I worked with Jimmy Balfour who was the film cameraman on a lot of Python in ‘69 & ‘70. I do remember lots of the individual sketches we did on film. We did a lot near Batley and Ilkley Moor. Ian MacNaughton as director was a hoot, he was probably responsible for letting them do what they wanted and thus a lot of the success. Ian was a dream to work for, laidback and relatively undemanding.
The filmed sketches were generally set up quickly and looking back were very staid, in that Jimmy et al lit it with huge "brutes" and shadows reigned, especially as the afternoon went on and the light dimmed. Shot very much to a formula, tableau-like with all the action happening within a generally static frame.
If I remember correctly we started the shooting the series in 35mm, which probably accounts for the static nature of a lot of the shooting. The crews were small then and 35mm made it bloody hard work, especially lugging the stuff up and down lIkley Moor. The four undertakers sketch involved a lot of shifting… like turning 90 degrees for a shot and a further 90 degrees for the next, etc.
I don’t remember the boys getting involved in the look of the film. I think Jimmy, being old school, would've thrown a fit anyway. What we did were usually standalone sketches that would be inserted throughout the series. One of my best of all time was the one (shot in Skipton I think) where Michael played a slightly camp victim of a robbery, with John as the gruff cop Michael approached for help. It was so funny. On take one, Mike broke down into a fit of giggles at the punchline. Take two and John corpsed, then Ian on three, and someone else on four. For take five I was stood with a hankie rammed into my mouth by this time, ribs aching and managing to hold it in until I thought Ian said "cut" and I let it all out - but he hadn't and we went into take six.
The boys themselves were very responsive to suggestions on visuals, and I do remember them being very open to suggestions that might make a gag better. I've known lots of comedians that were bloody impossible if anyone tried to get involved or indeed cracked a joke on set. Not the boys.
I have very fond memories of Terry, Eric, and Michael. Terry was especially generous in spirit as was Eric. Mike as we all know was a gent.
Off-camera, John was intense, and sometime aloof – and sometimes hilarious. One day way up on the moors in a dead moment he saw two old dears driving slowly along the road below. He borrowed a magaphone from the PA and in his best "official" voice broadcast "If you see the lion…". I swear the car nearly left the road.
Graham was very distant. At one point we were shooting in London and I'd gone to the location in my pride & joy – my red MGB. I foolishly allowed it to be used in a sketch and Graham plonked an old-fashioned gramophone on the bonnet and scratched it. Never forgave him for that.