Colour Photos Of World War I

- July 21st, 2014

Reims-1917

A child with her doll in the besieged French city of Reims, 1917.

 

Today — July 28, 2014 — marks the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I.

July 28, 1914 was not just in another century: It was in another world, another universe, a lost universe smashed and obliterated by the Great War, then salvaged and re-invented and smashed and obliterated again and again by the events of the 20th Century.

Yet it really wasn’t that long ago. A century is a mere blink of the eye in the grand scheme of things.

Hundreds of thousands of people are alive today who were born before World War I began (as many as 500,000 by some estimates, although exact numbers are impossible to determine).

So it’s a war that is literally within living memory. And many of the flash points that triggered that war are still swirling around in the background of most of today’s crises in Europe and the Middle East.

Gott-strafe-England-1917

Wall graffiti on a French wall, reclaimed by the Allies in 1917 after having been occupied by the Germans. “Gott strafe England” — God strike (or punish) England — was a common cry in Germany during the war, often a mass shout at military gatherings and movie showings and even substituting on occasion for mealtime graces.

 

Yet it seems so long ago, so far away, so disconnected from the world we live in now. Part of that has to do with the way we see the world, experience the world now. The technological advances of that intervening century are astounding — beyond any possible rational belief for anyone who was an adult on July 28, 1914.

Movies were in their infancy then, still black and white, silent and jerky, and the first transcontinental telephone call in the U.S. had only been accomplished the year before war broke out (Canada’s first transcontinental telephone call wouldn’t come until years after the war ended in 1918). The Panama Canal, which transformed international trade and sewed the eastern and western sides of North America together more closely than even the railways did, opened only a few months before the world went to war.

Now we can fly around the world in less time than it takes a cargo ship to negotiate its way through the Panama Canal. And we can record colour movies with our mobile phones, upload the video images and bounce them off a satellite to be picked up by a friend on the other side of the world — in seconds.

So we see and experience a very different world in very different ways now than we did then.

And one of the reasons we now experience that world in such a disconnected way is because almost all of the photos from that time were made in black and white. For eyes accustomed to interpreting what we see as colour images, the jump to black and white — even if we don’t consciously realize it — is alienating.

fr-pissoir-1917

A French pissoir, camouflaged but obviously well behind the front lines, in 1917.

 

TVO is currently running a very good documentary series called Apocalypse: WWI which uses colourized (but originally black and white) film footage to tell the story of the War To End All Wars — and the colourization does make it seem somehow more you-are-there modern. But, like hand-tinted antique photographs whose colours owe as much to imagination as they do to reality, it just doesn’t quite cut it.

Enter the Autochrome photo process.

Although millions of black and white photographs still exist from World War I, people who know about these things say that fewer than 5,000 real colour photographs were made on all the battlefields of Europe and the Middle East during the war — and almost all of them used the Autochrome process.

Crude, complicated colour photography existed as early as the mid-19th Century (only a decade or so after Louis Daguerre gave black and white photography to the world — literally, he renounced patent copyright on the process to make it accessible to everyone).

But the first commercially viable — and successful — colour photographic one-plate process was Autochrome, invented and introduced by French motion-picture pioneers, the Lumiere brothers, in 1907.

Autochrome had some disadvantages — it was very expensive and required long exposure times — but it produced beautiful, vivid, realistic colour one-plate images (if seen in good light). And it was the colour process used almost exclusively by professional photographers in Europe and North America by 1914.

In fact, Autochrome continued to dominate the world of colour photography until Kodak brought out Kodachrome colour film in the mid-1930s.

German-troops-champagne-1914

Above, German troops at a mail depot in Champagne, 1914. Below, French troops before the Battle of the Marne, 1914.

battle-of-the-marne-French-1914

That wonderful, quixotic German publishing house Taschen — which produces some of the most expensive art books in the world but also creates a wide range of beautiful, inexpensive mass-market art, photography, design, culture and erotica books — has just come out with a new book of more than 320 Automchrome photographs to mark the centenary of the start of World War I.

cover-german-edition

The German and English editions of the new Taschen book. The German edition came out first, a month or so ago. I don’t know why they changed the cover photo, but I think I prefer the English-edition cover. The cover photo of the German edition would have been taken about the same time as the earlier photo of French troops at the Battle of the Marne since they are all wearing the bright red pants that were standard French army uniform in 1914. By early 1915 — after months of needlessly high casualties due to the striking visibility of the pants — French troops were issued new all-blue uniforms (that were still more visible than khaki or grey would have been).

cover-Taschen

Most — but not all — of the photos I will show you here are included in that book. Almost all of the photos here are also Autochrome, but two or three aren’t. Unfortunately I don’t remember which two or three aren’t or I would tell you or just eliminate them from this particular collection. So blame my collecting sloppiness but enjoy (if that’s the right word, perhaps “appreciate” would be better) the photos for what they are. Remember, the Autochrome process needed very long exposure times, so you’ll find usually static subject matter chosen. The photos still give you a sense of immediacy and contact that is often missing from similar black and white shots.

The photos are generally from national archives and have been made increasingly available over the past decade, with several exhibits staged in Europe in recent years. Taschen has chosen what they consider the best of the best for their collection. Here’s a link to a private website where you can find some others not included in the Taschen book.

As I said, the Autochrome process was used by professional photographers everywhere, so the images here come from French (Jules Gervais-Courtellemont, Paul Castelnau, Leon Gimpel, Fernand Cuville, Jean-Baptiste Tournassoud) and German (Hans Hildenbrand) and American (Charles Zoller) and even Australian (Frank Hurley) photographers.

french-photographer-Reims-1917

A French photographer looks for a place to set up his camera in the shattered city of Reims, 1917.

German-troops-Berlin-1914

German artillerymen parade through Berlin, 1914.  By the following year, the spiked helmets you see here — designed to deflect sabre slashes from mounted cavalry in the previous century — were no longer being issued for combat purposes but were still being worn for some ceremonial occasions.

German-trenches-1916

Above, German trenches in northern France in 1916. Below, French trenches in the same sector, also in 1916. Note the similar flowers growing on the sides of both trenches. Are they poppies? 

French-trenches-1916

Austrian-soldier-Eastern-Front-1915

Above, an Austrian soldier on the Eastern Front, 1915, and below, French troops on the Western Front, 1917.

French-troops-N-France-1917

french-and-Belgian-troops-in-trench-1917

Above, French and Belgian troops in the trenches, 1917. Below, Canadian sappers with one French soldier, 1917.

Canadian-sappers-and-one-French-soldier-N-France-1917

Western-Front-1916

Above, the Western Front in 1916, and below, in 1917.

N-france-battlefield-1917

no-mans-land-seen-from-French-observ-post-1917

Above, No Man’s Land seen from a French observation post, 1917. Below, another battlefield in Northern France, 1917.

N-france-1917

fr-haircut-at-the-front-1917

Above, French soldiers getting haircuts at the front. Below, Russian soldiers fighting with the French on the Western Front, 1917.

Russian-soldiers-in-Reims-1917

austrian-pow-in-Russia-1915

Above, Austrian prisoners of war in Russia, 1915. Below, Scottish prisoners in Germany.

scottish-POWs-in-Germany

French-field-hospital

Above, a French field hospital. Below, a British ambulance.

British-amblulance-1914

Camel-ambulances-Palestine-1918

Above, camel ambulances in Palestine, 1918. Below, the Australian Light Horse Brigade in Palestine, 1917.

Australian-lighthorse-brigade-palestine-1917-frank-hurley

 

algerian-spahis-N-France-1917

Above, Algerian spahis in northern France, 1917. Below, a soldier from French Indochina in northern France.

french-soldier-from-indo-china

Senegalese-artilleryman-1917

Above, a Senegalese artilleryman. Below, a French army chaplain.

french-army-chaplain

 

french-and-belgian-military-gendarmes-1917

Above, Belgian and French military policemen. Below, French sailors.

french-sailors

French-biplane-Caudron-G3-1914

Above, a French Caudron G3 biplane, 1914. Below, the French airship Alsace, shot down behind German lines in 1915. The airship’s crew survived but were taken prisoner.

French-airship-Alsace-shot-down-near-Rethel-3Oct1915-crew-taken-prisoner

Verdun-1916

Above, Verdun, 1916. Below, Reims, 1917.

Reims

Captured-British-tank-with-German-markings-destroyed-1918

A destroyed German tank, 1918. The tank is actually British, but captured by the Germans and given new markings. Most of the tanks operated by the German army were captured equipment. The German high command was late in accepting the tank’s value and, as a result, produced fewer than two dozen tanks of German design before the war ended. 

Arc-de-Triumphe-victory-celebration-14Juli1919

Arc de Triomphe victory celebration in Paris, 1919.

 

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The Dickeys of Toronto: A Family Saga Spanning Centuries And Continents — Part 1

- July 16th, 2014

Toronto-waterfront-1873

A bird’s eye view of Toronto from over the lake, 1873. Click on the image to enlarge it.

 

This started out as a short, simple, straight-forward story about a city, a house and a man.

Then, like most things in my life, it got complicated.

The house I’m referring to is the High Victorian mansion Sir John A. Macdonald owned in Toronto from 1876 to 1886 and which was his family’s principal residence for the first two years of that decade of ownership.

The house is located at 63 St. George Street on the University of Toronto campus. It  is surprisingly unknown despite being an important landmark — one of the very few still existing — of the deep and important relationship between this city and Canada’s first, best and greatest (perhaps “grandest” would be a better word) prime minister.

63-St-George-front

The building is still in relatively good shape — but has been treated by its current owners (U of T) with what might charitably be described as benign neglect and with what must truthfully be described as utter disrespect over the past century.

I recently wrote an entire blog post on that situation, which you can find here.

Here’s the historical plaque beside the house at 63 St. George Street. (It still rankles me that it’s called the “Macdonald-Mowat House” and not just “Sir John A. Macdonald’s Toronto House” … but never mind. And I definitely wouldn’t call the eclectic building style “French Second Empire” … but never mind about that either.)

Macdonald-plaque

One thing that intrigued me about the plaque was the reference to its builder, “Nathaniel Dickey, a Toronto iron founder.”

When seen properly the house really is quite beautiful — interesting, anyway, sort of like Gérard Depardieu’s face — and was situated in what would have been a magnificent setting at the time. It is large and certainly would have cost a fortune to build.

So why, I wondered, would Nathaniel Dickey — an obviously established and prosperous businessman — build his dream house in 1872 only to turn around just a few years later and sell it to Sir John A.? Was it the result of a personal tragedy or a business collapse or a simple change of heart? Perhaps the house — on the northwestern outskirts of the city when it was built — was just too far away from Nathaniel Dickey’s place of business and he got tired of the daily commute.

I would love to show you a photo of Nathaniel Dickey right now … but I can’t. I’ve worn out my eyes and my fingers and heart looking for any kind of pictorial representation of Mr. Dickey. With no success. BUT I know a picture of Nathaniel Dickey exists somewhere and I’m bound and determined to find it and show it to you. Why do I know it exists for certain? Because Nathaniel Dickey was a member of Toronto City Council for most of the 1860s, and local politicians were camera hogs back then just as much as they are now. So somewhere there’s a sepia-tone image of Nathaniel Dickey scrunching closer to Mayor Bowes or Mayor Medcalf or Mayor Smith at the official ribbon-cutting for a public horse trough or the opening of a new brewery. I know it’s there and I’ll find it. Someday. I promise.

So I looked into Nathaniel Dickey. I had an itch to know the background to his story and — the most important thing, from my point of view at the time — the story of the house that Nathaniel Dickey built.

It was actually fairly easy to get an early quick-fix on Nathaniel Dickey. Which was good, because I saw the Dickey connection as merely a footnote to the much more important Macdonald story.

But one thing led to another, one bit of information raised questions which led to another door, which opened into a hallway with half a dozen more doors (some just closed, others locked tight). And those new doors led to still more doors and still more questions. And behind many of those doors was completely contradictory information. You get the picture.

Thus my short, simple, straight-forward story turned into “a family saga spanning centuries and continents.” And only “Part 1″ to boot. Lordy.

I doubt that many people will continue with me on this whole journey, but I welcome those who do and wish us all good luck. This thing will evolve over time as new facts and perspectives come to light, so I will add updates as seems appropriate.

But right now I have to start writing something; it’s better to make changes later than to wait until I think I know everything about the subject, a day that will never come. Besides, I don’t want to make the story of one family with which I have absolutely no connection (apart from curiosity) my life’s work. I still have Rob Ford and Steve Harper and Vlad Putin to deal with.

So let’s start with my entry point into the story of Nathaniel Dickey, iron founder, and his family. That would be this biographical sketch on Nathaniel’s brother James from Volume II of the 1885 History of Toronto and County of York published by C. Blackett Robinson.

1885-bio-James-1

1885-bio-james-2

It all seems straight-forward enough, doesn’t it? The two immigrant Dickey brothers “retired” in 1876, the same year Nathaniel sold his house to Macdonald, and turned over the successful business to their brother-in-law and partner, John Neil (or Neill — it goes back and forth all over the place).

Keep moving, folks, nothing to look at here. Except …

Except when you do keep looking, so much of that brief entry turns out to be coverup or disputed or just plain wrong.

For starters, both of the Dickey brothers were just in their early 40s at the time — in the prime of life, career-wise, and certainly nowhere near an age any entrepreneur with gumption would retire either then or now. And neither of those Dickey boys was what you would call “retiring” in a commercial, social, political, legal or militant sense either.

So let’s go back, as best we can, to the beginning of the Dickey saga and see where it takes us.

The Dickey family was what used to be known as “Scotch Irish” — poor Scottish Protestant farmers and labourers recruited by the English (and Scottish) King James I in the first two decades of the 17th Century to colonize Ireland and subdue the rebellious Catholic natives.

I’ll tell you which Dickey made that crossing of the North Channel soon enough, but we can trace the family line back five generations before that to one Scottish landowner named Robert Dik who was born in 1463 in the reign of the fifth Scottish Stewart king and who sired eight children before he died at the ripe old age (for that time) of 75 in 1538 in the reign of the seventh Stewart sovereign, father of the notable (and beheaded) Mary.

(NOTE: The name is spelled both Stewart and Stuart but since it comes from a man known as “Robert the Steward” I think the “Stewart” spelling is probably more faithful to the origin.)

Before Robert Dik died, the family surname had become Dickey and, with eight children to carry on the line, a huge number of people now named Dickey — perhaps all of them, for all I know — can count Robert Dik as their ancestor.

We move ahead half a century and move from the fields and farms of rural lowland Scotland to the shops and houses of urban Glasgow where John Dickey III was born in 1584 (about 20 years after Shakespeare was born, although neither John Dickey III, his children nor his children’s children would have ever heard the name Shakespeare). John had the misfortune to lose his parents in his early teens but at least his father had been a  successful small merchant and left the boy with some property and what appeared to be a modestly comfortable future.

Until disaster struck in the form of Glasgow’s Great Fire of 1601. Everything the 17-year-old owned was burned to the ground and he was left penniless.

So poor and without prospects in his native land, John Dickey III was a prime candidate to join the flotilla of Scottish Protestant colonizers sent across the narrow sea of the North Channel to conquer Ireland a few years later by James I, King of Great Britain, as he styled himself.

ScottishU-landlords

At this point, the English had been trying to subdue Ireland for centuries — since at least the Norman period — with varying degrees of success. And the Gaelic Irish had been resisting — with varying degrees of success — for centuries.

This latest attempt at subjugation was focused on the northern part of Ireland known as Ulster not so much because it was closest to Scotland, but because Irish resistance had been strongest in Ulster and the English wanted to replace the most rebellious Irish Catholics with loyal and dependable Scottish Protestant subjects.

So John Dickey III was one of those who came in and drove off the Irish, built fortified towns and established what was known as the Ulster plantation.

At almost exactly the same time as the English were planting themselves in colonies on the inhospitable shores of wild America, the Scots were planting themselves in colonies on the green but equally hostile terrain of wild Ireland.

John Dickey III died in Ballymenas, Antrim, in 1641, having fathered three children and established the Dickey family in Ireland.

What followed is known as the Ascendancy, the establishment of a minority Protestant elite ruling over a disenfranchised Catholic majority, with its high point being Protestant William of Orange’s defeat of Catholic James II at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.

Now not all the Protestant “Scotch Irish” made it into this ascendant elite. A lot of them were relatively poor tenant farmers and tradesmen — but all of them were better off than the impoverished Gaelic Catholic masses, received at least a smattering of education, had more opportunities for advancement and had more rights and privileges. And they fought to hold on to those advantages.

irish-rebellion

The Dickey family weaved through all this turmoil, surviving and growing and staying mostly grounded in Antrim.

By the early 1700s “Nathaniel” was an established name in the Dickey family. And by the time our Nathaniel Dickey emigrated to Canada with his brother James in 1847, he was the sixth generation of his family in direct succession to be named “Nathaniel.” (Our Nathaniel for some reason didn’t name any of his children Nathaniel, although one — born W. Arthur Dickey in Toronto in 1869 — appears to have later changed his name by deed poll to Nathaniel Adam Dickey as an adult in the U.S.)

One of those earlier Nathaniels was quite famous as a leader of Methodists in Ulster who broke with the parent church in 1798 over the right of the people to choose their own ministers. I don’t want to get caught up in the intricacies of Methodism’s schism any more than I wanted to step into the whole Irish Catholic-Protestant quagmire. Suffice it to say, the Dickeys’ standing rose within the lower ranges of Scotch-Irish Ulster society but still did not elevate them into the elite.

The family had moved to Lisburn  (still in Antrim) just south of Belfast by the time our Nathaniel’s grandfather (also named Nathaniel, of course) died there at age 71 in 1828.

(If you’re a Dickey genealogist, you may have come across some information saying this Nathaniel was our Nathaniel’s father, not grandfather. Couldn’t be: Our Nathaniel was born in 1829 — not 1826 as is often erroneously reported — the year after that Nathaniel died, and several of our Nathaniel’s siblings were born even later. The plethora of “Nathaniel Dickey” namesakes probably led to the confusion. It was our Nathaniel’s brother James, by the way, who was born in 1826. In the 1881 Canadian census, James lists his age as 55 and Nathaniel lists his age as 52, ages which coincide with the 1826 and 1829 birth years.)

Now one thing that’s interesting here is that our Nathaniel’s grandfather was married to a “Quakeress” (name unknown — which indicates the information on the gravestone was supplied much later and with sketchy authority) so the family was obviously not dogmatically rigid at this time.

Anyway … our Nathaniel Dickey was born in Lisburn, as were siblings James, John, Thomas, William, Robert, Adam, Samuel and Sarah. Quite a crowd. Too many to be supported by one family farm.

Fortunately for the Dickeys, the Industrial Revolution came along just in time to provide factory work for some of the increasing number of farm folk headed for the cities and towns.

old-belfast

And also fortunately for the Dickeys, they were Protestant Scotch-Irish with a basic education, so they were considered employable by the other Protestant Scotch-Irish who owned the factories.

James for sure and almost certainly Nathaniel and possibly one or two other younger brothers were engaged as apprentice machinists in the MacAdam Brothers’ Soho Foundries in Belfast.

Like many iron foundries around the world, the Belfast Soho operation was named in honour of the original Soho Foundry in Birmingham, where James Watt developed the first truly efficient steam engines, thus making the Industrial Revolution possible. Steam engines and turbines and boilers were the cutting edge of technology in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries, so calling your iron foundry Soho was a little like independent computer designers today calling their operations “Apple” — the difference being that people could get away with it 200 years ago. And it was, after all, a mark of respect and homage. Keep that in mind when the name Soho Foundry comes up later.

Anyway, several of the young Dickeys got their grounding in mechanical engineering and iron foundering with the MacAdams. The Belfast Soho Foundries built steam engines and turbines (as well as spinning machines) for mills throughout Britain and even exported some of their engines as far away as Egypt.

So the Dickeys are now gathering in Belfast in the mid-1840s. And this is where we will pause.

The Great Famine of 1845-50 is about to descend on Ireland and blow the entire Dickey family (in several waves) across the Atlantic to Canada. But we’ll get to that in a few days. I’m still opening doors and poking in the Dickey family closets. I am, after all, Nosey Parker.

See you soon.

 

 

 

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John A. Macdonald’s Hidden Toronto Treasure

- July 6th, 2014

John-A-Macdonald-in-1873

As we stumble through the summer toward John A. Macdonald’s  200th birthday on Jan. 11, 2015, I want to take a few minutes to consider the grand old man — and especially his relationship to Toronto.

After all, as Richard Gwyn so aptly put it a few years ago, “No Macdonald would have meant no Canada.”

Period.

John A. had a long and intimate relationship with the city of Toronto and I really don’t think we pay enough attention to that relationship or to the man himself.

John A. was more than just a Father of Confederation. He was the Father of Confederation. He was as much “the father of his country” in Canada as George Washington was “the father of his country” in the United States.

Pretty much everything Washington touched in the U.S. is now a national shrine and “Washington slept here” signs litter the Eastern Seaboard like so many McDonald’s Golden Arches.

In Canada it’s a different story when it comes to the father of our country. Oh sure, there are a few plaques and statues (like at Queen’s Park) here and there. And a couple of his former residences are national historic sites.

But the beautiful Italianate Bellevue manor that is now a must-see heritage site in Kingston was just a rented property that Macdonald and his first wife Isabella lived in for less than two years before their first child was born.

Bellevue

earnscliffe

As for Earnscliffe, Macdonald’s stately home in Ottawa for the last decade of his life and the place where he died in 1891 … well, that’s been owned by the British government since it became their High Commissioner’s official residence in 1930 — and most ordinary Canadian citizens will never get to set foot inside it, or even walk through the gardens. Harrumph.

Now, John A. Macdonald owned a lot of properties in his life. He was, after all, a profligate real estate speculator throughout his adulthood (although not a very successful one — and one who seemed to be a rather bad judge of character when it came to choosing investment partners).

Yet he actually owned surprisingly few of the houses he and his immediate family lived in— a couple in Kingston, a couple in Ottawa … and one in Toronto. (Please feel free to correct me if I’m missing any; I’d rather be properly informed than momentarily right.)

For the most part he rented or leased residential properties for his own wives and children and usually did the same for the wider clan of relatives he supported (and often housed) throughout his life.

Agnes-and-baby-Mary

And — especially during the peripatetic decades of the 1840s, ’50s and early ’60s when the government seat of the Province of Canada (East and West) wandered between Quebec City and Montreal and Kingston and Toronto before Queen Victoria put her foot down and declared buggy little backwater Ottawa the permanent capital — Macdonald was just as likely to be staying at a hotel or lodging house or crashing at a friend’s place after a night on the town.

Even in the early 1870s, when the knighted John A. had been prime minister of Canada for half a decade and was lionized as his country’s chief founding father, when visiting Toronto for politics or business he would often just make use of a spare bed in his son Hugh John’s apartment on Carlton Street.

So a house that Sir John A. Macdonald actually owned and in which he lived a considerable part of his domestic life is a rare thing, something to be treasured. Especially if it is (or was) a beautiful, interesting building in and of itself.

Toronto actually has one such wonderful structure.

And we ignore it. Treat it in a pretty shabby manner, to tell the truth.

UPDATE: Here’s a link to a blog post I’ve just done on the man who built the house that this whole post is about. The first part of his story, anyway.

For starters, I doubt that many people can tell me where this particular building is without looking it up on the Internet. That’s a pretty damning indictment right there, that the people supposedly protecting and promoting Canada’s rich heritage have done such a terrible job protecting and promoting this particular important slice of our past.

And the people who now own the building have actually gone out of their way to deface and disrespect the property over the past 15 or 20 years.

Stand up and take a shamefaced bow, University of Toronto. Knox College, to be precise.

Okay, okay, it’s not that bad. It’s not a complete dump. U of T slapped a few coats of paint on over the years and did some renovations a decade or so ago.

But …

They haven’t done much more than that. Take a look at this photo, especially note the miniature grain elevator stuck to the left side of the building. That’s an external fire escape enclosed in … metal siding. (These photos look much better than the place does in real life. But at least they show what the place can be.)

63-st-george-fire-escape

Gee, I wonder which U of T wiseguy thought, “Hey, let’s take a classic mid-Victorian mansion once occupied — and owned, a rarity — by the first prime minister of Canada and slap a bunch of sheet metal on the side to … what, cover up the hideous sight of a mandatory fire escape? … protect the 13 post-grad students inside from the horror of climbing down said exposed fire escape in the middle of winter (every, what, 10,000 or 20,000 days)? … be used as an emergency grain elevator when U of T comes under attack from Ryerson in the College Wars?”

Or whatever. There is no good or acceptable reason for putting sheet metal on the side of a national heritage site of historical and architectural significance. For any reason.

Welcome to 63 St. George Street in the heart (now) of Toronto. When John A. lived there it was the wild western suburbs, with open fields on the other side of St. George where the hulking U of T department of chemistry now squats.

63-St-George-map

Here’s another view of the house where our first — and most important, ever — prime minister lived in Toronto from 1876 to 1878. (Nice air-conditioner boxes in the heritage-house windows, by the way.)

63-St-George-front

This is the proper view because the frontage of the building actually faces south. The photo is taken from St. George Street looking north-east.

You can walk down (or cycle down, as I usually do) St. George and never even notice No. 63 because it’s a relatively plain front on the St. George side.  That’s because the house was built with a south frontage, looking out over broad, treed expanses to the lake (since you could actually see the lake from the rise at that time) and surrounded by wide expanses of open, green … semi-emptiness.

St. George Street was just the sandy delivery route. Would you rather have that on the front of your house or the side of your house? You know the answer.

This is an appropriate time to show the official Ontario plaque that stand in front of 63 St. George Street — well, not so much front and centre but more off to the side.

Macdonald-plaque

I’ll tell you more about the house’s builder — “Nathaniel Dickey, a Toronto iron founder” — and his incredible family (and why he had to sell his dream house to Macdonald in early 1876) in a few days.

Here’s another look at the front of John A’s principal Toronto residence.

garbage-cans

Thank you, Knox College, for placing your garbage cans as close as you possibly can to Sir John A. Macdonald’s principal habitation in Toronto. Well done, sirs and madams, well done. This is definitely a theological institution/university college that has its historical head screwed on straight.

Not that John A. bought a house squashed up against a dark and dreary Gothic monstrosity.

No, when John A. bought the house in 1876, it was a suburban paradise — free and wild —facing open fields and backing on to the wide-open grounds of University College. The area was so wild then, the two or three residences on St. George didn’t even have address numbers.

Here’s what the great Donald Creighton had to say in The Old Chieftain, the second volume of his 1950s biography of John A. Macdonald:

“That autumn, after another long and peaceful summer at Riviere du Loup, he moved up to Toronto. For the past eighteen months, he had been spending a good deal of time there, but as a guest and lodger, not as a householder; and in the city directory, he was listed discreetly, without specific residence, as “of Ottawa and Toronto”. Now at last the definite move was made, and the transplanted Macdonald family established in a house, belonging to T. C. Patteson of the Toronto Mail, which stood on the east side of Sherbourne Street, a little north of Carlton Street.

“It was a long, low, flat-fronted place, built of grey stock brick, with a single gable over the central entrance. The grounds were spacious and gently rolling; Sherbourne Street was only a peaceful sandy lane; and away to the north-east, towards Parliament Street, were open commons where Patteson had exercised his horses. It was comfortable and quiet enough on Sherbourne Street; but Macdonald had taken the house on only a short lease, and he had no intention of staying there permanently.

“He had his eye on a large property on St. George Street, close to University College, in a suburb which was distinguished, though perhaps not so fashionable as Jarvis Street. The St. George Street house would certainly be a large investment. But was not everything really settled? It was so obviously sensible for him to establish himself in Toronto. His firm had its head office there. He had scores of amusing friends and acquaintances in the city; and one of his old colleagues in the Conservative Cabinet, Charles Tupper, had also moved to Toronto and resumed his medical practice. They were both settling down into a species of comfortable semi-retirement.

“And why not? Macdonald was getting on. They were all getting on. He was conscious of his sixty years, of time’s increasingly peremptory reminders of its passage, of the disappearance of comfortingly familiar circumstances, of the arrival of strange and disturbing problems. “‘We are all getting old,’ he told his brother-in-law, Professor Williamson, ‘and have earned rest.’”

(By the way, that rented residence on Sherbourne north of Carlton is long gone now. The land where it stood is now occupied by the parish hall of Sacré Coeur Church.)

Sacre-Coeur-Church

But back to 63 St. George Street a bit later in Creighton’s The Old Chieftain …

“In Toronto (in 1876), he was settling down into an easy professional existence, as into a well-upholstered arm-chair. The new house on St. George Street, in its pleasant rural and academic setting, with University College nearby and the open countryside to the north and west, was at last nearly ready for occupation. A swarm of carpenters and painters had invaded the building and every day Agnes went up the muddy road to mark their progress. By May, he hoped, the place would be ready for them.

“Spring came, the removal was accomplished, the morning and everiing journey between St. George Street and Toronto Street became the steady habit appropriate to the householder and the professional man. But he could not settle down. He did not want to settle down…”

Let’s take a look at what John A.’s Toronto house would have looked like when he bought it — at least what the setting would have looked like. What is now 63 St. George Street is the building encircled in yellow. A dowdy addition now tacked onto the back of the building didn’t exist in John A.’s day. The original house was a well-proportioned and elegant manor facing south over sweeping, treed lawns. If you click on the photo, it will enlarge to give you a much better view of the image.

birds-eye-view-of-toronto-1876-63-St-George

This is a detail from Peter Albert Gross’s amazing pictoral map known as “A Bird’s Eye View of Toronto, 1876.”

I’ll tell you more another time about Gross, an itinerant Pennsylvania German artist (and a fascinating guy) who moved to France … after drawing every single building in Toronto.  Really. Here’s how the whole thing looks. (Again, click on the map to get an enlarged image — although one not nearly as big as a version of the map I’ll point you to momentarily.)

Birs-eye-view-Toronto-1876-whole-map-marked

Gross spent almost three years walking through the city of 60,000 sketching every one of the 14,000 public and private buildings there — from grand halls to hospitals to factories to saloons (as they were called, not taverns) to houses to shacks to stables — then stitched them all together for publication as this bird’s eye view lithograph that still amazes and delights.

Here’s a link to the full, detailed map on the U of T library website where you can scale up and down to get as much overview or fine detail of what Toronto looked liked in the 1870s as you want. The little images above don’t do the map justice. Call up the real thing and wallow in it.

So yes, U of T has done a good thing by making this beautiful map available to us in all its glory.

But U of T has also done a bad thing by ignoring and neglecting the mansion owned by Sir John A. Macdonald ever since Knox College bought the property in 1910 — and began building their enormous building just a laneway’s width from the front door of the Macdonald house … and blocking it from the sun half the time too … and then adding insult to injury by piling up their dumpsters right there.

Now U of T seems to be trying to make amends. Sort of.

Tucked away on its “donate.utoronto.ca” website, the university has a little blurb that says this:

“In honour of Sir John A. Macdonald’s 200th birthday, we invite you to support the restoration of one of U of T’s most prominent landmarks by making a contribution today.”

john_a-_macdonald_-_brady

Well, that’s nice as far as it goes. But it doesn’t give one a lot of hope that they’re actually committed to a serious restoration, does it?

Besides, they’ve already spent a century blocking the house from view (and the sun) and ignoring it and adding those monstrous sheet-metal fire-escape sheaths and turning it into a dumpy admin office. (It’s used as the student services building for the school of graduate studies.)

I really don’t think U of T deserves to be in charge of this piece of Toronto’s John A. Macdonald heritage. I think the building should be taken away from U of T and turned into a proper museum and resource centre showing John A. Macdonald’s  rich and varied relationship with this city.

It’s the least we can do for a man who did so much for us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Sorry, Mike, Ford will ‘eff it up’

- June 29th, 2014

 

Let’s get this straight — Mike Strobel is my friend and I admire him as a human being and as a writer and as a straight shooter when it comes to … well, anything.

And Mike is currently wishing Rob Ford good speed in his addiction recovery and return to the pressure cooker of politics — both public and family. Good for Mike. I hope he’s right. For all our sakes. I’m just pretty darn sure he isn’t.

Ford is coming back slimmed down and full of energy and swearing he’s a recovered addict — again. Been there, done that.

Serious addiction recovery rates generally break down into thirds — a third recover, a third are recidivists (that means they go back to doing their bad shit again and again and again until they go back to rehab and start the cycle again), and a third die within a few years.

I really hope Ford is in the third that recovers, but I don’t think he is.

Oh sure, he’ll be fine through the summer. But he’s only gone through two months of rehab, for God’s sake. Normal rehab guidelines say six months of rehab just get you to the point where you have a fighting chance to be in the winning third — no guarantees.

So Rob Ford’s six-months probation (just the bare beginning) comes up around election day. If he wins — and you’re a fool if you count out that possibility — I think he’ll celebrate with a snort or a huff or a stiff drink.

And if he doesn’t that particular night, he will want to some time soon after. And with the pressures of office and the enablers surrounding him and the myriad of opportunities available to him, I can pretty much guarantee a re-elected Rob Ford will be apologizing to us again within a year of his re-election.

Do you really want that — for either him or us?

I won’t vote for him because I have a firm personal rule that I never vote for politicians who are dumb enough to be caught lying to me.

I didn’t vote for him in the last municipal election for a variety of different reasons, but he actually did some good things during his first year in office. Then he went off the tracks.

So he had one good year and three bad years. That’s not a positive ratio.

I think he’s still off the tracks.

A  big part of being Mayor of Toronto with only one of 45 votes on council is building consensus — being a leader, in other words. In the past three years, Rob Ford has kicked the stuffing out of that proposition. He’s a one-man band. Sorry, I forgot about Doug — a two-man band, with a couple of yapping dogs running around them.

But not a majority. Never a majority. Sometimes the Fords are on the right side of a winning council vote, but it’s not their doing any more.

When Rob Ford begins his mantra of apology over the next few weeks, I want to see if he apologizes for — among many other things — being such an asshole in the past three years that he alienated almost every single natural ally he had on council.

If he does that, I might consider forgiving him for lying to us — again and again and again.

I still won’t vote for him because he’s a serial liar. But I might forgive him.

 

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25 or 100 Things You Might Not Know About Monty Python’s Flying Circus

- June 24th, 2014

monty-python-iyoung-guys

Monty Python’s Flying Circus has had as much impact on Western pop culture in the last half century as … oh, I don’t know … the Beatles or Jesus Christ.

Of course that’s a stretch. The Pythons probably haven’t had as great an impact as the Beatles. But they’ve certainly been a bigger influence on the way we see and process the world than the Rolling Stones or Bay City Rollers or the Kardashians. Even bigger than The Simpsons.

Nudge, nudge. Wink, wink. Say no more.

Nudge-nudge-eric-idle-14590611-500-395

So it should have come as no surprise that, when the five living Pythons announced a few months ago that they were reuniting for a one-off, end-of-the-line live show at London’s O2 Arena on July 1, tickets sold out in 43 seconds.

python-live

The “one down, five to go” line refers to the Pythons’ won-lost record in the great game of life. Sorry to be a downer, but I think it’s safe to say that the prospect of incipient, inevitable death hangs over everything the Pythons now do at their advanced age.

 

Pleasantly surprised but still feeling like they were pushing their luck, the Pythons added four more shows at the 20,000-capacity O2 Arena on July 2, 3, 4 and 5. And those shows sold out immediately.

So (crossing their fingers and closing their eyes) the old codgers added five more shows on July 15, 16, 18, 19 and 20. What do you think happened? Of course those shows sold out.

As John Cleese said at the time: “The response to our planned reunion has been very, very silly. But we’re all touched that so many fans still want to see such old people perform.”

Monty-Python-oldies-Reuters

And old they are, relatively speaking. After all, Monty Python’s Flying Circus first aired on the BBC on Oct. 5, 1969 — almost 45 years ago — and the “boys” were already rather well-known radio and TV comedy writers and sketch performers by the time they got their own show.

Cleese (born Oct. 27, 1939) is the oldest at age 74. Terry Gilliam (Nov. 22, 1940) is 73. Terry Jones (Feb. 1, 1942) is 72. Eric Idle (March 29, 1943) and “baby” Michael Palin (May 5, 1943) are 71.

Graham Chapman — the Python who died of cancer in 1989 at age 48 — would be 73 if he were still alive.

But he’s not, of course.

He’s dead. Passed on. No more. Ceased to be. Expired. Gone to meet his maker. A stiff. Bereft of life. Resting in peace. Pushing up daisies. History. Kicked the bucket. Shuffled off his mortal coil. Run down the curtain. Joined the bleeding choir invisible. He is, in other words, an ex-Python.

Chapman_as_Brian

The remaining still-coiled, unshuffled and very mortal Pythons carry on in relatively good shape and they’ll be performing many of their most famous sketches live on stage at The O2 over the next couple of weeks: The dead parrot, of course, and Spam and the Spanish Inquisition, the aforementioned nudge-nudge-wink-wink and — oh joy, oh joy — the Lumberjack Song.

But one classic routine will not be featured — at least not performed by the man who created it.

“I can’t do the Ministry of Silly Walks because of a knee replacement,” Cleese said in a recent interview. “It was done in 1985 and the hip was done a few years ago.”

silly-walks

(The idea for the Silly Walks sketch, by the way, came from Cleese’s writing partner, Graham Chapman, who “saw an elderly man struggling to walk up Southwood Lane near his home in London,” according to Chapman’s biography. BUT … Chapman and Cleese were too busy working on other bits to flesh out the Silly Walks piece. SO … that other set of writing partners, Palin and Jones, wrote the actual sketch based on Chapman’s idea which was eventually performed by Cleese. What a tangled web …)

Monty_Python,_The_Lumberjack_Song

Most of the other old favourites will be trotted out — with some surprises and embellishments. “I’ve got one or two (surprises) up my sleeve that will absolutely freak people out,” Eric Idle said in another interview earlier this month.

Idle has taken the lead in pulling together the O2 shows (budgeted at $3.5 million) because of his experience and success with Spamalot, the musical-comedy stage show he wrote and produced based on the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

And, because of that Spamalot experience, the July live shows will be more than “five old guys on a stage doing old sketches,” Idle said. There will be projected film footage from the TV series and Python movies, of course, and Terry Gilliam’s stop-action animations. But there will also be a live orchestra and an ensemble of 20 singers and dancers.

“Who wants to look at a bunch of old guys? Put some attractive young people onstage,” Idle said. “That’s my Broadway background. It’s what I learned from Spamalot.”

Pythons-begin-rehearsal

The Pythons in rehearsal. That’s Terry Gilliam suspended in mid-air below.

Terry-Gilliam-in-rehearsal

In another magazine interview, Idle said: “There’s no new material, but there are new ways of doing things, and there are sketches we’ve never done live before. You can’t write better Python sketches than the best of Python. Nobody could, because they get better in memory. It’s the cream of the material, and the others are saying how happy they are with it.”

(As a result of the large-scale staging, the 20,000-capacity O2 Arena will be reconfigured to seat about 15,000 for each of the Python live shows, bringing the total audience for the 10 shows to somewhere just over 150,000. Then there will be the hundreds of thousands more — millions, actually — who see the final, July 20 show beamed live to more than 2,000 theatres around the world, including Toronto’s Yonge-Dundas Cineplex. The July 20 show will also be broadcast live on a comedy cable TV channel in the UK.

(That live-to-the-world show is, of course, also sold out everywhere. But there will be more theatrical screenings of The Last Night of Monty Python throughout July and August. Then you’ll be able to watch the whole thing to your heart’s content on DVD, probably by Christmastime.)

In the final run-up to the O2 live shows, the Pythons have launched the Monty Python Spam Club — which they call “the worst-run fan club in the world.” Here’s a link to it.

monty_python_spam_full

Speaking of Spamalot (as we were five paragraphs and a few photos ago), that stage show was the main impetus for the upcoming O2 reunion extravaganza.

spamalot

Although Eric Idle wrote and produced Spamalot, the other four Pythons also made a substantial amount of money from royalties accruing to the original Holy Grail movie.

Monty-Python-and-the-Holy-Grail

And then Mark Forstater, producer of 1975′s Monty Python and the Holy Grail, sued for his share of the royalties. And won. Big time.

So by the fall of 2013 the Pythons owed Forstater a ton of money. And they had run up an enormous legal bill fighting Forstater’s suit. And serial marrier John Cleese had just been stung badly in a $20-million divorce from his third wife, Alyce Faye Eichelberger ($13 million up front and $1 million a year for seven years). Thus from adversity was this summer’s O2 show born, overcoming the many self-created obstacles that had thwarted previous attempts to stage reunion shows.

(Of course, in typical Python fashion, the O2 plan almost blew up when Terry Gilliam criticized John Cleese for being a silly old man when Cleese married for the fourth time — despite his prior expensive failures. Eventually necessity was the mother of conciliation and the two bickering Pythons put their differences aside to get on with the show.)

I don’t want to talk to you no more, you empty-headed animal food trough wiper! I fart in your general direction! Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries!

French-soldiers

Joining the Pythons on stage in London will be their old gal pal, Carol Cleveland.

5-Pythons-w-Carol-Cleveland-early70s

The Pythons with Carol Cleveland in the early 1970s, above, and in 2013, below.

5-Pythons-w-Carol-Cleveland-2013

But another longtime Python collaborator, Neil Innes, will be missing.

Holy-Grail-Innes-upper-right

Neil Innes, upper right above, was one of the Knights of the Round Table — Brave Sir Robin — in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, among his many, many contributions to the Monty Python canon.

Innes, sometimes known as the Seventh Python, is currently seeking his share of royalties for his contributions to the music for Spamalot and a certain amount of bad blood has resulted from the dispute. Sigh. I’m saddened but not surprised. I know there’s some relevant quote about friendship and money, but it’s too disheartening to rummage around to find it.

There, there. Have a nice cup of tea and everything will seem much better.

So now I’m going to tell you at least 25 things you might not know about Monty Python.

I figure there are probably 20 or 30 things in the above paragraphs that you might not have known before, so that brings us up to about 45 already. And, although I’m only numbering 25 things below, there will be multiple bits and pieces of information in each listing. So, in reality, the headline would probably have been safe as simply “100 Things You Might Not Know About Monty Python.”

Remember, I said “Might Not Know.” I’m sure there are lots of people out there who know half of the things I’m mentioning here and there might even be one or two strange, obsessive weirdos who know everything I’m about to tell you — and more. To them I say: “Get a life and please don’t contact me. You scare me.” I don’t know this stuff off the top of my head, after all — I had to look it up.

Let’s roll.

monty-python-title

1. The very first episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus — ever— was titled Whither Canada? Canada was not mentioned once — not once — in the episode. According to Michael Palin’s book Diaries 1969-1979: The Python Years, Whither Canada? was one of the name considered for the show’s overall title — along with Owl Stretching Time; Toad Elevating Moment; Ow! It’s Colin Plint; and A Horse, A Spoon And A Bucket — and a few other equally absurdist nonsense titles.

The accepted story for how the name Flying Circus stuck is that BBC had already printed that suggested title in its monthly listings guide and was adamant the name should stand. The Monty Python part was added shortly thereafter. It’s impossible to think of the show by any other name now.

Its

2. The first 13-episode season of Monty Python’s Flying Circus ran on the BBC from Oct. 5, 1969, to January 11, 1970. Despite the expectations of both the BBC and the Pythons, the show was a hit and a second 13-episode season was commissioned. Season 2 aired weekly on BBC from Sept. 15, 1970 to Dec. 22, 1970.

CBC_Logo_1966-1974

Hard to believe, but this was the CBC-TV logo in the late ’60s and early ’70s.

3. During the spring and summer 1970 hiatus between Season 1 and Season 2, the CBC picked up broadcast rights to Monty Python’s Flying Circus for Canada. The CBC was Monty Python’s first overseas sale and, as a result, the Pythons say they have always had a soft spot for Canada.

hells-grannies

4. The CBC added Monty Python’s Flying Circus to its Thursday night schedule and began showing the first season’s shows at 10 p.m. on Sept. 17, 1970. The rest of the CBC Thursday lineup consisted of The Odd Couple at 7:30 p.m., The Interns (sort of a Grey’s Anatomy for the ’70s) at 8 p.m., a short-lived drama anthology called Theatre Canada at 9 p.m. and a live orchestral programme (described at the time as “middle-aged music”) called Music Album at 9:30 p.m. A weird lead-in but at least Monty Python was on the air in North America.

Here’s what TV columnist Blaik Kirby wrote in the Sept. 18 Globe & Mail under the headline “Flying Circus zany, brilliant”: “The CBC unveiled its secret weapon last night, and it was devastating. The title was Monty Python ‘s Flying Circus, and it turned out to be a sort of English Laugh-In — only much, much funnier.”

dead-parrot-monty-python

5. When the 13 episodes of Season 1 were done, the CBC immediately rolled out the first six episodes of Season 2. And then … nothing. In mid-January 1971, the CBC yanked Monty Python from its broadcast schedule.

6. Why? I do not know. I’m hoping someone can write in and give us a definitive answer to that one (not you scary people who know everything, of course.). It may have been because the cross-dressing Lumberjack Song, which came in Episode 9 of Season 1, offended certain overly constrained Canadian sensibilities.

Palin-lumberjack

LUMBERJACK: I cut down trees, I skip and jump, I like to press wild flowers. I put on women’s clothing, And hang around in bars.

MOUNTIES: He cuts down trees, he skips and jumps, He likes to press wild flowers. He puts on women’s clothing And hangs around … in bars?

CHORUS: He’s a lumberjack, and he’s okay, He sleeps all night and he works all day.

LUMBERJACK: I chop down trees, I wear high heels, Suspenders and a bra. I wish I’d been a girlie Just like my dear papa.

Or it may have been because of other offended sensibilities, such as expatriate Scot John Cameron, who wrote to the Toronto Sun a few years later to complain about the “racist garbage” of the show: “The English government is responsible for this anti-Scottish poison and it is their deliberate policy to try to destroy the Scottish character by ridicule, portraying Scots as mean and miserly so that we will be ashamed of our racial origin, and more easily assimilated into the English Empire …The CBC is a government of Canada body, paid for by the taxpayers of Canada and this proves that our Canadian government is nothing more than a stooge for the English government and this country takes its orders from England and is a partner in these criminal activities against the Scottish people.”

The Pythons did, of course, take great delight in mocking the Scots — and the English and the upper class and the military and everyone else. Whether or not that derision constituted “racist garbage,” I leave to someone more politically correct than I am to determine. For my part, I found it all hilarious — and I have a lot of Scottish blood running in my veins.

Python-Palin-Scot

For some reason, Michael Palin often ended up playing the Scottish characters.

Python-Scot-Blancmange

My old, dearly missed pal Peter Worthington responded to Cameron’s Sun letter with the comment “We think Monty Python is very subversive — as CBC brass thinks too.”

Whether or not Peter was serious, I don’t know. I do know from later experience that Peter didn’t necessarily think “subversive” was a bad thing — he was, after all, the ultimate rebel and shit disturber — and I do know he enjoyed some aspects of Monty Python, although much of the absurdist nihilism left him cold.

7. And then, finally bowing to unrelenting pressure from the fanatical legion of Python fans that arose across Canada, the CBC put the last seven episodes of Season 2 back on air as a summer replacement, scheduled to begin on Thursday, Aug. 5, 1971 at 9:30 p.m.

And — in typical fashion — CBC coverage of that year’s Pan Am Games pushed the re-launch back a week to Aug. 12.

completely-different

8. The movie And Now For something Completely Different arrived in Toronto in early March 1972 for an exclusive run at Cinecity (then occupying the lovely old post office building on the north-east corner of Yonge and Charles — now home to a Starbucks and a McDonald’s). That run finally ended in May, after which it moved around the suburban theatre circuit through the summer before settling in as part of the Roxy’s regular repertoire for the next couple of years.

roxyhandbill

9. And then another hiatus before the CBC slipped Season 3 of MPFC back on the air at 10:30 p.m. Friday, May 25, 1973, again as s a summer replacement.

It followed MASH, All In The Family, the Tommy Hunter Show and Singalong Jubilee — a much more amenable lineup, all in all, but still — Singalong Jubilee as the lead-in to Monty Python? That was the early ’70s, man … you had to be there to understand.

Here’s another thing that doesn’t make sense: The CBC ran Season 3 out of order. The episode that kicked off the new season on May 25 was actually the third episode of the BBC’s Season 3, known as The Money Programme, with Queen Elizabeth I on a motorcycle, the argument clinic, hitting-on-the-head lessons and the song “There is nothing quite so wonderful as money.” Perhaps we’ll never know why the flip in order, but it did happen.

10. But at least the TV show was on again — and just in time to welcome the six Pythons to Toronto for real. They kicked off their first North American tour with three sold-out shows June 4, 5 and 6, 1973, at Toronto’s St. Lawrence Centre.

Of course the Toronto shows and the tour were a roaring success (although some reviewers didn’t really know what was going on) — but it was also the beginning of the end for the television version of the Pythons.

cleese-clinched-teeth

11. In a 2006 interview with the Star’s Richard Ouzounian, Eric Idle said, “It was on an Air Canada flight on the way to Toronto, when John (Cleese) turned to all of us and said ‘I want out.’ Why? I don’t know. He gets bored more easily than the rest of us. He’s a difficult man, not easy to be friendly with. He’s so funny because he never wanted to be liked. That gives him a certain fascinating, arrogant freedom.”

Despite his arrogant freedom from the TV series, Cleese was an enthusiastic and contributory participant in the filming of Monty Python and the Holy Grail in the spring and early summer of 1974, following immediately by the five Pythons sans Cleese returning to production of Season 4 of the TV series.

stuffy-officer

12. Graham Chapman had come out of the closet in 1967 but kept the issue of his sexuality relatively low-key in the early days of the Python TV show. By 1974, however, Chapman was an outspoken gay rights activist. That summer, a TV viewer wrote to the BBC complaining that she had heard one of the Pythons was homosexual, adding that the Bible said any man who lies with another man should be stoned to death.

Somehow the letter of complaint came into the possession of Eric Idle, who wrote a reply to the irate viewer: “We’ve found who it was and we’ve taken him out and had him killed.”

In a posthumous 1997 memoir called Graham Crackers, Chapman noted that Season 4 — minus John Cleese — went on air shortly after Idle responded to the woman and he always wondered if she assumed Cleese’s disappearance from the cast was an act of Biblical retribution.

13. The BBC wanted a full 13 episodes, but the Pythons — who dropped “Flying Circus” from their title when Cleese left the TV troupe — were exhausted, both physically and creatively, and insisted that six episodes was all they had left in the tank.

14. CBC, by the way, began airing the six episodes of Season 4 in the fall of 1975 — at the strange time of 6:30 p.m. on Saturdays. Monty Python filled that time slot through the winter of 1975-76 and into the early spring.

How they did that with six episodes I don’t know. Did the CBC keep running Season 4 over and over again or did they re-run an earlier season after the six Season 4 shows were over? I’m hoping you can tell me.

And that was it for the TV show — 45 episodes in all made between the summer of 1969 and the summer of 1974.

Monty-Pythons-The-Meaning-of-Life

15. After that the Pythons continued to exist as an active, functioning creative entity for another decade, churning out movies — Life of Brian (1979) and The Meaning of Life (1983) — and live shows and records and books before going their separate ways in the mid-1980s.

a-fish-called-wanda

You know how their solo careers went — Fawlty Towers, A Fish Called Wanda, the Amnesty International benefits, the various films directed by Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones, Spamalot, Michael Palin’s televised travel diaries and so on. And every once in a blue moon, the five surviving Pythons coalesce in various formations for collaborative efforts of various kinds.

absolutely-anything-promo-poster-436x600

16. The latest of those projects — after the July O2 shows — will be the movie Absolutely Anything, directed by Terry Jones and scheduled for release next year, in which a sadsack teacher (Simon Pegg) suddenly develops the magical power to make any wish come true.

Also starring will be Kate Beckinsale and Robin Williams (as the voice of a talking dog)  — and the five Pythons as the voices of a quintet of extraterrestrials. (I don’t know why Eric Idle’s name is not on this early promotional poster — he definitely voiced one of the ETs — but perhaps he just hadn’t signed on yet when the poster was done.)

Speaking of space aliens …

Douglas-Adams_in_Monty_Python-episode-42

That’s Douglas Adams behind the surgical mask in the fourth season of Monty Python.

17. Douglas Adams — who went on to write Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy among other things — was one of only two non-Pythons to receive writing credits for the show. (The other was Neil Innes, of course.) Adams is credited with writing one sketch — “Patient Abuse” — in episode 45 of the final season, although he partnered with Graham Chapman in writing several other uncredited sketches. He also appeared on-camera twice in cameo roles in the final season.

18. In 1998, Douglas Adams designed a space-aliens-meet-humans computer game called Starship Titanic. In conjunction with the release of the game, Terry Jones published a book based on the fantasy universe his friend had created. The book is variously called Starship Titanic: The Novel! and Douglas Adams’s Starship Titanic: The Novel.

The book is available free online at this link BUT (and this is a very big “but”), as the website warns you on the title page, it is “The whole text! Every single word! In alphabetical order!”

This photo of the website’s first page may explain why “Every Single World! In alphabetical order!” is not a great way to read a novel.

Starship-Titanic-free-online

If you really want to read Starship Titanic (in non-alphabetical order), it’s still available — at a price — elsewhere as an e-book.

Terry Jones, by the way, says he wrote the novel entirely in the nude.

naked-jones

19. E-mail spam is, in fact, so named because of the 1970 Monty Python “Spam” sketch, which presented Britain’s ubiquitous post-war canned “meat” product as something unwanted but unavoidable.

Cannes_Pythons

Pythons on the beach at Cannes, 1983.

20. The Meaning of Life took the Grand Jury Prize at the 1983 Cannes Film Festival. The film was, however, banned in Ireland for supposedly mocking the Catholic Church. Ireland had already banned the Life of Brian (for supposedly poking fun at Jesus — although it did no such thing). Norway banned Life of Brian too. Who knows why, apart from the proven fact that Norwegians have no sense of humour. The Pythons used “Banned in Norway” as the tagline for The Meaning of Life promotional campaign in Sweden.

Life-of-Brian   Blasphemy

21. The Monty Python theme song is a march called The Liberty Bell by John Philip Sousa. The Pythons chose the song because it was in the public domain — and thus free.

Monty_python_foot

22. The giant foot that crushes the show’s title in the opening credits is the foot of frisky Cupid in Florentine artist Agnolo Bronzino’s Renaissance masterpiece Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time. (As above, Terry Gilliam usually flopped the foot from its original right-facing orientation.)

Angelo_Bronzino_001

The original foot artwork used by Terry Gilliam to create his animations is up for sale at auction in England on July 12. Gilliam signed it and gave it to animation cameraman David Brookman in 1971. It’s expected to fetch about £600 — which seems awfully cheap to me.

Monty-Python-16-ton-weight

23. The “16-ton weight” that often ended a sketch by landing on one of the participants was introduced in Episode 4 of Season 1 (the episode known as Owl-Stretching Time), dropping on Terry Jones as he attacked John Cleese with a raspberry in the “Self-defence Against Fresh Fruit” sketch. The “weight” was a hollow, light, fibreboard construction that was big enough to conceal an actor — if he ducked. In a later episode, Michael Palin did not duck fast enough and his head smashed through the top of the prop when it was dropped on him.

chapman-and-cleese

24. Graham Chapman died of cancer of Oct. 4, 1989. According to Jim Yoakum, co-author of Graham Crackers, Chapman’s last words were to a nurse: “Sorry for saying fuck.” And then he died. Michael Palin and John Cleese, who were in Chapman’s hospital room at the time along with family members and Chapman’s partner, David Sherlock, were overcome with grief and had to be helped from the room.

Cleese used a variation of the Dead Parrot sketch when he delivered the main eulogy at a memorial service for Chapman in December 1989. And then he brought the house down when he added “Good riddance, the freeloading bastard, I hope he fries.” Here’s a link to Cleese’s eulogy (it’s only about two minutes long.)

25. The castle used to portray Winterfell in the pilot episode of Game of Thrones was the same castle — Doune in Scotland — used extensively in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The Pythons used Doune  for the first castle approached by the knights, for the Swamp Castle courtyard and great hall, for the Frenchmen’s castle, and for Camelot interiors. (Game of Thrones switched to using Castle Ward in Northern Ireland for Winterfell after the pilot.)

Doune-Castle

Here comes the Trojan Rabbit.

Trojan-rabbit-returned-to-sender

I could tell you about the two specials the Pythons did for German television in 1971 and 1972 — in German … or the fact that Graham Chapman’s middle name actually was Arthur … or the origins of the Dead Parrot sketch being something of a cross between a 1,600-year-old Greek joke and a rather sketchy London mechanic Michael Palin used to deal with … or more details about John Cleese’s extraordinarily acrimonious and expensive 2009 divorce  (“It was worth every penny. Think what I’d have had to pay Alyce if she’d actually contributed anything to the relationship.”) … or the Monty Python inside joke (in the invented Low Valyrian language) inserted into Game of Thrones by series creator Dan Weiss and the show’s linguist, David Peterson … but I won’t.

john-cleese-in-drag-in-germany

That’s enough for now. This monster has gone on far too long as it is.

And now for something completely different …

monty_python_old-boys

 

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