Saturday, November 9, 2013

Colin Richardson Interview Part 6 - Monty Python at the Belgrade, Coventry

08/09/2009 Visit Colin Richardson's blog on Typepad

Monty Python's First Ever Live Performance - Belgrade Theatre, Coventry 1971 as part of the Lanchester Arts Festival.

'Live' Python found at Belgrade Theatre, Coventry!

By Colin Richardson

1971 Lanchester Arts Festival included many well-known artistes on the 10 day programme of events,
including Elton John, Ralph McTell, Caravan, blues legend Arthur Big Boy Crudup, Leon Russell and Andre Previn (conducting the London Symphony Orchestra), but the high point of the student-run mixed media festival that year, was without doubt, the first 'Live on Stage' performance of Monty Python's Flying Circus. 

How did a modest little Polytechnic in Coventry come to be favoured with such a prime coup? Here's how it happened.

I had been the Festival's booking consultant in 1970, working closely with Ted Little, the student organiser. We made a good team, as he was always open to my ideas and suggestions, though quite firm of mind when it came to final decisions as to which act was chosen. I guess he must have been pleased with my contribution, as he retained my services for the following year.

At some point during the planning, he asked if it would be possible to book one or two of the Monty
team to perform a couple of sketches from the cult TV show, as they were immensely popular with the student fraternity. I was doubtful, as none of them had ever made any live appearances hitherto and I was pretty sure that they only produced their unique humour for the TV cameras. However, I said I'd see if there was any chance of one or more being interested. I had no idea who their agent was, but, as luck would have it, there fell into my lap a circuitous conduit to to one Python ear. It went like this: I had a little band going at the time...a quintet playing jazz and dance music around the club/college circuit and we had a singer by the name of Jean Hart, who was an American living in London and she was the girlfriend (later wife) of the comedian Bill Oddie. Bill would occasionally 'sit in' with the band, singing a credible blues. He knew most, if not all, of the Python team, so I asked him (through Jean) if he knew how I could go about contacting their representative. To my astonishment, he offered to introduce me to Eric Idle (it's possible that he was sharing a flat with him at the time, though I'm not certain about that) and eventually I got the summons to attend his presence. Being a bit of a fan myself, it was with some trepidation, awe and downright nerves that I
presented myself, but he very quickly put me at my ease with his relaxed and friendly attitude. He asked a few questions about what dates we had in mind, the Festival organisation, its history etc. I threw as many 'names' of artistes that had already been booked, or who had appeared in the previous 2 years and described how well run it was and he took it all in. I was expecting him to indicate who, if anyone, might be up for taking part, when he said something that had me almost fainting with inner excitement. It was along the lines of: "Well, your timing couldn't be more fortuitous (he could even have used the word 'serendipitous') as we've been discussing the possibility of doing something live on stage and, if we did, we would definitely do it outside of  London, in case it didn't work for us. If you can find out whether the Belgrade Theatre is available for a 3 night run, that would certainly increase the odds of us agreeing to do it, as we have all worked there before and know that it would be ideal for us".

In something of a daze, I promised to get back to him asap and left to find a phone to call Ted Little and
give him the astounding news. He didn't seem to take it in at first and kept asking which of the Pythons was I talking about. I said "All of them..the tout ensemble', the whole damn Circus!" After they brought him round, he checked the Belgrade's availability and phoned me back to say that we could have 3 nights, bang in the middle of the Festival. I passed this on to Eric and, soon enough, the dates and the deal were agreed. For the life of me, I can't remember the details, except that the shows would start at 12 midnight and that the fee was extraordinarily reasonable. In a cloud of euphoria, I passed this incredible news to Ted. Tickets went on sale a few days later...and all three shows sold out in about 20 minutes!

Needless to say, the shows were a fantastic success, the student audience a proven fan base who already knew most of the sketches, not that this in any way diminished their noisy enjoyment of them. I recall that,on the first night, the entire front row was wearing 'Gumby' style knotted the astonishment of the first Pythons onstage. An interesting coda to this story is that, a couple of weeks before the premiere, I received a phone call from the plummy-voiced P.A. of an illustrious music biz heavyweight (no names, no pack-drill!) who, after ascertaining that I was, indeed, the person responsible for this 'showbiz' coup, informed me that Mr. ******** would 'like a box, for the first night' ! After a deep breath and summoning
my most innocent of tones, I asked: "What kind of box would he like? Orange?". Well, that went down like the proverbial lead balloon. A few moments of silence, then: "You do realise that it's Mr ******** we're talking about?" To which I politely replied: "Even if it was the Queen Mother, I still couldn't get you a seat, let alone a box. It's completely sold out." A gasp of incredulity and frustration, followed by the crash of the phone going down at his end. I have to admit that I got a degree of quiet satisfaction from the exchange, which just added to the enormous pride that I felt at being the guy who helped facilitate the very first 'Live on Stage' appearance of Monty Python's Flying Circussss!

From Comment from Chris Applebey via Facebook
" 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. On the price of tickets, I remember seeing in the Sheffield newspaper (I was on a course there as part of my journalism training) that Marc Bolan was refusing to perform if venues charged more than a pound for tickets. Good for him."
The Gay Gannet, Broadgate, Coventry early 70's

In Michael Palin's Diary, he recalls the 1st ever Live performance of  Monty Python's Flying Circus at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry under Sunday January 31st 1971 in these sample pages of the diary on Google Books. HERE

He recalls their surprise to the response to their performance with over 1000 people in attendance. The next morning (Feb 1st,) having stayed at the Hotel Leofric in Broadgate, he describes how the went across Broadgate island to a cafe called 'unbelievably' The Gay Gannet' for breakfast!

Colin's story was covered by BBC Coventry and Warwickshire Radio in October 2009


Monty Python at the Belgrade Theatre - BBC Coventry Report

This is the link to the BBC Coventry page following Colin Richardson's broadcast along with David Partridge who was in the audience at the Belgrade. It was featured on the Annie Othen show.

You can listen to the broadcast with Annie, Colin and David here.

The Monty Python team

Hannah Tobin of BBC Radio Coventry and Warwickshire got in contact with Colin Richardson after Hobo had
 uploaded an interview with Colin, part of which dealt with he's scoop of bringing the Monty Python team to the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry for the first ever live performance in 1971. Colin and also David Partridge (who was in the audience) were interviewed on BBC Coventry Tuesday October 20th 2009 on the Annie Othen show.Thanks to Rosie King at the BBC for allowing us to relay the interview on the site.


Colin Richardson with Paul McCartney at Abbey Road.

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