Running across BBC1, BBC2, BBC3 and BBC4, the upcoming Landmark Sitcom Season is a series of one-off specials designed to celebrate sixty years of the British sitcom (Hancock’s Half Hour, which debuted on BBC tv in 1956, has been taken as the starting point). Of course, if any prove to be popular they can be developed into full series, which means that the cynics amongst us might regard this as little more than a season of pilots …..
For the purposes of this blog, there’s seven which are of interest – four on BBC1 and the other three on BBC4. BBC1 gives us Porridge, Are You Being Served, Goodnight Sweetheart and Young Hyacinth (a prequel to Keeping Up Appearances) whist BBC4 has Hancock’s Half Hour, Till Death Us Do Part and Steptoe and Son.
Goodnight Sweetheart is notable because it’s the only one able to reunite the original cast (alas, time has caught up with most of the stars from the others). Marks and Gran have already revived another of their sitcoms, Birds of a Feather, on ITV, so it’s not difficult to believe that this has been made with one eye on a full series.
Young Hyacinth is another that’s easy to imagine has been crafted as a back-door pilot. Writer Roy Clarke has form for this – First of the Summer Wine was an effective (if not terribly popular, ratings-wise) prequel to Last of the Summer Wine – and the current success of Still Open All Hours suggests that Clarke would be up for a revisit of another of his old shows. Some other time I’ll cast an eye over Clarke’s whole career – it’s amazing that he’s still going strong and it has to be said that his CV is a varied one with a lot more to offer than just umpteen years of Summer Wine.
Are You Being Served looks to be a pitch-perfect recreation of the original series, complete with all the familiar catchphrases. Whether this is a good or bad thing is very much down to personal taste of course ….
Porridge looks to be doing something a little different. It would have been easy enough to cast someone not physically dissimilar to Ronnie Barker (Peter Kay for example) and simply rehash old glories, but the clips show that it’s very much set in the present day (unlike Are You Being Served which remains stuck in the mid eighties) . One positive is that the updated Porridge has been scripted by Clement and La Frenais themselves, although it’s slightly concerning that they’re not adverse to plagiarising themselves. Familiar gags (“I won’t let you catch me”) and a martinet Scottish prison officer are present and correct.
Whilst the BBC1 revivals feature new scripts, the ones on BBC4 take a different approach. Steptoe, Hancock and Till Death are newly recorded versions of wiped originals …. well sort of. All the Steptoe episodes still exist, so they’ve chosen one which only remains as a poor quality B&W video recording.
These three episodes have a very different feel to their BBC1 counterparts. The original sitcoms tended to be rather studio-bound, but these new recordings heighten this feel. The lack of solid walls in the sets makes them seem rather theatrical and artificial, although it’s more than likely that this has something to do with the fact that BBC4 has a considerably lower budget than BBC1.
Although some of the efforts look interesting rather than rib-tickling, I have to say that I’m looking forward to the Hancock episode. Kevin McNally has already recorded a number of missing HHH radio scripts for Radio 4 (jolly good they are too) and his performances make it clear just how much love and respect he has for the Lad Himself.
When the season’s up and running I’ll be blogging about some of my favourite British sitcom episodes. So I guess now’s a good time to go off and do some research …..
An archive rarity has recently received an unexpected screening on BBC2 and is available, for those who can access it, on the IPlayer.
The tales of Para Handy, written by Neil Munro, first appeared in the Glasgow Evening News between 1905 and 1923. Para Handy is the skipper of the steamboat The Vital Spark, which is his pride and joy. Together with his mismatched colleagues – Dan MacPhail, Dougie and Sunny Jim – they wend their way around the coast of Scotland, enjoying various misadventures.
Para Handy first came to BBC television in 1959 with the show Para Handy – Master Mariner, starring Duncan Macrae as Handy. A few years later came a fresh series of adaptations – entitled The Vital Spark. Roddy McMillan played Handy (he’d appeared as Dougie in 1959) and there were three series – which aired in 1965, 1967 and 1973/74 (the 1970’s episodes were essentially remakes of selected scripts from the two 1960s runs).
As might be expected, the archive status (like so many other programmes of the era) isn’t particularly good. Several episodes from the 1970’s series exist (and are available on DVD) whilst only a single episode from the 1960’s run remains in the archive – and this is what has been given a welcome airing. A Drop ‘O The Real Stuff was the second episode of series one (first aired on the 28th of January 1966).
Para Handy would return to BBC television in the 1990’s, with Gregor Fisher taking the lead role (it’s one of those shows which has inexplicably never been released on DVD). And whilst this incarnation is quite different to the 1990’s series (it’s a half-hour sitcom with a studio audience, for a start) it’s just as enjoyable.
The Bowmans is a popular and long-running rural radio series (“an everyday story of simple folk” as the announcer puts it) which features Tony as local yokel Joshua Merryweather. Even after almost fifty five years there’s no mistaking that this is a deliberate parody of The Archers – the theme tune of The Bowmans is almost a note-for-note copy of The Archers, for example.
Joshua Merryweather was modelled on Walter Gabriel (Joshua’s catchphrase “me old pal, me old beauty” is a direct crib – they were the first words ever heard on the debut episode of The Archers back in 1950). Galton and Simpson clearly had great fun in satirising some of the conventions of a series that had, even by 1961, become an institution.
The fact that The Archers is still running today means that the jokes remain relevant and it’s also interesting that many of the gentle digs could also be applied to the various television soaps (especially Coronation Street) which would in time supplant The Archers in the nation’s affections.
One of the most telling is the way that some members of the audience seem to be unable to distinguish fiction from fact. At the start of The Bowmans Tony mentions how Joshua received gallons of cough syrup when his character had a cold and proposals of marriage when he was jilted at the alter! Examples continue to this day, possibly most notably the Free Deirdre Rachid campaign. There’s an obvious post-modern irony at work with many of these public outcries but it’s also clear that people enjoy playing the game.
As for Tony, he feels totally secure in the series. He’s played Joshua for five years and considers himself to be easily the best thing about the programme, although it’s plain that everybody else, including the harassed producer (played by Patrick Cargill) disagree. Joshua Merryweather gives Tony Hancock the perfect opportunity to indulge in some ripe overacting – with an accent switching from Welsh, Suffolk, Robert Newton and all points in-between. He also arrives singing a song of his own devising (all about mangle-wurzels) and likes to perform in rustic clothes, although he angrily denies that he’s a method actor.
However he’s not the first, and certainly won’t be the last, soap actor to find out that he’s not as indispensable as he thought. When he receives the next script he’s horrified to find that Joshua falls in the threshing machine and dies. Was this ruthlessly quick exit a comment on the death of Grace Archer some six years previously?
The next week poor old Joshua breathes his last (although Tony doesn’t go quietly) and he’s then forced to find alternative work. This leads us into a short five minute interlude which could have easily worked as a one-off sketch. Firstly he fails to impress in a Shakespearean audition and then finds his level in a series of adverts for Grimsby Pilchards. These are wicked parodies of exactly the sort of thing which were appearing on ITV at the time and they see Tony dressed in various different period costumes, pausing at the most inappropriate moment to pull out a tin of Grimsby Pilchards.
The most atypical thing about The Bowmans is that Tony emerges on top. He’s so frequently the loser that it does come as a surprise when the death of Joshua produces a massive outcry which forces the BBC to beg him to come back. After a brain-storming session they decide he can return as a relative of Joshua’s, Ben Merryweather. Real soap operas have done far worse, so this seems quite credible.
He also gets script approval and his first action is to write a scene where most of the villagers fall down an abandoned mine-shaft. We end with Tony promising to repopulate the village with more of his relatives (was he planning to play all the parts himself?)
With a script that still feels fresh today (actors are still finding themselves written out and then back into soap operas just as unconvincingly as Joshua) The Bowmans is an entertaining twenty five minutes. Patrick Cargill might not have as a large as role as he does in the upcoming Radio Ham or The Blood Donor, but he’s still excellent as the producer driven to the end of his tether. Peter Glaze also amuses as the all-purpose voice man who brings the village’s animals to life. One of his main roles is as Joshua’s dog, much to Tony’s disgust (he’s often threatening him with his stick!).
Although there’s a faint air of unreality about it all (Joshua is such a badly acted character that it’s impossible to believe his departure would have created such an uproar, and the new Ben-dominated series seems just as bad) there’s still a lot to enjoy in this one.
Tony Hancock told his writers, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, that he wanted changes for their next (and as it turned out, final) BBC television series. It’s often been assumed that Hancock’s wish to drop Sid James was motivated from envy and insecurity – Sid was getting too many laughs, so he had to go.
I think it’s much more likely that Hancock understood the format of the series had to change. Hancock’s Half Hour (both on radio and television) had been a staple of the 1950’s, but now the 1960’s were upon us. Had the show stayed the same for much longer there might have come a point when both the critical and public acclaim turned to indifference and boredom.
Maybe the seeds for change had been subconsciously sowed by some lines from the classic radio episode Sunday Afternoon at Home. Tony’s quiet and boring Sunday afternoon is interrupted by next-door neighbour Kenneth Williams. In this episode, Tony’s radio persona parallels his public one (he’s a successful radio comedian). But Williams, whilst professing to be a big fan, is monumentally tactless when he tells him that he thinks he’s slipping and that Ted Ray had the edge on him the previous week!
There’s no doubt that these lines from Galton and Simpson were nothing more than affectionate mockery, but for Hancock it may have struck home a little deeper. So for their final BBC series, renamed Hancock, Sid was gone, East Cheam was gone, and for this first episode Hancock was all on this own, literally.
I love the idea that Galton and Simpson wrote The Bedsitter slightly with their tongues in their cheeks – they reasoned that if Hancock wanted to be by himself, then they’d present him with a script where he’s the only person present! But Hancock leapt at the chance and despite the one man/one room nature of the episode it’s a tour-de-force for him.
It’s rather like Sunday Afternoon at Home in many ways – a study in boredom. Tony’s life is basically held in statis, which is made explicit as the last shot of Tony is the same as the first (he’s lying down blowing smoke rings). And despite his claims that tomorrow will be different, it seems that he’s just deluding himself. Alone and isolated in an Earls Court flat he has plenty of dreams but lacks the drive to make any of them a reality.
There’s a few nods back to the past. At one point he picks up a lurid paperback thriller, Lady Don’t Fall Backwards (which was the centrepoint of the classic HHH episode The Missing Page). Hopefully this time he’s been able to find a copy with that elusive final page! And when practicing his ventriloquism skills he mentions Peter Brough and Archie Andrews. One of Hancock’s early radio breaks occurred when he appeared in Educating Archie, acting as a straight-man to Archie Andrews (a vent’s doll voiced by Peter Brough).
Otherwise there’s a stream of unconnected moments – Tony attempts to read Bertrand Russell but is put off by all the long words, burns his lip on a cigarette, attempts to get a signal on his television, etc. The fragmentary nature of The Bedsitter would be a daunting prospect for many comic actors (as a contrast, Paul Merton’s remake is available to compare) but Hancock is easily up to the task. Although he was presumably anxious about having to carry a twenty five minute show by himself (and had lines written around the set as a backup) he wasn’t reliant at this point on reading the lines off boards.
Mid-way through the episode it seems that Tony’s luck has changed. A wrong number leads to an invitation to a cider and gin party (I’ll bring the cider, says Tony). A chance for a date with (he hopes) an attractive woman brings out a burst of enthusiasm, although this all comes to naught when she rings up later to cancel. You can hear a few audible awwws from the audience at this point, which is rather nice.
If The Bedsitter teaches us anything, it’s that Tony Hancock was perfectly able to carry the show by himself. Had Sid been present in the flat then the whole dynamic of the piece would have been totally different – not necessarily better or worse, just different. However, the rest of the series does operate on more traditional lines and sees Hancock crossing swords with a whole host of very good comic actors.
And the quality of the supporting casts that we’ll see over the forthcoming episodes (Patrick Cargill, Hugh Lloyd, June Whitfield, John Le Mesurier, etc) does rather give the lie to the oft-repeated and lazy claim that Hancock hated to be upstaged by others. If he had, he would have surrounded himself with mediocre talent – which is obviously not the case here. It does seem plain that one of the reasons why these shows remain fresh, some fifty five years later, is due to the fine ensemble casts.
A wonderfully detailed and thought-provoking analysis of The Bedsitter can be found on the blog You Have Just Been Watching. It’s well worth a read.
Up next is an everyday tale of country folk which remains very topical today.
Simply HE have announced that they will release a DVD of Hugh and I on the 7th of September 2015.
Hugh and I was a popular, if not first division, sitcom that ran on the BBC for six series, between 1962 and 1967, and starred Hugh Lloyd (a familiar face from Hancock’s Half Hour) and Terry Scott (later to enjoy sitcom fame, or infamy depending on your point of view, in Terry and June).
According to Lost Shows twenty four episodes exist, although the running time of the DVD suggests that it will contain eighteen. Either the Lost Shows listing is incorrect or the running time is, as it doesn’t seem likely that Simply would only leave a handful of episodes for a second release.
Time will tell and if more information comes to light I’ll update this post.
Compared to their later BBC Christmas shows, the 1969 Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show was a rather modest affair. After reaching an early peak in 1971, they (together with writer Eddie Braben), obviously felt the need to try and make each successive Christmas show better than the last – with bigger production numbers, more impressive guests, etc.
But when the 1969 special was transmitted all this was in the future, so what we have here is basically an extended version of one of their normal shows. There is a reason for this though – Eric was taken ill with flu during recording, so most of the programme was culled from material already taped for the upcoming series (this helps to explain why M&W don’t reference Christmas in their opening monologue).
So whilst it might be a patchwork effort, there’s still a decent roster of guests. Fenella Fielding stars in the end play, whilst Frankie Vaughan, Nina, Sacha Distel, The Pattersons and Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen provide the music. Five musical guests seems rather overgenerous (some are certainly better than others). For me, Nina and Kenny Ball are the pick of the musical acts.
Eddie Braben had started writing the Morecambe and Wise show in 1969, during the second series (following the departure of Sid Green and Dick Hills who had worked with M&W throughout the 1960’s up to this point). As the second series was only four episodes long, the 1969 Christmas Show was still very early days for Braben, but many of the familiar traits were already in place.
Braben’s chief innovations were to turn Ern into a writer, giving a shape and form to the end of episode productions as well as softening the byplay between the two (the Green and Hills M&W tended to be rather more combative).
Chief pleasures in any Braben scripted M&W show always includes the opening byplay and the flat sketch. This opening sees Ern dressed in a hip and happening way. Since by December 1969 the Swinging Sixties had run their course, he looks even more ridiculous than if he’d been dressed that way in 1967, which I presume is part of the joke (although from the modern perspective it’s possibly not as clear).
There’s plenty of great lines here as Ern tells Eric, “A couple of nights ago, I had a happening. I freaked out in the King’s Road. Pow! I went to this discotheque. I met this dolly bird and we really moved it!”. Whilst Ern is chuntering away, Eric remains fascinated by his coat, “Does it tug when you go past a lampost? Now, promise me one thing, Don’t ever go to the countryside wearing that coat. If a big lusty farmer sees you, you’ve had it. You’ll be dipped and sheared before you know where you are”.
In the flat sketch, Ern is taking a bath and of course Eric has to interrupt. Ern’s far from pleased (“You did this the last time I had a bath”) to which Eric replies, “You’ve got a good memory”. Eric’s also impressed with Ern’s chest hair. “By golly, aren’t you hairy? That is hair, that, isn’t it? Thick hair all over your body. I wouldn’t have had a bath if I were you. I would have got dry cleaned”.
Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen were a reguar feature on M&W’s shows dating back from their time at ATV earlier in the 1960’s and they’d continue to pop up during their BBC shows for a number of years.
The lovely Nina appears to sing Do You Know How Christmas Trees Are Grown? which had featured in that years James Bond film. This begins a short-lived tradition (Shirley Bassey appeared on the 1971 M&W Christmas show to sing Diamonds are Forever).
Elsewhere, the ventriloquist dummy sketch is incredibly stupid, which probably explains why I like it so much.
Fenella Fielding is suitably alluring as Lady Hamilton playing opposite Ern (and Eric) as Lord Nelson. The playlets always tend to drag a little (some like the John Thaw/Dennis Waterman one seems to last forever) but this isn’t too bad and at least it allows Eric the opportunity to dress up as Long John Silver.
A modest start then, but the 1970 show would see the stakes raised with a notable increase in the quality of the guest stars.
So far, we’ve seen a variety of linking devices used throughout the series – this one features a group of undertakers (with Terry Jones as a suitably ghoulish one – “Are you nervy, irritable, depressed, tired of life? Keep it up”) who pop up between the sketches with a series of mostly visual sequences that are certainly memorable. Are they funny? Mmm, I can’t say they’re particularly rib-tickling, but some of the rather crude stop-motion footage has its moments.
There’s one stand-out sketch in this show, which kicks off with Cleese as Inspector Tiger. Upon entering a Agatha Christie type drawing room, he launches into the following monologue.
This house is surrounded. I’m afraid I must not ask anyone to leave the room. No, I must ask nobody … no, I must ask everybody to… I must not ask anyone to leave the room. No one must be asked by me to leave the room. No, no one must ask the room to leave. I … I … ask the room shall by someone be left. Not. Ask nobody the room somebody leave shall I. Shall I leave the room? Everyone must leave the room… as it is… with them in it. Phew. Understand?
After some more mangled dialogue and a lobotomy, Tiger recreates the crime. The lights go out and when they come on again he is dead (with a bullet hole in his forehead, an arrow through his throat and a bottle of poison by his side). Then several of his colleagues turn up, each with a sillier name than the one previous. Such as Chief Inspector Lookout (“Look out? What where?”) and Assistant Chief Constable Theresamanbehindyer (“Theresamanbehindyer? Ah, you’re not going to catch me with an old one like that”).
One-note though this sketch is, it’s worth it just for Cleese’s Tiger. And just as it begins to run out of steam, we move away with the undertakers promising that we’ll return to it as soon as something interesting happens. Next up is some football chat with Idle as an interviewer and Cleese as Jimmy Buzzard, his none-too-bright interviewee. I love Idle’s opening piece to camera.
From the plastic arts we turn to football. Last night in the Stadium of Light, Jarrow, we witnessed the resuscitation of a great footballing tradition, when Jarrow United came of age, in a European sense, with an almost Proustian display of modern existentialist football. Virtually annihilating by midfield moral argument the now surely obsolescent catennachio defensive philosophy of Signor Alberto Fanffino. Bologna indeed were a side intellectually out argued by a Jarrow team thrusting and bursting with aggressive Kantian positivism and outstanding in this fine Jarrow team was my man of the match, the arch-thinker, free scheming, scarcely ever to be curbed, midfield cognoscento, Jimmy Buzzard.
Cleese’s Buzzard (“Well Brian… I’m opening a boutique.”) is totally unable to respond to any of Idle’s questions and instead falls back onto a series of stock phrases. It’s another nice performance from Cleese, particularly the expression of joy on his face when he thinks he’s thought of something interesting to say, which tends not to be anything worth waiting for.
We cut back to the drawing room (piled high with bodies) and then it’s onto Interesting People, which is odd. There’s a basic premise (Palin as the host of a show which introduces us to interesting people) but that’s merely an excuse for a grab-bag of strange characters such as Jones as Mr Ali Bayan, who’s stark raving mad and Cleese as Mr Ken Dove, twice voted the most interesting man in Dorking. He shouts a lot.
As Python progressed, it tended to get stranger and more free-form and this is certainly one of the first series episodes that points the direction that the show would be heading in the future. Like many other episodes, it’s a bit like the Beatles’ White Album – there’s plenty to enjoy but it does feel bitty and fragmented. Not everything works, but at this point the hits outweigh the misses.
And with Professor R.J. Gumby lecturing on why he believed the Battle of Traflgar was fought near Cudworth and the Batley Townswomen’s Guild re-enacting the Battle of Pearl Harbour, there’s certainly something for everyone.
There’s more playing with the conventions of television at the start of this one – the first sketch can’t begin until a plumber (Palin), who’s relaxing at home, has traveled to television centre to take part in the sketch. After his totally irrelevant walk-on, we’re into the sketch proper which sees Cleese as a bank robber unsuccessfully attempting to find large piles of cash in a lingerie shop.
Continuity announcer David Uncton (Chapman) seemed to enjoy it (“Well that was a bit of fun wasn’t it. Ha, ha, ha“). He’s then able to tell us about the evenings entertainment.
Well, let’s see what we’ve got next. In a few moments ‘It’s A Tree’ and in the chair as usual is Arthur Tree, and starring in the show will be a host of star guests as his star guests. And then at 9.30 we’ve got another rollocking half hour of laughter-packed squalor with ‘Yes it’s the Sewage Farm Attendants’. And this week Dan falls into a vat of human dung with hilarious consequences.
It’s A Tree really is a tree – with more than a passing resemblance to David Frost (“Ha, ha, ha, ha, super”). Although Frost had employed most of the Pythons (The Frost Report/At Last The 1948 Show) there was always a slight needle between them – some of the Pythons had a fairly jaundiced view about how Frost would use the talent of others to advance his own career.
The Vocational Guidance Counselor sketch is the best thing in this show. Palin’s a chartered accountant who seeks a change of career from chartered accountant to lion tamer. Cleese is the counselor who’s more cautious (“It’s a bit of a jump isn’t it? I mean, chartered accountancy to lion taming in one go. You don’t think it might be better if you worked your way towards lion taming, say, via banking?”).
As previously discussed, when they went to University some of the Pythons faced possible careers as solicitors or chartered accountants – a career in comedy seemed like a distant dream. So they never miss an opportunity to mock the grey little men, as Cleese does here.
Your report here says that you are an extremely dull person. You see, our experts describe you as an appallingly dull fellow, unimaginative, timid, lacking in initiative, spineless, easily dominated, no sense of humour, tedious company and irrepressibly drab and awful. And whereas in most professions these would be considerable drawbacks, in chartered accountancy they are a positive boon.
I also love Ron Obvious (Jones) who attempts a series of impossible feats (jumping the channel, eating Chichester Cathedral, tunneling to Java) egged on by his unscrupulous manager (Palin). There’s another pet shop sketch with Palin and Cleese, although it has a darker tone than Dead Parrot. Cleese wants a cat, but Palin only has dogs – but he suggests a neat conversion (“Listen, tell you what. I’ll file its legs down a bit, take its snout out, stick a few wires through its cheeks. There you are, a lovely pussy cat”).
And just as the show started with everybody hanging about waiting for Palin to arrive, so the last sketch ends in a similar way. Palin is the husband with an unattractive wife (Jones) who attracts an unfeasibly large number of admirers. Mid-way through the sketch, Palin pops off for a tinkle, which brings the proceedings to an abrupt halt (“Oh no you can’t do that. Here, we haven’t finished the sketch yet!”).
Next Up – Episode Eleven – The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra Goes To The Bathroom
If Full Frontal Nudity is an example of Python at its best, then The Ant – An Introduction doesn’t quite hit the same heights. It does have the Llamas and the Lumberjack Song but overall it’s a little more bitty and fragmented (not an uncommon problem for Python, particularly in later series).
It opens brightly with many fascinating facts about Llamas (“The llama is a quadruped which lives in the big rivers like the Amazon. It has two ears, a heart, a forehead, and a beak for eating honey. But it is provided with fins for swimming“). The sketch is terminated by Chapman, wearing a dress and driving a moped, bursting a paper bag. Which is as good as way as any, I suppose.
Sir George Head (Cleese) is planning an expedition to scale both both peaks of Mount Kilimanjaro and Idle is keen, at first, to join him. After Idle points out it only has one peak, it becomes clear that Head sees everything in double, which explains the failure of last year’s expedition (his brother was going to build a bridge between the two peaks). It’s a nice enough sketch and does have, unusually, a punch-line. After Idle has stormed out, it’s revealed there’s another Idle in the room who’s still keen to join Head.
The Lumberjack Song is another moment from these early shows which was to remain a staple of all their live performances. The sketch which leads into it never did though, which is a pity as it has some nice moments. Palin is a hairdresser with a “terrible un-un-uncontrollable fear whenever I see hair”. Jones is the hapless customer who obviously hasn’t noticed Palin’s blood-soaked overalls and simply wants a short back and sides.
I love the part when Palin switches on a tape recorder that has the sound of hair being cut as well as the typical small talk that hairdressers seem obliged to indulge in. And even when Jones misses a comment from the recording it’s clever enough to be repeated!
Given that most of the well-known Python songs were composed by Idle, the Lumberjack Song (written by Palin/Jones) is one of the exceptions. Even though it’s incredibly familiar, it still manages to raise a smile, thanks to Palin’s enthusiasm, Connie Booth’s slow dawning realisation that Bevis isn’t quite the man she thought he was and the disgust of the Fred Tomlinson Singers (plus Cleese and Chapman).
And there’s a good follow-on, with another letter delivered in the style familiar from Points of View.
Dear Sir, I wish to complain in the strongest possible terms about the song which you have just broadcast, about the lumberjack who wears women’s clothes. Many of my best friends are lumberjacks and only a few of them are transvestites. Yours faithfully, Brigadier Sir Charles Arthur Strong (Mrs.) PS I have never kissed the editor of the Radio Times.
We then have our first sighting of a Gumby, before Idle appears as a smarmy Nightclub host. There’s not a great deal of wordplay in this episode, so Idle’s monologue is welcome.
Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to the Refreshment Room here at Bletchley. My name is Kenny Lust and I’m your compere for tonight. You know, once in a while it is my pleasure, and my privilege, to welcome here at the Refreshment Room, some of the truly great international artists of our time. And tonight we have one such artist. Ladies and gentlemen, someone whom I’ve always personally admired, perhaps more deeply, more strongly, more abjectly than ever before. A man, well more than a man, a god, a great god, whose personality is so totally and utterly wonderful my feeble words of welcome sound wretchedly and pathetically inadequate. Someone whose boots I would gladly lick clean until holes wore through my tongue, a man who is so totally and utterly wonderful, that I would rather be sealed in a pit of my own filth, than dare tread on the same stage with him.Ladies and gentlemen, the incomparably superior human being, Harry Fink!
By the end of this, Idle is prostrate on the floor, although he isn’t particularly concerned when he’s told that Fink hasn’t turned up, as Ken Buddha and his inflatable knees is a more than adequate subsistence.
After a film sequence featuring some visual comedy of the “hunting, shooting, fishing” type, we’re into the last sketch which features Chapman and Carol Cleveland as a young couple who are keen to enjoy a quiet night in.
Naturally enough, this doesn’t happen. Firstly, Idle turns up at the door (“Remember me? In the pub. The tall thin one with the moustache, remember? About three years ago?”) playing essentially the same character from the Nudge, Nudge sketch. A three-handed sketch with Idle, Chapman and Cleveland would have been logical – but Python rarely did logical, so instead we get an ever increasing guest list of grotesques.
There’s Cleese as Mr Equator (“Good evening. My name is Equator, Mr Equator. Equator. Like round the middle of the Earth, only with an L”) and Jones as his wife (“She smells a bit but she has a heart of gold”). Gilliam’s next, acting incredibly camp and wearing little more than a cape and a pair of speedos. He’s brought a friend (Palin) who’s had to bring his goat along (“He’s not well. I only hope he don’t go on the carpet.”)
As so often, Chapman is the sensible one, cast adrift in a sea of lunatics. And the point of the sketch? Well, Chapman is shot dead by Mr Equator and Cleveland disappears, so that’s a difficult one – maybe that the world is full of lunatics and it’s impossible to stop them?
I’ve previously touched upon how the Pythons generally eschewed punch-lines in favour of a style described by them as a “stream of consciousness”. So the sketches could be linked by Terry Gilliam’s animations, vox pops from the man and woman in the street or, as in Full Frontal Nudity, a single character interrupting the sketches to complain that everything had got “too silly”.
Full Frontal Nudity treads a difficult path – not only do we have the Colonel bringing the majority of the sketches to an abrupt end with his complaints and criticisms, the Pythons also seem to delight in highlighting the inadequacy of their material. Two sketches are terminated after the line delivered by the token female is criticized – with her wailing that “It’s my only line”. When the Colonel curtails the opening sketch and orders the telecine to be run, Terry Jones comments that “The general public’s not going to understand this, are they?”. And again it’s Jones (towards the end of the Dead Parrot sketch) who is apologetic for the sketch spluttering to an end, since “Oh yeah, it’s not easy to pad these out to thirty minutes”.
If you continually mock your own efforts, then there’s a real danger that the audience will agree – but by dropping this show eighth into the run it works much better than if it appeared earlier. However, the Pythons weren’t the first to play with the format of the sketch show, it was Spike Milligan’s Q5 that really opened their eyes, as Terry Jones explains.
(Spike) made it so clear that we’d been writing in cliches, where we either did three minute sketches with a beginning, middle and end, or we did one joke with a blackout.
Once they found they were free from such self-imposed restrictions, the Pythons were able to experiment even further. Full Frontal Nudity is one of more successful examples of this from the first series.
After a few vox pops on the merits of full frontal nudity, there’s a voice-over played over stock footage from WW2 – “In 1943, a group of British Army Officers working deep behind enemy lines, carried out one of the most dangerous and heroic raids in the history of warfare. But that’s as maybe. And now . . .”
This is the first wrong-footing moment as we jump to unoccupied Britain 1970 and Watkins (Idle) who’s a solider who wants to leave the Army because it’s dangerous (“A bloke was telling me, if you’re in the army and there’s a war you have to go and fight. I mean, blimey, I mean if it was a big war somebody could be hurt”). This is a nice, silly idea and it doesn’t go on too long.
We then meet Luigi and Dino (Palin and Jones), two Italians who are keen to offer the Colonel the benefits of their protection (“You’ve got a nice army base here, colonel. We wouldn’t want anything to happen to it”). The fact that they’re running a protection racket becomes clear very quickly, but the sketch continues for a while longer – possibly it was extended so that when the Colonel brings it to a halt (“No, the whole premise is silly and it’s very badly written. I’m the senior officer here and I haven’t had a funny line yet. So I’m stopping it”) it has a little more impact.
My favourite sketch in this episode is Buying a Bed. Terry Jones and Carol Cleveland are newlyweds keen to buy a bed. The problem is that Mr Verity (Idle) multiplies every figure by ten whilst Mr Lambert (Chapman) divides every figure by three. At the start of the sketch you can’t help making mental calculations to follow the discussion of bed sizes, but this is fairly irrelevant as once Mr Lambert hears the word “mattress” he places a paper bag on his head and Mr Verity has to step into a tea-chest and sing Jerusalem to snap him out of it. Yes, there’s only a illogical logic to this, but it works (I don’t know why, but it does). And presumably the names of the two salesman were deliberately chosen to pay tribute to a certain well-known female television producer.
There’s also a sketch about a dead parrot, which has become quite well known. The Dead Parrot is, of course, one of Python’s greatest hits, although like a lot of the material from the first series it’s received politely, but without wild enthusiasm, by the studio audience. But they do warm up a little as Cleese gets to the end of his rant.
It’s not pining, it’s passed on. This parrot is no more! It has ceased to be. It’s expired and gone to meet its maker.This is a late parrot. It’s a stiff. Bereft of life, it rests in peace. If you hadn’t nailed it to the perch it would be pushing up the daisies. It’s rung down the curtain and joined the choir invisible. This is an ex-parrot.
When performed live it was no surprise that it tended to end after Cleese’s line “If you want to get anything done in this country you’ve got to complain till you’re blue in the mouth” as it meanders on for a few minutes more with the odd nice moment (arguing that the palindrome of Bolton would be Notlob rather than Ipswich) but this may be another sketch that’s been allowed to run on longer in order to justify bringing on the Colonel to stop it.
Hell’s Grannies and the even more bizarre follow-ups (baby snatchers and vicious gangs of keep left signs) end what is probably the best show from the first series of Python and one the strongest from all four series. Others might have equally good sketches, but Full Frontal Nudity flows well from sketch to sketch with very little filler.
Although the first six episodes of Python had spun about in various different ways, You’re No Fun Anymore is a departure from the norm. The first five minutes or so seem to be operating in the usual way but the remainder is devoted to a single sketch – that of the tennis-playing blancmanges from outer-space.
We open with Eric Idle as a camel-spotter.
Interviewer: Well, now tell me, what do you do when you spot a camel?
Spotter: Er, I take its number.
Interviewer: Camels don’t have numbers.
Spotter: Ah, well you’ve got to know where to look. Er, they’re on the side of the engine above the piston box.
Spotter: Ah – of course you’ve got to make sure it’s not a dromedary. ‘Cos if it’s a dromedary it goes in the dromedary book.
Interviewer: Well how do you tell if it’s a dromedary?
Spotter: Ah well, a dromedary has one hump and a camel has a refreshment car, buffet, and ticket collector.
The sketch terminates with Idle declaring “You’re no fun anymore” which leads into several other sketches where we only see the shots of the same punch-line – much to Idle’s chagrin who’s peeved that everybody else has pinched his line.
After the accountant sketch and a very worthwhile public-service announcement (“And now here is a reminder about leaving your radio on during the night. Leave your radio on during the night“) we’re into the heart of the episode, introduced by Michael Palin’s creepy redcoat.
Now we’ve got some science fiction for you, some sci-fi, something to send the shivers up your spine, send the creepy crawlies down your lager and limes. All the lads have contributed to it, it’s a little number entitled, Science Fiction Sketch.
Englishmen (and women and babies) are being transformed into stereotypical Scotsmen (complete with kilt, bushy red beard and bagpipe accompaniment). The establishment are baffled, but luckily for us Graham Chapman is an expert in why people change from one nationality to the other and Donna Reading is his incredibly dumb (but pretty) girlfriend who asks all the questions you would expect someone to ask in this type of story.
At this point in time the team don’t seem to have settled on Carol Cleveland as their default female performer which is reputably because director Ian McNaughton wanted to hire various different actresses in order to have a variety of pretty faces in the episodes. Reading is fine but she lacks the sense of comedy timing that Cleveland would have brought to the part.
The sketch can be broken down into various smaller sketches, some of which would have worked well by themselves. Probably the best of the bunch is John Cleese’s police Sergeant who simply can’t understand how Eric Idle and four friends can play a game of doubles.
Sergeant: A blancmange, eh?
Girl: Yes, that’s right. I was just having a game of doubles with Sandra and Jocasta, Alec and David…
Sergeant: Hang on!
Sergeant: There’s five.
Sergeant: Five people . . . how do you play doubles with five people?
Girl: Ah, well … we were…
Sergeant: Sounds a bit funny if you ask me … playing doubles with five people…
Girl: Well we often play like that… Jocasta plays on the side receiving service…
Sergeant: Oh yes?
Girl: Yes. It helps to speed the game up and make it a lot faster, and it means Jocasta isn’t left out.
Sergeant: Look, are you asking me to believe that the five of you was playing doubles, when on the very next court there was a blancmange playing by itself?.
Girl: That’s right, yes.
Sergeant: Well answer me this then – why didn’t Jocasta play the blancmange at singles, while you and Sandra and Alec and David had a proper game of doubles with four people?
Girl: Because Jocasta always plays with us. She’s a friend of ours.
Sergeant: Call that friendship? Messing up a perfectly good game of doubles?
Girl: It’s not messing it up, officer, we like to play with five.
Sergeant: Look it’s your affair if you want to play with five people … but don’t go calling it doubles. Look at Wimbledon, right? If Fred Stolle and Tony Roche played Charlie Pasarell and Cliff Drysdale and Peaches Bartcowitz… they wouldn’t go calling it doubles.
Girl: But what about the blancmange?
Sergeant: That could play Ann Haydon-Jones and her husband Pip.
There’s a certain wonky logic to the story. The blancmanges are desperate to win Wimbledon and believe that if they turn all Englishmen into Scotsmen (as it’s well known that the Scots can’t play tennis) then they’ll have a clear run to the title. This rather ignores all the other countries that are good at tennis, but this is a story about blancmange’s playing tennis so I’m not going to argue points of logic.
There are some (I assume) deliberately wobbly effects (an unconvincing flying saucer and the blancmanges themselves) which add to the general 1950’s b-movie feel. Although the science fiction sketch isn’t wall-to-wall hilarity, there’s enough good stuff to hold the interest although it would be a long time before the Pythons would attempt something similar.
After some silly captions (Python always loved captions) we move to It’s The Arts, which is designed to see how many times the name of a forgotten composer can be recited before it becomes incredibly irritating. His name? Johann Gambolputty de von Ausfern-schplenden-schlitter-crass-cren-bon-fried-digger-dingle-dangle-dongle-dungle-burstein-von-knacker-thrasher-apple-banger-horowitz-ticolensic-grander-knotty-spelltinkle-grandlich-grumblemeyer-spelter-wasser-kurstlich-himble-eisen-bahnwagen-guten-abend-bitte-ein-nürnburger-bratwürstel-gerspurten-mitz-weimache-luber-hundsfut-gumberaber-shönedanker-kalbsfleisch-mittleraucher-von-Hautkopft of Ulm. Terry Jones is his only surviving relative who pegs out halfway through reciting his name. Interviewee John Cleese doesn’t seem too concerned about this and pops off to grab a shovel to dig him a makeshift grave!
Michael Palin is very good as the boss of a crime syndicate that never actually breaks the law.
Right … this is the plan then. At 10:45 .. you, Reg, collect me and Ken in the van, and take us round to the British Jewellery Centre in the High Street. We will arrive outside the British Jewellery Centre at 10:50. I shall then get out of the car, you Reg, take it and park it back here in Denver Street, right? At 10:51, I shall enter the British Jewellery Centre, where you, Vic, disguised as a customer, will meet me and hand me £5.18.3d. At 10:52, I shall approach the counter and purchase a watch costing £5.18.3d. I shall then give the watch to you, Vic. You’ll go straight to Norman’s Garage in East Street. You lads continue back up here at 10:56 and we rendezvous in the back room at the Cow and Sickle, at 11:15. All right, any questions?
It fits into a familiar pattern for Python – visually they look and sound like criminals, so the reveal that they aren’t is the key. It maybe should have been more of a throw-away, but it’s worth it for Palin’s hysterical reaction when he discovers that one of his gang has left their car five minutes overdue on a parking meter.
Five minutes overdue. You fool! You fool! All right … we’ve no time to lose. Ken – shave all your hair off, get your passport and meet me at this address in Rio de Janeiro Tuesday night. Vic – go to East Africa, have plastic surgery and meet me there. Reg – go to Canada and work your way south to Nicaragua by July. Larry – you stay here as front man. Give us fifteen minutes then blow the building up. All right, make it fast.
Crunchy Frog is one of Python’s stand-out sketches – which is no doubt reinforced since it featured during most of their live performances, up to and including the O2 gigs earlier this year. It’s possible to imagine it being performed by Cleese/Palin with Palin acting shifty and defensive as the Whizzo Chocolates boss (like the Dead Parrott/Chesse Shop sketches) but whilst that would have worked quite well, what we actually had was even better. Terry Jones is proud of his confectioneries and puzzled as to why anybody could find them at all problematic. Add in John Cleese’s pernickety high-pitched policeman and you have a classic sketch.
Most members of Python faced the possibility of a life in a dead-end job after they left University, so it’s not really a surprise that so many of their sketches feature grey little men who tend to be either Stockbrokers or Chartered Accountants. One of these is Michael Palin in The Dull Life of a City Stockbroker who blithely ignores all the excitement around him (a wonderfully made-up John Cleese as Frankenstein’s monster killing people at the bus-stop and a topless lady in the newsagents, for example) and instead retreats into the excitement of his DC-style comic. This leads into some nice Gilliam animation which then segues into the theatre sketch.
Graham Chapman is an inoffensive chap waiting for the curtain up and Eric Idle is a Red Indian who sits next to him. This bizarre culture clash (“Me heap big fan Cicely Courtneidge. She fine actress … she make interpretation heap subtle … she heap good diction and timing … she make part really live for Indian brave. My father – Chief Running Stag – leader of mighty Redfoot tribe – him heap keen on Michael Denison and Dulcie Gray”) is the motor which drives the sketch. It’s also of interest, since Chapman and Idle appear to be sitting in the Python audience which allows us a quick look at the people who came to these early recordings.
Graham Chapman (as in the Theatre sketch) tended to play the more normal, grounded characters (see The Holy Grail and The Life of Brian for further examples of this). So Twentieth Century Vole allows him a more grotesque character – the despotic film producer Irving C. Saltzberg. This sketch allows us to see all six Pythons together (as well allowing Terry Gilliam his most lines to date) plus guest Ian Davidson. The premise is simple – Saltzberg is a tyrant and his employees are all frightened yes-men who attempt to interpret their boss’ whims and provide him with the answer they think he wants.
Twentieth Century Vole has some good moments, although once you understand the premise of the sketch there’s no real surprises and it doesn’t spin off into an unexpected direction. But it’s worthwhile for Saltzberg’s increasingly bizarre story ideas and, of course, “Splunge”!
Well now we’re getting somewhere. No, wait. A new angle! In the snow, instead of the tree, I see Rock Hudson, and instead of the dog I see Doris Day and, gentlemen, Doris Day goes up to Rock Hudson and she kisses him. A love story. Intercourse Italian style. David Hemmings as a hippy Gestapo officer. Frontal nudity. A family picture. A comedy. And then when Doris Day’s kissed Rock Hudson she says something funny like…
The long opening sketch, Confuse a Cat, seems to be an excuse for a sequence of frankly bizarre images, such as a penguin on a pogo stick (not a sentence that tends to get typed very often!).
Before this though, Graham Chapman’s vet is able to put his finger exactly on the cat’s problem.
You see …. your cat is suffering from what we vets haven’t found a word for. His condition is typified by total physical inertia, absence of interest in its ambiance – what we Vets call environment – failure to respond to the conventional external stimuli – a ball of string, a nice juicy mouse, a bird. To be blunt, your cat is in a rut. It’s the old stockbroker syndrome, the suburban fin de siecle ennui, angst, weltschmertz, call it what you will.
The rest of the episode contains shorter sketches linked by a series of vox-pops. The Cleese/Palin sketch with Palin as the world’s most inept smuggler and Cleese as the customs officer is probably the best of the bunch, although as it features a punch-line it feels a little out of place as a Python sketch. Possibly, like some of the other early sketches, it predated the series?
After this, Terry Jones attempts to chair a discussion on the points raised with a duck, a cat and a lizard. Since all are stuffed, this doesn’t generate a great deal of debate. Luckily though, there are plenty of men in the street who are able to offer an opinion, such as this stockbroker (played by John Cleese).
Well I think they should attack the lower classes, first with bombs and rockets, destroying their homes and then when they run helpless into the streets, mowing them down with machine guns. Ad then of course releasing the vultures. I know these views aren’t popular, but I have never courted popularity.
A Cleese/Chapman sketch featuring Cleese as a bizarre interviewer and Chapman as a bewildered interviewee doesn’t really go anywhere – there would be better examples of the domineering Cleese to come in future episodes.
Like a lot of Man’s crisis etc, the Encyclopedia Salesman sketch is a throwaway, but I’ve always rather liked it.
As I pulled Monty Python’s Flying Circus Series One down from the shelf for a rewatch, I was thinking about this recent article in the Guardian which examined ten comedy shows and asked were they still funny? The verdict on Monty Python was a resounding no – because it was the typical sort of unfunny self-indulgent stuff dreamt up by university types, apparently.
Although it’s easy to dismiss this as the usual Guardian space-filler, it’s true that Monty Python is very much a marmite show, you either seem to love it or hate it. Me? I love it, particularly the first series. This is probably because I taped the first thirteen episodes when they were repeated in 1989 (to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Python) and I did tend to rewatch them an awful lot during the 1990’s.
Looking back at the earliest episodes, the muted studio audience response is quite noticeable. According to legend, the first audiences for Python were bus-loads of pensioners who were disappointed that it wasn’t an real circus. Whether this is true or just a story that’s grown in the telling is debatable, but some sketches (which during their later stage shows would be greeted with rapturous approval) are played to near silence, with the odd laugh occurring every so often.
As word of mouth concerning Python grew, the audiences for later series became much more vocal and appreciative. This isn’t always a good thing though – the somewhat boisterous and sycophantic audience on I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again didn’t necessarily add to the quality of the programme, for example.
The other notable thing about these episodes is that they’re somewhat rough around the edges. The numerous film inserts are fine, since they could be edited at leisure, but the studio footage does have a rawer feel, with the odd missed cue or wonky camera angle. Retakes could be done, although like all programmes of this era there was a strict timescale allocated to record the studio material and over-runs wouldn’t have been appreciated by the BBC management.
So is there anything funny in the first four episodes? Let’s find out.
Episode One – Wither Canada?
After Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart introduces some famous deaths (to a rather nonplussed studio audience) we move to a more traditional sketch, featuring Terry Jones as the tutor of an Italian language evening course. The simple comedy device used here (and in many other Python sketches) is one of reversal – as all of his class (with the exception of Helmut) are Italian.
Teacher: Well, now, this week we’re going to learn some useful phrases to help us open a conversation with an Italian. Now first of all try telling him where you come from. For example, I would say: ‘Sono Inglese di Gerrard’s Cross’, I am an Englishman from Gerrard’s Cross. Shall we all try that together?
All: Sono Inglese di Gerrard’s Cross.
Teacher: Not too bad, now let’s try it with somebody else. Er… Mr… ?
Teacher: Ah, Mr Mariolini, and where are you from?
Mariolini: Napoli, signor.
Teacher: Ah … you’re an Italian.
Mariolini: Si, si signor!
Teacher Well in that case you would say: ‘Sono Italiano di Napoli’.
Mariolini: Ah, capisco, mile grazie signor…
Francesco: Per favore, signor!
Francesco: Non conosgeve parliamente, signor devo me parlo sono Italiano di Napoli quando il habitare de Milano.
Teacher: I’m sorry … I don’t understand!
Like the majority of early Python it’s quite short and compact. Although some of the shows do have longer sketches (The Funniest Joke In The World, The Mouse Problem) it’s surprising how much is packed into each thirty minutes at this point in the series’ history
The good stuff keeps on coming – Whizzo Butter (“You know, we find that nine out of ten British housewives can’t tell the difference between Whizzo butter and a dead crab”) and Sir Edward Ross/Arthur “Two Sheds” Jackson. The Ross/Jackson sketches are essentially the same and playing them back to back is an early mission statement that the series wouldn’t be as linear as some of the Python team’s earlier efforts.
Next up is my favourite sketch from episode one, the Picasso cycling race. For those who view the Pythons as elitist, it’s probably the sort of thing they detest, particularity when John Cleese, in the guise of a reporter, gives a breathless summary of the group of cycling painters zooming past him.
It’s Kandinsky. Wassily Kandinsky, and who’s this here with him? It’s Braque. Georges Braque, the Cubist, painting a bird in flight over a cornfield and going very fast down the hill towards Kingston and… Piet Mondrian – just behind, Piet Mondrian the Neo-Plasticist, and then a gap, then the main bunch, here they come, Chagall, Max Ernst, Miro, Dufy, Ben Nicholson, Jackson Pollock and Bernard Buffet making a break on the outside here, Brancusi’s going with him, so is Gericault, Ferdinand Leger, Delaunay, De Kooning, Kokoschka’s dropping back here by the look of it, and so’s Paul Klee dropping back a bit and, right at the back of this group, our very own Kurt Schwitters.
Some Terry Gilliam animations and The Funniest Joke in the World bring the first episode to a satisfying conclusion. Well, so far it all seems funny to me.
Episode Two – Sex and Violence
There’s slightly less here that appeals, but Terry Jones with two large mallets encouraging his trained mice to squeak “The Bells of St Marys” is an appealing little throwaway. Cleese and Palin’s French aviation experts who demonstrate how sheep can fly is another nice sketch which doesn’t outstay its welcome.
Buried in the middle of this episode is a real gem, the Working-Class Playwright. It gives Graham Chapman the chance to do a little bit of acting (no real surprise he took the lead in both Holy Grail and Life of Brian as he was always the Python who seemed the best suited to being, as it were, a straight actor). Terry Jones drags up well, as he would so many times in the future, as the mother, and Eric Idle is suitably wide-eyed as the son unable to convince his playwright father that coal-mining is a wonderful and worthy job. Another simple inversion sketch, which works a treat.
Another long sketch closes proceedings, this time it’s The Mouse Problem (“Well, we psychiatrist have found that over 8% of the population will always be mice, I mean, after all, there’s something of the mouse in all of us. I mean, how many of us can honestly say that at one time or another he hasn’t felt sexually attracted to mice. I know I have. I mean, most normal adolescents go through a stage of squeaking two or three times a day.”)
Episode Three – How To Recognise Different Types of Tree From Quite A Long Way Away
The linking device of the trees (“Number One. The Larch. The Larch”) is probably the sort of thing that those who dislike Python would sieze upon. It’s not funny in itself, but then the question should be whether every single moment in each episode should contain a rib-tickling gag. But the device helps to bind the episode together.
This episode has a couple of good shorter sketches, Michael Palin as the modest Bicycle Repair Man and Eric Idle as a children’s story-teller, totally unable to find a tale that doesn’t descend into filth (“One day Ricky the magic Pixie went to visit Daisy Bumble in her tumbledown cottage. He found her in the bedroom. Roughly he gabbed her heavy shoulders pulling her down on to the bed and ripping off her…”).
The episode is dominated by three sketches, one of which would become an ever-present regular favourite in their stage shows.
We open with a courtroom sketch. This is the longest single sketch we’ve seen so far (running for about ten minutes) but it doesn’t feel drawn out. Although Harold Larch is only charged with a parking offence, his counsel has lined up an impressive list of character witnesses, including the late Arthur Aldridge (complete with coffin) and Cardinal de Richelieu.
Counsel: Er, you are Cardinal Armand du Piessis de Richelieu, First Minister of Louis XIII?
Counsel: Cardinal, would it be fair to say that you not only built up the centralized monarchy in France but also perpetuated the religious schism in Europe?
Cardinal: (modestly) That’s what they say.
Counsel: Did you persecute the Huguenots?
Counsel: And did you take even sterner measures against the great Catholic nobles who made common cause with foreign foes in defence of their feudal independence?
Cardinal: I sure did that thing.
Counsel Cardinal. Are you acquainted with the defendant, Harold Larch?
Cardinal: Since I was so high (indicated how high).
Counsel: Speaking as a Cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church, as First Minister of Louis XIII, and as one of the architects of the modern world already – would you say that Harold Larch was a man of good character?
Cardinal: Listen. Harry is a very wonderful human being.
Dirty Fork has a familiar comedy construction, as from a mundane start (a slightly dirty fork) it escalates into a major crisis as each subsequent member of the restaurant staff becomes more and more frantic – “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!”
One of Python’s most famous principles was the abandonment of the punch-line (although Spike Milligan in his “Q” series had beaten them to it). There weren’t adverse to the odd punch-line though, particularly when it could be used for additional comic effect. Here, the upcoming punch-line is advertised with a caption and after Chapman has delivered it – “Lucky we didn’t say anything about the dirty knife” – the audience is free to register their disapproval.
The show ends with Nudge Nudge, which is probably something that many people can repeat, virtually verbatim.
Episode Four – Owl-Stretching Time
I love the Pepperpots at the Art Gallery sketch. A typical clash between two types of culture that shouldn’t co-exist, which is probably the reason why it appeals.
Janet: ‘Allo, Marge!
Marge: Oh hello, Janet, how are you love?
Janet: Fancy seeing you! How’s little Ralph?
Marge: Oh, don’t ask me! He’s been nothing but trouble all morning. Stop it Ralph! (she slaps at unseen infant) Stop it!
Janet: Same as my Kevin.
Janet: Nothing but trouble … leave it alone! He’s just been in the Florentine Room and smeared tomato ketchup all over Raphael’s Baby Jesus. (shouting off sharply) Put that Baroque masterpiece down!
Marge: Well, we’ve just come from the Courtauld and Ralph smashed every exhibit but one in the Danish Contemporary Sculpture Exhibition.
Janet: Just like my Kevin. Show him an exhibition of early eighteenth-century Dresden Pottery and he goes berserk. No, I said no, and I meant no! (smacks unseen infant again) This morning we were viewing the early Flemish Masters of the Renaissance and Mannerist Schools, when he gets out his black aerosol and squirts Vermeer’s Lady At A Window!
Marge: Still it’s not as bad as spitting is it?
Janet: (firmly) No, well Kevin knows (slaps the infant) that if he spits at a painting I’ll never take him to an exhibition again.
Marge: Ralph used to spit – he could hit a Van Gogh at thirty yards. But he knows now it’s wrong – don’t you Ralph? (she looks down) Ralph! Stop it! Stop it! Stop chewing that Turner! You are … (she disappears from shot) You are a naughty, naughty, vicious little boy. (smack; she comes back into shot holding a copy of Turner’s Fighting Temeraire in a lovely gilt frame but all tattered) Oh, look at that! The Fighting Temeraire – ruined! What shall I do?
Terry Jones gets to undress in public, or at least he attempts to do so. This is an odd one, a purely visual sketch (unlike the usual verbal fare) which is full of seaside humour and could have easily turned up in an episode of Benny Hill. And there’s not many Python sketches you can say that about!
Self Defence Against Fresh Fruit is another of my favourite Python sketches, principally for Cleese’s full-throated self defence instructor who’s keen to defend himself and his class against the dangers that fresh fruit can bring. Not one of the most famous sketches maybe, but it’s good fun.
Secret Service Dentists is a slightly rambling way to close the show (and maybe a sign of the self-indulgence to come) but it still has some good moments, espcially the catchy Lemming of the BDA song.
After Ray Galton and Alan Simpson found their successful working relationship with Tony Hancock had been abruptly terminated (they had written six radio and seven television series for the Lad Himself) the pair were at something of a loose end.
The BBC were keen to keep them working and so made them an attractive offer – a series called Comedy Playhouse in which Galton and Simpson had carte blanche to write whatever they wished. Out of a variety of different playlets came Steptoe and Son. When they wrote The Offer it was purely a one-off, but the BBC were keen to develop it into a series, and eventually Galton and Simpson agreed.
The late 1950’s and early 1960’s had seen something of a social revolution in television drama, often dubbed as the “kitchen sink” movement. It was pioneered by series such as Armchair Theatre (1956-1974) which explored areas previously undocumented on television. Comedy was also to see similar ground-breaking series produced during the 1960s such as The Likely Lads (1964-1966) and Till Death Us Do Part (1965-1975) which featured working class themes and characters in a much more realistic way than had ever been seen before.
The first of the comedy series to break the mould was Steptoe and Son, although Galton and Simpson would no doubt deny that their intention was to innovate or start a new trend – they were simply attempting to fill a half an hour slot. Their method of working was to kick around various ideas until something stuck. One important rule they had was that it had to feature two characters, which had served them well with the television version of Hancock’s Half Hour (it generally revolved around the relationship between Hancock and Sid James).
Once the idea of two rag and bone men was decided on, they then had to agree what their relationship was. Brothers maybe? Eventually, father and son seemed to offer the most comic potential as it offered a good chance to explore the generation gap.
Steptoe and Son would run for eight series between 1962 – 1974 and by the 1970’s it would be very much a mainstream sitcom. However in revisiting the black and episodes (the first four series, made between 1962 and 1965) we find a much darker and sadder character piece that often (in the best way) isn’t funny at all.
Harold Steptoe is 37, unmarried and dreams of a life away from his father and the family rag and bone business. Albert Steptoe is an old man and apparantly in ill health, although this seems to be mostly faked in order to keep Harold at home. He clearly doesn’t want to be left alone, so he’ll use any trick at his disposal to thwart Harold’s dreams of bettering himself.
In The Offer (purely a two-hander between Harry H. Corbett and Wilfred Brambell) we see Harold’s first attempt to leave Albert behind and forge a new future for himself. Harold is sick and tired of being a rag and bone man, sick of the horse and sick of Albert’s constant criticisms. Albert spends the opening part of the story belittling the stuff that Harold’s collected, before scavenging all the best things for himself. As Harold says, “If anything ‘alf decent comes along you wanna keep it to yerself! That’s no way to run a business.”
The tragic side of this is that the bric-a-brac so beloved by Albert is worthless junk, but he simply can’t see it. And the further tragedy is that Harold is no better. Harold shares some traits with the persona Galton and Simpson created for Tony Hancock, namely the attempts to “better himself” which never really pay off. But whilst there was a certain warmth to Hancock’s failed attempts to be an intellectual, there’s a harsher feeling to Harold’s failures.
His desire to move up the social scale is palpable, but he has little to show for it. His “library” is a collection of four books tied up with string and his “wine cellar” is made up from pouring the small remains of the virtually empty bottles he’s collected into his nearly full ones at home. And this is partly sabotaged when he realises someone has stored paraffin in a bottle of non-vintage Beaujolais just after he’s poured it into his almost complete bottle. “The rotten, lousy, stinkin’ gits! Paraffin! They’ve gone and put paraffin in it! They ruined me bottle of Beaujolais! It’s taken me a year to fill that up!”
Eventually all these frustrations build up and Harold decides to take up a mysterious offer and leave. Albert tries everything to make him stay, but to no avail. He loads his possessions onto the cart, but as Albert won’t let him use the horse Harold has to push the cart by himself. Here we come to probably the most interesting part of the story – the cart won’t move. Is this because it’s genuinely too heavy or because even when he has the chance to leave, Harold can’t bring himself to actually do it?
This scene is incredibly powerful and is so well acted by both Corbett and Brambell. As Harold breaks down and is led back into the house by Albert, who tells him that “you can go another day, or you can stay with yer old dad and wait till a better offer comes along” you could have heard a pin drop in the audience. It doesn’t seem to be that Corbett was attempting to gain the auidence’s sympathy, rather he was just acting to the script. That’s the notable thing about Steptoe and Son – before this, sitcoms had tended to star comedians and therefore were vehicles written for their talents (such as Hancock’s Half Hour). But Steptoe and Son was performed by actors rather than comedians, an important distinction.
When Harold attempts, unsuccessfully, to move the cart, Alan Simpson was amazed to see real tears in Corbett’s eyes: “We watched that closing scene as Harry literally crumbles. He’s trying to push his meagre belongings away and start a new life, and he can’t do it. We were watching this scene and Harry actually broke down and cried and I thought, real tears! This is what it’s all about… this is acting! We weren’t used to it with writing for comedians. Usually it would be stylised, shoulder-lurching sobs when comics cried. Harry really got hold of that final scene. It was real drama to him”.
The realisation that Corbett and Brambell could give their scripts a deeper, more nuanced reading than anything they’d previously produced would clearly influence their writing from this point on.
Therefore we have a downbeat ending to a remarkable half hour. There’s no winners or losers here. Over the course of the story our sympathies have swung from one character to the other. We can sympathise with Harold for wanting to leave (particularly at the start, when Albert seems such an unpleasant character). But over the half hour we’ve come to understand that Albert is a lonely old man who simply couldn’t function on his own and that Harold deep down seems to understand this.
The same basic template would often be played out during the following 56 episodes, but it would be rarely be better than this one. Impressively written and acted, this is a true classic of British television.
Hancock, broadcast on the BBC between May and June 1961, was Tony Hancock’s last series for the BBC and was also the last one written for him by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson.
From 1954 onwards, Hancock had enjoyed great success with Galton & Simpson’s scripts, both on radio and on television. There had been six series of Hancock’s Half Hour on the radio – between 1954 and 1959 – as well as six television series, which ran from 1956 – 1960.
But by 1961 Hancock was restless and wanted changes. Sid James had been present in virtually every television and radio episode, but he was dropped from Hancock, at Tony’s request. And when this series had finished Tony Hancock dispensed with Galton & Simpson as well. For many people this marked the start of the long downward spiral in Hancock’s personal and professional life which ended with his suicide in Australia in 1968, at the age of 44.
Among those who insisted that the ties Hancock severed led directly to his untimely death was Spike Milligan, who said: “One by one he shut the door on all the people he knew; then he shut the door on himself.”
Harsh criticism of Tony Hancock can be found in the following cartoon from Private Eye in June 1962, drawn by Willie Rushton.
But whatever happened after Tony Hancock left the BBC in 1961, between 1954 and 1961 he, along with Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, created some of the finest episodes of situation comedy ever seen in any country. And their final series, thanks in part to Tony’s insistence on changing the character slightly, ensured that they ended their creative partnership on a high.
Hancock (Broadcast on BBC Television between 26th May – 30th June 1961)
Galton & Simpson like to tell the story that Hancock asked them to write an episode where he was the only character seen. They thought it wouldn’t work and decided to write something to prove to Tony that it was impossible. The result was The Bedsitter and it proved to be an excellent showcase for Hancock and one of the best things that G&S ever wrote.
When G&S started to write for Tony, they tended to craft elaborate plots which usually hinged on Sid trying to con Tony into doing something. Over the years they pared down the storylines so they became less fantastic and more mundane.
The most mundane episode of the radio series has to be Sunday Afternoon At Home. This isn’t a criticism – it’s a beautifully judged picture of a typical Sunday afternoon where there’s nothing to do except kill time. In that episode though, Hancock had Sid James, Bill Kerr, Hattie Jacques and Kenneth Williams to spar with, but in The Bedsitter there’s nobody but himself.
It shouldn’t work, but it does. Nothing much happens – Tony attempts to read some Bertrand Russell, loses interest and then attempts the more hard-boiled charms of Lady Don’t Fall Backwards. But even that proves to be a problem, as he concedes: “It’s a waste of time me reading, I can never remember anything. I’ve got too much on my mind, you see, nuclear warfare, the future of mankind, China, Spurs.”
Later on, a misdirected call offers the chance of a date, but in the end it comes to nothing. Hancock though maintains a brave face: “That was a lucky escape! I nearly got sucked into a social whirlpool there, diverted from my lofty ideals into a life of debauchery! The flesh-pots of West London have been cheated of another victim! Eve has proffered the apple and Adam has slung it straight back at her!”
One of the strange things about the G&S series is that unlike most sitcoms there was never any attempt to maintain even a basic level of continuity. Hancock’s status would change week by week – one week he could be penniless and unknown and the next – as we see in The Bowmans – he may be the popular star of a top-rated radio series.
A none too subtle swipe at a popular rural radio soap opera,The Bowmans certainly gives Hancock full reign to unleash his country accent, which is great fun. It’s also a rarity in that we see Hancock finish on top for once. His character is killed off from the soap, but public opinion forces the producers to bring him back as his own twin brother and then he takes great delight in ensuring the majority of the villagers fall to their deaths down a disused mine shaft!
The Radio Ham is not quite a solo performance likeThe Bedsitter, although Hancock does spend the majority of the episode alone in a room by himself. He does have company though, via the ham radio he’s built. Substitute the internet for the radio and it seems right up to date.
Re-recorded for LP release in 1961, The Radio Ham has quite rightly become one of the classics of British sitcom. Comedy rarely gets better than this, with so many quotable lines.
The Lift is an episode that it’s possible to imagine in any series of HHH. Like The Train Journey from series 5 it has a similar premise – take a group of disparate characters who are trapped together (in a train or a stuck lift) with Hancock at his most annoying and wait to see what happens.
Noel Howlett, Jack Watling, Hugh Lloyd, John Le Mesurier and Colin Gordon are among the unlucky people who have to share a lift with Tony. It’s not an episode that innovates, like The Bedsitter, but it does what it does very well. And it’s helped no end by the fine performers stuck in the lift with Hancock.
Along with The Radio Ham, The Blood Donor is probably the most famous Hancock episode (helped by the excellent LP re-recording previously mentioned). With this one though, I do prefer the LP version – due to the circumstances of the television taping.
In the week prior to the tv episode recording, Hancock was involved in a car crash. He wasn’t badly hurt – although more make-up than usual can be seen on his face to hide the superficial scars – but he didn’t have time to learn his lines, so he read them off boards held above the camera.
Once you know this, then it’s impossible not to be distracted by the fact that he obviously never looks at anyone else in the scene as he’s always looking to the side and his next line. There is the odd stumble, but overall his performance is brilliant – considering that when he speaks any line he’s just seen it for first time and he has to instantly decide on pacing and inflection.
However you experience it, it’s a classic. So many quotable lines and a collection of first rate performers for Hancock to bounce off (June Whitfield, Patrick Cargill, Frank Thornton, Hugh Lloyd).
If you view Hancock as an album, then the first five episodes are hit singles whilst the last, The Succession – Son and Heir, is resolutely an album track.
It’s not a bad episode, but compared to the other five it’s not quite in the same class. The premise is bright enough though, Tony decides the time has come to perpetuate the line and produce a heir, so a bride is sought. But thanks to his luck with the opposite sex in the end he decides to stay single.
There’s still plenty of quotable moments though, particularly when Tony’s thumbing through his little black book for suitable partners: “Elsie Biggs: 42-36- ….. oh no, that’s her phone number. Still, I don’t fancy her pounding about the house all day long. She’s a bit too hefty for me. She had me over a few times.”
Classic comedy that nobody should be without. There’s a boxset containing all the surviving BBC TV episodes or if you just want to sample this series, then The Best of Hancock is a single DVD with five of the six episodes (excluding The Succession). Either way, no collection of British television comedy can be complete without something from the Lad Himself.