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I was watching the Secret Service Dentists sketch by Monty Python, and in the video, The Big Cheese says the following after shooting his pet rabbit:

There -- poor Flopsy's dead, and never called me mother!

For the full context of the quote, you can use this link instead; it will skip past all the nonsense directly to the relevant part.

I was curious, what precisely does this phrase mean, especially in this context? Google didn't assist me a great deal -- there are lots of references to East Lynne, the novel that the quote is often attributed to, but I didn't see any actual explanation of what the phrase means.

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5 Answers 5

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Sadly, I don't think you'll get a very satisfactory definition of what that line meant in that sketch. It is Monty Python - who often said virtually meaningless things.

Having said that, we can assume The Big Cheese was effectively 'Mother' to poor Flopsy, who certainly never acknowledged that relationship verbally. Much to his annoyance, perhaps; he might have felt the rabbit should have been more effusively grateful for the doting treatment it received prior to its sudden untimely demise.

Doubtless there have been plays and films where the line will have been delivered in earnest (bewailing dead infant too young to have ever talked, or adopted child who never discovered his parentage before dying dramatically on set). It was may well have been something of a 'catchphrase' among the Pythons, evocative of absurdly overacted pathos.

It made me laugh to watch it again, anyway. But I'm English, with a warped sense of humour. I don't think many Americans of today would like it one bit.

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Hey! Plenty of us on this side of the pond with a warped sense of humor too :) –  aedia λ Jul 7 '11 at 22:05
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Monty Python, Fawlty Towers, Rowan Atkins more venomous work (standup and Black Adder), Cook & Moore, Marty Feldman, At Last the 1948 Show (rare) -- they're all still big draws on this side of the pond. I had them with my pablum; it's a pity they're no longer suitable for children. –  bye Jul 7 '11 at 22:38
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@FumbleFingers: it was a catchphrase before the Pythons — it appears in several Goon Shows, if I remember right. –  PLL Aug 28 '11 at 7:03

The phrase means that Flopsy never had a chance to call the Big Cheese mother, or will never know the Big Cheese was her mother. This is obviously nonsensical - an important element of Python humor.

It does seem to be an East Lynne reference, referring to a scene where a child dies without ever knowing who his true mother was, although she went to great effort to be his governess and care for him.

Although the line did not actually appear in the novel of East Lynne, it probably occurred in a stage adaptation according to this BBC radio writeup:

I would love to know who coined “Dead, dead, and never called me Mother!” one of the best loved theatrical misquotations of all time. I have before me my grandmother’s acting script, from the 1880’s or 90’s... Madam Vine (the disguised Isabel) cries, “Oh, he is dead! – he is dead! Oh, William! Wake and call me mother once again!” In her next speech, to the faithful maid, she cries, “See here! – my child is dead! And never knew I was his mother. I don’t care what I’ve been, I am his mother still."
...There were 17 different published versions of the play ( not including all the pirated ones) and it would seem that the line ‘Dead, dead and never called me mother’ appeared in one of those.

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Wikipedia is a little vague on the details of the East Lynne plot, but in at least one film version the heroine leaves her husband when her son is still a baby, to return years later, disfigured and working as a governess for her son. The son later dies in her arms - at which time she presumably utters this line, heartbroken that her son died without ever knowing she was his mother (at which she promptly dies herself).

In the sketch it doesn't seem to have any particular meaning other than fitting with the overwrought tone of the scene (mocking many films made in such a style), and with the generally absurd style of humour for which the Monty Python team are renowned.

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I have been interested in this quote for some time. I remember it from a series called "The Monocled Mutineer", which was shown by the BBC about 15 years ago, based loosely on the life of Percy Toplis.

In one scene, an officer makes a very over dramatic exit, and when he has gone, a fellow officer uses this quotation.

My knowledge is that this quote was used by music hall artists that wanted to criticize someone who had over dramatized quite unnecessarily.

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The phrase was popularized by My Word!, a radio quiz/ word games show with Frank Muir and Denis Norden. The pilot episode had a round where contestants had to identify quotations, of which this was one. All the contestants agreed (as above) that it was impossible to pinpoint, and made up a joke answer (as I recollect, 'said by a teenager leaving a broken phone box'). This was wildly popular; it became the focus of a long-running series, and the answers were collected in a series of books.

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