In this bizarre account of King Arthur’s quest for the Holy Grail, the members of the Monty Python troupe don Medieval garb and flounce about the Scottish countryside, thinking up all sorts of scrapes which their less than savvy characters could encounter. The King and his knights come across politically active peasants (“D’you see him repressing me?”), a castle-full of scheming seductresses, a bloodthirsty rabbit and all the many varied eccentrics the Dark Ages could ever feasibly offer. Americans often cite the genius which is Monty Python as Britain’s only successful comedy group, but save the pitchforks for now because, transatlantic squabbles aside, it’s still worth asking what has caused them to become the global ambassadors of British humour. Is Monty Python’s an essentially British humour?
Monty Python and the Holy Grail is the group’s second feature length creation and is typical of their style as a whole, combining bawdy humour and basic slapstick with something much more... clever. Sorry for the weakness of that adjective, but when you try to write about humour you realise how tricky it can be to explain why something’s funny. I watched The Holy Grail with my younger sister and she repeatedly looked over to me to check when to laugh. I couldn’t help her understand why the fact that the giant knights say ‘Ni’ and are demanding a shrubbery is so hilarious. She knew it was silly, but it didn’t make sense. ‘Well, it doesn’t have to’, I pointed out.
So then, it can’t just be their use of the absurd which gives Monty Python their success – kids are well versed on silliness. Instead, I think it’s because we know just how intelligent these men are that even the most ridiculous of gags is hilarious. Instead of being sheer silliness, Monty Python’s work is a wonderfully quirky satire which lovingly embraces said sheer silliness in the openness characteristic to British humour. It’s the kind of comedy which faces the world and its issues head on: ‘Our budget doesn’t stretch to horses? O.K. Let’s use coconut shells’. As King Arthur personally gallops over the hill, devoid of horse and accompanied by a servant clip-clopping two coconut shells together, a seemingly simple joke is actually wonderfully layered. Arthur is instantly ridiculous, but there is also a gleeful poking at the film’s production and our own expectations of the Medieval era (towards which the film in no way proves accurate). Characters, actors and production team etc, and the audience themselves all becomes figures of fun, creating an inclusive, and brilliant, comedy.
Is the film intrinsically British then? I guess so, in that the familiar melange of typically “British” humour reigns supreme: satire, the absurd, black comedy and innuendo all being present. But, for me it all comes down to that key combination of intelligent humour, which has something to say, and the outrageously ridiculous, which is simply about poking fun at someone else’s and anyone else’s expense. This mishmash of ingenuity and fun is what typifies Britishness to me, not only in our humour but also the many conduits of cultural expression our society uses. So, ultimately: yes.
My little sister Alana learnt a lot while watching this film and can now confirm: ‘It’s funny because it’s unrealistic’. She especially liked the cartoon monster and I covered her ears during the Castle Anthrax scene.