Owl Stretching Time – Pythons and Culture.

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Although I didn’t make the pilgrimage to the O2 arena to watch Monty Python bow out on stage, I was very happy to realise on Sunday that the very last show was being broadcast live on television. Despite the beeped out profanities (thanks to the broadcast going out pre-watershed), it meant that I, and presumably millions of others, got to watch the end of an era.

As far as ‘era’s’ go, it could be argued that it ended some time ago. I remember watching the 30th anniversary evening on BBC2 in 1999. As I recall it was an evening of Python episodes, interviews and documentaries. When the night finished the continuity man announced over the BBC2 logo – “That was the end of Monty Python”, a sentiment the pythons had previously made clear, having contributed only a few snippets of new footage and interviews, and I think, still not really seeing eye to eye on many ideas. (For what felt like many years, Eric Idle seemed to have banished himself to America, only ever appearing in video link ups. I always just guessed it was a tax thing).

This time, however, it felt like a much more fitting way to close the curtain on what has been for them, and us, a cultural phenomenon. It was obvious that they had chosen to come together mutually rather than just responding to expectations because of some arbitrary anniversary. It felt like watching five talented men, happy and thankful for the chance to choose the manner of their own exit, doing it in style.

I don’t really want to review the show in detail here. I think Martin Freeman put it well when in a ‘VIP lounge’ pre-show interview he said that no matter what he thought of the performance, they’ve already done it, they’ve already earned our applause and gratitude. As it happens, I think they more than earned it again with a funny, naughty and well produced finale.

Instead I want to talk more about some other sentiments that were raised by another celebrity fan in the backstage build-up: Harry Shearer, of ‘Spinal Tap’ and ‘Mr Burns from the Simpsons’ fame. He said that although the Pythons didn’t influence his kind of comedy, what they did do was show people that a group of creative people could maintain control over their own output. There is no doubt from the first moment of Python on TV when Graham Chapman says ‘Good Evening’ before sitting on a stool to the sound of a squeal, and then we cut to a drawing of a pig being crossed off a blackboard, that the BBC had taken a risk (see video below). Even more so when you listen to the stilted, baffled titters of the studio audience who don’t quite know what to make of it. Given that it took some time for Python to grow in popularity, it would have been so easy for some number obsessed executive to have deprived the world of their legacy. It hardly bears thinking about.

Of course there would have been some element of creative control over it, but the point, I think, is that they were allowed to experiment and take risks within wide boundaries, even if they were very silly risks. Without risks, culture stagnates. I imagine this is similar to when Paul McCartney was allowed to do a totally acoustic ballad in the form of ‘Yesterday’, a decision that many other producers and managers would have dismissed in favour of ‘more of the same’. Which takes me nicely onto my next point…

Harry Shearer also said that for these reasons, the Pythons and The Beatles are synonymous in his mind. Both groups inspiring his generation and beyond to stick to and stand up for their own creative vision. I agree with this entirely. For someone born in 1981 I was strangely raised on a cultural diet of The Beatles and Monty Python. This came mostly from my older brother. Quite how he discovered it all I don’t really know, as our parents lived outside of the UK for much of the ‘golden age’ of comedy and music. Either way, they were staples in my life, despite having been born not long before these cultural icons had all but disbanded, or been shot. But even from an early age, it was the sheer creativity of both these outfits that interested me. It was the reach of their influence in so many things that followed in our culture that made me excited.

As we get older and discover the world around us, finding out about the architects of our world is (or should be) a profound experience. Comedians and musicians may not have put the bricks and mortar around us, or paved the streets, but they certainly set the tone. Artists of all kind are the interior decorators of the life we are born into. They add to the ‘point’ of it all. Even if you argue that they are only a small part, they are an important and entertaining aspect that we would all miss if it wasn’t there. Unless that is, you want to live in silent, grey boxes, doing nothing ever but working, eating and procreating, never once telling or hearing a story, making something up, whistling a tune, drawing or enjoying a picture, or laughing… ever again.

There are many ways to make an impact on this world, and so many who try end up adding to the problems or creating new ones because their motives are ill founded. Artists give – even if they are sometimes rewarded for it – they create output to (generally) make the world a more enjoyable place and provoke original thought. It is this sentiment and motive embodied in exemplary examples  such as the Pythons and The Beatles that I wanted to try and get at with this blog, and in my little way to say thank you, and goodbye.

 

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So she resigned. What next?

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Imagine my disappointment  this morning when, over breakfast, the man on the radio told me that the subject of today’s blog had already resigned.

‘Damn it!’ I shouted as I launched my weetabix across the room with one hand, and slammed the other onto the kitchen counter, ‘what now?’

I had been gazumped, or, as my name is already Gaz, I had just been ‘umped’. All I had wanted from this whole debacle was to see the back of Maria Miller after I had written this blog telling people why.

But then, I thought, as the blood trickled from my knuckles onto a passing ant, maybe I can still do the blog, but about the reaction to her resignation?

I turned up the radio, and lo and behold, an interview was already underway between John Humphries and some of those politician types: one from each of the main two colours – you know, the red and blue ones, the Smurfs and the Hellboy’s.

Humphries started by asking the lady from the reds what she thought:

“It should have happened last week! It has further damaged politics and the public perception of politicians” she declared, rather more vigorously than her actual party did, but still with all the sentiment of a walnut.

The man Humphries jumped at his chance to ask if politicians should perhaps, you know, not ‘mark their own homework’. To which the red lady agreed in the strongest, vaguest terms possible.

The other, from the blues (you can tell by the way they talk usually, they sound ‘bluish’) – was a bit annoyed at only having 1 minutes and 20 seconds of air time left on national radio to defend his recently departed colleague, and wasted a whole twenty seconds in telling us so. But then, when he had got that slight off his chest, he said:

“I don’t think anything needs to change with how we monitor ourselves. If the media had actually read the report last week and reported on it accurately, this whole thing would have turned out differently.” Etc…

And then they ran out of time. Poor blue man felt very put out for only having such a short amount of time to reiterate that nothing needs to change and it was everybody else’s fault. He needn’t have worried, I think we got the picture (even though it was on the radio, which is really clever).

So I switched off the voices, muttering some violent swearword in regards to the last speaker, and came to my computer to find out more. Luckily, it seems the rest of the country was also listening to the radio, because it’s all over the news.

The little part of me that was relieved that Maria Miller had finally resigned, was soon quashed when I read the gushing acceptance of her decision by David Cameron. All of a sudden, I felt like, well, like, like, well, like – I don’t know what I felt, but it was somewhere between crushing inevitability and hopeless frustration. And here is why, in neatly summarised bullet points:

  •          It shouldn’t have happened in the first place
  •          Why should MPs have the luxury of managing their own departures/resignations after committing fraud?
  •          What does it say about the world-view of the PRIME MINISTER of this country, when he so obviously favours self-protection of his inner circle over the people of this country and basic moral decency?
  •          Why weren’t Labour officially calling for her to resign? Apart from a few dissenting voices, the cross-party political class basically closed ranks on this, VS ‘the public’. (the obvious answer is again, self-protection, should they ever  need to use this ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ system for their own ends).  You are meant to be the cocking opposition!
  •          She still isn’t going to be paying any more money back or facing criminal charges from the look of it, so she’s done rather well for herself, and no longer even needs to worry about going to work! She can probably retire on the profits she’s extorted.

On a positive note, in felt to me like the real proliferation of this story was taken up by ‘the public’, and only instigated by the media, who then recognised the anger it had caused and fed back into it. I don’t think we were led by them, I think this one was mutual. I’m guessing the 150,000+ signatures on the e-petition were a great help.

For instance, the first I heard of this was from a very dry article on the BBC news last week, and it was these things that flared up my anger immediately (before the furore really kicked off):

  1.        The arrogance of the PM in offering unwavering (and ‘warm’) support for someone who had quite obviously fallen short of the standards that should be required.
  2.        Learning of the way that the initial report and recommendations by an ‘independent’ committee was over-ruled by a separate MP led committee who exist, it appears, only for purposes such as this.
  3.        Learning that the ‘independent’ committee has only two independent (none party affiliated) members anyway, both of which don’t have a vote.
  4.        The whole obvious rigged game that is caused by points 2 & 3, and imagining the motivations of the kind of people who would come up with it.

So actually, the precise details of Miller’s affair were not as important to me as the above, because the above is indicative of the attitudes and systems that cause this massive gulf between ‘us and them’, and is in my opinion, the biggest problem facing our country (and much of the wider world). I don’t mean just these things specifically, but the whole approach to accountability and such like.

Was today a victory for people-power over politics? Not unless any of the above points are actually dealt with: not ‘tinkered’ with – dealt with.

Why not, for example, replace these two committees with a new committee selected from the public in much the same way as jury service? And give us the right to recall MPs (as they promised they would)? Oh, yeah, and Cameron has to go, obviously.

The question is, why don’t they ever actually introduce progressive legislation to enforce the accountability and transparency they so often tout in speeches and manifestos?  Why don’t they hand the responsibility to the people? The simple answer, I guess, is because they know what would happen if they did. Which when you think about it, is a really bad state of affairs, and all the more reason we need it.

So what happens now she’s gone? More of the same after a brief period of rhetoric about ‘change’ and ‘transparency’?  Probably. But if we can act together like we did this week, with common purpose and outrage against the presiding political class, who now seem to be more distant from us than ever before: maybe we can see a few more heads roll? Maybe even change things for the better. That’s a nice thought. I feel a bit better now.