Sunday, January 9, 2022


So often a shortcut definition for British humour, I needed a reminder of the revelation “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” was on first viewing. Targeting the eccentricities and authorities found in British life was not new, but it was among the first comedy shows to play to an audience that grew up with television, comfortable with its bold fragmentation and abandonment of sketches, and stretching of established TV show formats. It didn’t second-guess the intelligence of its audience: an explanation of the philosopher Immanuel Kant was not required, whether he was a real pissant or not. The show’s dynamic style and form was also among the first comedy shows its audience would have seen in colour, although the first four episodes were broadcast in black and white before BBC One switched to colour in November 1969.

Despite having seen bits of the team’s later films, I knew none of this when I first saw the first episode of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” in July 1994, the BBC starting a repeat run to mark the show's 25th anniversary. I was eleven years old – I had seen the first series of “The Smell of Reeves & Mortimer”, but the first episode of “The Fast Show” was still two months away. I didn’t yet realise that what I was about to watch would reflect the attitudes of its time, despite that being the show’s target in 1969. I got the interview sketch about Arthur “Two Sheds” Jackson, Terry Jones’s composer whose nickname overshadowed his work, who is kicked off the arts programme when he complains – then John Cleese’s interviewer shouts, “get your own arts programme, you fairy.”


My immediate deduction from this was that the character, or the writer of that line, was scared of fairies. I had never heard the word “fairy” used in this context before, and have only heard it used in other TV and radio shows of the period, into the 1970s, and on other episodes of “Flying Circus”: when a journalist is asking the opinion of the man in the street, Terry Jones appears as on a house roof, saying, “I’m not in the street, you fairy,” while a display of an army units “camp square-bashing” chants, “we all know where you’ve been, you military fairy!”


Even after realising it was meant as an insult to gay men, one that appeared in the UK between the world wars after being coined, to describe particularly effeminate gay men, in the Bowery section of New York as early as the 1870s, I couldn’t take offence to something that sounded so bizarre. With homosexuality only having begun to be decriminalised in the UK in 1967, it was a current subject that appeared in “Flying Circus”, other episodes in the first series featuring a writer telling his son to go back to Yorkshire over “you and your coal mining friends”, a “Panorama” parody documentary on what makes a man want to be a mouse, and a sketch where a man, having been told by a police officer they can’t help over a lost wallet, asks the officer if he wants to go back to their place – the officer says, “yes, alright”, the audience laughs, the show carries on. Times were changing. I would love to have known Graham Chapman’s thoughts as these shows were first broadcast.

Comedy ages poorly, until it doesn’t: in September 2021, the Chinese government announced that broadcasters must "resolutely put an end to sissy men and other abnormal esthetics,", as they are failing to encourage Chinese men to be more masculine. This limp step is apparently aimed at pop stars and internet celebrities but, as if to show how much times have changed, I haven’t heard the word “sissy” used in years either. The pejorative slang for effeminate men in China, as used by their government, was “niang pao” – seeing as that means “girlie guns” in English, that term is just begging for reappropriation by those who were called it, just like “fairy” and “sissy” were here.

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