What can Monty Python teach you about writing?
by John Magnet Bell
Monty Python’s Flying Circus was an educational TV program which ran on BBC TV from 1969 to 1974. Forty-five episodes were broadcast in Britain, and two additional ones in Germany, where spectators needed a supplementary dose of education.
The Flying Circus was the brainchild of a select group of Oxbridge-educated psychologists, podiatrists (or is that pediatricians? I always forget which is which), barristers and architects. It may surprise you to know that the concept for the program was originally suggested by Eric Idle’s great-grandfather, an indirect descendant of William Shakespeare and the first man in Britain to report an encounter with a bar of soap.
This would surprise you because it is mostly not true.
In fact Monty Python owe their existence to the patronage of a Dutch-Slovenian aristocrat, Baron Von Took, who brought the troupe into the main BBC building one day thinking they would make good pets.
Things got out of hand when a shortsighted production assistant mistook the six shaven apes for human beings and put them in front of a camera. Terror & hilarity ensued as the Pythons ran amuck all over the BBC, stealing people’s lunches, putting on dresses and pretending to be actors. It’s recently come to light that at least four and a half of them were old lady pensioners from Crawley.
The head of the BBC came up with a revolutionary notion: “Let’s tell people that this debacle wasintentional. We’re, uh, experimenting — Yes! Now there’s a word that captures the zeitgeist — Hodgkins, are you getting all of this? Good. — So, we’re experimenting with a new format, something no-one’s ever tried before. Gentlemen,” said the topmost Top Executive of the BBC, smacking his fist on the table, “we can turn this around. Fear not the wrath of the House of Lords. I’m going to put such a spin on this disaster, it’ll make the Second Coming look like two mentally-handicapped children trying to light their beefers on fire.”
So, what can Monty Python teach you about writing a novel, story or play?
Not much, admittedly, but keep reading to find out.
Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will make me go in a corner and cry by myself for hours.
There are two kinds of violence — physical and psychological.
Messing with someone’s mind causes lasting trauma, and the deepest scars are the ones you can’t see.
Combine physical abuse with mind games and you turn people into wild animals. Nothing dehumanizes a character and damages their core like a bunch of lies and broken promises.
Human relationships are built on trust and survive on fulfilled expectations. Consistent language and behavior are the glue that holds the trust network together.
A character that promises one thing and delivers another (the typical shapeshifter/betrayer) uses language to hurt and deceive. Whoever promises one thing and delivers on that promise — or dies trying — can rightly be called a hero.
We don’t think about it on a daily basis, but ‘heroes’ and ‘villains’ use language in very different ways.
Every age sort of has its own history. History is really the stories that we retell to ourselves to make them relevant to every age. So we put our own values and our own spin on it.
Values change: your Shakespeare is not Orson Welles’s, though there may be points of contact. We don’t read Greek tragedy the way ancient Greeks did, so it would be pointless to try and resurrect that superannuated form.
It is because human values aren’t eternal that we no longer fling people off the Tarpeian Rock for the crime of perjury.
As values change, so does our understanding of History and, consequentially, our understanding of fiction.
I think you learn a lot about a country from its art. To me, it’s part of the drama of life. It teaches you that there are places, moments and incidents in other cultures that genuinely have a life of their own.
Nothing brings a fictional world to life with more efficacy than a sudden glance at a painting, or two characters sharing a prayer, maybe invoking the name of a god.
Every human culture has proverbs, art, food — because every culture has a past. A country’s history underlies that country’s present woes, as no society exists in a vacuum.
In real life, the inhabitants of the bottled city of Kandor wouldn’t stay sane for very long.
Art is the place where collective meets individual expression and, as such, has the potential to weave many a silent thread into your story, to cast a transient light on the deep well of memory that a fictive society draws from.
For me, the great problem growing up in England was that I had a very narrow concept of what God can be, and it was damn close to an old man with a beard.
Cultures are self-reinforcing mechanisms, at least while the economy that sustains them is vital and capable of adaptive growth.
Nothing destroys a culture over the long term the way abuse of authority and widespread corruption do.
You see, poverty is no friend to diversity. The poorer you are, the fewer resources you can allocate. Keeping up with novelty becomes harder and harder until you cross a threshold where anything new, any innovation, be it technological or social, is something of a threat.
When a paranoid mindset takes over a human group, the group will either break up to allow for cultural renewal or slowly wither and die. It goes without saying that hypervigilance is a cancer, and fear makes for a monotonous backdrop.
I got my head bashed in at a demonstration against the Vietnam War. Police were losing control because they were up against a world they really didn’t understand.
Drama needs tension.
No tension, no story.
Generational conflict is inexhaustible. The old want stability, the young want change. What happens when an irresistible force collides with an immovable object? Stuff goes BOOM.
Out of that boom, that chaos, comes new order. Call it ‘creative destruction’ if you like.
If you have people with clearly defined, opposing goals, you have the makings of a good story.
It’s nice to see that look of alarm on the faces of the others.
Chapman was the odd one out. He wasn’t there for the writing sessions — he would simply show up for rehearsals and recording sessions, often drunk.7
OK, he wasn’t the poster boy for a healthy lifestyle, but the other Pythons looked up to him. Chapman was a gifted, versatile actor who could imbue silly characters with unexpected pathos. Chapman’s Arthur in Quest for the Holy Grail will always be my favorite incarnation of the character. To the best of my knowledge, he was the only King Arthur to run away from a white bunny. (Granted, that bunny was dynamite.)
At Chapman’s funeral service, John Cleese gave his friend a rather tongue-in-cheek sendoff as, he explained, Chapman would have wanted him to shock people on his behalf.
All this to say that there’s some value in shocking people, especially if you mean something by it. Real shock is when you feel the blood freezing in your veins, when something disgusts you so deeply, and so deeply disturbs your sense of justice, that you rebel against it with your whole self, your whole body and being. Shock is opportunity.
Many writers, not a few of the Tinseltown variety, betray their narrowness of mind and poor education when they substitute potty humor for actual provocation.
Comedy works best when it challenges prejudice, not when it indulges a fixation on bodily fluids.
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About John Magnet Bell
John is a professional translator, writer and photographer. He writes about writing and he writes unconventional flashes of fiction at his website, Start Your Novel. Why? John explains his passion here.
Website: Start Your Novel
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