Let’s say you suddenly found yourself in charge of a major corporation. If you’re good at your job, imagine you’d probably try to steer the ship and make some more money for yourself and your coworkers. But, since it’s never going to happen anyway, what if we just went crazy and used some of that advertising budget to just, I don’t know, have your favorite sketch comedy group create an episode of their TV show about your company? Well, if you were in charge of the UK branch of Birds Eye Peas in 1971, you did exactly that. You were about to relaunch your brand of frozen peas, and to introduce this concept to your company you threw a bunch of money at some comedians and produced a 25-minute episode of their show all about said frozen peas. This is how an “episode” of Monty Python’s Flying Circus entitled “The Great Birds Eye Peas Relaunch of 1971” came to be.
Yes, you read that right. There’s an episode of Flying Circus from 1971, right in between Series 2 and 3 (before Cleese left the show), that you’ve probably never heard of. Until YouTube came to be, only a handful of Python fans had seen it, since it remained locked in the Birds Eye vaults.
Based on the Best Selling Pulitzer Prizewinning Plasticine Model by Ann Haydon-Jones and Her Husband Pip
But first, let’s back up. At this stage in Python’s career, things were pretty comfortable. They group was experiencing a bit of success. They weren’t the comedy icons they are today, but they also weren’t only being seen by old ladies who left the telly on Friday evening. The group was getting ready to film a movie version of a “best of,” compiling their best sketches from their first two series to be shown in theaters. It was at this time that the outside world came calling.
The first “client” was the government. John Cleese was a supporter of the Labour Party, so according to Terry Jones in the oral history The Pythons, they “did a little thing for the Labour Party.” (Whether this took the form of a filmed piece, or a live performance I wasn’t able to determine in my research.) According to Idle in the same book, their next outside project was an industrial film (meaning it was for internal viewing only) for Harmony Shampoo. This piece was nearly seven minutes and featured the Pythons as Biggles. Biggles appeared a few times on Flying Circus but American Python fans might be surprised to learn that he’s not an original character, but is in fact was a popular British icon and star of a series of adventure novels from the 1930s on. Like the fictional character on all those book covers, the Pythons hawk hairspray while wearing World War 1-era leather flying caps and goggles, judges robes, and of course, dresses.
But it was Birds Eye that was the big one. Nearly a full episode’s worth of content, but the very strange commercial is notable in Python history for another reason as well. To this point, all of Monty Python’s material had been directed by either Ian MacNaughton, John Howard Davies, or Terry Gilliam (specifically his animations). These industrial films served as the first time group member Terry Jones would direct the troupe, providing him the path to later co-direct their first original feature film, Monty Python and the Holy Grail with Terry Gilliam, and be the sole director of the following two, Life of Brian and Meaning of Life.
The Birds Eye film satirizes company meetings, the life of a salesman, game shows, the Birds Eye Corporation itself, and even the methodology for choosing the 5% sales growth target for the following year (it’s drawn out of a hat). On top of all of this, the Pythons don’t hold back at all. In fact, they actually go a little further than they were able to on TV. Honorary Python Carol Cleveland makes an appearance as a typical “housewife” and customer of Birds Eye. She explains why Birds Eye needs to improve its products if it’s going to hit its growth target reciting what sounds like legitimate market research. However, she says this while lying in bed in only a black bra and panties as she slowly undresses Michael Palin.
The tone is purely Python, as is the content. There are pieces filmed on set and as exteriors, and cuts to text on screen, and while there isn’t any animation, there is a definitively Gilliam title card with the industry film’s title presented in Ben-Hur format (later repeated for the Life of Brian logo). In spite of all that, there is a different feeling going on here. The pace is a little bit slower. There are slight pauses at the beginning of cuts. Sometimes the camera placement is strange and awkward, other times it’s a really gorgeous dolly shot that would never have been done on the BBC’s shoestring budget. Terry Jones does not do a bad job directing this industrial film – there are some shots that are downright beautiful. However, there are some moments where you can definitely tell this is a first attempt on the other side of the camera.
Did Birds Eye know what they were getting? Were they happy with the result? I have no idea. There is very little about the industrial film on the Internet and the various Python books, which makes sense, since I doubt these guys thought an awful lot about this extra-long commercial that was never intended to be seen by the public. I sent an email out to Birds Eye for the answer to my questions but I assume that in the 45 years since this was made a few employees have probably moved on.
Luckily, you no longer have to be an employee of Birds Eye in England in the early 70s to watch this very rare piece of Python history. Enjoy the full Birds Eye industrial film below and learn all about what British housewives of 1971 did and did not want changed about the leading brand of frozen peas.