Analysing the English in a sketch by Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and considering British communication style relating to apologising, making complaints and minimising language.
Luke rambles about folding seats on public transport, the spring equinox, saying goodbye to winter and the recent posh or not posh episodes.
Here’s another British comedy episode.
We’re going to listen to a comedy sketch by Monty Python.
This time we’re looking at British manners, politeness, communication style and just some madcap comedy too.
Similar episodes in the past have been things like my episode about British communication style (What Brits Say vs What They Mean), What is this British comedy? How to learn English with comedy TV series, and the episodes I’ve done about Monty Python’s Flying Circus.
We’re going to listen to a clip from Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and also consider the cultural values behind the sketch, and how that relates to things like making complaints, saying sorry and making requests.
So, cultural stuff and also linguistic stuff too.
Intro to the sketch
There’s quite a well-known series of postcards called the How to be British Collection. You might have seen them. They contain little cartoons illustrating life in England from the point of view of learners of English. There are some classic sketches in that collection.
The “How to be British collection” #8 – Being Polite (c) IGP Cards – Buy the books on Amazon here.
One of them is called “Lesson 16 – How to complain”.
It shows a couple in a restaurant, in England we imagine. They don’t look happy with the food. The man says “This meat is as tough as old boots” and the woman says “It tastes off. And these vegetables are cold.” (some nice vocab in there already)
In the next frame the man says “this wine is awful – I asked for dry and they’ve given us sweet.” and she says “and look, there’s a worm in my side salad…”
Ah, a typical English restaurant.
Then the waiter comes over and says “How is your meal? Is everything all right?”
Now, what would you say in that situation? How would you respond? Would you complain? How would you do it?
Well, in the sketch, after the waiter says “Is everything all right?” the man says “Oh yes. It’s all lovely!” and the woman says “Excellent, thank you!”
The point here is that British or English people avoid saying the bad thing, making the complaint, because they’re too polite and don’t like to cause a problem, so they say it’s all fine.
Is this a stereotype of English communication style? Partly. As we’ve seen before.
What would I say?
I would say that the food was no good, especially the part about the worm. Obviously those extreme details are added for comic effect, like a worm in the salad. But if my food was just not up to scratch, would I complain? I probably wouldn’t complain if it was something minor, but a big thing would be an issue, but what’s definitely true is that I don’t like getting into a situation of conflict or confrontation and so I would probably be very reasonable about my complaint. My wife is more direct about these things. She’s French. We often notice a big difference in the way we deal with things like this. She’s much more direct about making a complaint and getting what she feels she is entitled to. For some reason it’s more difficult for me. I don’t like getting into those confrontations. Is this just me, or is this British people in general? I think it’s a bit of both. I’m perhaps not the confrontational kind, but also Brits are like that too, more than other nations, as far as I can tell.
Of course there are plenty of British people who complain vociferously if there’s a problem, a lot of Brits (certainly English people) will avoid an awkward situation if they feel that nothing can be done about it.
Why do people want to avoid confrontation? What’s the worst that could happen?
Let’s find out in this sketch.
The Dirty Fork Sketch
Listen to the sketch – just try to understand what’s going on. It’ll help if you watch the video because there are a couple of visual elements, but if you don’t watch it – just try to work out the details. Essentially, you’ll hear a couple in a French restaurant. They have a problem, and then they are visited at the table by various members of the restaurant staff including the waiter, the head waiter, the manager and finally the chef from the kitchen.
Let’s listen to it and see if you can work out what’s going on. Then I’ll break it down for you so you understand it just like a native speaker.
Bonus: Watch out for the punchline at the end.
A man and woman are in a fancy restaurant. The French waiter is very keen to make their stay satisfying. The man asks for another fork because his is a little bit dirty. The reaction of the waiter is extreme. he apologises profusely. He fetches the head waiter who comes to apologise. He makes over the top apologies. The restaurant manager comes out and his apology is serious and dramatic. Finally the chef comes out. He’s a huge angry man with a meat cleaver. He’s furious with the customers because they made a complaint which has caused so much sorrow to the staff of the restaurant. He shouts revenge as he tries to kill them.
“Lucky I didn’t tell them about the dirty knife!”
The main point is
I think this sketch is making fun of people who keep quiet about little complaints or use language to minimise problems, because they’re scared about making a fuss. This seems to be what they imagine could happen if they point out a problem. This is the worst nightmare of every British person who awkwardly makes a complaint. They’re terrified of making a fuss or causing a scene.
It’s not “I’ve got a dirty fork”, it’s “I’ve got a bit of a dirty fork”.
It’s ridiculous really – either you’ve got a fork or not. You can’t have a bit of a fork. Your fork can be a bit dirty, but it’s a bit silly to say “I’ve got a bit of a dirty fork”. However, this kind of minimising language is very common when people want to make something sound less serious than it is.
E.g. 1 “We’ve got a bit of a dirty table. Could you give it a bit of a wipe for us please?”
E.g. 2 Imagine someone announcing to someone that there’s been an accident, but they’re trying to minimise the seriousness of it because for some reason they’re embarrassed about it or they want to reduce the shock.
“Can I have a bit of a chat with you. Just a bit of a chat. It’s no big deal, it’ll just take a second.
It’s just that we might have had a little bit of a problem downstairs. There’s just sort of been a little bit of an explosion in the kitchen. Just tiny little bang really – more of a pop really, just a tiny little pop – you’d hardly notice it really. I heard it though and thought “Did I imagine that? Did someone just pop a balloon, or fart or something?” and then I picked myself off the ground and had a look downstairs and, yeah, the restaurant is a bit err, it’s a bit scratched and there’s a slight hole in the wall, and in the ceiling and a few puffs of smoke. At first I thought – “oh is that the chef having a cigarette out the back? I thought he’d given up!” But no it wasn’t him – I guess he won’t be smoking again in a hurry! Can you speak to him? Well, he’s a bit tied up at the moment, no he can’t come to the phone he’s… just resting. I think he fainted or just fell over after the thing, the thing that happened in the kitchen, and his head might have fallen off slightly and he might have lost a couple of other limbs in the confusion but anyway, no need to worry too much, it’s basically under control more or less, I just thought you might , want to pop down to the kitchen to have a look and maybe call an ambulance. Yeah, I would but I’ve lost my legs and I’m feeling a bit sleepy so I’m going to have a bit of a lie down, but I thought you might like to know… OK?
So, it’s always “A slight problem” or “A bit of a problem”.
Go through the paragraph again and highlight the minimising language.
Back to the comedy sketch…
This sketch is making fun of our culture I think – the way we are afraid of causing a fuss. Also it makes fun of the over-the-top way that fancy restaurants might apologise for small problems. They’re so keen to welcome and satisfy their customers. The sketch also gets completely carried away, especially when John Cleese’s “Mungo” comes out.
To an extent it’s a little bit pointless analysing Monty Python’s comedy because they make fun of absolutely everything, but I feel that they’re definitely poking fun at stuffy, polite culture.
Why do people minimise negative things? They want it to sound less serious. They don’t want to make someone feel they’re complaining. They want to show that it’s no problem – but why would it be a problem?
If you had a dirty fork you’d just say – “Excuse me, can I have another fork please? This one’s a bit dirty” the waiter is not going to be mortified. He’ll just get you another fork. This sketch represent’s the customer’s worst fear – that there will be a problem or a fuss.
“We don’t want to cause a fuss! Don’t make a scene!”
Now let’s go through the sketch again and understand it in detail.
RESTAURANT SKETCH: COMPLETE SCRIPT
|Lady||It’s nice here, isn’t it?|
|Man||Oh, (It’s a) very good restaurant, three stars you know.|
|Waiter||Good evening, sir! Good evening, madam! And may I say what a pleasure it is to see you here again, sir!|
|Man||Oh thank you. Well there you are dear. Have a look there, anything you like. The boeuf en croute is fantastic.|
|Waiter||Oh if I may suggest, sir … the pheasant à la reine, the sauce is one of the chef’s most famous creations.|
|Man||Em… that sounds good. Anyway just have a look… take your time. Oh, er by the way – I’ve got a bit of a dirty fork, could you … er.. get me another one?|
|Waiter||I beg your pardon.|
|Man||Oh it’s nothing … er, I’ve got a fork, (it’s) a little bit dirty. Could you get me another one? Thank you.|
|Waiter||Oh … sir, I do apologize.|
|Man||Oh, no need to apologize, it doesn’t worry me.|
|Waiter||Oh no, no, no, I do apologize. I will fetch the head waiter immediatement. (immediately – in French)|
|Man||Oh, there’s no need to do that!|
|Waiter||Oh, no no… I’m sure the head waiter, he will want to apologize to you himself. I will fetch him at once.|
|Lady||Well, you certainly get good service here.|
|Man||They really look after you… yes.|
|Head Waiter||Excuse me monsieur and madame. (examines the fork) It’s filthy, Gaston … find out who washed this up, and give them their cards immediately.|
|Man||Oh, no, no.|
|Head Waiter||Better still, we can’t afford to take any chances, sack the entire washing-up staff.|
|Man||No, look I don’t want to make any trouble.|
|Head Waiter||Oh, no please, no trouble. It’s quite right that you should point these kind of things out. Gaston, tell the manager what has happened immediately! (The Waiter runs off)|
|Man||Oh, no I don’t want to cause any fuss.|
|Head Waiter||Please, it’s no fuss. I quite simply wish to ensure that nothing interferes with your complete enjoyment of the meal.|
|Man||Oh I’m sure it won’t, it was only a dirty fork.|
|Head Waiter||I know. And I’m sorry, bitterly sorry, but I know that… no apology I can make can alter the fact that in our restaurant you have been given a dirty, filthy, smelly piece of cutlery…|
|Man||It wasn’t smelly.|
|Head Waiter||It was smelly, and obscene and disgusting and I hate it, I hate it ,.. nasty, grubby, dirty, mangy, scrubby little fork. Oh … oh . . . oh . . . (runs off in a passion as the manager comes to the table)|
|Manager||Good evening, sir, good evening, madam. I am the manager. I’ve only just heard . .. may I sit down?|
|Man||Yes, of course.|
|Manager||I want to apologize, humbly, deeply, and sincerely about the fork.|
|Man||Oh please, it’s only a tiny bit… I couldn’t see it.|
|Manager||Ah you’re good kind fine people, for saying that, but I can see it.., to me it’s like a mountain, a vast bowl of pus.|
|Man||It’s not as bad as that.|
|Manager||It gets me here. I can’t give you any excuses for it – there are no excuses. I’ve been meaning to spend more time in the restaurant recently, but I haven’t been too well… (emotionally) things aren’t going very well back there. The poor cook’s son has been put away again, and poor old Mrs Dalrymple who does the washing up can hardly move her poor fingers, and then there’s Gilberto’s war wound – but they’re good people, and they’re kind people, and together we were beginning to get over this dark patch … there was light at the end of the tunnel . .. now this . .. now this…|
|Man||Can I get you some water?|
|Manager||(in tears) It’s the end of the road!!|
|The cook comes in; he is very big and has a meat cleaver.|
|Cook||(shouting) You bastards! You vicious, heartless bastards! Look what you’ve done to him! He’s worked his fingers to the bone to make this place what it is, and you come in with your petty feeble quibbling and you grind him into the dirt, this fine, honourable man, whose boots you are not worthy to kiss. Oh… it makes me mad… mad! (slams cleaver into the table)|
|The head waiter comes in and tries to restrain him.|
|Head Waiter||Easy, Mungo, easy… Mungo… (clutches his head in agony) the war wound!… the wound… the wound…|
|Manager||This is the end! The end! Aaargh!! (stabs himself with the fork)|
|Cook||They’ve destroyed him! He’s dead!! They killed him!!! (goes completely mad)|
|Head Waiter||(trying to restrain him) No Mungo… never kill a customer. (in pain) Oh . .. the wound! The wound! (he and the cook fight furiously and fall over the table)|
|CAPTION: ‘AND NOW THE PUNCH-LINE‘|
|Man||Lucky we didn’t say anything about the dirty knife.|
|Boos of disgust from off-screen.|