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!