Terry Gilliam’s “The Crimson Permanent Assurance”: Elderly accountant pirates taking on the Very Big Corporation of America

By on February 19, 2016

Sometime in the early 1980s, filmmaker Terry Gilliam — once again working separately from his Python brethren on his own, at his own studio — began creating a new animation sequence which was going to be included within Monty Python’s next feature film, Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life.

Gilliam’s new cartoon was to be a satirical piece attached to the head of the live-action film with a little note (“our short-feature presentation”) reminding the viewer that like much of Gilliam’s previous work, it should be considered separate and yet part of the larger whole, a kind of “B” movie to be screened ahead of the main feature.

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The entire sequence was very much the kind of big thematic idea that Gilliam was keen to explore at the time, blending his now obvious talent for outrageous and fantastical storytelling with darker themes, in particular a kind of updated dystopian Orwellian overarching warning about the dangers of capitalism in a world gone absurdly insane.

Gilliam would continue to explore these ideas with his next film, Brazil, but this was intended to be a comedic animated short at the start of the film, like something that Gilliam had done with the Python many times before.

By this time, Gilliam had already made two live action films — his film Time Bandits was a huge success, grossing over $40 million in box office receipts in the domestic United States movie market — and so making yet another animated short held no particular attraction for him as he’d done it all many times before.

Rather, he was hoping to try out some of the miniature special effects techniques that he intended to use in future projects.

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And so, at some point early on, Gilliam ditched the idea about making yet another animated short and he began storyboarding a new version of his story, putting his ideas into a live-action setting.

The opening voiceover sets the tone for Gilliam’s featurette: “In the bleak days of 1983, as England languished in the doldrums of a ruinous monetarist policy… the good, loyal men of the Permanent Assurance Company, a once-proud family firm recently fallen on hard times, strained under the yoke of their oppressive, new corporate management.”

Later we’ll  be seeing the names of the various subsidiaries owned by the Very Big Corporation Of America displayed on the walls of the boardroom — the names contain puns, or intentional in-jokes referencing other events in The Meaning of Life (such as the Live Organ Transplants sketch, which cuts to a shot of the sign painter in the board room inscribing “Liver Donors Inc.” on the wall).

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The elderly accountants — tired of dealing with bureaucratic drudgery and their free-market corporate oppressors — begin to arm themselves with weapons available to any average office worker, and become a marauding band of accountant pirates who organize a mutiny, an insurrection, and rise up against their corporate overloads, The Very Big Corporation of America.

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The short subject was to be presented, however, as a modern-day updating of the 1950s pirate movie, and its very title — The Crimson Permanent Assurance — was no doubt inspired by, or a satire on, the title of the 1952 Burt Lancaster adventure film The Crimson Pirate.

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The story continues on as they convert their office building into a seaworthy pirate ship that heads West down the crowded city street, lined with skyscrapers (the building used for shooting was the Lloyd’s Register (of Shipping) No.71 office in Fenchurch Street), also known as London Fenchurch Street, a central London railway terminus located in the southeastern corner of the City of London.

We see drawers reveal long shelves extending out of the building’s upper-floor windows to become the very planks which the bosses are forced to walk. We see ceiling fans that come apart and become swords, and the the ship’s sails, which are actually the tarps attached to scaffolding on one side of the building (very clever, that).

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In the end, we see the entire building , pulling an anchor up out of a city street (“a financial district swollen with multinationals, conglomerates and fat, bloated merchant banks”) and setting sail on the “wide accountant sea,” just like a pirate ship, attacking the Very Big Corporation of America before suddenly falling off the edge of the world.

The short itself reappears again about midway through the fifth act of The Meaning of Life just to remind us that it’s so wholly separate as a conceptual piece that it continues on without the rest of the Pythons, much the way Gilliam — working separately as well as together — would move on in his own career as a filmmaker, certainly independent of his Python brothers but one of them as well.

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The cast, mostly unknowns, includes Matt Frewer’s first role on film (he went on to become “Max Headroom,” of course), and if you watch closely you’ll catch a glimpse of most of the Python members: Gilliam and Michael Palin have cameo roles as window washers, and Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Graham Chapman appear very briefly at the beginning of the boardroom scene.

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We even hear Eric Idle’s song “The Accountancy Shanty” (a reworking of his “Galaxy Song,” heard later in The Meaning of Life), and the rest of the score, by John Du Prez, was based on movie scores by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, particularly his score for the pirate movie The Sea Hawk.

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The film — which Gilliam has planned to be a six-minute cartoon — ended up being 16-minutes long because, according to Gilliam, no one told him to stop. Originally it was closer to 30-minutes in length, and Gilliam has said “I cut it shorter and shorter and the others kept saying, ‘No, it’s still too long.'”

Gilliam would go over-budget on it too, of course, nearly double what was originally set aside, certainly a problem that would hinder many of Gilliam’s future filmic endeavors. There was also a hint of some of the stylistic directorial decisions he would make in later films, including several ambitious long takes, one of which prefigures a signature shot from Brazil.

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The Meaning of Life would prove to be Monty Python’s final film — as well as one of their very best — and won over the audience at the 1983 Cannes Film Festival, capturing the Jury Prize.

Today, while it’s easy to see how The Crimson Permanent Assurance fails to match the rhythm of the rest of The Meaning of Life — both a good and bad thing, we suppose, standing apart and yet not exactly feeling like it’s exactly the same as the rest of the film —  it can also be seen as a precursor to some of the themes and ideas that Gilliam would explore in future works, even reminding us how absurd it is that anyone should consider that “corporations are people too.”

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.