Winter 2004

Understanding silly books

Turning Python’s TV humour into cold print required some very serious graphic design

The first Monty Python books – or ‘boks’, if you will – are unlikely design classics. Characterised by deeply researched typographic and design pastiches, Monty Python’s Big Red Book (1971) and The Brand New Monty Python Bok (1973) (republished as a Papperbok in 1974), were a visual smorgasbord of cartoons, photo stories and fake advertisements – and went straight to the top of the bestseller charts. Tie-ins with TV series had never been this bold, this funny, this… designed.

The books were conceived partly as an attempt to make the TV show live longer in the public imagination. Monty Python’s Flying Circus had been on air since 1969, and was steadily garnering a cult following. The team – John Cleese, Terry Jones, Graham Chapman, Michael Palin, Eric Idle and Terry Gilliam – had coalesced into a formidable comedy unit, and was redefining comedy via a multi-sketch formula mixing satire with surrealism. The question was how best to represent those sketches on paper, as a kind of souvenir, in an era before video, DVD and the easy access of a remote control.

Geoffrey Strachan, commissioning editor at Methuen, explains: ‘I was keen to get the Pythons on the Methuen list because we had a long history of putting out humour books, stretching way back to A. A. Milne, and through to the scripts of the Peter Cook and Dudley Moore show. But the Pythons were adamant that they wanted to do something a bit special that would essentially translate the parodies they were doing on TV into print form. So, for example, in the same way that they were spoofing documentary and news formats, so the book would spoof aspects of the publishing industry. In the end, we agreed on a picture book at £1.50, which their fans could afford.’

We are the designers who say ‘ni!’
The editor of the Big Red Book was to be Eric Idle, and there would be contributions from the other Pythons, most especially from Terry Gilliam, whose illustrations would form the visual focal point. The design team was headed by Derek Birdsall, one of the leading art directors of the day and a friend of Idle’s, along with art editor Katy Hepburn, sister-in-law of Terry Jones, who was still a student at the RCA, but who was already working with Gilliam on animations for the show.

But there were minor tensions from the start. The first was over money. The Pythons had not fully realised how popular they were becoming, and they now had not just the Methuen book offer on the table, but also a proposal to do a movie (And Now for Something Completely Different). ‘It was time to take more financial control,’ remembers Idle, ‘and it became inevitable that we’d form an independent production company.’

The tag ‘Copyright Python Productions’ would henceforward accompany any new product. It was the beginning of the merchandising boom, and of many a Python fortune.

Then Terry Gilliam wouldn’t play ball. He didn’t want to be involved because, he said, funny books didn’t sell. This was a major blow. Gilliam had lots of experience in the production of such publications from his days in the States, both as a cartoonist and an editor, and could have been a major asset. He’d been assistant editor on the groundbreaking magazine Help! (from 1962-65), working alongside his idol, Harvey Kurtzman, the man responsible for Mad. While there, he’d commissioned work from a number of up-and-coming cartoonists who would shortly form the backbone of the underground comix phenomenon – notably Robert Crumb and Gilbert Shelton. He’d also met a young British comedian called John Cleese, whom he’d promptly signed up to star in a photo story. But Help! had bombed, and Gilliam had been burned. His line that ‘funny books didn’t sell’ was heartfelt, and having moved to England and hooked up again with Cleese to become part of the Python team, he was quite happy in his new job, re-inventing himself as an animator. To get around Gilliam’s antipathy, Idle had to come up with emergency tactics. What happened next is disputed. According to Idle, ‘It got to the point where we actually raided Gilliam’s apartment, and ‘stole’ his animation drawings and cut-outs from his drawers,’ (in order to re-use them). According to Gilliam, however, this never happened. He told The Comics Journal: ‘That might be more interesting as a story, but it’s not true… Eric is very good at starting things, and less good at finishing them.

He was away on holidays and I was left to finish off the book’. 1 (Whether things got so bad that they ended up nailing each other’s heads to the coffee table is not known.) Whatever the difficulties, the Big Red Book took shape at lightning speed. Birdsall remembers: ‘There wasn’t a lot of time, so everything was done from the kitchen above my studio. The pages were stuck to the walls. It was all done by hand – there were no computers, of course – and there were a lot of late nights, waiting for the typesetting to come in.’ Idle continues: ‘I enjoyed the whole sleeves-rolled-up aspect to it. I loved graphic design, so Derek and I would have long discussions about what kind of paper to use, and so on. Great fun.’

But it was Katy Hepburn who was central: ‘She deserves the credit,’ says Birdsall. ‘My role was really as a kind of guru figure, to hold her hand, so to speak. I had some ideas about binding and typography, but she was a lot madder than I was, and more in tune with Python.’ Hepburn, for her part, acknowledges Birdsall’s contribution: ‘The project needed someone with his experience to anchor it down. He was also great with practical advice, explaining things like how Franklin Gothic at 24 point would look fantastic.’

Attention to detail became a matter of pride. ‘The closer the pastiche was to the real thing, the better the gag would work,’ says Hepburn. ‘We became interested in the tension between how something looked and what was being said.’ A good example was the Radio Times-style report on the ‘Upper Class Twit of the Year Race’. Idle remembers: ‘That was a case of slotting something into a context. On the TV show we’d used a documentary format; here, it was the Radio Times.’ Hepburn continues: ‘The typeface, layout and design were all as close as possible to the magazine, even down to the rather poorly produced photos.’

Suspenders and a bra
A similar level of meticulousness went into the Party Political Manifesto for The Silly Party, which came as an insert. Riffs on adverts were also a staple. ‘There was an ad for the Whizzo Chocolate Assortment,’ says Hepburn, ‘which was a pretty close parody of Cadbury’s advertising, except that these particular chocolates were made of steel bolts that spring out when you bit into them.’ Fake ads were nothing new – Mad magazine had made them a trademark – but rarely had they been done with such relish.

Interestingly, Hepburn was ‘sympathetic to’ feminism at the time, and was simultaneously starting to work for Spare Rib. This brought her up against the Pythons’ notorious blind spot for sexism. ‘There would be images involving flashers, dirty old men, etc., and I wasn’t always comfortable. But we were working too fast to grind any axes.’ She ponders for a moment. ‘Also, I used to feel that often they were doing it with irony, taking a position on the sort of people who might be like that.’

In retrospect, what’s really striking about the first book is that, despite Gilliam’s initial reservations, it’s his work that stands out. His full-page illustrations in particular bring an inspired lunacy to proceedings – collages of old photos and new drawings, often held together by a surprisingly subtle airbrush technique. His famous Python stomping foot makes an appearance (a cut-out borrowed from a sixteenth-century painting by Angelo Bronzino), but the overall impression is of an underground (hippie) sensibility. This countercultural flavour underlines that Gilliam was actually engaged in something quite subversive: the majority of the Great British Public were never likely to encounter a Robert Crumb comic, but they were seeing something similar in his animations every week, and now in the book.

Thus, the Big Red Book (published with a blue cover, of course), came to embody a formula based on crossover appeal. It was something that could be enjoyed by people wanting a souvenir of the show, by spotty schoolboys who did Mr Gumby impressions (and who might not have been allowed up late enough to see the show) and by countercultural folk who might see in it something akin to Oz. When it took its place on the shelves next to Morecambe and Wise annuals and Best Mother-in-Law Jokes, it looked almost avant garde. The initial print run of 30,000 sold out very quickly: to date, it has sold over half a million.

A man with three buttocks
The second book was more focused. The first one had shown that merchandising could work (‘We essentially invented the Christmas book market,’ says Idle). Now, Brand New Bok would be an opportunity to stretch things further in a way not so tied to the TV shows. To this end, the creative team were installed in offices in the Methuen building – a kitchen would no longer suffice – and asked to come up with something that could stand in its own right. Idle would edit, as before, but this time Hepburn had complete control over design. Fresh material was written by the Pythons (‘who now wanted a stake in what was going on’ – Idle), and crucially, Gilliam agreed to be much more hands on.

The result was an intricate masterpiece notable for its detail. ‘Every page was a new design brief,’ says Hepburn. ‘There were galleys and galleys of typesetting done in different ways – metal to photosetting to linotype to Letraset. The bills were horrific!’ In tone, the Bok was much more loose and wild, and this paralleled the direction the TV show was taking at that time. The sex, in particular, was much more up-front, with jokes about masturbation and sex manuals peppering the more innocuous material.

This new sense of freedom was signalled by the decision to print a set of grubby fingerprints on the (white) cover. For the original hardback Bok, these prints were on a plain wrapper which peeled away to reveal pictures of naked ladies (ancient photos tarted up by Gilliam). This turned into a distributors’ nightmare, however, because shops would invariably be appalled by the ‘soiled’ merchandise, ‘and kept sending them back!,’ chuckles Idle. This was a source of great delight for the Pythons, who subsequently refused to re-think the cover for the paperback edition (Brand New Papperbok, 1974). One of the most successful segments not previously seen on TV was a three-page spoof of a teenage girls’ magazine.

‘There were a lot of them being published at the time, and they were ripe for a bashing,’ says Hepburn. ‘Again, we wanted to be as accurate as possible, so a lot of time was spent on the cover, for example.’ (Which includes the teasers: ‘Short Story: The Deodorant, by Constance MacPseudonym’ and ‘Grand Competition: Win a Thousand Deodorants’, etc.) She continues: ‘Then inside, we commissioned Peter Brookes to do a semi-realistic illustration, to accompany a preposterous romantic story, so that the magazine would seem more authentic, and also so the book wouldn’t look too uniform, like it was all Terry’s work.’

Then there was the version of a dreary Penguin paperback, ‘Norman Henderson’s Diary’, which came as an insert bound into the book. ‘We knew that Penguin were very particular about their typography, and would always reference "Linotype Juliana" in their inside covers,’ says Hepburn. ‘So that was irresistible, and we did exactly the same thing. There were some extra twists, of course – such as the Penguin logo. If you look closely, you’ll see that the penguin is in fact being sick.’

Blessed are the cheesemakers
But again it is Gilliam’s work that stands out, and this time he produced plenty of fresh material especially for the Bok. The cut-outs are not so in evidence, and instead comic strips take pride of place – amazing, underground-style rambles with sex and violence, often starring animals with endlessly expressive human faces. It’s as if he were reverting to his first love, and giving a peace sign to his cartoonist pals across the Atlantic.

Were the Pythons really connecting with the counterculture at this time? There was probably some sympathy among individual members. But beyond Gilliam’s underground sensibility, it’s hard to detect a particular emphasis on utopian politics. Hepburn explains: ‘The Pythons were a BBC act, and were considered so extreme that they were censored several times. That meant they couldn’t go as far as the underground even if they wanted to. It was about jokes.’

As for the perspective of the counterculture itself, there’s certainly evidence that Python was enjoyed and supported. When they did live shows, they’d be treated like rock stars, with a young and beery audience that would include people like Mick Jagger. A quick flick-through of old copies of IT [International Times] does reveal a deep detestation of the BBC (‘a rich clique in bad suits’), yet the final issue (24 February 1972) signs off with an affectionate version of ‘The Lumberjack Song’. Funny was funny, whether you wore a peace badge or not.

Brand New Bok and Papperbok went on to imitate the success of Monty Python’s Big Red Book and sold in their hundreds of thousands (publishers Methuen can’t say exactly how many because, they say, they’ve ‘ditched the files’). They marked a watershed in a sense, because Papperbok was published in the same year that the television show came off the air. Thereafter, Monty Python would make the transition from cult act to (bigger budget) movies, and becoming megastars in the States. By the time this transformation was complete, the word ‘postmodernism’ had come into common parlance, and the Bok had all but been forgotten.

Postmodernism, you say? Sounds like the kind of thing that would have been mercilessly lampooned in the ‘philosophers’ football match’ sketch. But some learned writers have dated the emergence of this form of cultural collaging to exactly the period in which the Bok was taking shape. David Harvey, for example, in his famous study The Condition of Postmodernity (1989) pinpoints 1972 as the moment when a ‘sea-change’ began to occur ‘in cultural as well as social-economic practices’. The Pythons’ penchant for pastiching, parodying, collaging and re-contextualising (most evident in the Bok) could all fit nicely into this theory. But then again, if the Pythons were postmodern, does that mean the Goons were, too? As Mr Gumby might say: ‘My brain hurts.’

‘This format is dead!’ ‘no it’s not – it’s restin’!’
What did the books achieve? Any comedian will tell you that it’s not so much the content of the joke, but the way it’s told. If nothing else, Big Red Book and Brand New Bok showed that design could be a crucial part of creating that joy. Some of the references (Reginald Bosanquet, Arthur Negus) are dated or incomprehensible outside the UK but the energy and typographic somersaults speak for themselves. There’s a case to be made that the books are a damn sight more entertaining than videos of the old shows.

There would be other books, but none was as iconic. The Pythons went on to do adaptations of their films (Holy Grail, Life of Brian, Meaning of Life), while rivals tried to imitate their success – the lamentable Goodies book was an object lesson in how not to do it. But for the most part, it was a case of ‘and now for something completely the same’, and by the time alternative comedy came along in the late 1970s the formula was definitely looking past-it. Only the Viz volumes in the 1980s and 90s managed to revive some of that early comedic punch (Michael Palin sent Viz a note of congratulation, saying, ‘Your organ has given me greater pleasure than my own’ 2).

So now, Python print has made it into the Barbican, 3 and the very idea of a ‘Christmas book market’ sends shudders down the spines of right-thinking people. Perhaps, in this post-catchphrase, post-postmodern era of Internet-based satire, the time has finally come to close down the Ministry of Silly Books.

1 Terry Gilliam, interviewed by Paul Wardle, The Comics Journal, no. 182, November 1995, p.76. (Gilliam is currently unavailable for comment because he is finishing a new movie, The Brothers Grimm.)

2 Chris Donald, Rude Kids: The Unfeasible Story of Viz. London: HarperCollins, 2004, p.268.

3 Katy Hepburn and Derek Birdsall’s work for the Python boks was featured in ‘Communicate: Independent British Graphic Design Since the Sixties’ at the Barbican, London.

First published in Eye no. 54 vol. 14 2004

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