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How Monty Python’s dead parrot went live in Coventry

The six members of the Monty Python team, 1969. Left to right: Terry Jones, Graham Chapman (1941 - 1989), John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam and Michael Palin

image copyrightGetty Images

The dead parrot went live 50 years ago on Sunday when Monty Python made the leap from TV to public performance.

Until 31 January 1971, when the comedy troupe appeared in Coventry, people had only been able to watch on screen.

But the stage show meant that for the first time, silly walks, nudge-nudges and wink-winks could be enjoyed in the flesh – or in the case of a Norwegian blue, the feathers.

And that’s not to mention John Cleese selling ice cream in the interval.

A half-century later, an organiser has been recalling how those who would go on to be among the world’s most beloved comedy performers were lured to tread the boards.

The Belgrade Theatre from around the time

image copyrightBelgrade Theatre

In ’71, Colin Richardson was at the helm, with Ted Little, of local student event The Lanchester Arts Festival. And they decided to ask whether any of the Pythons would perform for them.

What they ended up with at Belgrade Theatre was the whole Flying Circus. And at a time when the players were on the cusp of breaking America, where a decade later they would put on one of the most famous comedy performances of all time – Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl.

Mr Richardson approached Eric Idle initially, and arranged a meeting at his flat where he hoped one or two of the other Pythons might be interested.

He said: “To my excitement, [Idle] said ‘your timing is perfect as we have been talking of the possibility of all doing something live on stage’.

“Their only conditions were that we got them the Belgrade Theatre and they did three shows. I have no recollection of a contract and seem to remember it was a peppercorn fee; it was not much.”

1971 Lanchester Arts Festival Programme

image copyrightColin Richardson

Eric Idle told the Leamington Courier in 2017 he was already aware of the Coventry theatre before the shows.

“It’s a great venue. I had the idea of putting Python on stage and I produced the script, selecting the sketches, and we did it at midnight for three nights and they went nuts,” he told the newspaper.

Tickets for the shows sold out within 20 minutes, Mr Richardson said, and for the first, Python performed to 1,100 fans.

Michael Palin and John Cleese performing the Dead Parrot Sketch in 2014

image copyrightGetty Images

Writing in his diary at the time, Michael Palin recalled the excitement – his own and that of the crowd.

“It was amazing, exciting and rather frightening to turn the corner and see the Belgrade Theatre seething with people like bees round a honey pot,” he wrote.

“From behind stage one could hear just how enthusiastic they were – there was shouting and cheering before anything had happened. There were 10 men dressed as Gumbies in the front row of the circle.”

Audience members dressed as Mr Gumby in 2009

image copyrightGetty Images

Among the audience on the first night was David Partridge, from Albans, who was 21 and already a fan.

He said: “It was fantastic, so funny. Being a lively student crowd, everybody was there for a laugh; it was a great atmosphere.

“I remember John Cleese selling ice cream in the interval – it was called albatross and he was very belligerently demanding to people ‘come and get your albatross now’ while dressed as an usherette.”

Mr Richardson said of the performers: “They all went down a storm, they were so welcomed.

“Although I was excited, I did not really have any awareness of the significance for the long term, I was just pleased that it came together and the whole thing went smoothly. [The Pythons] came away happy.”

According to a review from the Coventry Evening Telegraph at the time, the best sketches included the Ministry of Silly Walks, and, of course, the dead parrot.

The Monty Python team would go on to appear in several films and live shows before a final reunion performance in London in 2014.

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