IAN MACNAUGHTON, FLYING CIRCUS HELMSMAN, DIES "Ian McNaughton - Former actor who turned to directing and guided Monty Python's Flying Circus and Rising Damp to succes"
published in The Times on Thursday, January 2, 2003
Special thanks to David Morgan
Saturday, 11 January 2003

Ian MacNaughton strikes a silly pose
Photo Credit: BBC

Far from being an overnight success when it arrived on the scene in 1969, Monty Python’s Flying Circus struggled initially against unfavourable late-night scheduling and some unconvinced BBC executives, but the indubitable talent of Palin, Cleese, Jones, Idle, Chapman and Gilliam ensured that the programme, which introduced us to such classic moments as the Ministry of Silly Walks, a dead Norwegian blue parrot and the Spanish Inquisition, is now regarded as a British institution.

Any programme in its infancy, however, needs a strong director to harness individual talents, establish a momentum and guide it towards success, and in the shape of experienced actor-turned-director Ian MacNaughton, the Monty Python team had such an individual. Having just worked with Spike Milligan on the first Q series, Q5, MacNaughton’s willingness as a director to experiment was paramount, as far as Michael Palin was concerned. He has fond memories of him: “In the early shows none of us were certain what shape or form Python was going to take, we were learning as we went along, so it needed a special kind of director to control that: you needed indulgence, but also somebody who, at the end of the week, would say: ‘Right, that’s it, this is the show, now we have to put it on tape.’ And Ian did that. He appreciated the spirit of Python: the subversiveness and a touch of anarchy struck a chord with him, and being a bit of a wild Scotsman, he loved the fact that we were trying something new.”

He appreciated the spirit of Python: the subversiveness and a touch of anarchy struck a chord with him, and being a bit of a wild Scotsman, he loved the fact that we were trying something new.

Michael Palin on Ian MacNaughton

Ian MacNaughton was born in Glasgow in 1925 and attended Strathallan School in Perth. After studying medicine at university for nine months, he abandoned plans of becoming a doctor and joined the Royal Marines in 1942, although his preference had been the Fleet Air Arm. He was placed in an officers’ training squad at Deal, Kent, where he was offered a chance to act with the Globe Players, the marines’ amateur dramatics group.

After demob in 1946, he spent a year in his father’s firm, MacNaughton and Watson, a butcher’s outfitters in Glasgow, but quickly realised it was not the life for him. Spotting a newspaper advertisement inviting applications for a year-long pre-Royal Academy of Dramatic Art course in London, MacNaughton tried his luck, with the full support of his family, and was accepted, although he did not subsequently enter the academy itself.

On completion of the course, in 1950, he headed north and joined the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, and spent the next eleven years acting on stage and screen. His film credits, beginning from the early Fifties, included playing the First Constable in Laxdale Hall, concerning politicians visiting a tiny Hebridean island whose residents refused to pay road tax. Usually cast as a Scotsman, he was also seen as Callum MacGregor in Rob Roy and Haggis in Hammer’s X the Unknown, where a mysterious force feeds on radiation from a research station situated on a bleak Scottish moor.

While appearing in a BBC drama series, Silent Evidence, he read an article in The Times that led to another change in career direction, this time behind the camera. With BBC2’s imminent arrival meaning the Corporation needed more directors, MacNaughton applied and was recruited, although he continued to act for a while. When he finally found it difficult juggling two jobs, he opted for directing, and worked on an episode of Z Cars, as well as Doctor Finlay, The Troubleshooters, The Revenue Men and This Man Craig.

By the time he directed the pilot episode of Rising Damp for Yorkshire Television in 1974, starring Leonard Rossiter, with whom he later worked in the short film, Le Pétomane, MacNaughton was a freelance director. Although unavailable to direct the first series of Eric Chappell’s sitcom, he received his fair share of plaudits when the pilot was transmitted. One journalist felt MacNaughton had directed the episode with “ confident attack” , while another remarked: “Without Ian MacNaughton’s direction, walking the tightrope between comedy and farce and hardly faltering, Leonard Rossiter’s performance might have stood alone, instead of being carefully blended into the four-handed teamwork.”

Undoubtedly, MacNaughton reached the zenith of his career when he directed several seasons of Spike Milligan’s Q series and 45 instalments (four with John Howard Davies) of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

During the 1970s MacNaughton moved to Munich, where he worked in television — directing Follow Me!, a successful English-language series for Bavarian television — and branched out into the world of opera and musicals. Working in venues around the world, including Israel, Yugoslavia, Norway and Austria, he directed, among others, the Australian composer George Dreyfus’s comedy, The Marx Sisters, in 1996, and Gerhard Baumann’s Nyx, a year later. At a theatre near Innsbrück, Austria, he directed numerous plays; a project last year was the translation of Ayckbourn’s Season’s Greetings. While returning from the theatre after enjoying the production’s first night, MacNaughton was involved in a car accident which led to his final illness.

He is survived by his wife, Ike, whom he married in 1995, his first wife, Rita (they divorced in 1958), and a son and daughter from his first marriage.

  • Ian MacNaughton, actor and television director, was born in Glasgow, on December 30, 1925. He died in Munich, Germany, on December 10, 2002, aged 76.