Wednesday, 4 July 2012
Monty Python vision mixer Bill Morton remembers...
My first meeting with the Pythons took place in the main lift at Television Centre. I was waiting on the fourth floor when the doors opened onto a lift full of people, so I stepped back to wait for the next one. Then I recognised John Howard Davies, the producer for whom I’d been working and who had booked me for Python, and he said “Come in, I want you to meet the people you’ll be working with.” Presumably they were on their way down from a sixth floor meeting. So I squeezed in and was introduced to the Python cast, which was a bit awkward in the compressed confines of a crowded lift, particularly with other people in there who were nothing to do with it. Some of the team I recognised from their work on ITV, especially John Cleese, but others I didn’t know. By the time JHD had got round all the names, the doors opened and we all spilled out on the ground floor. They all set off in one direction and me in another and I didn’t see them again until the first day in the studio.
Vision Mixers don’t attend outside rehearsals, or filming, so the first I knew of the show was walking into the studio and picking up the camera script. John Howard Davies had warned me that it was quite complicated and a bit off-the-wall, but I was fairly new to vision mixing, having only been doing the job for just over a year, and I found it a bit scary. However, I liked the show from the start, it chimed with my sense of humour and I enjoyed the challenge. I don’t remember a great deal about individual studio days as the nature of the job is to forget everything as soon as the day is over, as the next day you could be doing Grandstand, Blue Peter, Z-Cars or whatever. I do remember always looking forward to the Python studios, they were fun shows to work on, with wonderfully inventive sketches and situations and all carefully scripted and rehearsed – nothing was ad-libbed. There was not much VT editing in those days so there was strong incentive to get things right first time – especially as it was recorded in front of a live audience. We always recorded in sequence, playing in the Gilliam cartoon links and film inserts in the right place. Sometimes we had to have two telecine machines for the film, as Terry Gilliam was always up against the clock and sometimes his inserts were not ready soon enough to be spliced into the main film. There had to be a number of recording breaks, for with a small cast playing all the parts, costume and set changes were necessary. We started with cameras at 10.30am and the aim was to have staggered through by lunchtime, then in the afternoon have a run-through at pace, then a dress-run with costumes. Sometimes there would be a pre-record sequence to do in the morning, for if you have, say, someone in full Viking regalia who only says one word, like “Stop!” or “What?” then to save costume change time in the evening in front of the audience we would record it in the morning and play it in. Pre-records would inevitably eat into camera rehearsal time and there were some days when we didn’t even have time for a dress-run, which would be an added strain when it came to the evening recording. There were often technical difficulties to overcome; I remember the problem we had in getting the roller caption with the end credits (in those days a black paper roll with white letteraset) to run at the right speed. It was a notoriously fickle machine and the credits had to fit exactly the film over which it was superimposed, because that was the joke – but it did finally work on the night. It was for the end of the ‘Spanish Inquisition’ sketch, which finished with the Cardinals on top of a London bus, trying to reach their destination before the credits got to the end. Of course they run out and I cut to black, or to a caption saying ‘The End’, I can’t remember which, and you hear Michael Palin’s voice saying “Oh, bugger!”, which was very daring in those days. Python was known for pushing the comedy envelope and it is to the credit of the BBC that they allowed it. Where else would they have been able to make a comedy show like this? I think the Pythons were the first show to hijack the BBC Network symbol, at that time a revolving globe, to put comedy voice-overs on, much to the confusion of the continuity announcers. We had to finish camera rehearsals by 6.30pm and the recording would be from 8.00 till 10.00pm. It was always a very full day.
John Howard Davies was the first Producer/Director on the series, which is why I came to be doing it. I had been working with John on a comedy series called ‘All Gas and Gaiters’ and he had asked for me to do Monty Python when it came to the studio. I didn’t realise at the time, but John was only filling in for a Producer called Ian MacNaughton, who I think was the Pythons’ choice, and John only did the first four or five shows. Ian’s arrival was rather a surprise, because John was a calm and thoughtful director and Ian was the opposite, loud, flamboyant and restlessly energetic – so it was quite a culture shock. Fortunately, I got on well with Ian and remained with him for the rest of the various series. Both he and John brought a great deal of expertise and control to the show, and made a major contribution to it’s success, a fact that does not seem to me to be fully recognised in what I’ve read in the Python autobiography. John is briefly referred to there as rather too gentlemanly and old-fashioned, while Ian is painted as a wild alcoholic who was quite often missing during filming. This drinking was never apparent to me during the studio days, Ian was always in control and had done his homework – there was always a camera script ready for each studio. The drinking didn’t become evident to me until the later series, then not so much Ian but Graham Chapman.
I never really got to know the Pythons themselves very well, the nature of a VM’s job is that you are up in the gallery all the time, never getting to the studio floor except perhaps for camera notes after a run, so didn’t often get to mingle with the cast. After the show there was always a coterie of friends and admirers around them in the Club, so I seldom chatted to them. Michael Palin was the most approachable, the others I found a bit distant. John Cleese I got to know much better at a later date when I was doing ‘Fawlty Towers’. Once, he was talking to me about Vision Mixing and asked me if VMs got credits at the end of the show. At that time we did not, so he said he would give me a verbal credit and there it is, in the ‘Hotel Inspectors’ episode – but that’s another story.
One sketch from the fourth series stays in my mind because it was so fast. I think Ian was testing me as he had a good laugh about my discomfort afterwards. It was called ‘Finishing the Sentences’ with Terry Jones and Eric Idle in a conversation that involved each of them finishing each other’s sentences. The cutting got faster and faster, until they were down to two words, then one word, then half a word. The line “No, round the bend” had 5 shots in it alone: “No, R.. / ound the b.. / en.. / d.. / Yes.” It was a sketch which ran just under two minutes, but had 33 shots in it, something like a change of shot every 3 seconds. I actually have the camera script of that show to remind me of that day!
When the series started, I don’t think I realised what a hugely popular programme it was going to become. I had been a keen ‘Goon Show’ listener and had enjoyed Spike Milligan’s Q-5 series, so the Python humour was right up my street and I found it a great show to work on. So I am quite proud of being in on the ground floor and contributing in a small way to what was to become the Monty Python phenomenon.