Saturday, February 21, 2009

And Now For Something Completely Different...



At the Conservative Conference in October 1990, Margaret Thatcher used the Monty Python Dead Parrot sketch to poke fun at the LibDems' new bird logo. And who said she never had a sense of humour...

In my book MARGARET THATCHER: A TRIBUTE IN WORDS & PICTURES, John Whittingdale, her former Private Secretary, writes about the traumas of introducing humour into a Thatcher speech...

The hardest and most important parts of the speech to write were the jokes. Margaret Thatcher is not naturally a joke-teller although she has a dry sense of humour, However, she recognises that without jokes, a speech is flat and dull. A good joke-writer was therefore valued above all others. On our core team, we had two principle joke-writers: the late Sir Ronnie Millar and John O’Sullivan, a journalist and commentator who had been brought in to the Number Ten Policy Unit. They had very different styles and each brought a different kind of humour. However, in each case, Margaret Thatcher frequently required persuasion that what they had written was indeed funny.

In 1990, the Party Conference speech was particularly important. Margaret Thatcher was under heavy attack and had recently suffered the resignation of her Chancellor, Nigel Lawson. Her speech had to be as good as she had ever delivered. A few weeks earlier, the Liberal Democrats had unveiled their new Party symbol. It was supposed to represent a bird taking wing, but in the mind of John O’Sullivan it immediately became a dead parrot. He decided that he would write a section of the Speech devoted to mocking the Liberal Democrats and would include a section of Monty Python’s Dead Parrot sketch. To anyone familiar with Monty Python it was a terrific idea and very funny. Unfortunately, the Prime Minister had not even heard of Monty Python.
When we came to read through the draft of the speech, Mrs Thatcher paused when she reached the dead parrot section and looked at John O’Sullivan as if he were completely mad. We knew that this would happen and so had prepared our strategy in advance. ‘This is’, I explained, ‘one of the most famous comedy sketches ever written. It will be instantly recognisable to every person in the audience.’ I was slightly less certain of this latter point, knowing Conservative audiences, but all of us present insisted to the Prime Minister that it would be the highlight of her speech.

The joke survived that read-through but I knew that she was not convinced. On each subsequent occasion, whenever we reached the parrot section, she stopped and said: ‘Are you sure that this is funny?’ After about the third or fourth occasion, she tried a new tack. ‘I need to see the sketch,’ she said. ‘If I am to deliver it then I need to get the inflexion absolutely right.’ As it happened, I had at home a video of the Python film And Now for Something Completely Different, which contains the dead parrot sketch. I therefore brought it into the office the next day.

One of the more surreal moments during my time at Number Ten followed. Sitting in my office watching the dead parrot sketch were Margaret Thatcher, John O’Sullivan, Robin Harris who was also helping with the speech, Peter Morrison her PPS and myself. At any time, it is a very funny sketch. But the absurdity of the situation made it all the more amusing and I and the three others found it so hilarious that we had tears rolling down our cheeks. Margaret Thatcher, on the other hand, was all the more mystified. It was not her type of humour and she found it difficult to see why we were laughing so much. However, given that we all were, she accepted that it must be funny and so, true professional that she was, she attempted to master the emphasis and inflexion of John Cleese’s delivery. She did so brilliantly and was soon able to deliver faultlessly the famous lines: ‘This parrot is no more. It has ceased to be. It has expired and gone to meet its maker.’

In the days leading up to the Conference, the Prime Minister required constant reassurance that people would find the lines funny. She was clearly still full of doubt. However, I was able to get to enough people in advance whose opinion she was likely to ask that she was eventually persuaded. Every time we ran through the speech, I found myself laughing at the passage which simply added to the Prime Minister’s puzzlement.

Finally, we got to the day of the speech. The text was finished, it had been typed up on to the autocue and we had completed the final rehearsal at which she practiced her delivery and the inflexions of the speech. However, as we waited for her to go on to the stage to deliver the speech, she was still worrying about the passage and looking for reasons that it might not work. Just as she was about to go on, another doubt arose in her mind. She looked at me and said anxiously: ‘John, Monty Python – are you sure that he is one of us?’

To try to explain to her that Monty Python did not really exist would have been to risk disaster. I therefore did not even try and instead said to her: ‘Absolutely, Prime Minister. He is a very good supporter.’ Thus reassured, she went on to the platform to give the speech. She did so perfectly and received the biggest laugh of all when she delivered with perfect comic timing the words of the dead parrot sketch.


Hope you enjoyed the clip!

32 comments:

Plato said...

‘John, Monty Python – are you sure that he is one of us?’

Priceless.

Jonathan Cook said...

Fantastic.....

yellowbelly said...

Iain, so if "we had two principle joke-writers" that presumably ruled out Bernard Manning and Roy "Chubby" Brown?

Or were they principal joke-writers?

wv "waitar" - I'll get me coat!

simon said...

It's a very funny extract but doesn't it precisely illustrate that Margaret Thatcher had no sense of humour? Al she was doing, in fact, was parrotting her lines...

dmc said...

"parrotting her lines"Just as most of the present government do then.

Cath said...

she should have stuck to her guns that the stupid surrealist guff is not funny. I was in the hall for that speech, it was a cringeworthy moment on a par with Hague's baseball cap.

Chrome Diplomat said...

hmm- good story but have to say it has made my dislike of Thatcher even stronger... which is something of a revelation to be hounest with you!

subrosa said...

Although I'm no fan of Monty Python (mainly because I think the whole things was for boys), I enjoyed this. Got to respect the woman if nothing else.

scouserugger said...

To not know what Monty Python was is little short of astonishing. It just goes to prove that politicians have always lived on a different planet to us mere mortals.

Leonardo said...

Chrome Diplomat, it's spelt 'hoonist' but nice of you to be so honest.

Scouserugger, Lizards.

Norfolk Blogger said...

Oh the irony was missed on you Iain wasn't it. She made those comments and within days the Lib Dems won the previously safe Eastbourne seat from the Tories.

The fact that she told a joke that made her seem humourless was in itself a reflection of where she was at in her political career.

Scary Biscuits said...

Love her as I do, I too cannot see this as much of a tribute to Maggie. The fact that she hadn't heard of Monty Python, tells you all you need to know about how detached she had become from the lives of ordinary people - all the more sad because her success came from being so intuitively in touch with them at the outset.

I'm not sure if this is a criticism of the great lady or of the system that cut her off from real life.

The same symptoms are being displayed by Gordon Brown today, for example paying tribute to "Jane" Goody. I'm not sure he ever had any intuitive connection with ordinary people but it's clear that whatever talents he once had, they are being suffocated by his office.

Oldrightie said...

The more the left whinge on with their irrational and dogmatic bile against the last PM to save us from their utter uselessness, the greater I realise was her success.

It Will Come to Me said...

It seems to me that those commentators who are unable to rejoice in the humour of the clip (at many levels) and the delicious explanation of the circumstaces surrounding it, are displaying what psychobabblers would call projection. In other words the pot calling the kettle black.

Richard Holloway said...

The clip is all the funnier because she clearly still doesn't get the joke. There's nothing funnier than a comedian who keeps their face completely deadpan, even if it's unintentional.

neil craig said...

Reminiscient of the Christmas dinner in the Good Life where Margo is reading out the jokes in crackers & asking Tom why everybody is laughing.

Jimmy said...

Somewhat ironic given what was about to happen to her the following month.

Guthrum said...

Cringeworthy

Alex said...

There is a fstory from the eighties about MT's absence of humour when her speechwriters gave her a sopeech which contained a reference to Moses, with the punchline "Keep taking the tablets". She decided that she would work on it overnight to make a few minor edits, and the speechwriters were horrified the next day when she gave the speech ending up with "And to Moses I say 'Keep taking the pills'"

The Grim Reaper said...

Book not selling well, Iain? ;-)

Word verification: reari (?)

It Will Come to Me said...

@thegrimreaper

I've just bought a copy.

Dino Fancellu said...

Great article, you really couldn't make up that kind of situation.

Also goes to show, even though she didn't find it funny, she trusted her lieutenants, unlike a certain G Brown.

polaris said...

The horror... Seeing her here reminds me why she is so despised.

Thanks Iain

Tachybaptus said...

Polaris: no, it doesn't. It reminds you of your own well-grooved hatred.

The Grim Reaper said...

It Will Come to Me said "I've just bought a copy."

Which brings the total sales of the book to... 1 copy. ;-p Though I might buy one myself, actually.

Word verification this time: facup. Honestly...

Dick the Prick said...

Mr Creasote seems to be a much copied character these days and his wife - Kali Mountford MP (mine unforunately - noe Kuntz would talk of horror).

polaris said...

Tachy, that's about right - your point?

It would appear I am not alone - the worlds most restored statue comes to mind...

Tachybaptus said...

I think the world's most restored statue is probably the Laocoon group. A fitting image for Brown and his crew.

polaris said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Tachybaptus said...

Polaris, thanks for sharing the toxic contents of your mind with us.

tankus said...

sort of brings to mind when asked what was her favorite song ... and she/ps came out with "how much was that doggie in the window" (a brownie arctic monkeys moment if ever ) ...but ...by christ ... If this country ever needed anyone at their prime in life ....! ...its now

goddam pigmies ...a pox on all of the tossers at the house ...
its self service not selfless service .. and an oink at the trough in harmony .......doesn't matter what side...!

Britannia weeps at the lions turned to mice !
with their fat expense creamed wallets and dollops of cheese , smarm, and dishonesty at the box ....

lets dig up guy fawkes and give him a small tactical clean nuke for his birthday.... and start fresh ..eh ?

we cannot do any worse

Anton Howes said...

Slightly ironic seeing as John Cleese was (and maybe still is?) a Liberal/SDP Alliance supporter and even appeared on and wrote some of their PEBs.