Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Monty Python's First Live Performance - Belgrade Theatre Coventry 1971


The latest article by Pete Clemons for the Coventry Telegraph with some background notes by Trev Teasdel.

Back in 2007, I posted an article on the original Hobo - Coventry Music and Arts Magazine archive site on Vox, regarding the Lanch (Lanchester Poly tech now Coventry University) Arts Festivals. On the programme of the 1971 festival, in small print, was the name Colin Richardson - the London Bron Agency with who Ted Little (then Social Secretary of the Lanch student union) book his bands through. Colin came across my post and got in touch, offering more information for the site.
Colin Richardson with Paul McCartney

Colin proved to be a fascinating man and raconteur of hos own musical history. I promtly interviewed his for the Hobo site, starting from his jazz group background and venue management which included the Marquee club in London c 1965. Colin went on to manage Jon Hiseman's Colosseum and the New Jazz Orchestra and work for various music agencies like Bron, booking some of the top bands of the time into venues like Coventry's Lanchester Poly. Later he worked for Charisma records and then became a music journalist, interviewing the likes of Nilsson, Genesis and Paul McCartney.

The full Colin Richardson interview - in parts - can be viewed here -
1. http://covdiscoarchive.blogspot.co.uk/2013/11/colin-richardson-interview-part-1.html
2. http://covdiscoarchive.blogspot.co.uk/2013/11/colin-richardson-interview-part-2.html
3. http://covdiscoarchive.blogspot.co.uk/2013/11/colin-richardson-interview-part-3.html
4. http://covdiscoarchive.blogspot.co.uk/2013/11/colin-richardson-interview-part-4-bron.html
5. http://covdiscoarchive.blogspot.co.uk/2013/11/colin-richardson-interview-part-5.html
6. http://covdiscoarchive.blogspot.co.uk/2013/11/colin-richardson-interview-part-5.html
7. http://covdiscoarchive.blogspot.co.uk/2013/11/colin-richardson-interview-part-7.html

Part 6 relates to the Monty Python scoop.
Colin Richardson's own site is http://colinrichardsonjazz.typepad.com/blog/

Colin was subsequently interviewed by BBC Radio Coventry and Warwickshire on the Python story - you can listen to the broadcast on part 6 of the above interview. On the recent announcement of Python's proposed return to the stage, BBC Coventry called him back for another brief interview end of 2013.

Pete Clemons also followed on with a great article on the story of Colin's historic Python scoop for the Coventry Telegraph which hit the press last Monday and is re-presented here for posterity and those who didn't see it. However, there is an oversite in that Pete inadvertently merged a eye witness account of the Python performance with an anacdote by myself. Although i went to most of the Lanch events and witness the Gumbies leaving the Lanch poly with knotted hankerchiefs on their heads, marching down priory street to the Belgrade Theatre, it was a Nuneaton Observer journalist (an old school pal) Chris Applebey who actually saw the performance and interviewed John Cleese. Pete forgot to attribute that bit to Chris, so we mention it here.

This is Chris Applebey's story -
"One of the most memorable weeks of my life! I was a reporter for the Nuneaton Observer and had press tickets for all events. The stand out moments for me were Elton John's performance in the Lanch Hall - he'd just switched from the Burn Down the Mission style stuff to the screaming up and down on top of his piano bit - and then his dressing room afterwards where he was very kind to my, then 17 year old, sister Sue. He was a sweetie to her. The same week I saw Monty Python's first live show at the Belgrade. I was in a press box, right next to the stage and Cleese stood in front of me, glaring and shouting "Albatross! Albatross! Gannet on a stick! Tern ripple." I was crying with laughter as he just stood po-faced in usherette uniform as I clung to the balcony legless with laughter. I interviewed him afterwards, I am tiny and he's huge and I was very star-struck and young. All I can remember was him saying how great it was to see so many people had come such a long way to see them, from somewhere up north, all dressed as "Gumby". It was an incredible coup for the Lanch to get so many big names that year, who were just hitting the big wave of their careers. I guess free tickets made it a very good deal."

Python's Historic Live Show in Coventry.
Pete Clemons 

IN case it escaped your notice, cult comedy group Monty Python, have announced a reunion by way of a return to the live stage. The event, scheduled for July 2014, will be held in London at the O2 arena. It seems as though they want to see if they 'were still funny'.

The show will be their first new project for three decades as it is more than 30 years since the Pythons last performed together at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles in September 1980, and 40 years since they last performed on stage in the UK.

However, the humble surroundings of the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry city centre can lay claim to being the place where the Monty Python team first played to a live audience. And this was indeed quite a coup.

It all came about through the efforts of booking consultant for London based Bron Agency, Colin Richardson, and student union event organiser Ted Little. Having put together a successful Lanchester Polytechnic Arts Festival in 1970 the pair was now planning for the 1971 festival. The 'Flying Circus' TV programme had been around for couple of years yet Monty Python was still cult viewing.

Ted asked if it would be possible to book one or two of the Monty Python team to perform a couple of sketches from the cult TV show, as they were immensely popular with the student fraternity. Colin expressed doubt, because, as far as he knew, none of the Python team had ever made any live appearances as Python characters.

Undeterred he said he would try to find out if any of them might be interested in doing something.

Colin modestly says that a slice of luck then followed. He had a band going at the time that included an American singer by the name of Jean Hart who happened to be the then partner of 'Goodie' Bill Oddie. This resulted in Bill offering to introduce Colin to 'Python' Eric Idle.

A meeting was set up and Eric Idle asked Colin about what dates he had in mind, the Festival organisation, its history, etc. Colin mentioned many of the artists that had already been booked along with some of those who had appeared during the previous two years and described how well-run the festival was.

Colin had been expecting Eric to indicate who, if anyone, from the Python team might be up for taking part when he said something that almost had him breathless with excitement. It was along the lines of: "Well, your timing couldn't be more perfect as we've been discussing the possibility of doing something live on stage and, if we did, it would defi-nitely be away from London in case it didn't work for us.

"Now, if you can find out whether the Belgrade Theatre is available for, say, a three-night run, that would certainly increase the odds of us agreeing to do it, as we've all worked at that venue before and know that it would be an ideal place for us'" The meeting concluded with Colin promising to get back in touch with Eric as soon as possible and he left to find a phone to call Ted Little and give him the astounding news. Ted didn't seem to take it in at first and kept asking which of the Pythons I was talking about.

Colin replied "'All of them, the 'tout ensemble', the whole damn Circus!'" After it had all sunk in Ted checked the Belgrade's availability and phoned him back to confirm that we could have Sunday 31st January, Monday 1st and Tuesday 2nd of February 1971. Colin passed this information on to Eric and, soon after, the dates and the deal was agreed.

As quickly as the dates were announced to the public the tickets for the event, priced at PS1 each, were unsurprisingly snapped up in minutes for all three nights. The shows became a total sell-out. Unsurprisingly the shows were a fantastic success, as the student audience was a proven fan base which already knew most of the sketches, sometimes word-perfect. Colin Richardson even remembers that, on the first night, the entire front row was wearing 'Gumby' style knotted handkerchiefs to the astonishment of the Pythons onstage.

And recollections of the gigs have been recorded in Michael Palin's published diaries. He writes: "As Terry and I walked through Coventry at 11.45pm for the first ever Python stage show it was amazing to turn the corner and see the theatre seething with people. From behind the stage one could hear just how enthusiastic they were. There were ten men dressed as Gumbies in the front row of the circle."

He goes on to write: "We finished at about 1.30am but the audience refused to leave. After two or three minutes John went out and spoke to them, thanking them for being a wonderful audience and adding savagely 'Now will you please go home'. This they enjoyed even more.

"We walked back to the hotel at 2.30am with half a dozen grown men with knotted handkerchiefs over their heads."

In his next entry Palin goes on to mention that, when they arose, they all had breakfast in a cafe across from the hotel they had stayed in. Believe it or not it was called 'The Gay Gannet'.

The shows have long remained in the psyche of many of the Coventry attendees. Trev Teasdel remembers the event very well and here he recalls one of his many memories: "When we came out of the 'Lanch' on the Sunday at midnight after watching Curved Air, Ivor Cutler and Adrian Henri we watched the student Gumbies marching out of the union building with knotted handkerchiefs on their heads singing 'I'm a lumberjack' and marching off down Priory Street to Pool Meadow and then on to the Belgrade Theatre.

He continues 'I was sat in box next to the stage as John Cleese, in full usherette uniform, screamed 'Gannet on a Stick, Albatross, Tern Ripple' at me. I was helpless with laughter, slid off my seat and just clung to the cushioned wall in front of me as he continued yelling. He was almost nose to nose with me and remained so without a trace of laughing. I was 18 at the time and a huge fan.

Former Wandering John bass player Ade Taylor was also amongst the audience and recalls, "From the moment they walked on stage, they had the audience in stitches. Each sketch was warmly greeted and we were laughing so much that we missed the next funny bits.

"The Spam sketch, Parrot sketch, Bicycle Repair Man, Ministry Of Silly Walks - they were all included. It was great night. And, we knew it was an historic night."

Colin Richardson went on to work for Charisma Records' home at the time too such wonderful bands like Van der Graff Generator, Genesis and Lindisfarne' and where he was International Manager for label boss Tony Stratton-Smith. By pure coincidence Charisma records later became the home for future Monty Python albums.

After a successful spell as social secretary for the Lanchester Polytechnic would go on to become director of Northampton Arts Centre. Following serious injury he became active in the development of disability arts and, during 1993, he established the Arts Council of Great Britain's initiative to increase the employment of disabled people in the arts.

Ted sadly passed away in 1999 aged 56 but his influence on the Coventry and Birmingham arts along with his work in London and elsewhere, is still remembered.

With tickets for the current show selling out within one minute I guess it remains to be seen if the reunion will be seen as a success and that, in today's day and age, Monty Python are still seen as funny. I certainly hope they are as the country could do with a bit of silliness right now.

But if nothing else then one thing I did learn from them, and have always kept in mind, is that 'Krakatoa is east of Leamington'.

'' There were ten men dressed as Gumbies in the front row... we walked back to the hotel at 2.30am with half a dozen grown men with knotted handkerchiefs over their heads MICHAEL PALIN

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