At first glance the London Tube map looks a lot like a schematic for something aboard the USS Enterprise. Once you get the hang of it, though, and stop giggling every time the automated voice aboard the train says, “This is the Piccadilly Line for Cockfosters,” getting around London is pretty easy. I wasn’t on the Piccadilly Line this day; I was on the Northern Line that’s only stop approaching a giggle is Tooting Broadway. It’s no Cockfosters, but it’ll do.
The train came to a stop at Archway Station and I stepped off with a few quiet passengers, and emerged onto a quiet street in the quiet North London area of Highgate (everything in England is quiet, except soccer fans). At the top of this mile-long hill in Highgate sits the Angel Inn where back in the early 1970s the Monty Python comedy troupe would work on their material, and get ridiculously drunk.
The first time I saw Monty Python I was about 12 years old. I credit President Jimmy Carter for that, which was the only good thing he did in office. Well, that and losing the 1980 presidential election.
Carter was addressing the nation on TV so I desperately dialed through our five pre-cable channels looking for anything else to watch. I found it on PBS, and that program changed my opinion of humor (humour) forever. A group of British men were doing brilliantly ridiculous things, like trying (and completely failing) to take a bra off a store mannequin, and one man ran himself over with a car. Then I saw boobs – BOOBS – on TV. After the show I looked through TV Guide, and discovered I’d just watched Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
I didn’t realize it then, but the troupe of Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin, had just set the bar pretty high for what I thought was funny. For those of you not familiar with Monty Python (and who exactly are you?), this sketch program ran for 45 episodes on the BBC from 1969 to 1974 and featured intelligent people in ridiculous situations, such as the British army using the funniest joke in the world to defeat the Nazis in WWII. It was what I imagine The Three Stooges skits would be like if Shakespeare wrote the scripts.
Up the hill I walked by pubs like The Wittington Stone, The Old Crown, and The Duke’s Head before I got to the Angel Inn on the aptly named High Street. Like most British public houses I’ve been to, and since I landed in London I’ve gone to a lot, it’s an unassuming sort of building. Unlike obnoxious American restaurants and bars, splashed with red and blaring music, British pubs are quiet, friendly and in buildings so subtle it’s sometimes hard to determine what kind of business it holds. Well, that’s not entirely true, the tables out front with locals drinking beer are a dead giveaway.
Like many pubs, the interior of the two-story Angel Inn was dark, even at lunchtime. Deep brown paneling lined the walls that stretched by booths and behind the shining surface of a bar lined with pump-handle taps. The back of the pub resembled a reading lounge; a black leather sofa and leather-clad stools dot the area around a currently unlit fireplace. The flat-screen television on the wall seemed oddly out of place.
I ordered a pint of Timothy Taylor Landlord Pale Ale and sat at a polished wooden booth with maroon leather-backed benches. Did the Pythons once sit here? I wondered. If they hung out here as much as the pub boasted, could be. In London I’ve been to houses where famous people like George Orwell lived, places where famous people like Sir Isaac Newton, and Charles Dickens are buried (I hope wherever you are, Charles, you’re contemplating how horrible “Great Expectations” is to an eighth grader), and places where famous people walked, like the zebra crossing at Abbey Road. But until that moment I hadn’t sat where my idols sat to write brilliant comedy, and get completely shitfaced.
I finished my beer in the booth of awesomeness, and left.
On the outside wall rested a blue plaque set high enough to keep anyone from stealing it unless they really, really tried. Blue historical plaques like this can be seen on buildings throughout London; the only caveat is that someone interesting had to have been there once. Started in 1866 by the Royal Society of Arts, blue plaques have been placed on buildings to commemorate where “notable figures” lived or worked. This plaque on the side of the pub read: “To Preserve and Foster the Tradition of British Comedy: Graham Chapman: ‘A very naughty boy’ 8 January 1941 to 4 October 1989. Comedian and writer, member of Monty Python’s Flying Circus drank here often and copiously.”
Good for him. Satisfied I’d just experienced a piece of Monty Python history; I walked back to the Archway Tube Station and headed home.