Monty Python and the Holy Grail
By Alfie Packham
I was at my friend Will’s house one weekend when he started saying, “ni” in a shrill voice.
“Ni!” my other friend Chris chimed in, and they laughed.
It was funny, though I knew I was missing a reference here. At age 12 it was becoming clear my survival would depend on seeing more films. I tried to do my own “ni,” but Chris noticed my pitch was off. “It’s from Monty Python,” he said.
I went home and looked into this man, who turned out to be six men: Michael Palin, John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam. My mum already owned one of their films on VHS, Monty Python and the Holy Grail – which I’d ignored, obviously, because it was from the past. The film was already 30 years old, but even in 2006 I’d never seen anything as daft as this one. Nothing could top that opening image of King Arthur galloping through a damp field on foot, his squire in tow, knocking two halves of a coconut together in lieu of a horse.
The Holy Grail is a parody of Arthurian legend in the form of a narrative sketch show, where each episode is twisted into increasingly absurdist situations. If you haven’t seen it, someone has probably quoted it at you: the Black Knight who won’t surrender a duel after losing all his limbs (“Tis but a scratch”; the taunting Frenchman, (“Your mother was a hamster); the Knights Who Say, “Ni” – and yes, I was one of those people.
Before Monty Python, I’d been raised on children’s franchises by Spielberg, Disney and Pixar. Films were supposed to be warm and comfy experiences designed to transport you to another world. But while The Holy Grail appears to offer a twee little universe of its own, with its castles and swords, there’s an occasional lurch as the fourth wall caves in, and the film seems to implode in service of one gag. My favourite of these was when Arthur and his knights run away from the ‘Black Beast of Aaaarrgggh!’ in an animated sequence that ends with a cutaway to the film’s animator dying of a heart attack.
I wasn’t keen to rewatch The Holy Grail for this article, though; I assume returning to anything I loved more than about four years ago will be painful, as if I’m travelling back in time to meet my younger self, only to realise he’s a moron, like Biff in Back to the Future II. But The Holy Grail is still infectious. There’s a breeziness to everyone’s performances. Although Eric Idle and John Cleese were funniest to me as a kid, I can appreciate the whole team now: none of it works without Graham Chapman as Arthur the straight man. And it could be a side effect of two months indoors, but I lost it when Terry Jones thrust his hands into a puddle of mud, yelling, “I’ve found some lovely filth!”
Yes, some of the sketches are tighter than others, and the whimsy levels will test the patience of hard-hearted adults by the time we meet Tim the Enchanter. I’d forgotten it doesn’t really have an ending, either. Arthur is about to besiege a castle when modern-day police arrive on set and arrest the whole cast – and the credits roll. The scene almost shocked me as a kid. Films were really allowed to just stop like that?
For all this, it doesn’t feel too throwaway; the world has a sense of depth, despite the low budget. It’s validating to see critics discuss how great the film looks today, unironically. As director Terry Gilliam once said, “Add a little smoke and filth to a scene and it starts to look more artistic.” (This was back when his interviews were fun.)
I arrived late, The Holy Grail seemed to find me at the right moment. It certainly complemented the other aesthetic choices I was making at the time – namely Runescape and Warhammer models. I like to think The Holy Grail would be my favourite regardless of the year, though, even if I’d been born a smartphone child of 2020, with some innate fluency in absurdist internet memes. It may seem quaint nowadays, but it still feels subversive. Maybe 12-year-old Monty Python fans do still exist somewhere, quoting Roger the Shrubber, and laughing nasally. I don’t see why they shouldn’t.