Commemorating the 35th Anniversary of the comedy classic Monty Python and The Holy Grail, by showing it on the big screen may not seem such a big deal. The fact that it was to be shown at the Arnolfini Cinema in Broad Quay, Bristol as part of the a 10 year celebration of the founding of Bristol Silents (an organisation dedicated to promote and celebrate silent cinema) may seem even less of an event.
The Arnolfini is not a popcorn and coke serving multiplex cinema and probably very few people have heard of Bristol Silents (although after this blog hopefully many more will have). What made this double celebration a wholesome trio is the introduction to the screening and a Q and A afterwards, featuring the film's co-director and veritable real life comedic python, Mr Terry Jones, hence that whiff of celebrity that graced the air on Sunday 13th June.
Holy Grail Celebrates Essence of Silent
Before delving into the great man's musings over the film he described as a "nightmare to make", a brief explanation is in order as to why Bristol Silents featured a talky in their celebration of silent cinema. Co-founder Chris Daniels explained that the film had all the virtues of a silent movie in particular its use of slapstick and visual humour which would have made it an ideal silent comedy. This seemed a tenuous inclusion of a talking picture amongst a myriad of silent features and Daniels' explanation doesn't necessarily wash, however the sentiment is there and appreciated.
Mr Jones Steps Up
The floor was thrown over to Mr Jones who strode up to the specially prepared podium, dressed all in black (jacket, open neck shirt, trousers and loafers) to a thundering applause. Considering the man is 68 years old he looked well, a little grey and filled out but healthy and bubbling with energy, which was evident when he addressed the audience. At this point I should point out that there was a sense of genuine thrill in being in the presence of this man that was felt throughout the auditorium, and must confess to having felt a little star struck myself.
Jones kicked things off by regaling the audience with on set tales of the first day of shooting. He referred to the shared directing responsibilities with fellow Python Terry Gilliam as "tag team directing" since they would take turns directing on alternate days. Apparently the first scene to be filmed was the infamous (and my personal favourite) bridge of death scene. Incidents included a leading actor shaking from a bad case of gin withdrawal resulting in Delirium Tremens (or a touch of the DTs as Jones put it), and the gears and guts of the camera falling out after filming the scene. None of this bade well when standing on the mountain side.
Such tales were met with a mixture of laughter and intrigue but not for too long as the lights dimmed, the curtains, complete with unintentional comic squeaking, opened up and the film commenced. It may seem pointless and a waste of £12 to watch a film that as a DVD graces the shelves of shops everywhere, or our plasma/LCD screens through repeated broadcasts, however there is something truly dramatic about reliving a classic on the big screen. Scenes are more poignant, and the general atmosphere cannot be recreated in the living room.
Post Screening Q and A
The lack of formality in introducing the session was a welcome relief, particularly as less than hour had been allotted for this once in a lifetime opportunity to pose questions. Which meant that after a brief chat the proverbially inquisitive door was thrown open through which the audience entered with glee. The questions asked were surprisingly varied and interesting. We learned, for example, that for Jones, The Holy Grail is by far the least of his favourite films, frequently referring to it as a nightmare.
The film was notorious for its problems in addition to the ones already stated. Problems included costume problems, especially with chain mail made from wool (only Graham Chapman donned the genuine article) and location problems. Filming permissions in the Scottish castles were withdrawn by the Scottish Department of the Environment after seeing the script and felt the team would disrespect and degrade the essence of the castles. Jones pointed to the irony of this decision with some amusement when you consider the acts of human degradation and torture previously committed within those walls. Thankfully a couple of generous benefactors who just happened to own a castle each, charged in on their virtual horses saving the day, and allowed filming to take place at their privately owned stone fortresses.
As an avid historian (he also hosted the BBC produced Medieval Lives in 2004) Jones wanted the film to represent the age in which it was set as accurately as possible. For authenticity Jones insisted that much of the peasant cast have their teeth blackened. However he was stunned to learn that when the Mary Rose was raised from the depths of the Portsmouth Sound in 1982, the remains of the crew were examined and found to have near perfect teeth, thereby disproving Jones' view of Medieval dentures. After much reflection he concluded that a Medieval population probably had better teeth than most people today, and that the decline in our dental health may have been brought about by the sugar trade.
Jones also talked about how the success and his experience working on the project inspired him and the team to spearhead their next project, Life of Brian. Jones talked to some extent about filming this controversial classic, particularly with regards to casting the lead, in which he championed Graham Chapman over the John Cleese. The story that came as the most surprising (and embarrassing) concerned the film's budget.
It is well known that the late Beatle George Harrison put up funds that saved the production from collapsing. Jones recalled that his only goal at the time was to finish the project regardless of its commercial success and giving no consideration to the risk undertaken by the film's investors. Ten years later Jones shared an interview chair with Harrison in which Jones learned he had in fact put up his house as collateral against the sum loaned to Python, hence feelings of guilt washed over him. Luckily of course that film was a huge success and Harrison went on to form Handmade Films the company behind such classics as Time Bandits and Bob Hoskins starrer Mona Lisa to name a few.
Happy in Reflection
Jones had felt that he balanced the dual roles of actor and director effortlessly since he did not consider himself a serious actor but just a comic who uttered his lines in a silly voice before heading back behind the camera. The shooting had been a nightmare experience for the novice director and it didn't necessarily end there. Post production work also proved tiring as did test screenings in which the overlain soundtrack and music score made the film unpopular, resulting in a return trip to the editing suite.
Despite having moved on to different projects, Jones maintains that Python is still very much a part of his life, as the team collectively own the rights to much of their own work, in particular the Flying Circus television show currently enjoying syndicated repeats and respectable DVD sales. "It is still very much a business" said Jones and in order to maintain the business all the Python team maintain regular and sometime hearty contact, even with John Cleese residing in sunny California.
All said and done however, Jones expressed renewed appreciation whenever he viewed the finished Monty Python and The Holy Grail with an audience. Their laughter and general enjoyment of the film, for Jones made it all worthwhile, and his appreciation seemed to be even greater with an audience still laughing heartily at the on screen antics 35 years later. As a member of the audience I felt the combination of an enjoyable comedic romp through Arthurian England (or Albion) and the genuine thrill of sitting a mere 20 feet away from one of the Python team made for a sensational evening, a £12 ticket price happily parted with.
Big thank you to the Arnolfini for staging this amazing event.