There’s Still Stuff Missing!

Please write to me if you have the Time Life editions of MPFC. Thanks!

Okay, you ask, why are we interested only in the Time Life editions? Here’s the story. The BBC had censored several episodes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus when they were originally broadcast in 1969 through 1974. But when PBS, through Time Life, licensed the US broadcast rights, the BBC mistakenly sent over, for the most part, the uncensored versions!

Monty Python’s Flying Circus first appeared in the US in 1974, shortly after the group had officially disbanded and just as the final season was approaching its close in Great Britain. My friends and I would watch these episodes religiously. Then it was in late 1980 that Time Life’s license expired. We all suffered withdrawal as we went Pythonless for several years. Then, at long last, another outfit, Devillier Donegan, released the series beginning in the autumn of 1983. We were appalled. Some of our favorite sketches were chopped to pieces, revoiced, or deleted altogether. You see, Devillier Donegan had received the standard BBC censored versions. Of course, my friends and I all thought that the folks at Devillier Donegan were the culprits, and we fully expected the uncut episodes to be broadcast once again after Devillier Donegan’s license expired. We were to be sorely disappointed. We did not realize that the masters of the uncensored episodes had been destroyed by that time.

Here are two examples, which thank heaven have been documented. Please take a look at

Yes, those were complete when Time Life had the license, and I remember them distinctly. Once Devillier Donegan got the license, the “Cartoon Religions” animation was extremely choppy, to de-emphasize the crucifixions. Nowadays, on the home-video editions, the new editors decided that they did not like the choppiness, and so they simply truncated the sketch altogether, cutting it off long before its proper ending.

Here is the uncut opening of that episode from the 16mm kinescope. It has a few lines of dialogue deleted from all current broadcast and video copies:

Note the tearing at the bottom of the image.
This kinescope derived from a ¾" U-Matic tape.
Note also the framing problem, with the frameline at the top.
It doesn’t seem that the transfer was out of frame;
it seems that this was a problem in the original kinescope filming,
but it’s hard to know for sure, especially when all we can see is this YouTube clip.

Fortunately, that 16mm kinescope allowed the BBC techies to do a colorization to restore somewhat the look of the original “Cartoon Religions.” You have the beginning on DVD at home. Here, at last, is the ending:

Another example was, I think, my favorite sketch of all. But when Devillier Donegan picked up the series, that entire sketch was missing, and instead what we saw was a caption that read something like “Tonight’s episode will begin straight away with the credits.” That was followed by another caption that read something like, “No you didn’t. You started with that caption.” And finally a third caption: “Oh yes.” And then it went into the opening credits, but that wonderful, glorious sketch was gone. If I were to introduce a newcomer to the delights of Monty Python, ideally I would want to start with that sketch. But maddeningly, it’s missing!

Or, should I say, rather, that it was missing?! Fortunately, a viewer in Fort Erie, Ontario, recorded that episode on VHS when it was being broadcast on nearby Buffalo’s WNED-TV. (Buffalo is my adopted home town, as I lived there from April 1987 through May 2003 and fell madly in love with what little is left of the decrepit place. But it was an unrequited love, and I was run out of town on a rail.) Unfortunately, he recorded it during a fund drive and so there is a now-unwanted caption interrupting the image. Here it is on YouTube, so capture it before it vanishes:

The tearing of the bottom of the image would indicate
that this broadcast was from a ¾" U-Matic tape.

There were other changes as well. For example: Jack notices a spot on his nose. “Foolishly he ignored it. Then, six months later, he died of cancer.” When Devillier Donegan offered that episode, the word “cancer” was changed to “gangrene,” spoken by an unfamiliar voice.

Also, the Devillier Donegan series included the final season. Time Life had licensed the series prior to the creation of that final season, and so for several years it had the rights only to the first three seasons. ABC television picked up the license for the fourth season, and that is why terribly censored and unendurably mutilated editions were shown on the 90-minute “ABC’s Wide World of Entertainment,” three episodes at a stretch, in October and December 1975, much to the Pythons’ collective fury.

Apparently, though, in about 1979 Time Life did acquire the license for the final season, and each of those six episodes ended with a modified, modernized, animated TL Time Life Television logo with a synthesized musical sound effect. Some markets got those six episodes in 1979 and 1980, but we never saw them in Albuquerque.

Here is the tail end of the Time Life edition of Python’s “The Golden Age of Ballooning,”
which I never knew until just now had been included in the Time Life package at any time.
Here you can see and hear the modernized Time Life logo that I swear I have never seen before in my life.

I was surprised to read at Wikipedia of even further deletions in the “Summarize Proust” and “Travel Agent” sketches. That surprised me. But Python expert David Morgan (who corrected numerous errors on this page for me) assures me that they were indeed cut, even in the Time Life days. Strangely, when Devillier Donegan had the license, the “Summarize Proust” sketch was complete, with Graham Chapman naming all three of his hobbies, rather than just the first two. And that’s exactly how I remember it, and that’s the only way I remember it. Take a look at the complete sketch, which I understand is not available on home video anywhere:

So, whatever happened to the original tapes? The story is vague, but reading between the lines, this is the narrative I have been able to piece together. Time Life received PAL copies from the BBC, but could not afford to convert the masters to NTSC for US/Canadian broadcast. Then in 1974 Dean Martin’s Comedy World, a summertime replacement series, wished to license some clips. I saw that episode, because I know that sometime in 1974 I saw Monty Python clips on network television. For some reason I misremembered that they were on Candid Camera, but David Morgan assures me they were on Dean Martin’s Comedy World. Now why on earth would I have been watching that? I was not at all a fan of Dean Martin (he seemed to be a nice guy personally, and, given good material, he could be a wonderful performer, but I didn’t and still don’t like smutty humor and I have never found alcoholism amusing). But just now, in Googling, I discovered that Dean Martin never appeared on this series. He just licensed the use of his name. This series was basically a compilation of comedy highlights from all over the place, and it occasionally included clips from silent movies. A ha! That’s why I watched it! Anyway, I distinctly remember two and only two and no more than two Monty Python sketches that day, namely the flasher (“BOO!”) and “The Dull Life of a City Stockbroker” (minus the nude scene). Wikipedia mentions that a few of the Monty Python cartoons also appeared on this episode, but I don’t recall that. And CalMeacham on Straight Dope claims she saw the “Hell’s Grannies” on that episode, which I don’t remember at all. And Fafner on In the 00s claims that episode also included the Dead Parrot and Buying a Mattress. Oh fiddlesticks! Those were included too? Really? Is my memory that bad? (Chuck Rothman, commenting on IMDb, remembers that Dean Martin’s Comedy World also included the cartoon of the Montgolfier brothers bathing themselves with the words “naughty bits” deleted. Before that explodes into another urban legend, rest assured that he’s confusing Dean Martin’s Comedy World with ABC’s Wide World of Entertainment.) David Morgan, renowned Pythonist, sent me an email explaining some background, and he granted me permission to quote him:

When Nancy Lewis was trying to sell the show in the States (in 1973 or even ’72), she did have to bring prospective buyers to an office at Time Life that was equipped to play PAL tapes. It could be that they were simply review copies, not quads.
But the entire series was not transferred from PAL to NTSC until the sale to Dean Martin’s Comedy World went through — the purchase of rights to broadcast bits of MPFC on the summer series paid for the conversion of the entire run. That made it much less expensive for buyers (PBS in this case) to take it on.
That conversion may have been done in the UK, I just don’t know, but it would have been in 1974, not before.

According to a recent posting on the AMIA-L list serve, these conversions were something new, significantly better than previous systems conversions. Probably nothing mechanical was used in the conversion. Everything seemed to have been done entirely electronically, and people at the time were amazed at the high quality. I, on the other hand, was never amazed, because by the time the shows reached my other home town of Albuquerque (where I lived from July 1971 through October 1984) the shows looked dreadful; they were the worst conversions I had ever seen. I am sure that what we in Albuquerque were viewing was significantly degraded from the original conversions.

Time Life and PBS had no idea at all that the tapes in their possession were anything special. When Time Life’s license expired, most or all the tapes in its possession were wiped or discarded. Besides, by then they had all worn out. Remember, back in those days videotapes were quite fragile and could withstand only about five passes before they were rendered unbroadcastable. I remember that many of KNME’s broadcasts looked quite horrible because their budget did not allow for the purchase of sufficient new tapes, and so tapes were being wiped and re-recorded up to about 70 times!

Also, Time Life’s tapes did not have closed captioning, which made them useless for future broadcasts. Nobody was interested in a broadcast tape that did not include closed captioning, and that would have been further incentive to dispose of the tapes. Devillier Donegan’s tapes, on the other hand, did have closed captioning.

Nonetheless, there is some small hope of recovering the originals, though, because of the peculiar method by which Time Life distributed Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Normally, local affiliates would record satellite transmissions for later broadcast. In this case, though, NTSC conversions on 2" quad or ¾" U-Matic were packed up and shipped to each local affiliate, without any guarantee. That is why one autumn Albuquerque station KNME found itself unable to broadcast the scheduled series, for the provider had shipped over defective tapes, for which there would be no replacements or refund. So from 1974 through 1979 there was an unusually large number of tapes of all these episodes, and so there’s a small chance that a few forgotten tapes are still collecting dust in some TV stations’ corners somewhere. A very small chance, David Morgan assures me, because he has scoured the stations already, to no avail. Nonetheless, I still hold onto some hope that a technician charged with discarding used tapes decided to souvenir them instead.

Precisely two Time Life 2" quads were kept on file at the Library of Congress, but unfortunately, those were not the episodes we’ve been seeking.

So now you know. That is why we are on the hunt for the Time Life editions. So write to me if you’ve got them in your collection somewhere. Thanks!

NOTE ADDED ON TUESDAY, 23 NOVEMER 2010: Some Time Life editions of the Python series have turned up in Chicago. Please see Fuzzy Memories for more details. Hooray!!!!!

Oh! Just discovered some more missing sketches, stuff that’s all new to me. I had heard vaguely of the wine-tasting sketch, but not of the others. I guarantee you’ve never seen these on any broadcast: Lost Sketches. Now, you never knew about all that, did you? My heaven how I hope that tape turns up somewhere!

Isn’t it comforting to know that the censors are protecting us?