Do Not Adjust Your Set – BFI DVD Review

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Background

Like its Rediffusion stablemate At Last The 1948 Show, Do Not Adjust Your Set was an important building block which paved the way for Monty Python’s Flying Circus. And despite its status as a children’s show, DNAYS quickly gathered an appreciative adult audience as well  (John Cleese, for one, was especially captivated).

Running for two series – the first on Rediffusion, the second on Thames – DNAYS was the brainchild of Humphrey Barclay. Barclay was a Cambridge Footlights contemporary of John Cleese, Graham Chapman and Tim Brooke-Taylor and would continue to work with Cleese and Brooke-Taylor on the radio series I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again.

Michael Palin and Terry Jones had first met as students in Oxford and continued their writing partnership following their graduation (joining a roster of very familiar names penning material for The Frost Report).  They also worked as BBC writers for hire, with Billy Cotton and Roy Hudd amongst their clients. Although the pair had appeared on television prior to DNAYS, it was this series which allowed them to blossom as performers (something which Palin remains grateful for to this day).

Eric Idle, a Cambridge Footlights old boy, was (like seemingly everybody else in the comedy world during the mid sixties) a writer on The Frost Report and also co-wrote (along with Barry Cryer and Graham Chapman) the first series of the Ronnie Corbett sitcom No, That’s Me Over Here! (the series which replaced At Last The 1948 Show in the schedules).

Another future Python connection was put into place with the arrival of Terry Gilliam. His animations, similar in style to his Python work, would appear in some of the later episodes.

The roster of regulars was completed with Denise Coffey and David Jason. Both were hired as performers rather than performer/writers (as Palin, Jones and Idle were) but Coffey and Jason did eventually contribute material to the show. Captain Fantastic (a regular filmed insert featuring Jason as a bowler-hatted superhero and Coffey as his evil nemesis) was originally written by Palin, but he found it increasingly tough going (as he wasn’t performing the material) so Coffey and Jason took up the challenge. It proved to have a brief life outside of the series – the shorts continued for a short while as an insert in the magazine programme Magpie.

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Regular musical interludes (and occasional sketch walk-on roles) came courtesty of The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, who are always nothing less than a total delight. Their antics are especially noteworthy when you consider that they had to fit these spots in-between their busy gigging schedule which regularly took them up and down the country. So that helps to explain why sometimes everything looks rather thrown together ….

Archive Status

Out of the 27 episodes made and broadcast, today 14 exist. The Thames series is especially hard hit – with only two (the 1968 Christmas special and episode two) now remaining from the thirteen broadcast.

There has been some positive news in recent years though. Episode four of series one was recovered back in 2015 (which does give one hope that more material might still be out there somewhere) whilst there’s nearly an hours worth of audio clips from selected missing Thames episodes on this DVD, which helps to fill in some of the gaps.

The Series

The first show should have been the Boxing Day special. Alas, due to a mix-up this wasn’t transmitted until January.

The Boxing Day theme might have been out of date by the time it was finally broadcast but there’s plenty of interest – Eric Idle as a slick quizmaster catches the eye as does the very lithe David Jason (in the boxing sketch). The Bonzo’s first contribution to the series is Jolitty Farm. It’s odd stuff, but when compared to some of their later offerings you have to say that it’s positively restrained ….

As with At Last The 1948 Show, it’s fascinating to see proto-Python moments pop up in DNAYS. The first show proper has an early outing for Michael Palin’s recalcitrant shop-keeper (today he’s annoying the unfortunate David Jason). Interesting to see the sketch play out to virtual silence – another early Python trait.

As the series progresses, a more adult and unconventional tone creeps in. This helps to explain why some sketches don’t get much of a reaction – at times the juvenile audience seems to be more comfortable with visual slapstick rather than intricate wordplay.

Travelling Kettle, How To Eat, Insurance Salesman and Art Gallery are all series one sketch highlights. The unexpected appearance of the keen-as-mustard Tim Brooke-Taylor (deputising for the ill Michael Palin) in episode nine is something else to look out for. And the increasingly demented Bonzos (blacked up when performing Look Out There’s A Monster Coming,  playing football during  Equestrian Statue) continue to be excellent value for money.

It’s a shame that so little material from the Thames era exists as what we do have is top notch (Palin and Jones continue to work excellently together). The audience sounds different in episode two (the laughter is deeper than the high-pitched chuckles from the first series, suggesting that the young audience has been supplanted by older types) and it would be interesting to know if this was a regular occurrence or just a one-off.

Picture Quality

Generally the episodes are in good shape – certainly overall the picture quality is more consistent and better than At Last The 1948 Show. Even episode four of series one, sourced from a Phillips 1500 cassette rather than a telerecording, is very watchable.

Special Features

Michael Palin (33 minutes) and Humphrey Barclay (34 minutes)  both contribute new  in-depth interviews whilst there are shorter contributions from Tim Brooke-Taylor and John Cleese. Three Terry Gilliam animations, remastered from his original 35mm elements, are another treat.

Pride of place on the extras disc has to go to the The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band documentary.  Running for sixty minutes and featuring contributions from Neil Innes, Rodney Slater, Roger Ruskin-Spear and ‘Legs’ Larry Smith it’s an absorbing watch.

Conclusion

Do Not Adjust Your Set obviously showcases Palin, Jones and Idle but this time round I’ve been especially impressed with David Jason, who throws himself into every sketch with gusto.  Denise Coffey might have slightly less to do than the others (Palin, Jones and Idle have acknowledged that writing for women – unless they were actually playing them – was not their forte at this time) but having a regular female performer does add an extra dimension to the series.

As with At Last The 1948 ShowDo Not Adjust Your Set is an excellent package – the episodes bolstered by a plentiful helping of extras which help to set the programme firmly in context.  The series’ hit rate was higher than I’d remembered from previous viewings and I’m sure that this is a DVD that I’ll come back to again and again in the future. Highly recommended.

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Pathfinders to Venus. Episode Eight – Planet on Fire

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With the jungle on fire, Conway and the others struggle to reach the safety of the rocket ….

Brown’s fanaticism – he broadcasts back to Earth a message that everyone else is dead and the planet is hostile – is plainly on show here.  His attempt to sabotage the rocket is a little half-hearted though (since Conway is able to quickly to reverse his damage).

There’s another example of Brown’s disregard for the others – Wilson is attacked by a Venusian in the forest and Brown elects to leave him there.  But what’s worse is that Wilson was looking after Hamlet at the time.  So poor Hamlet’s lost in the forest – clearly Brown is a monster of the first degree …..

Will Wilson and Hamlet make it back to the rocket before Conway has to blast off?  Hmm, I wonder.

The dramatic music goes into overdrive as Conway believes they can’t leave the planet as the Russian rocket, carrying the fuel for the return trip home, appears to have crashed.  So they seem doomed to spend the rest of their lives on Venus.  If so, how will they live?  Brown’s rather keen, but the others less so.

The sudden unexpected appearance of Colonel Korolyov (Robert James) therefore comes as quite a surprise as he tells them that there’s no reason why they can’t return to Earth.  Given that the Cold War was still icy at this point, it’s possible to view the image of Korolyov and Wilson, working together in harmony, with a rather jaundiced eye.

But there’s also a subtler reading that can be made.  Wilson admits that his secret mission in space was to establish an outer-space telephone relay system.  Korolyov genially tells the others that he’s glad there was no other motive for Wilson’s flight (which still leaves us with the inference that Wilson hasn’t been completely straight with them.  Maybe there was another – military – motive behind his mission).

Brown stays behind on Venus but the possibility that the Russians or Americans (or even the British) would return one day to plunder its natural resources remains a possibility.  Whilst Pathfinders to Venus generally presents an optimistic picture of space exploration, there’s still the hint that the future might see political or monetary concerns win out over pure scientific research.

Pathfinders to Venus might be a couple of episodes too long, but you can’t help but be impressed by it’s scope and scale.  Attempting to mount an epic tale with a less than epic budget took some nerve and whilst it’s easy to view all three of the Pathfinders tales purely in terms of the way they anticipated Doctor Who, they still stand up as engaging serials in their own right.  Pulpy fun, it’s true.  But fun nonetheless.

Pathfinders to Venus. Episode Seven – The Valley of Monsters

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The episode title – The Valley of Monsters – would no doubt have raised the audience’s expectations, so possibly that was why our first sight of the monsters – stock footage of animated flying reptiles – provided the previous episode with its cliffhanger.  At least that way most people would know what they were going to get here.

This instalment was especially fascinating since it was used for an academic study into children’s viewing habits and opinions.  To this end, eight deliberate production mistakes (in addition to any inadvertent ones) were introduced into the episode.  Several groups of children were then shown the episode, with their interest levels and comments closely monitored.

It was discovered that young children were just as demanding and critical as any other viewing group.  As producer Sydney Newman later noted. “The most important thing we learnt is that if anyone thinks a young audience can be fooled or won sloppily or ‘on the cheap’ he is sadly mistaken”.  No doubt these lessons would have been taken on board when Newman moved to the BBC and initiated the creation of Doctor Who.

I have to confess that none of the production mistakes were particularly apparent.  Maybe I was just unobservant or possibly too wrapped up in the story?

Our heroes manage to escape the dangerous stock footage flying reptiles and they then proceed to make their way through the forest on the long trek back to the rocket. The forest clearing, where they pitch up for a rest, is pretty bare but a later sandstorm is effectively done.

There’s more animated stock footage (a Tyrannosaurus Rex battles a Stegosaurus as our heroes look on in awed wonder). The models are a little small and grubby, but the dramatic music – and acting – sells the illusion resonably effectively.

Latest Kisswatch update – Conway and Mary enjoy a passionate kiss on the lips. Hurrah! Marriage doesn’t seem to be on his mind though, unless he’s being very subtle. But he does ask if they can work together when they return to Earth, so maybe this is the first step in his plan to woo her.

We return to Buchan Island for the first time since the opening episode. The Russian rescue rocket has nearly reached Venus, but with no evidence that Conway and the others are still alive, it’s likely to just turn around and go home.

Malcolm Hulke tended to pepper his Doctor Who scripts with political, moral or environmental messages. Pathfinders never really went down these routes but this episode – for example, Wilson sees a chance to make a great deal of money by plundering Venus of its plentiful diamond supply – does supply us with a vague message.

It does mean that Wilson, up until now a level-headed chap, suddenly turns into an avaricious monster. This moment quickly passes, but the discovery of uranium is another flashpoint. Wilson paints a vision of Venus as a colonised world, its natural reasources mined for the benefit of Earth (America), a prospect which disgusts Brown. Wilson tells Brown that “you can’t stop progress”.

It’s interesting thar Brown’s desire not to see Venus strip-mined isolates him from the others. But when the way back to the rocket is blocked by raging forest fires, he gleefully tells them that nobody will ever leave the planet. Instead, they’ll become the first of the new Venusians ….

Pathfinders to Venus. Episode Six – The City

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In yet another remarkable coincidence, Margaret and the Venusian child locate Conway and the others.  That just leaves Brown to free from his polystyrene rock and then everyone will be back together.

Brown is remarkably noble (“save yourselves” he tells the others).  But they’re not prepared to leave him to the mercy of the approaching lava and after considerable effort (I wonder if they taught this type of acting – pretending that lightweight objects were very heavy – at RADA?) they manage to free him.

They’re all delighted to finally have emerged from the caves into the open air.  And I have to confess, so am I.  The city they can see in the distance is impressive.  Brown calls it “the creation of an advanced people with a sense of beauty of form”.  But how does that connect with the mute primitives they’ve already tangled with?

Eventually Conway decides that they’ll all take a look at the city.  But Brown can’t wait for Conway, so he sets off alone.  Hasn’t he learnt by now that bad things happen when they split up?  Tsk, he’ll never learn.  As Brown makes his way towards the city, we’re privy to his internal thoughts as he ponders the best way to make contact, which is a nice little touch.

For those keeping track of the Conway/Mary kisswatch, this episode he’s heading closer to her lips (via a peck on the cheek).  But maybe his close attention was something of a plot point, since he notices a mark on her face.  Made by an insect possibly?

This episode (and the final one – Planet on Fire) were directed by Reginald Collin (the other six were directed by Guy Verney).  This was Collin’s first directing credit, although he’d later be more prolific as a producer (notably on Callan).

All of Brown’s hopes are dashed after he learns that the city isn’t a city after all – instead it’s a massive tomb where the Venusians bury their dead.  It’s a pity that after all this effort the city turns out to be nothing more than a Maguffin.  Oh well.

But his disappointment quickly moves into the background as Mary begins to falter – the insect bite is clearly more serious than it first appeared and the others need to come up with an antidote quickly.

This T/R isn’t in a great shape – very notable tramlines throughout – but given that a good deal of this era of television doesn’t exist at all there’s no point in grumbling.

With Mary still weak, they have to improvise a stretcher to carry her (which they knock up very quickly and impressively, it has to be said).  Venus is a planet full of surprises – this week’s cliffhanger finds them menaced by flying dinosaurs!

Pathfinders to Venus. Episode Five – The Venus People

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The lights are even lower at the start of this episode then they were at the end of the previous one, so the Venusian cave-man is much less distinct than he was before.  This low-lighting seems to have foxed the vision mixer – at one point Margaret screams that he’s “breaking though” as the camera cuts to what appears to be an empty frame.

As the Venusian (Bob Bryan) ambles out of the cave, we get a closer look at him.  I think it’s fair to say that he’s possibly not going to be a terribly interesting conversationalist.

The Venus People gives us a break from watching everybody traipsing through the forest as instead they spend their time traipsing through caves instead.  As ever, things aren’t straightforward – Margaret gets separated from the others but (as luck would have it) she runs into Brown and Wilson.

Brown has to do a little bit of quick talking since he’d convinced Wilson that everyone else on the rocket was dead.  He does admit that he lied, but Wilson doesn’t seem too bothered about being deceived.  During these scenes you have to admire Hester Cameron. Margaret has been forced to carry Hamlet for some time, which must have been a little irritating.

Brown finds a narrow ledge which he believes leads to the city.  He’s happy to risk his life crossing it, but Margaret and Wilson are less keen.  But when they hear the wails of the Venusians, she has no choice but to follow.  There’s a bit of a technical blip here – we see Brown cross over, but then George Coulouris walks through the back of  the frame, presumably making his way to the next set.

Wilson meets up with Conway and the others and they too attempt to cross.  The dramatic stock music goes up a few notches as Brown is trapped by a large rock.  A Venusian child (Brigid Skemp) appears to offer Margaret a way out ….

 

Pathfinders to Venus. Episode Three – The Living Planet

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As also often happened with Doctor Who, the end of episode cliffhangers were re-recorded the next week.  This is very evident here, since both Stewart Guidotti and Hester Cameron are much more restrained at the start of this episode than they were at the end of the previous one.

Geoff and Margaret, locked inside Wilson’s rocket for safety, are pondering exactly what powerful creature could have caused such damage.  Geoff has plenty of ideas.  “For all we know it might have been a reptile, or a bird with a huge beak. Or an insect with some kind of nippers like a crab”.  Given the series’ budget, I’ve a feeling it’ll be somewhat less impressive than these wild imaginings ….

It’s plain that they’re not alone though.  For a while, the camera has sometimes shot from behind flapping branches, giving the impression that someone or something is observing them.  As with the previous serials, this one is also in no hurry to show its hand (understandable, with eight episodes to fill).

So The Living Planet concerns itself with the continuing hunt for Wilson whilst Brown burns with a desire to explore what he believes to be a Venusian city.  The parallels between this story and The Daleks seem pretty obvious, was this a coincidence or did Terry Nation tune in back in 1961?  One difference is that Brown just decides to wander off by himself to explore the alleged city (unlike the Doctor, who had to trick the others into accompanying him).

Another Doctor Who connection is the distinctive piece of stock music which appears some ten minutes about ten minutes in, which also cropped up during the Hartnell era, The Space Museum to be precise.

Brown meets up with Wilson and the pair head off for the city together.  For those keeping a watch on the Conway/Mary relationship, there’s another kiss here – albeit it’s just a smacker on the top of her head.

Graydon Gould, as Wilson, starts to emerge as a more defined character in this episode, helped by the fact he finally has someone to talk to.  Gould might not have been an American, but he was the next best thing (Canadian) so at least he sounds pretty authentic.  Brown and Wilson don’t exactly see eye to eye – Brown believes that the only aggressors in the solar system are to be found on Earth and despairs that the Americans rocket was kept a secret (presumably because it contained military secrets).

You probably won’t be shocked to learn that Conway and Geoff venture out to find Wilson and Brown whilst Mary and Margaret remain behind in the safety of the rocket.  Although maybe it’s not that safe since something breaks into the rocket and begins to menace the girls.

And then Conway disappears which is the cue for Geoff to start over-emoting again.  We must be close to the end of the episode ….

Pathfinders to Venus. Episode Two – Into the Poison Cloud

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Convinced that Wilson is trapped on the surface of Venus, Conway and the others set out to rescue him.  But before they can do this they have to work out a way to negotiate the poison cloud that surrounds the planet.

After a few minutes chat, they seem confident so once again the dramatic stock music is cued as the sweet little model rocket slowly begins its descent.  You have to respect the abilities of the regulars (attempting to sell the illusion of danger with such limited resources is no easy task).

But although it’s easy to be critical of the effects, some are very effective.  The shots of the American rocket orbiting Venus are nicely done.  The rocket isn’t particularly detailed, but the fact it’s so small means that it contrasts well with the vast planet.  And our first sight of the planet’s surface – the camera tracks down to reveal the rocket nestling amongst surprising lush vegetation – is a decent model sequence.

Brown is convinced that Venus has a breathable atmosphere and – against the advice of the others – he emerges from the rocket without his space helmet.  And wouldn’t you know it, he’s correct.  This is probably the moment where it’s pointless to worry about scientific accuracy and simply go with the flow.  One obvious plus point about this is that it means our heroes don’t have to spend the entire serial wandering about with space helmets on (which I’m sure was Hulke and Paice’s reasoning).

Since this was 1961 you shouldn’t be surprised that the boys (Conway, Geoff and Brown) immediately go out to explore whilst the girls (Mary and Margaret) stay behind in the rocket.  But it isn’t long before the ever-squeaky Margaret gets her chance to take a look outside (albeit with Geoff as a chaperone).

Conway finds the place “menacing” although at present there’s no sign of life.  On the other hand, Brown is delighted – telling Margaret and Geoff that due to Venus’ slower orbit he could expect to live for another six hundred years here.  I’m going to have to think about that one ….

Poor Wilson.  Considering that the others had come to rescue him, now that they’re jaunting around on the surface he’s rather stuck.  So he too decides to make planetfall.  Geoff, manning the radio, can’t convince Conway that the blip he’s monitoring is a rocket (which is reasonable, since they all assume Wilson has already touched down).  The scene of Wilson’s rocket crash-landing is interesting.  Let’s assume that the planet’s surface is very springy (that would explain why his rocket seems to bounce up and down).

What should you never do on a strange new planet? Split up and explore.  So whilst Conway, Mary and Brown have stuck together (with Geoff and Margaret safely in the ship) what do the youngsters decide to do?  Yep, head off under their own steam for a spot of exploration.  Oh dear.

Towards the end of the episode we get to see a bit more of Venus’ lush vegetation (which seems to include large mushroom plants).  We also have our first sign of life – a snake – as Geoff and Margaret close in on Wilson’s crashed rocket.  But Wilson’s nowhere to be found and Geoff makes a disturbing discovery.  “This damage couldn’t have been done by a crash-landing. The rocket’s been ransacked by some creature!”

Stuart Guidotti’s performance, like Hester Cameron’s, is sometimes pitched at a level of extreme hysteria – as it is here.  Possibly they were both told to go for it (as in Doctor Who, end of episode acting was a specialised skill) and it’s fair to say that neither of them are holding back as this episode concludes.