Camilla Cleese helps revive sketches her father did pre-Monty Python
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This is probably not the ideal person to question the beekeeper. It’s bad enough that the TV interviewer makes an involuntary squawk every time she hears the word “life.” But what’s worse, she can’t help but emit a loud, noxious raspberry whenever the beekeeper says “pollen.”
‘AT LAST THE 1948 SHOW — LIVE’
When: 7:30, 9 and 10:30 p.m. Sept. 8 and 15
Where: iO Theater, 1501 N. Kingsbury
The sketch being rehearsed this week has all the absurdity and cacophony of classic Monty Python. But this is not a Python ripoff; rather, it’s a Python precursor.
It’s part of a revue playing the next two Fridays at the iO Theater, a collection of scenes from “At Last the 1948 Show,” a series aired just once on British television in 1967. Among its writers and stars were John Cleese and Graham Chapman, just before they allied themselves with four other comic geniuses to launch “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.”
For the 1967 show’s 50th anniversary, key scenes are being remounted by a cast of Americans that includes Cleese’s daughter Camilla, a Los Angeles-based actress, writer and stand-up comedian.
“I don’t know if these are the BEST sketches,” says director Kim “Howard” Johnson, “but these are the easiest ones to stage, and as a director that’s very important.”
“And the cheapest,” chimes in Camilla Cleese.
Johnson, a longtime associate of the Pythons who has written several books about the group, worked out the idea as he accompanied John Cleese on a series of live U.S. appearances earlier this year. For the show’s premiere, they settled on iO, where Johnson performed and later taught, and where Cleese had a good time plugging his memoir in 2014 — with a live interview conducted by Camilla.
Rather than entrust the “1948 Show” material to male actors who inevitably would end up imitating the original actors (who also included future Mel Brooks sidekick Marty Feldman), Johnson and Cleese decided the cast should be mostly women — a choice Cleese’s daughter heartily endorses.
“It takes the pressure off trying to be like the original,” Camilla Cleese says. “It’s automatically apples and oranges as opposed to us trying to be them.”
Putting Camilla in this premiere run made perfect sense, especially since she has a history in Chicago. After her parents’ marriage broke up, Cleese and her mother, actress and author Barbara Trentham, moved from London to Chicago, where the teenage Cleese attended Francis W. Parker School. “Loved it,” she says. “I went to 28 bar mitzvahs!”
But, as she’s done ever since entering show business, she hesitated about taking a job related to Python. “I get, ‘You’re only in it because of your dad’ — which is 100 percent true, in this case at least. I even get that with my stand-up, though, which is a little bit harder to justify. I kinda just came to realize that people are gonna say that no matter what. So f— ’em.”
All her life, Cleese has been immersed in Python material, mostly from being with her dad as pesky fans begged him to recite famous lines. That makes her the ideal collaborator for Johnson, as he sees it, because “all this familiarity bred, not contempt, but some disinterest, I think.” Whereas for him, the quintessential Python geek, scripts by those six comic legends are “sacred, like the sacred scrolls. So between the two of us — between [her] disinterest and [my] huge respect — we find a middle ground.”
For a time, video from “At Last the 1948 Show” — a name spoofing the way BBC programmers took their time putting finished material on the air — was thought lost. “The shows themselves had been scattered to four winds,” Johnson said. “The BBC, in their infinite wisdom, decided to record over the videotapes.”
Enough footage has been recovered that a DVD of “1948” content, compiled for Swedish television, was issued in the U.S. in 2005. Moreover, the Pythons later repurposed some of the material in their live shows, on their albums and in special “Flying Circus” episodes made for German TV.
One was the beekeeper bit, which Cleese revived with Rowan Atkinson at a 1981 Amnesty International benefit. As the iO group rehearses the scene and the interviewer (played here by Kristen Lundberg) demonstrates various ways to squawk, the director and his actors have no qualms about tinkering with the 50-year-old gags. Especially the one whose father helped make them up.
“He’s such a great writer and I have so much respect for him — I would never tell him that, by the way — I like the idea of doing it a little bit differently,” says Camilla Cleese, who plays the flustered beekeeper. “I don’t want to be held to his standard or have [people] expect it to be the same. I rather do it a little bit different. Which helps, because I don’t have a penis.”