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The Meaning of Life

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1983

‘…probably best enjoyed as separate clips on YouTube, or with liberal use of the fast-forward button…’

The last of the four Monty Python feature films, The Meaning of Life has the reputation as the least. The Pythons had developed from sketch comedy to the episodic spoof on Arthurian lore in Holy Grail, and the purposefully sacrilegious Life of Brian was their most coherent film. Splits between the group, as writers and performers, meant that The Meaning of Life felt somewhat unfinished, a series of sketches loosely based around the titular concept. While frustrating for fans, the best bits are inspired; it’s just a shame that the framework really doesn’t hold here other than as an excuse for a series of random pot-shots at various sacred cows.

Watched on Amazon Prime in 2021, it’s nice to see the accompanying short, The Crimson Permanent Insurance, a very Terry Gilliam concept in which a group of accountants set sail for a life of adventure. It’s an imaginative and beautifully realised sequence, with a substantial call-back later in the film. But consistency is a problem, and the first sketch, on the Miracle of Birth, barely lands. From here, it’s a mixed bag; a brilliant religious lampoon, featuring the Oliver! type song and dance number Every Sperm is Sacred, ranks up with the team’s finest moments. With street-urchins dancing with chimney sweeps, it’s an adept satire on movie musicals, and is performed with gusto by Michael Palin and Terry Jones.

Also on the plus side is a sex-education lesson with John Cleese as an exasperated master, a spot-on Noel Coward parody by Eric Idle, and an amusing tale of stiff-upper lips amongst British officers during the Zulu wars; this sequence of particularly interest to me since it was filmed outside my front door in the quaint Scottish village of Blanefield, with the green Campsie mountains providing a visual doppelganger for the verdant plains of Africa. But without upsetting fundamentalist Pythonists, I’ll have to admit to being no great fan of the Galaxy song, Mr Kreosote, Death or some of the other featured routines; the intention to shock seems to have overtaken the desire to amuse, and there’s some regrettable cheap titillation.

If The Pythons are The Beatles of sketch comedy; The Meaning of Life is their Let It Be, which is to say the most remarkable thing about it is that it exists at all, since the key participants were hardly on the best of terms when it was made. It’s probably best enjoyed as separate clips on YouTube, or with liberal use of the fast-forward button, although Palin’s final summing up of the meaning of life still holds plenty of meaning in 2021.

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  1. Very hit and miss but probably still worth seeing because it was the last in a very short series. I wonder if anyone ever considered making a Monty Python’s Greatest Hits Movie with just the best bits from their movies as opposed to And Now which was a compilation of telly hits. Saw them live at the King’s in Glasgow.

  2. Yes! They kind of were the Beatles of troop comedy. I loved nearly everything they touched. There was education involved in many of their games, and when they were at their best, for me, they sparked a desire to understand philosophy and politics and social struggle that I barely had a grasp on when I first got exposed to them. They inspired me to become better educated, watch French New Wave, and even read some classic literature. You can’t ask for much more ! (sorry I’ve been so absent lately, I took a new job that’s kicking my ass! I’m a high school teacher now! :p)

    • Congratulations! I’ll be first to enrol at your school! And I TOTALLY agree, my first understandaing of Proust or Marx was largely through the prism of Python; I think they educated several generations!

  3. There are parts of the meaning of life that really stick for me. While others kind of fall flat. I love the every sperm is sacred bit and the fat man thing.

  4. After watching the Holy Grail, I never bothered with any movie that starred most of the characters. I almost didn’t watch Black Adder because of Brian Blessed being in it, but thankfully Mr Bean was able to convince me 😀

    So the group only made 4 films. And then it all fell apart. I’d say it was a shame, but then I’d be lying 😉

  5. That solves a mystery. My parents had friends in Blanefield and we sometimes visited when I was a child. They said Monty Python had filmed there in the past but they didn’t know what they’d been filming. I always suspected it’d been Holy Grail.

    But yes, Meaning of Life often seems they want to shock and push boundaries and it’s made the film very very dated in places. I do like the Galaxy song though.

    • More than the other films, it’s a matter of taste, and I get that Galaxy Song is well-loved. But there’s some cringe moments here for sure.

      Plenty of Scottish filming for Holy Grail, but Blanefield’s big claim to fame is Meaning of Life. These hills are what I see out my front window.

  6. The Christmas in Heaven floorshow I thought was a great way to end. Death as tacky kitsch.

    Did you try out as an extra for the Zulu scene? Are there embarrassing pics of you in blackface? Do they call those mountains in Scotland? So many questions.

    • We call the Campsies hills.

      No, I’m not your prime minister, happy to clear this up.

      Any further questions?

        • To be fair, no-one is encouraged to get expereicne as a PM. It just seems to happen.

          Yes, all set of Cop 26 chaos; are coming over or will you be sending one of your minions to represent Canada?

          • Booked the Dakota for the week, just for me and my entourage. Will be going on several walking tours throughout the surrounding countryside. Might take a hike through the Campsies. Will wave.

            • Oh, the Dakota is nice, rooms, bar, food, all can be recommended. Nice look to the place too, and it’s right in the city centre, just off the square. There’s several walks go right past my front door, the West Highland way, the John Muir trail, you’re wlcome to knock me up and grab a cup of hot Joe…other luminaries like Obama, Biden and The Queen are coming too so you’ll be in good company, Mr Good.

              • I’ve got along well with Lizzie in the past, but not so keen on her offspring. I hope Chuck doesn’t come. You have some hot mulled cider? Scones? Fraggle might drop in too.

                • Well, don’t come dressed as Queen Victoria next time, it’s borderline offensive to surviving royals.

                  I’ll leave the key for the side door in the shed, just in case I’m out with the horses.

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