Monday, September 18, 2017

Blue Horror and Bonzo Dogs

Blue Horror: the thoughts that come to us in the middle of the night, serving no purpose other than to steal our sleep.

If the same thoughts come to us by day, we can always push them aside, pound them into submission, even laugh at them until exposure to the sun dwindles them to ash like the vampiric things that they are. But in the dead of night they leave us staring wide-eyed into our past or future (or both). Not even having the nicest pussyquat in the world to snuggle up to can help us cast these thoughts aside: for especially when we are in the grip of our Blue Horrors, we become aware of how very very temporary everything is.

Apologies up front. This is going to be a startlingly disorganized post, although it all sort of comes into focus at the end. Sort of.

I’m typing this from inside a gigantic fishbowl. The humidity has never been below 87 percent for the last three days, and just now it is up to 100 percent. It’s not raining — yet — but the skies are a desperate gray-green. I would not be surprised (although it would brighten my day considerably with wonder) if fishes were to fly past my windows, in the manner of the flying fishes in Yellow Submarine, which in turn evoke the kind of animations Terry Gilliam used to do for Monty Python.

It’s been the worst year for weather that I can remember; which I suppose is only fair since 2016 was a genuine weather wonder and delight, the kindest weather year I can remember since I was a young person and everything was new (See paragraph one above).

On the other hand, it’s been a great year for media. Modern technology has put all of film and television history at my fingertips, including bits of it that I presumed were lost forever, looking in most cases better than it ever did back in the day. Last night I sat in the dark of my library, tears streaming down my cheeks as I watched a collection of vintage TV commercials. It certainly wasn’t the commercials themselves that made me so sad, although some have taken on some sad and even horrifying aspects with time. As you’ve likely guessed, it was more about the Lost World that they took me back to, the people, places, pets and things that are gone forever.

Among other things, I have spent some considerable time in the past year almost obsessively tracking down and watching the TV shows that aired when I was a child too young to stay up and watch them. You know — the shows I was well aware of, but never had the chance to see what they were about. 

It’s been a lot of fun, but it does leave me (living alone with just my pussyquats, and in no sense feeling any degree of self-pity about that) identifying just a little bit with Doug and Tony, the two scientists lost in Time in Irwin Allen’s 1966 series The Time Tunnel.

It’s a way of making Old Things New, and in that department, this is the year that I finally made the connection between three or four of Britain’s great Comedy and Musical Super-Groups. Of course I could have gone to the Wikipedia pages and found it all out much sooner, but it’s more fun the way it happened to me.

My friend Dave [Naybor], who for more than a decade has been with some dedication turning out an epic comics adventure called Walking Christendom, introduced me to The Bonzo Dog Band back in the eighties when he brought a two-LP set called History of the Bonzos over to my house. That’s what friends do best, I think: introduce us to New Things we would never have discovered on our own. 

The Bonzos are a British art band whose style wanders delightfully all over the map, connected only by the kind of worldview that takes nothing seriously… my kind of worldview. I was never able to lay my hands on a copy of that album, but this year a three-CD set called Cornology dropped virtually into my lap. The cover art, done all in delightful Gilliamesque collage, makes it quite evident that the Bonzos rose out of the same vein of British Humor that gave us Monty Python. More on that in a moment. 

A few years earlier, I became a big fan of The Goodies during the five minutes that it aired on U.S. Public Television stations. Here was a comedic venture  way ahead of its time, which at its best delved deeply into the surreal and used “off the wall” as its starting point. Graham Garden, Bill Oddie and Tim Brooke-Taylor played three inventively silly types whose motto was “We Will Do Anything, Anytime.” This credo usually resulted in things like runaway houses, or flying bicycles and mouse costumes being used to reduce a giant kitten down its proper size. After literally decades of wanting to see the show again, it finally came back to me this year: still not available in the U.S.A., nonetheless it’s out there to be torrented if you know where to look. I learned that The Goodies, much like The Three Stooges, represent a kind of humor that requires a genuinely child-like frame of mind in order to be appreciated. Grown-ups need to leave that whole adulting thing at the door.

Meanwhile, the gestation of Monty Python is vividly laid out in two DVD sets from Tango Entertainment, and here’s where it all gets tied up in a neat bow. At Last The 1948 Show was written by John Cleese, Graham Chapman and Marty Feldman, and starred Cleese, Chapman, Feldman, Tim-Brooke Taylor, Aimee MacDonald and sometimes Eric Idle. Watching it today, we see that it is very, very much the brain or sensibility of Monty Python — but something is missing, something dreadfully important. 

As we’ve seen, Tim Brooke-Taylor went on to become the third member of The Goodies. Marty Feldman had his own — very funny — show for a while, where it became evident that he worked best as a solo performer. He died much too young.

Produced by the same company as Cleese and Chapman’s 1948 Show, Do Not Adjust Your Set was a children’s show written by Terry Jones, Eric Idle and Michael Palin, and starring them plus David Jason, Denise Coffey … and The Bonzo Dog Band (in later years, when the Pythons went on tour, Neil Innes — a founding member of The Bonzos — became a de facto Python, touring with them and performing musical bits between sketches). Terry Gilliam did some minor animations for them in their second series. Again, the show possesses the charming, childlike heart of Monty Python… but it’s missing Python’s cutting edge. When the creators of the two shows finally got together — that was when the real magic happened.

So anyway. This was the year that I learned how Monty Python, The Goodies, The Bonzo Dog Band (and although I haven’t gotten into it, The Beatles) are all connected to each other in delightful ways. And again, yes, I could have found all this out much sooner if I’d just studied the Wikipedia pages on all those groups. But it was a heckova lot more fun seeing it happen first-hand, for myself.

— Thorn.

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