Terry Gilliam Week Day #5: Monty Python's Flying Circus

Monty Python's Flying Circus
is, of course, the original BBC sketch comedy series that ran for four seasons, from 1969-1974.  Each season is ran for 13 episodes, except the final one, when John Cleese left, and it ran for an abridged 6 episodes.  It was first released on DVD here in the United States in 1999, in a rather massive "14-Pack DVD Mega Set" from A&E Home Video.  Those DVDs, also available in individual seasons, are really the only versions we've had on DVD.  Yes, in 2005, A&E released their "16-Ton Megaset"[left], but that's actually the exact same set of 14 discs (albeit in new, slimmer cases) just with two additional bonus discs of extras live performances and television specials.  And also yes, in 2008, A&E released a 21-disc "Complete Monty Python Collector's Edition," but that's just the "16-Ton Megaset" in a newer box, with five more bonus discs, including two retrospective documentaries and the six Personal Best greatest hits specials.  But the actual series' discs have been the same for twenty years, until 2019, when Network restored the full series in HD and released it in their 7-disc "Norwegian Blu-ray Edition."  That set has also been broken down into individual seasons and repackaged in a slimmer 2020 standard edition, but the disc content is all the same.  The only difference on-disc distinction is that the "Norwegian" set was released in the United Kingdom as 50i BD discs, but they also created North American 60i BD discs.  For the record, I have the 60 frame-rate discs, which is what we'll being screenshots of here.
A brief, restored scene from season 4, only on the BD.
Perhaps the most exciting thing about Network's restorations is that they're not just restoring the picture and audio quality for HD, they're actually restoring lost footage.  I would refer you to movie-censorship.com's reliably thorough break-down of every difference, episode by episode.  But in brief, there are instances of gags that were censored, or bits that were trimmed or removed seemingly for pacing.  It runs the gamut from a brief, alternate shot or word to an entire sketch that have been put back into the episodes.  Less compelling, but still interesting: each episode also tends to run 30 seconds longer because they've included the pre-broadcast intros, not meant to be aired, but which include some interesting behind-the-scenes audio over shots of a clock counting down the final seconds.  The BDs are also full of supplemental outtakes and other excised material, sometimes with subtitles where the audio was missing.  So this is the series really uncut for the first time, and with more unseen footage in the extras.
1999 A&E DVD top; 2019 Network BD bottom.
Network's booklet explains that the show, "was produced on 2" Quad tape... The basis for this restoration were the earliest generation tapes - or direct copies of them... Once restored, the programme then was up-scaled to High Definition."  As you can see, the framing is the same, but the AR has been corrected from a too tall 1.29:1 to 1.32:1.  There's not really any new detail pulled out of the image, but the interlacing lines are considerably slimmer in HD, giving a more coherent, natural picture.  And the black levels are subtly deepened, making everything look a little less muddy and washed out.  This is the tape portion of the series, which is most of the show but not all of it.
1999 A&E DVD top; 2019 Network BD bottom.
Some segments, mostly exteriors, were shot in 16mm.  The improvements in these sections get much more distinct.  Again, the blacks are deepened and the AR is adjusted, but as you can see above, there is much more clarity.  The image is sharper, and there really is fine detail to see (just look at the grass in the foreground) that was a soft haze before.  It's much more satisfying, and feels like the kind of upgrade you expect jumping from DVD to Blu.  And then there's Terry Gilliam's animated sequences.
1999 A&E DVD top; 2019 Network BD bottom.
Of these, we're told, "there was more 16mm footage available on negative (as well as print) and these were scanned in HD, graded and restored before being dropped into the episode timeline to replace the archive transfers used for the original broadcast."  This is where the most stark difference lays, wow!  The color correction is probably what grabs you first, but the distinct boost in clarity and the cleaned up damage are not far behind.  Compression smudging is replaced with fine lines.  You know, with the video portions of the show, there's a bit of a "well, this is the best it's going to ever look" side to the new transfers.  The film portions are better; but the animations really look gorgeous now.
1999 A&E DVD top; 2019 Network BD bottom.
And while we're still going from 1.29 to 1.32 (you wouldn't expect the AR to shift around mid-episode, would you?), you'll notice the animated sequences are zoomed further out, revealing more image around all four sides on the BD.  This is cool, but maybe a bit of a mistake on Network's part.  Notice, for instance, in this set of shots that we see below the edge of the foreground animated statue.  It reminds me of Arrow's Creepshow 2 blu, which revealed edges that should have been cropped/ matted out.  But considering how beautiful they are here, I sure wouldn't trade these restorations for what was on the DVDs!

Both discs just offer the original English mono track in 2.0, but of course it's lossless on the BDs' LPCM.  Both discs also offer optional English subtitles, the timing of which has been slightly adjusted on the BDs, and Network also throws in French, German, Polish, Portuguese and Spanish.
Live At the Hollywood Bowl
As for extras, A&E's 1999 set is surprisingly light for a "Mega Set."  Each disc just has two or three short clips on them, which are basically just sketches taken from the episodes - in other words entirely redundant.  But they do include a few live ones, which are taken from their 1982 Live At the Hollywood Bowl special, which was a fun way to see alternate versions of the same sketches.  But these became redundant, too, in 2005 when the entire Hollywood Bowl special was included in the 16 Ton set.  The video quality's a little rough, but it's a nice treat.  There's also an hour-long Live At Aspen special, which is an on-stage reunion chat with Robert Klein, Parrot Sketch Not Included: 20 Years of Python, which is a made-for-television greatest hits clip show (as in what you've already got in full on discs 1-14) hosted by Steve Martin, and best of all, one of the famous German episodes of Fliegender Zirkus.  There were two total, made to air in Germany, and yes, entirely produced in German language with mostly all new content.  English subtitles are burnt in.
the German episode
As I mentioned before, The Complete Collector's Edition has all of that and adds the six Personal Bests specials I've mentioned before.  These are just more greatest hits clips shows, so not too valuable, each focused on a different Python.  They at least include brief, new wrap-around segments; but as a whole, they're pretty worthless if you've already got the full series, which you do when you own this box.  But they also add two feature-length documentaries, Before the Flying Circus and Monty Python Conquers AmericaBefore is better, but both are pretty darn good and well worth the time of any Python fan.
So it's a shame Network doesn't have any of that stuff.  None of the specials, documentaries or even the German episodes.  And if you were hoping they'd bring in the Pythons for commentaries and new interviews and stuff, nope.  Actually, this set is surprisingly light on extras, mostly just including the outtakes and left overs they restored that weren't actually cut back into the episodes.  Not that there isn't anything else.  There are a few vintage goodies, including a BBC interview with the Pythons from the 70s, a short behind-the-scenes film, an old interview with Python producer Ian McNaughton and a featurette with Gilliam on the restoration work.  These are great, but it all feels awfully light considering these Network sets sold for roughly $200, and so much was dropped from the DVDs.  It's especially disappointing they didn't restore the German episodes along with the rest of the series.

But they sure delivered on swag.  The Norwegian set comes in a wild, fold-out box with a lid that houses four digipacks in slipboxes, one for each season.   Each season also includes a massive 176-page book (yes, four 176-page books total), with written histories and extensive details on every sketch.  Unfortunately, the books added so much weight, they wound up destroying most of the fancy boxes in shipping; but if you managed to get one undemolished, they were pretty sweet.  They also included another mini-booklet that lists the details and extras of each series set and includes the transfer notes.
I heard Network lost money on these sets, due to the packaging fiasco and fans being underwhelmed by the lack of special features.  But hopefully they're still recouping, what with the standard editions and anywhere else they can license their restorations in future.  Because theirs is unquestionably the definitive way to watch Monty Python's Flying Circus now.  They did great work, which is why it's so frustrating they didn't get to the German episodes, too - they've rendered the DVDs and any other editions quite obsolete.  You should definitely double-dip for these.  But you'll want to hang onto whatever DVD bonus discs you have, too.

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