Blessed are the cheese joke makers! The Pythons reunite on stage. Image: Alamy
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Everyone expects the Spanish Inquisition: Monty Python and their loyal superfans

While it’s generous and sensible to give the fans what they want, the familiarity of the material starts to feel weird.

Former members of great cultural juggernauts are doomed to spend their later lives on the interview circuit being asked if they have definitely ruled out a reunion. Despite the death of Graham Chapman in 1989, Monty Python still has sufficient members and friendship for a run of ten nights at the O2 in London and they’ll be fine as long as their various post-surgical scars can withstand the effort. The arena is most often booked by musical super-brands, so it is the perfect choice for this event, as Palin, Cleese, Jones, Idle and Gilliam are comedians with a rock band’s following and a rock band’s problem: the greatest hits or the new material?

There are a few fresh routines here – including a lightly anti-tabloid satire with Palin as the host of a TV game show called Blackmail, in which contestants pay to maintain their privacy – but the running order mainly consists of the No 1 hits, including in the second half a medley of “Spam”, “dead parrot” and “cheese shop”.

Other beloved material that is either logistically or medically impossible onstage – the football match between well-known philosophers, the fish-slapping dance – is taken from the DVD box sets and played on giant screens – though Cleese, who has expressed orthopaedic and artistic objections to doing “the ministry of funny walks” again, has managed to veto that routine, except in a brief quotation of stiff, high-kicking limbs from the Arlene Phillips dance troupe, who intermittently give the boys time to change costumes and catch their breath.

While it’s generous and sensible to give the fans what they want, the familiarity of the material starts to feel weird. Just as Rik Mayall, a comedian who made his name by projecting a tangible sense of danger, came to be given in his obituaries the sanitising tag of “national treasure”, so the Pythons, whose early work was famed for its strangeness, have become performers who warmly fulfil expectations. The most graphic illustration of this process is that their “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition” gag is so well loved that this Inquisition was not only expected but demanded by the audience who, recognising the couple of lines of dialogue before the pope’s interrogators burst into a suburban living room, roared its relief in the manner of rock audiences hearing familiar opening notes.

League of gentlemen: the Pythons at the O2

League of gentlemen: the Pythons at the O2

While the Pythons were never politically radical, they did upset the TV establishment with their surrealism and bum jokes, so it’s odd too to feel such warmth pouring into the great bowl of the O2. The early sight of the face of the late Graham Chapman on one of the screens induces the sort of ecstatic applause that would be matched among the English dead perhaps only by Diana, Princess of Wales.

Terry Gilliam tries to inject some disrespect by having Chapman’s head kicked into space by the celebrated Python foot, while in one of the musical routines, a couple of cock cannons fire sperm into the sky – but the fans didn’t want naughty boys. They had come to worship messiahs. When Cleese forgot his lines in the cheese shop scene – and Palin, with characteristic niceness, leaned across to help – there was more or less an “Aaaah!” from the auditorium.

And yet there is something undeniably touching about seeing them all, at the end of the night, side by side as septuagenarians in white tuxedos and black cummerbunds that, in some cases, are under considerable strain – though, at 71, Palin remains so trim and lithe that he sometimes resembles a kindly youth escorting his grandads and their civil partners on a night out.

Even so, there’s a double edge to the evening, in which gags about what a rip-off the whole thing is – a jokey merch-o-meter on a screen clocks up the sales of memorabilia – coexist with stalls asking, in all seriousness, for £20 for a thin, paperback programme. And celebrity guest cameos in person or on screen – Stephen Fry, Stephen Hawking – add to the sense of a memorial service that five of the six subjects have been able to attend. The surreal has become the so sweet. Everyone is hoping for the Spanish Inquisition. Blessed are the cheese joke makers!

Silent running

Harold Pinter introduced to British theatre a particular sort of silence and the dramatist Richard Bean is pioneering another noiselessness, in which the audience, rather than the performers, is given pause.

The “Bean silence” descends whenever the playwright makes a joke about some liberal shibboleth. There was a tangible chill in the stalls during much of his play about immigration, England People Very Nice, and also during his comedy about climate-change science, The Heretic.

It happens several times during Great Britain, his new work about tabloid bad behaviour, which opened suddenly at the National Theatre this month after secret rehearsals during the phone-hacking trial. A media-heavy crowd loved the gags against the Mail and the Sun but went solemn at jokes about disability or race. Pinter became a darling of the theatre. You suspect that Bean, unusual among dramatists in not bothering about whom he upsets, never will.

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, After God Again

FOX
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Will the latest wave of revivals, with X-Files leading the way, serve or undermine loyal fans?

How fandoms are affected when their favourite characters return to their screens.

The X-Files has returned to television. The beloved sci-fi drama, which was on screen for nine years (plus two feature films, including nobody’s favourite, 2008’s I Want to Believe), wrapped up in 2002. More than a decade later, the show is back on FOX for a six-episode run, a length that’s standard in Britain but new to American broadcast audiences used to 22-episode seasons.

And last night, before the US watched the fourth episode, everyone in the UK who hadn’t already found another way to watch it saw the series premiere on Channel 5.

Watching America watch the premiere was a curious thing. I’ve never been an X-Files fan (for no particular reason, I just never got down to it), but spending your time deep in fan culture means having plenty of friends who cut their teeth on X-Files fandom in the mid- to late-Nineties.

Modern media fandom was born in online X-Files communities, laying templates for a lot of our current language and practices. The most prominent example might be the term “ship”, short for relationship, because the fandom was (and still is?) divided between shippers – proponents of MSR, or “Mulder/Scully relationship”, a desire to see the two leads move past platonic affection onscreen – and “no-romos”, who, as you might guess, wanted the opposite. Two decades later, “ship” has spread far beyond the fandom where it originated, or even beyond fandom at large.

The X-Files wasn’t just a fan favourite, though: far from some cult sleeper hit, it was the kind of mainstream success that the network tapped to air after the Super Bowl one year (that particular episode, in 1997, earned 29m viewers). So when the new series premiered, I watched with interest as America seemed to fall over itself in excitement. The start-time was pushed back due to a late NFL championship game, and the entire internet seemed to be clamouring to get the football off the screen. And when the show finally came on, I watched the collective glee.

It was fascinating to see a Nineties mainstay get the instant-collective-reaction treatment of the social media era, but I was abstractly worried, too: people who’d seen preview screenings were reporting that the first episode was pretty terrible, and I was ready for some serious backlash.

I messaged a friend, one of those whose first fandom experience was The X-Files, and she told me, with considerable confidence, that it didn’t matter. “Nobody cares,” she said.It’s not about that – it’s about having them on TV again.”

Sure enough, as the episode concluded, I gauged a similar sentiment among fans: “That wasn’t very good . . . I’VE MISSED THIS SHOW SO MUCH.”

I got in touch with a few long-time X-Files fans to ask if they felt this ambivalence. Aloysia Virgata told me that, despite initial trepidation (she’s been wary since the 2008 film), she was hopeful. “As the filming progressed, as David and Gillian proved to have developed a lovely friendship that was a joy to watch, as the promotional team got their feet under them, I found myself back in the Nineties, scheduling appointment TV.”

And Dasha K said: “Mulder and Scully are wonderful, complex characters and I'd watch them doing just about anything as long as we got snappy dialogue and longing looks between them. The X-Files revival is more than a nostalgic experience for me. It’s setting off with some old friends for new adventures.”

Fans tend to stick by their favourite characters. It’s sort of one of our defining features. Some people watch a film again and again to memorise every fact; others might build on fictional worlds in stories of their own – there are a lot of reasons to write fanfiction, but a common one is that you aren’t quite ready to give up the characters you love.

We hold on to them after shows are cancelled too soon, or after individuals or relationships are massacred in the writers’ room. But one question leaves us divided: if you could have these characters back, if this show could come back on the air, would you even want it to?

If the past decade has been the era of the reboot, we’re embarking on the era of the revival. The X-Files isn’t the first big show to be resurrected – Family Guy springs to mind, or the Netflix series of Arrested Development, or the 2014 Veronica Mars film, notable not just because it brought a show back from oblivion, but because it was literally done by fans, via a Kickstarter campaign.

It’s easy enough to quibble over the differences between reboots, revivals, sequels, and franchise continuations – where exactly does Doctor Who fall, for example – but I’m specifically interested in the swathe of shows that we’ll see in the next year or two, most with the original casts, most following on from where we left our characters before. Friends, Gilmore Girls, Twin Peaks, Full House, and a new Star Trek (aside from the one in cinemas); I can already hear those critics moaning about how we’re stuck a morass of cheap and easy nostalgia.

Let’s be real here – most of the time, the sequel is worse than the original. And there are fundamental questions at work about narrative: whether shows with structural arcs and some semblance of closure should be resurrected from the dead (never mind that many shows end for other reasons, creative differences or squabbles over salary or flagging viewing figures).

I personally occupy a place that might seem paradoxical to people who don’t write or read fanfiction: I love my characters so much that I never, ever want them back in any “official” capacity beyond the initial text – I’m too busy doing unofficial (and, to me, much more interesting) things with them.

But like it or not, our characters are coming back. This always seems to stress people out who don’t get attached to things: revivals are prime targets for accusations of “fan service”. The term originated in anime and manga, where it often meant inserting gratuitous sexy bits into the story to, well, service the fan.

But in recent years it’s morphed into the suggestion that elements of a show or film are meant for the hardcore fan alone: complicated plots, winking in-jokes, meta- and intertextuality are all recipients of the accusation. Revivals are built on intertextuality; it’s rare that a cast and writing team will reunite and not work to build from where they left off.

The age of revivals owes a lot to rapidly changing television formats, viewing habits, and funding models – David Duchovny explicitly said the that they agreed to make this X-Files series because they were only locked into six episodes, after all. But it also owes a lot to the ever-increasing exposure of fans, whether they’re actively campaigning for a show’s resurrection or just very visibly continuing to flip out over and scrutinise and dissect and love a show that’s been off the air for nearly 15 years. I can’t help but think that when people complain about reboots and revivals, they sense that people stay loyal to a show, or to its characters, out of some sort of slavish inertia, which has no connection to what actually happens in fandom.

All of this isn’t to say that fans are looking for revivals that peddle nostalgia alone. In a review of the first three episodes of the new X-Files, the Guardian expressed its frustration:

The best reboots need to make a case for their very existence, otherwise it’s just the members of Fleetwood Mac getting together to play Rhiannon for the millionth time as we clap along and remember the good old days. New episodes should create something new, should take a series to a different place or comment on their legacy rather than just muddling around in the past hoping it’s enough for some good ratings.

Fans – who are rarely satisfied, and always ask for more from their media – want to push the story along, too. (The fact that they can do this while still enjoying clapping along to Rhiannon for the millionth time might baffle some critics, but what can you do.)

But developing the story may look different to different people: take the complaints (from George Lucas, but also plenty of other guys on the internet) that the new Star Wars just spins its wheels and plays to the crowds’ expectations. And then consider how the film, with its pair of leads being a woman and a black man, both wielding a lightsaber, arguably breaks more new ground than any series of plot twists every could. And if the audience enjoyed itself along the way, seeing something new while still revelling in the old things it loved, even better. Fans, serviced.

That’s not to say that the new X-Files is necessarily progressively forging into the future. (In fact, it’s come under fire for getting a bit stuck in the past.) But the television landscape is broad and varied enough that TV no longer has to mean one thing: we’re seeing the earliest hints of the long tail of the internet reflected back on our screens.

“Reviews in the US also indicate that the series vastly improves,” The Telegraph wrote in its review of the first episode. “But on this form, it’s hard to imagine anyone but the most loyal X-philes still believing.”

I understand that shows like to have broad critical or audience appeal. I’m just not sure there’s anything wrong with a show having deep fannish appeal instead. (And by the way, from what I gather from seemingly devastated fan friends and critics alike, the show does get much better. Like, they’re devastated by their emotions, not the quality of the writing.)

If this is the first year of the great wave of revivals – potentially a new format for media storytelling, fueled by fannish devotion – then I can think of no better show than The X-Files to lead the charge.

Elizabeth Minkel is a staff writer for The Millions, and writes a regular column on fan culture for the New Statesman. She is on Twitter @ElizabethMinkel.