by Hans ten Cate
Saturday, 29 May 1999

Monty Python: A Celebration made its debut mid-May in the United Kingdom. The book (official release date 20 May 1999) is the first in a number of books planned to honor the 30th anniversary of Monty Python's Flying Circus this year.

Richard Topping, the author of the celebratory work, is a comic writer and broadcaster who has put together a compact but lionizing work on Monty Python's Flying Circus and its six members. The book is presented in a thoughtful organizational manner and breezy writing style. It is obvious that Richard Topping has had a long history admiring the Pythons and his enthusiasm shows clearly through the 160 pages. The book covers all the usual aspects of Monty Python lore and serves as an appropriate introductory work on this unique brand of comedy.

The book first offers a rundown of all 45 Flying Circus episodes highlighting, in the author's opinion, the most popular sketches. Then, Topping covers each of the movies, providing plot summaries and some production details. No Python book would be complete without biographical sections on each of the Pythons. Topping provides a fairly complete biography of each member as well as a list of their film contributions. A brief bibliography of Python-authored publications completes the book.

What is perhaps most attractive about the book is the inclusion of some unique group photos of the Pythons in their heyday as well as some more recent portraits including the children and spouses of the Python members.

Yet, upon reading the book, I found that it offers little more than previous (and more complete) books by the likes of Kim Howard Johnson, George Perry, and Jim Yoakum. In fact, both Johnson and Yoakum intend to publish Python books later this year offering some never-before-seen material (anecdotes, interviews, photos and such). Topping's summaries of the Flying Circus episodes, movies, and Python biographies are passable but don't add much of anything to the collective works of other Python biographers.

Moreover, I found that a bit more attention could have been given to Celebration's research. Had your run-of-the-mill Python obsessive been asked to edit the book, some factual errors could, no doubt, have been avoided.

Topping alleges that the Flying Circus series ran from 1969 through 1979 (five years too long). There is a rather inconsistent use of each Python's acting and writing contributions. They are not particularly well edited or vetted for duplicate information, omissions, and mistakes. John Cleese's writing credits, for example, seem to cover the wrong films (e.g., Jungle Book, Swan Princess, George of the Jungle).

The bibliography section, rather inappropriately titled "Books, Records and all Manner of Magnificent Monty Merchandise" features very little Python fare at all. In fact, no records or other merchandise are mentioned, just fourteen Python books. Obviously this was another inadvertent omission overlooked during proofing.

What is perhaps most upsetting, however, is Topping's repeated violation of the Python fans' rules of engagement: "when you quote Python, get them right or don't even bother." Topping insists on including his favorite Python lines throughout the book, without any concern that his failing memory might have contributed to the corruption of some classic lines. Compare:

  • Topping: Just one wafur theen meent, monsieur. (Meaning of Life)
  • Python: And finally, monsieur, a wafer-thin mint.
  • Topping: Your father ees a hamster and yur mother smells of elderberries. (Holy Grail)
  • Python: Your mother was a hamster and your father smelled of elderberries.
  • Topping: I wunt to forndle yerr buttokks. (Hungarian Phrasebook sketch)
  • Python: Please fondle my bum.

Mr. Topping also alleges that Monty Python's Dead Parrot Sketch gave us the memorable phrase "This parrot's dead!"



Richard Topping, author of 'Monty Python: A celebration' is doing a live web chat Thursday, 3rd June, at 6:30pm (GMT) at the [.tv] Website. You could also win a signed copy of the book.

If you are unable to make the event, it is possible to post any questions in advance at the Website.


Even though Topping points out that the phrase is never actually uttered in the sketch, I have never known "This parrot's dead" to be the rallying cry of even semi-knowledgeable Python fans. Certainly "This parrot is no more" and "This is an ex-parrot" come to mind, but not what Topping and his friends seem to remember as being Cleese's immortal line.

My last criticism is that the book obviously borrows some of its research from the Daily Llama and PythOnline without giving credit to either. Not so much as a by-your-leave! In particular are the Python biographical profiles (Name, Date of Birth, Birthplace, etc.) and bibliography text, which the Daily Llama unveiled in 1996 (and which many other websites have decided borrow as well). This is not a crime, certainly. I do not (actually, cannot) own the copyright to the information. For the record, everyone is free to borrow, just a friendly nod or credit would be nice!

In short, the book makes a nice addition to any Python fan's library. Perhaps make that "hard-core fans." Given the book's disappointedly simplistic summary of the Pythons' history (and occasionally flawed summary at that), my suspicion is that Virgin Publishing wanted to beat everyone to the punch this year by issuing the first of the Python retrospectives. This leaves Richard Topping's work a fair attempt at a Python biography but certainly not a bargain at 15 pounds.