On October 5 1969 a new kind of comedy hit the British TV screens with the showing of the very first episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
As the show celebrates its 50th anniversary this month, it can safely be said that it was one of the great landmark series in television history.
All these decades later, Python sayings and sketches are firmly part of our collective consciousness, whether we are talking silly walks or parrots, Messiahs or lumberjacks.
Carol Cleveland, who lives in Shoreham, was a key part of its success, appearing in around two-thirds of the shows which totalled 45 episodes airing over four series from 1969 to 1974.
“At the time, I was doing quite a lot for the BBC, doing a lot of the comedies, working with just about every comedian, Roy Hudd, Ronnie Barker, Ronnie Corbett, Spike Milligan, all of them, doing their sketch shows. I felt I was the glamour stooge. I was the glamour feature, and I think the word got around that I was not just a pretty lady: I could be quite funny as well.
“Then one day I was called to see one of the BBC producers who told me that they were just about to do a brand-new comedy sketch show. There would be 13 episodes. They had written six and they were looking for a female to be in four of them and they would like me to be in it. I said it sounded good. I already knew at least three of them. I knew who John Cleese was, and I had seen Terry Jones and I had met Michael Palin. I had probably seen Eric Idle… and in fact it was only later than John reminded me we had actually met. Before I was married, I used to go to a health club in Kensington High Street, and John told me we had met there. He reminded me that there was a competition to find Miss West Side Health Club and John had been one of the judges and I had won!”
And so work began on the series: “But I must admit I didn’t think it was going to last at all. When they sent me the script for the first time, it didn’t include any of Terry Gilliam’s animations, and I don’t think I had been told about the animations, and so I had a script that had sketches that just seemed to tail off with no punchline. I read it and I read it again and I didn’t get it. I just thought ‘What a strange script’. It was not until we came to the rehearsals that I discovered that the animations were going to link it together. Terry Gilliam was not there on the first day, and the guys were going through the sketches and I was just thinking ‘What is going to be the ending?’ I remember coming home and saying to my fiancé that I didn’t think it would last more than four episodes!”
But with animations in place, the series was soon making waves. The Pythons insisted Carol stayed and stayed – and Carol is delighted to be helping mark the anniversary: “I don’t think there has ever been anything like it. Not The Nine O’Clock News was similar in some ways, but there has never been anything really like Monty Python. I think it was just so ahead of its time. They got away with an awful lot of stuff that they really should not have got away with! The BBC executives gave them totally a free hand to do whatever they wanted within the laws of common decency, but I think even they were taken aback. They were very intelligent, very clever and really very funny. They worked together so well. John and Graham (Chapman) were at university together, and Terry Jones and Michael were at university together. They already had the writing connections. I don’t know that I ever became very close to them, but I enjoyed working with them. It took me a while to get used to Graham. His overt homosexuality meant that he could be quite outrageous, and his drinking did cause some problems. He was the last one that I felt really, really at ease with, but when I got to know him better, then I discovered that he was a lovely, lovely man.”