A&E // 2008 // 110 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Erich Asperschlager // October 28th, 2009
To celebrate -- and capitalize on -- the 40th anniversary of the ground-breaking comedy series Monty Python's Flying Circus, a trio of Python DVD sets are hitting store shelves. In addition to the new six-hour documentary Monty Python: Almost the Truth and a "Best-Of" collection, there's Monty Python: The Other British Invasion, a double-disc set collecting two previously unreleased documentaries -- unreleased, that is, except as part of the pricey "Collector's Edition Megaset" that came out last year to celebrate the show's 39th anniversary.
Since Monty Python was first made available on DVD, six episodes at a time, the show has seen numerous complete series releases. In 2000, a "Megaset" collected all the one-off DVDs in one box; in 2005, a "16-Ton" edition added two discs of live performances; and in 2008, the "Collector's Edition" bulked up the set with two brand-new documentaries, "Before the Flying Circus" and "Monty Python Conquers America." Now, A&E Home Video is making those documentaries available as a standalone release, allowing Python fans who bought either of the first two megasets to complete their collection on the cheap.
First off, there's not much reason for a casual Python fan to buy this set. It features almost no Monty Python sketches, and focuses on two relatively obscure periods of the group's history. Those looking for an entry-level Python documentary should probably invest in the series-spanning Almost the Truth instead. Of course, superfans will buy both. And they should. The documentaries that make up The Other British Invasion may be deep cuts, but the stories they tell are fascinating.
"Before the Flying Circus" and "Monty Python Conquers America" are both origin stories -- the former, quite literally. Starting from the six Python members' school days, "Before the Flying Circus" traces the winding paths John Cleese, Eric Idle, Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Graham Chapman, and Terry Gilliam took from class clowns and university thespians to television comedy writers and performers. The documentary mixes current interviews with the surviving Pythons with old photographs, and footage from their early television work on programs like The Frost Report and Do Not Adjust Your Set. Presented in black and white (as its subtitle suggests), this look back at the Pythons and their influences shows that not only were these six comedians part of a larger movement in British culture and comedy, once they became part of that movement it would never be the same again.
Some may argue that "Monty Python Conquers America" tells a less important story than "Before the Flying Circus," but those people probably don't live in the United States. By the time the series took off on this side of the pond, it had been off British television for a year. Infiltrating the U.S. market was difficult, and might very well not have happened without the tireless efforts of a handful of American fans who wouldn't take no for an answer. It's the story of a subculture, led by a loose network of publicly owned television stations, who proved that Americans are smart enough to appreciate British comedy. In the end, it's the story of how millions of comedy geeks (this reviewer included) ended up spending their dateless teen years shouting about dead parrots and knights who say "Ni!" In addition to interviews with the Pythons themselves, "Monty Python Conquers America" features the recollections of American comedians and actors, including Hank Azaria, David Hyde Pierce, Jimmy Fallon, Judd Apatow, and Luke Wilson (whose father was instrumental in bringing the series to Texas public television).
That this set is essentially a stand-alone release of DVD extras from another box set doesn't keep it from having its own bonus features. In "Animated Gilliam," the troupe's lone Yank looks back at the animated intros he created for each of the show's four seasons. The combination of a pause button and Terry Gilliam's fertile imagination means his commentary lasts way longer than the intros themselves. It's like a frame-by-frame dissertation on exploding heads, Renaissance portraiture, and naked women. Like the set itself, this is fascinating viewing for the hardcore fan. I just wish "Animated" ended with real-time playthroughs of all four opening sequences, not just the first. The second extra is a long-lost, controversial opening sketch called "A Political Party Broadcast on behalf of the Conservative and Unionist Party," which was pulled by the BCC when the episode it opened was re-aired. The copy included here (the only one in existence) comes from a PBS station out of Buffalo. Except for this bonus sketch, everything on these discs is presented in widescreen format.
While they may not be essential viewing for casual fans, the two documentaries that make up Monty Python: The Other British Invasion are highly polished, insightful, and great fun to watch. The only diehard Python fans I wouldn't recommend this to are those who already own them as part of the "Collector's Edition Megaset."
Not guilty. Know what I mean? Know what I mean?
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 110 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Animated Gilliam
* Deleted Sketch