britain at the time, the country was split about the members of the Python troupe as each week presented sketches from the absurd to the obscure, and milked humor out of anything they come across. Just mention the “Dead Parrot” sketch, the “Ministry of Silly Walks” or “Spam,” and here in America, you’ll get a chorus of Python fans chiming in with the best lines.
I have met several pastors who were secret fans of the group and would sneak into their local movie theatre to watch “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” One told me, “It’s the funniest movie I’ve ever seen.”
I guess their title, “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” says it all. They were really a circus troupe that you either loved or hated. But one thing is for sure, they made an awful lot of people smile, something we don’t see much of today.
Photo captions: 1) Dan Wooding outside of Ealing Film Studios (Photo: Peter Wooding). 2) The Monty Python team performing in an Ealing street. 3) Michael Palin and John Cleese in the famous “Dead Parrot” sketch. 4) George Harrison with some of the Monty Python team.
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