'Sadistic and disgusting'

What the BBC thought of Monty Python

BBC bosses were secretly appalled when Monty Python's Flying Circus first aired, finding it ‘sadistic’ and ‘disgusting’.

Newly published documents reveal that top executives believed that the six stars had developed a ‘death wish’ and did not accept limits of taste and decency.

The papers also reveal that John Cleese considered quitting after just one series and that Terry Gilliam was almost dropped in a dispute over pay.

They also show that the first series was censored, including cutting a sketch which included Sir David Frost's home address and telephone number.

Minutes of a programme review board held on December 23, 1970, and detailed in the Sunday Telegraph this weekend, show that BBC bosses were appalled by the final programme in the second series, which had aired the night before.

The controller of BBC One particularly disliked a sketch called The Queen Will Be Watching, which lampooned the National Anthem, and a sketch in which Graham Chapman, playing an undertaker, offered to dump and eat the body of John Cleese's dead mother.

‘This edition had contained two really awful sketches – the death sequence had been in appalling bad taste, while the treatment of the National Anthem had simply not been amusing,’ he said.

One executive was critical of the ‘nihilistic and cruel’ outlook, while another thought the team liked to ‘wallow in the sadism of their humour’.

Michael Palin makes no reference to the controversy in his diaries – but said the BBC tended to leave them alone until they became popular.

The corporation had previously struggled to keep the team together. A letter to Cleese from head of comedy Michael Mills November 27, 1969, read: "Barry Took told me before he left that you had reservations about doing another 13 shows quite as soon as this. I do hope that you will be able to take part – both as a writer and performer – because the show will lose a great deal if you are not one of the team.’

Cleese actually quit Monty Python after the third series and the show ended after series four in 1974.

Published: 11 Dec 2006

Live comedy picks

We see you are using AdBlocker software. Chortle relies on advertisers to fund this website so it’s free for you, so we would ask that you disable it for this site. Our ads are non-intrusive and relevant. Help keep Chortle viable.