Here’s David Nixon – Network DVD review

David Nixon (1919 – 1978) first came to prominence as a panellist on the UK version of What’s My Line? Loved for his affable and friendly persona, he would go on to establish himself as one of Britain’s top magicians during the sixties and seventies.

Network have previously released David Nixon’s Magic Box, which ran between 1970 and 1971. Featuring star guests and a range of specialty performers, it set the template for others (such as Paul Daniels) to follow.

Here’s David Nixon, which aired in 1963, is somewhat different – although just as interesting. With each edition running for around seven minutes, it has the feeling of a filler programme (the show was broadcast surprisingly late at night as well).  Nixon is confined to a very small and quite bare studio with just a handful of volunteers who, as he tells us on more than one occasion, were simply passing by.

This abbreviated audience means that there’s not a great deal of response to his tricks (although the studio crew do chip in with the occasional burst of laughter and applause). I don’t actually mind this though, as Nixon was equally adept at playing to just a handful of people as he was to a large audience.

Occasionally cheeky but never cruel, Nixon’s skill at handling the volunteers is something to behold. Unlike certain other magicians, he never felt the need to embarrass anyone for a cheap laugh.

Here’s David Nixon is a masterclass of close up magic. There are obviously plenty of card tricks, as well as illusions carried out with everyday objects (handkerchiefs, etc) and a sprinkling of groan-worthy gags. Nixon also indulges in a few party tricks – some of which work and others (attempting to whip a tablecloth off a crockery filled table) aren’t quite so successful ….

The picture quality is very good (the audio crackles a bit on a few shows, but it’s not a major problem). All thirteen episodes survive, which is a pleasant surprise as not all ABC programmes were so lucky.

For the devotee of close up magic, Here’s David Nixon is a must buy. A somewhat forgotten series (his IMDb page doesn’t have a record of it) it’s wonderful that Network have made it available. Highly recommended.

Here’s David Nixon can be ordered directly from Network via this link.

Light Entertainment Rarities – Network DVD Review

Sammy Davis Jr Meets The British (11th June 1960)

This special, directed by Brian Tesler, neatly falls into three separate sections. In the first, a solo Sammy entertains with a selection of songs, some affable chat to the audience and an impersonation of Adam Faith thrown in for good measure. All this takes place against a fairly basic set, so it’s clear that the budget wasn’t spent on this section.

A little more spending is evident in part two which begins with an OB shoot at a deserted Battersea funfair. Sammy leads a group of cute children around the fair, all the time indulging in plenty of song and dance action. Thanks to the presence of the kids there’s a strong sense of schmaltz about this part of the show, but it’s tightly choregraphed and it’s also nice to get a look at the long vanished fair.

We then return to the studio to see Sammy – desperate to become an English gentleman – receiving some instruction from Lionel Blair. Their initial crosstalk might drag a little, but it’s worth wading through as the pay-off (the pair attempt to out tap each other) is great fun. They seem to genuinely spark off each other, with Sammy spontaneously bringing him back in part three to take another bow.

The final third of the special has a nightclub ambiance. A dinner suited Sammy performs behind an orchestra with well-dressed ladies and gentlemen sat at tables nearby.  Had the whole show been like this then I wouldn’t have objected – as it is, these remaining fifteen minutes gives him a chance to demonstrate his versatility one final time (singing, playing the drums and attempting various impersonations – of which Louis Armstrong is the most impressive).

Steamboat Shuffle (1960)

I was expecting this to take place on a Steamboat set in the studio, so it was a pleasant surprise to discover that the twenty five minutes of trad jazz action occurs on a real boat – the Cottontail – moored on the riverside at Teddington. It was built especially for this short series (of which the edition on this disc is the sole survivor).

Introduced by the affable Peter Elliott, Steamboat Shuffle is interesting for several reasons – not least for the way director Ben Churchill managed to make the OB recording flows nicely (giving it the feel of a live production). Logistically it must have been something of a nightmare, with the cameras for certain performances placed on the dockside (meaning that the cameramen had to nip past the jiving hip young things) but there were very few muffled shot choices.

The musical turns come thick and fast, with the performances from a young Kenny Lynch especially catching the eye. It’s an enjoyable way to spend twenty five minutes, and it leaves me a little saddened that this episode is the only one still left in existence.

Big Night Out – The Peggy Lee Show (26th August 1961)

This edition of Big Night Out has a similar feel to the Sammy Davis Jr special, although Peggy Lee wasn’t quite the same all-rounder – her brief chat to the audience has a faint air of awkwardness (as does a skit she appears in, featuring David Kossoff as a taxi driver). But luckily this show plays to her strengths, so it mainly comprises of a series of excellent musical performances (Fever is an obvious highlight).

The third part of the show sees Peggy joined by three friends – Sammy Cahn, Jimmy Van Heusen and Bing Crosby. This is something rather special as the affable Cahn enjoys some nice musical byplay with Peggy (Van Heusen remains silent, content just to play the piano). Bing Crosby wanders on towards the end to perform a couple of songs, although given the Cahn/Van Heusen catalogue (both together and separately) this part of the show can only scratch the surface of their musical output.

Celebration (9th April 1966)

The final programme on the disc, Celebration with Duke Ellington and his orchestra, is a little heavier than the three other other light entertainment offerings, but it’s still a fascinating watch. Recorded at Coventry Cathedral, Celebration was only rediscovered in 2018. Including the European premiere of his ‘Concert of Sacred Music’, the performance was one that was close to Ellington’s heart (he later referred to it as “one of the most satisfying things I have ever done. And the most important.”)

Light Entertainment Rarities is an excellent release, scooping up a selection of one-offs or orphaned episodes from otherwise wiped series which would be too short by themselves to merit a stand-alone release. Fingers crossed that a volume two follows in due course, but for now this DVD is well worth checking out.

Light Entertainment Rarities was released by Network on the 9th of November 2020 (1 disc, running for 177 minutes). It can be ordered directly from Network here.

The Bruce Forsyth Show – Network DVD Review

Sandwiched inbetween Bruce Forsyth’s initial breakthrough as one of the hosts of Sunday Night at the London Palladium during the late fifties and his rebirth as a fully-fledged game-show host on The Generation Game in the early seventies, The Bruce Forsyth Show is a fascinating programme (Brucie’s missing link, you might say).

Most thumbnail biographies tend to skip over this period, contending that it took The Generation Game to restore Bruce to full television glory. And yet The Bruce Forsyth Show doesn’t skimp on star names – Frankie Howerd, Cilla Black, Dudley Moore, Tommy Cooper, Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Diana Dors, Kathy Kirby, Julie Rogers, Harry Secombe, Engelbert Humperdinck and Tom Jones were amongst the performers appearing.

No doubt its low profile is due to the fact that it’s been pretty much unavailable since its original broadcast, so a tip of the hat to Network for bringing it back into circulation.

The debut show was broadcast on Christmas Day 1965. There’s a distinct lack of festive trimmings though – which raises the possibility that the show may have been put out on the 25th of December as something of an afterthought. Cilia Black is the show’s big guest – sharing some slightly uncomfortable crosstalk with Bruce (although it’s still good natured) and belting out a couple of songs.

Unsurprisingly, Brucie’s skills as a song and dance man are put to good use (as they are throughout the series) and he also takes part in a number of sketches. These try the patience a little more – although the skit with Miriam Karlin (she plays a hoity toity dog breeder) does have a few bright moments. They mainly occur when Bruce wanders off script (he tended to be more comfortable when he could riff with the material).

Laughs are fairly thin on the ground later on when Bruce and Francis Matthews play a couple of drunk golfers, returning home. This was a sketch that probably would have been twice as funny if it had been half as long. The final third of the show picks up though – with an orchestra skit (featuring Bruce as the conductor) – so overall this debut show was a pretty strong effort.

After this one-off, the series proper debuted on the 14th of August 1966. Sid Green and Dick Hills returned as the writers, with Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Ronnie Corbett, Lionel Blair and Tom Jones appearing. Tom throws himself into things with gusto – appearing in a frenetic sketch where he’s pushed and pulled from pillar to post. The BBC era of The Morecambe & Wise Show has gained the reputation of being the show which allowed the stars to do things outside of their comfort zone, but it’s easy to see that Brucie was doing something similar years earlier.

Sid and Dick will always be best remembered for their 1960’s work with Morecambe & Wise (mostly also at ATV). They fashion similar material for Bruce here – even to the extent of appearing in a sketch themselves (which they regularly did with Eric & Ernie).

Like many series of this era, The Bruce Forsyth Show doesn’t exist in its entirety, but its survival rate is pretty good (especially when compared to other variety series such as Sunday Night at the London Palladium). Series one is virtually complete, only about ten minutes from the 4/9/66 edition (Frankie Howerd and Julie Rogers guest-starring) are missing.  As for series two, three of the six shows still remain – they feature the likes of Harry Secombe, Beryl Reid and Engelbert Humperdinck.

There’s also a brief clip from an otherwise wiped 1967 Christmas show with Bruce and Frankie Howerd. Recorded on one of the earliest domestic video recorders, the quality of this brief excerpt is pretty poor but nevertheless it’s nice to have it (to have it, nice).

If the sketch material across the series tends to be fairly routine, then the calibre of the guests (Dudley Moore and Tommy Cooper teamed up, for example) helps to keep the energy levels raised. Like all variety shows, The Bruce Forsyth Show is something of a mixed bag, but thanks to Bruce’s exuberance and playful interactions with the guests it’s almost always watchable and comes warmly recommended.

It’s nice to see some more 1960’s LE on DVD, hopefully Network will continue to dig through the archives as I’m sure there’s plenty more waiting to be unearthed.

The Bruce Forsyth Show (3 discs, 503 minutes) is released by Network on the 9th of November 2020. It can be ordered directly here.

Do Not Adjust Your Set – BFI DVD Review

image003 (1)

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.

dnays.jpg

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.

dnays

At Last The 1948 Show – BFI DVD Review

image003

Background

Broadcast in 1967 on ITV (Rediffusion London) At Last The 1948 Show is one of a handful of shows which laid the groundwork for Monty Python’s Flying Circus (Do Not Adjust Your Set is another key pre-Python programme which I’ll be taking a look at next week).

Earlier in the sixties, John Cleese, Graham Chapman and Tim Brooke-Taylor had been part of the Cambridge Footlights team who took the revue A Clump of Plinths/Cambridge Circus first to the Edinburgh Festival and then onto the West End, Broadway and a tour of New Zealand.  Some of the best of their revue material would later be pressed into service in At Last The 1948 Show.

Cleese and Brooke-Taylor were also integral members of the radio series I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again from 1964 whilst Cleese and Chapman also kept busy writing for The Frost Report.  Feldman was another key Frost Report contributor (he co-wrote the Class sketch which featured Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett). And like the others, Feldman was also enjoying considerable radio success (co-writing Round The Horne with Barry Took).

David Frost was something of a television powerhouse during this period. Although he would be the subject of harsh (but loving?) ridicule in both At Last The 1948 Show and Python, there’s no denying that he pushed the careers of many of his contemporaries forward (something which both Cleese and Brooke-Taylor are happy to acknowledge today).

Produced by Frost’s company Paradine Productions, At Last The 1948 Show ran for two series in 1967 (six episodes during February and March with a further seven following between September and November). Joining the four writers and performers was the lovely Aimi MacDonald who managed to wring the absolute maximum out of the small amount of material she was given.

Although At Last The 1948 Show had a more convential format than Python (sketches with punch-lines for instance) MacDonald’s fractured linking material does echo the way that Terry Gilliam’s animations would later be used in Python to provide a brief interlude between the sketches.

The likes of Bill Oddie, Barry Cryer and Eric Idle also pop up from time to time (Cryer having the smallest of small parts in probably the most famous sketch the series produced – Four Yorkshiremen).

Archive Status

Like a great many shows made during the sixties and early seventies, most of At Last The 1948 Show was wiped during periodic archive purges.  By the time that the remaining Rediffusion archive was donated to the BFI, it was found that only two episodes (four and six from series one) remained.  That most of the series now exists is testament to the tenacity of several key people (notably Steve Bryant and Dick Fiddy).

The first breakthrough was the return in 1990 of five compilation programmes broadcast in Sweden (these were issued on DVD in 2007).  Over time, several other shows were also located whilst fragments of footage have been obtained from disparate sources which include the Australian censor and Marty Feldman’s widow, Lauretta.

Most recently, two virtually complete editions (including series one, show one) were donated from Sir David Frost’s archive. For this release, where no video footage exists (the second episode of series one is the most incomplete) off-air audio has been synchronised to the camera script in order to fill the gaps.

The Series

Right from the off, the comic personas of the four main players are deftly established. John Cleese displays the type of manic intensity which would be his signature performance style for the next decade or more. Graham Chapman has a nice line in authority figures (albeit ones who have some fatal flaw – such as the Minister who literally falls to pieces). It also has to be said that he gives good yokel.

Tim Brooke-Taylor is always perfect as the hapless sufferer but also, like Cleese, does manic intensity very well. His clockwork hospital visitor (attempting to comfort a bed-bound Bill Oddie) is a wonderfully energetic spot of nonsense.

And although Marty Feldman had far less performing experience than the others, he impresses right from the off.  His boggle-eyed stare (something which David Frost thought would be offputing for the viewers) means that he’s perfect casting as the more eccentric characters, although he’s equally able to play the straight man when required.

Series one is stuffed with memorable sketches, a number of which were later recycled by the Pythons. For example, in the first show we see Graham Chapman’s solo wrestler in addition to the Secret Service sketch (which later appeared on the Python’s Live at Drury Lane album).

The Undercover Policeman sketch in show four is a delightfully ramshackle piece which saw all four struggle (and fail) to keep a straight face. In his interview on the third disc, Brooke-Taylor fills in some of the background – what was transmitted appears to be a second take and the others, for whatever reason, decided to devitaite from the script the second time around. This initially leaves Tim a little at sea ….

Several of the Cleese/Feldman two-handers, especially the bookshop sketch (Feldman as a customer requesting more and more unlikely books, Cleese as the increasingly ticked off proprtieter) are top notch. This one was recycled several times, both by Feldman and the Pythons, but the original is hard to beat.  The Wonderful World of the Ant is another which gets the thumbs up from me.

I also like the way that the hostesses increase by one each week, meaning that by the sixth and final show there are half a dozen glamourous girls all vying for attention. The lovely Aimi always comes out on top though.

She has a slightly increased role in the second series, which continued very much in the vein of the first.   Highlights include the period drama The Willets of Littlehampton and Tim Brooke-Taylor’s fairly savage parody of David Frost (The Marvin Bint Programme). The Four Yorkshiremen sketch is the undoubted jewel of show six, but Tim Brooke-Taylor’s chartered accountant dance is also worthy of a mention.

The seventh and final show has another classic Cleese/Feldman sketch and whilst it’s a shame that this edition isn’t quite complete (the final skit – a performance of The Rhubarb Tart Song – is missing) at least the end credits (which feature Ronnie Corbett gatecrashing proceedings to trail his new show) do still exist.

Special Features

The three disc set contains a generous amount of supplementary content.  Copies of the two scripts which feature the most missing material are included on the first two discs, along with a handful of other brief features.(such as photo galleries and John Cleese’s 2003 introduction from the BFI Missing Believed Wiped event).

The bulk of the special features are on the third disc.  Two newly shot interviews with John Cleese (31 minutes) and Tim Brooke-Taylor (38 minutes) are both of interest.

Cleese’s comments on his increasingly distant relationship with Feldman and his fondness for performing with Brooke-Taylor (who he likens, in performance style, to Michael Palin) were a few highlights from his interview whilst it’s hard not to love the all-round good egg that is Tim Brooke-Taylor. Indeed, rather like Michael Palin it’s difficult to imagine anyone ever having a bad word to say about him.

Also included is a 2006 interview with Cleese at the BFI (36 minutes) and 25 minutes of rushes from a 1969 interview with Marty Feldman which was never broadcast. Several audio features – Reconstructing At Last The 1948 Show (44 minutes) and a chaotic Dee Time interview (12 minutes) are also worthy of investigation.

Picture Quality

The previous DVD release (of the Swedish compilations) was incredibly grotty so any upgrade would have been welcome. The picture quality is certainly much improved, although given that several episodes were patched together from various sources it’s not surprising that some sections look better than others.

Given the age and condition of the telerecordngs, there may have only been a finite amount of restoration work which could have been carried out. So you can expect to see tramlining and other picture defects from time to time. But these are only intermittent issues, so in general the picture quality is quite acceptable.

Conclusion

Whilst At Last The 1948 Show will probably always be viewed as a son of Monty Python, it’s a series that really deserves to be appreciated on its own merits. Like every sketch show it doesn’t have a 100% strike rate, but when it clicks (as it so often does) the results are simply glorious.

It’s also very pleasing that after a great deal of hard work by the BFI, we have the series reconstructed in as complete a form as possible. Together with a raft of impressive contextual extras, it results in a very impressive package which comes highly recommended.

Do Not Adjust Your Set to be released by the BFI (16th September 2019)

image003 (1).jpg

Also released by the BFI on the same day as At Last The 1948 Show is Do Not Adjust Your Set, which looks to be equally as essential. The press release is below –

Do Not Adjust Your Set
Collector’s Edition

3-DVD set released on 16 September 2019

Do Not Adjust Your Set, a madcap sketch show with a cult following, was a huge influence on television comedy. Written by and starring Michael Palin, Terry Jones and Eric Idle, with performances and additional material by David Jason and Denise Coffey, it also provided a showcase for Terry Gilliam’s animations and the musical antics of art-school jazz-anarchists The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band.

This collection brings together all the existing shows from the Rediffusion and Thames series for the first time. Among the five episodes entirely new to DVD, two were previously thought lost entirely. The research, reconstruction and restoration involved in creating this 3-DVD set and its companion, At Last The 1948 Show, both released on 16 September 2019, is the biggest TV project ever undertaken by the BFI National Archive. Both represent huge cross BFI projects with extensive work done by the Video Publishing and Technical departments, to ensure the best releases possible.

Do Not Adjust Your Set will be launched during a month-long season at BFI Southbank, It’s… Monty Python at 50, running 1 September – 1 October 2019, celebrating Monty Python – their roots, influences and subsequent work both as a group, and as individuals. The season forms part of the 50th anniversary celebrations of the beloved comedy group, whose seminal series Monty Python’s Flying Circus first aired on 5 October 1969. It will include all the Monty Python feature films; oddities and unseen curios from the depths of the BFI National Archive and from Michael Palin’s personal collection of super 8mm films; back-to-back screenings of the entire series of Monty Python’s Flying Circus in a unique big-screen outing; and screenings of post-Python TV (Fawlty Towers, Out of the Trees, Ripping Yarns) and films (Jabberwocky, A Fish Called Wanda, Time Bandits, Wind in the Willows and more). There will be a free exhibition of Python-related material from the BFI National Archive and The Monty Python Archive, and a Python takeover in the BFI Shop.

On Sunday 8 September at 17:40 in NFT1, there will be a special screening of two episodes of Do Not Adjust Your Set (one newly recovered). After the screening, a fully illustrated panel discussion will look back at the series and assess its importance within the Monty Python canon.

Special features
• Putting Strange Things Together (2019, 33 mins); Michael Palin recalls his early TV days, including Do Not Adjust Your Set;
• We Just Want You to Invent the Show (2019, 34 mins): Humphrey Barclay on his comedy career from Footlights to Rediffusion;
• The Uninvited Guest Star (2019, 5 mins): Tim Brooke-Taylor on his Do Not Adjust Your Set appearance;
• The Funniest Thing on English Television (2019, 7 mins): John Cleese reflects on the show’s impact;
• Bonzos on the Box (2019, 60 mins): new feature-length documentary on The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band featuring Neil Innes, Rodney Slater, Roger Ruskin-Spear and ‘Legs’ Larry Smith;
• The Doo-Dah Discotheque (2019): a Bonzo video jukebox;
• The Intro and the Outro (2018, 2 mins): a newly filmed introduction by Neil Innes;
• The Christmas Card (1968, 3 mins); Beware of the Elephants (1968, 3 mins); Learning to Live With an Elephant (1968, 4 mins): animations by Terry Gilliam, newly scanned from his own 35mm film masters;
• Lost Listens (1969, audio): rare sound-only excerpts from missing Thames episodes;
• Do Not Adjust Your Scripts: reproductions of scripts from missing Rediffusion episodes;
• The Humphrey Barclay Scrapbook: photos, cuttings and drawings from the legendary producer’s personal archive;
• Illustrated booklet with an introduction by Michael Palin, an exclusive interview with David Jason, new contributions from Humphrey Barclay, Neil Innes, ‘Legs’ Larry Smith and Kaleidoscope’s Chris Perry, plus essay and episode guide by the BFI’s Vic Pratt, comedy context by the BFI’s Dick Fiddy and musical notes by The Doo-Dah Diaries’ David Christie.

Product details
RRP: £29.99/ Cat. no. BFIV2120/ Cert PG
UK / 1967-1969 / black and white / 361 mins / English language, with optional hard-of-hearing subtitles / original aspect ratio 4:3 / DVD9 x 3: PAL, 25fps, Dolby Digital 1.0 mono audio (192kbps)

At Last The 1948 Show to be released by the BFI (16th September 2019)

image003

A three-DVD deluxe set of At Last The 1948 Show is due to be released by the BFI on 16/9/18. The press release, detailing the mouth-watering collection of extras, is reproduced below.

At Last The 1948 Show
Collector’s Edition

3-DVD set released on 16 September 2019

At Last The 1948 Show debuted in 1967: the silly, cerebral team effort of future Pythons John Cleese and Graham Chapman, Goodie-to-be Tim Brooke-Taylor and the marvellously fizzogged Marty Feldman. With laconic links by The Lovely Aimi MacDonald and set-pieces including the debut of the landmark ‘Four Yorkshiremen’ sketch, this pioneering comedy series is now ready to be enjoyed by a new generation of fans (or by old ones all over again). The research, reconstruction and restoration involved in creating this 3-DVD set and its companion, Do Not Adjust Your Set, both released on 16 September 2019, is the biggest TV project ever undertaken by the BFI National Archive.

Initially beginning work six years ago, a team of the BFI’s specialist TV curators gathered every episode known to exist. Further down the line, the Video Publishing and Technical Delivery teams work tirelessly to reconstruct missing episodes, using audio recordings and shooting scripts, to create the most complete collection ever assembled of this series.

This Collector’s Edition includes all 10 surviving shows, plus two near-complete reconstructions and a partially complete episode with full-length audio: all presented with an array of archive gems and newly filmed extras. The accompanying booklet includes an essay by curator Steve Bryant detailing the research and technical work that was carried out.

At Last The 1948 Show will be launched during a month-long season at BFI Southbank, It’s… Monty Python at 50, running 1 September – 1 October 2019, celebrating Monty Python – their roots, influences and subsequent work both as a group, and as individuals. The season forms part of the 50th anniversary celebrations of the beloved comedy group, whose seminal series Monty Python’s Flying Circus first aired on 5 October 1969. It will include all the Monty Python feature films; oddities and unseen curios from the depths of the BFI National Archive and from Michael Palin’s personal collection of super 8mm films; back-to-back screenings of the entire series of Monty Python’s Flying Circus in a unique big-screen outing; and screenings of post-Python TV (Fawlty Towers, Out of the Trees, Ripping Yarns) and films (Jabberwocky, A Fish Called Wanda, Time Bandits, Wind in the Willows and more). There will be a free exhibition of Python-related material from the BFI National Archive and The Monty Python Archive, and a Python takeover in the BFI Shop.

On Sunday 8 September at 15:00 in NFT1, there will be a special screening of At Last The 1948 Show (two recovered editions from the series plus an exclusive preview of some of the extra material from this DVD release) followed by a Q&A with Tim Brooke-Taylor.

Special features
• Something About the Year 1948 (2019, 31 mins): John Cleese on working with Humphrey Barclay, David Frost and Graham Chapman, At Last The 1948 Show and the path to Python;
• We Just Wanted to Be Silly (2019, 38 mins): Tim Brooke-Taylor recalls his comedy influences and the making of At Last The 1948 Show;
• John Cleese in Conversation (2006, 36 mins): John Cleese joins comedy historian Dick Fiddy at BFI Southbank to reflect on At Last The 1948 Show;
• Reconstructing At Last The 1948 Show (2000, 44 mins, audio): the BFI’s Steve Bryant in discussion with Aimi MacDonald, Tim Brooke-Taylor and audiophile Ray Frensham;
• John Cleese Introduces At Last The 1948 Show (2003, 2 mins): an introduction recorded for the BFI’s Missing Believed Wiped event;
• At Last It’s Dee Time (1967, 12 mins audio): the At Last The 1948 Show team’s unruly guest appearance on the BBC chat show;
• Now and Then: Marty Feldman (1968, 25 mins): Feldman discusses the nature of comedy in this unedited interview, shot for a never-broadcast Bernard Braden documentary series;
• The Humphrey Barclay Scrapbook: rare photos and drawings from the legendary TV producer’s personal archive;
• At Last Some Pictures: image gallery of promotional material;
• Reproductions of two scripts for the incomplete episodes;
• Illustrated booklet with Not Quite 500 Words by Tim Brooke-Taylor, Steve Bryant’s account of recovering and restoring the programmes and a look at the show’s place in comedy history by the BFI’s Dick Fiddy, plus episode notes with transmission dates and credits.

Product details
RRP: £29.99/ Cat. no. BFIV2121/ Cert 12
UK / 1967-1968 / black and white / 320 mins / English language, with optional hard-of-hearing subtitles / original aspect ratio 4:3 / DVD9 x 3: PAL, 25fps, Dolby Digital 1.0 mono audio (192kbps)

A Choice of Coward – Blithe Spirit

blithe 01

Charles Condomine (Griffiths Jones), a successful novelist in the process of writing a new book about the occult, is keen to experience some authentic colour.  To this end he invites the eccentric medium Madame Acarti (Hattie Jacques) to hold a séance at his house.  Madam Acarti is so obviously a fake that nobody – not Charles, nor his second wife Ruth (Helen Cherry) or their friends – expect the evening to generate anything more than a little light mockery at Madame Acarti’s expense.

So when the spirit of Charles’ first wife, Elvira (Joanna Durham) is conjured up from the other side, he’s more than a little taken aback.  Especially as he’s the only one who can see or hear her …..

Coward had been mulling over writing a play featuring ghosts for a little while, but it wasn’t until his flat was destroyed during the Blitz that he decided to turn these vague notions into reality.  Holidaying with the actress Joyce Carey at Portmerion (later immortalised in The Prisoner) he rapidly churned out the play in a mere six days and afterwards would comment that with “disdaining archness and false modesty, I will admit that I knew it was witty, I knew it was well constructed, and I also knew that it would be a success”.

Premiering in mid 1941, with Cecil Parker as Charles and Margaret Rutherford as Madame Acarti, the play was an immediate success (until the juggernaut run of The Mousetrap, Blithe Spirit was the longest-running non musical West End production).  Rather wonderfully, a few years ago a telegram from Coward to Christie, congratulating her on beating his record, was discovered.

Coward was aware that some people might find the notion of a play revolving around ghosts to be a slightly distasteful subject to pitch during wartime, but he had a ready reply.  Although a comedy, it was deliberately written as a heartless piece.  “You can’t sympathise with any of them. If there was a heart it would be a sad story”.

This is certainly true.  Neither Charles, Ruth or Elvira are in any way admirable characters.  We open with Charles and Ruth discussing his first wife.  Charles, a befits a professional writer, is smooth with his compliments (and able to not commit himself when Ruth asks him if Elvira was prettier than her) but there’s a brittleness to this conversation.

When Elvira unexpectedly pops up the cracks begin to get bigger.  Although it takes a little while for Ruth to believe the truth of the situation, once she realises that Charles isn’t mad or drunk she becomes rather jealous of her dead rival.  After the initial shock, Charles adjusts relatively quickly to Elvira’s presence, but it’s hard to argue that the ghostly Elvira is a symbol of an idyllic past marriage.  Evidence is provided that their relationship was somewhat rocky.  Elvira reminds him that he hit her with a billiard cue (only gently, he says) whilst neither seems to have been totally faithful.

But in her own way she still loves him and so decides to kill him, as that way they’ll both be spirits and together once more.  But it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise to learn that her plans backfire and, after tampering with Charles’ car, she ends up killing Ruth instead (quite how a non-corporeal spirit could do such a thing is a question which the play quite rightly ignores).

This then sets up the denouement, which sees Charles haunted by both of his wives (in mounting desperation he requests that Madame Acarti’s perform an exorcism).  Jacques may not have the largest role, but she’s wonderful comic value whenever she’s on the screen.  With a boundless enthusiasm (Madame Acarti is almost beside herself when she learns that her séance actually conjured a manifestation) Jacques wrings every last comic moment from the script.

Joan Kemp-Welch (who directed all four plays in this short season) appears to have given Jacques her head.  It’s not a subtle performance – Madame Acarti leaps about like a giddy schoolgirl as well as being prone to sudden dramatic swoons – but it’s certainly an eye-catching one.  Coward himself approved, commenting that it was the first time someone had done something with the role that could bear comparison to Margaret Rutherford’s imposing stage and film performances (she reprised the part of Madame Acarti in David Lean’s 1945 movie).

The ending of this adaptation stays true to the original play (unlike Lean’s film, which Coward disliked) and sees a carefree Charles – once Elvira and Ruth have been reduced to silent, invisible spirits – head out for a lengthy holiday aboard, happy in the knowledge that his ghostly ex-wives won’t be able to follow him.  It’s not exactly what you could call a happy ending, but it fits in with the general tone of the piece.

As acknowledged by Coward, it’s hard to warm to any of the characters (apart from the deliciously dippy Madame Acarti) which is probably the reason why Blithe Spirit never quite engages as fully as it could have done.  Amusing, but icy.

blithe 02

A Choice Of Coward – Present Laughter

present 01

Like many of his contemporaries, Noël Coward found the 1950’s to be a critically lean period.  He may have created a string of hit plays during the 1920’s, 1930’s and 1940’s, but in the brave new world of the angry young men his style seemed to be hopelessly dated.

But everything comes round again eventually and by the mid sixties the Coward revival was in full swing.  His new plays continued to attract only polite interest, but revivals of his classics tended to garner both popular and critical acclaim.

Therefore 1964 was the ideal time for Granada to turn their Play of the Week strand over to Coward for four weeks.  Featuring introductions from the Master himself before each of the four plays, A Choice of Coward kicked off with Present Laughter.

Written in 1939 and first staged in 1942, Coward’s introduction makes it clear that the play was written with a single thought in mind – to provide him with a star vehicle.  The character originally played by Coward – Garry Essendine – is the centre of the play and the recipient of most of the best lines.  There’s obviously a strong sense of autobiography at play (which wouldn’t have been lost on the audience at the time) as Garry is a fortyish, elegant, dressing-gown clad figure, who continues to deliver bon mots with practised ease even as his world descends into chaos.

Garry isn’t the only character to have a clear real-life counterpart.  Garry’s loyal and long-suffering secretary Monica is a straightforward analogue of Coward’s equally devoted secretary, Lorne Lorraine, whilst Garry’s almost ex-wife, Liz, is said to be partly modelled on Joyce Carey, who played Liz in the original production.

Garry Essendine (Peter Wyngarde) is the bright star around which his devoted satellites – Liz (Ursula Howells), Monica (Joan Benham), manager Morris (Danvers Walker) and producer Henry (Edwin Apps) orbit.  But it would be wrong to call Garry a despot, he appears to be much more affable than that.  Although as he’s an actor it’s difficult to know whether any of the emotions he exhibits are genuine.  This might have been a fruitful area for the play to examine, but as this is a lightweight confection (albeit with the odd barb) it tends to steer clear of psychological analysis.

The play opens with Daphne Stillington (Jennie Linden) exploring Garry’s flat.  A would-be actress and a devoted admirer of Garry, she has stayed the night (albeit in the spare room).  When Garry eventually rises, he firmly, but charmingly dispatches her (an early sign of how he tends, almost absent-mindedly, to pick up and then discard people at will).  Linden is very appealing as the naïve and fresh-faced young woman besotted with the stylish Garry.  Daphne exits but returns later, when she helps to raise the comic tempo.

present 02.jpg

Daphne’s presence doesn’t faze Monica, no doubt it’s something of a regular occurrence.  Coward may have given Garry most of the best lines, but he didn’t forget his co-stars completely and Monica is the recipient of some good lines, as is Liz.  Liz and Garry may be separated but she’s still part of his inner circle and very much involved in every part of his life.  That she too regards Daphne will cool disinterest speaks volumes about her husband and their strange relationship.

James Bolam is great fun as Roland Maule.  Maule is an earnest young playwright, entranced and repulsed by Garry’s star quality in equal measure.  Maule is flattered to be in Garry’s presence but is forthright in explaining how Garry’s work in the commercial theatre is totally without artistic merit.  Coward, who always valued popular success over critical acclaim, plainly uses Maule to take a not-terribly subtle dig at his detractors.

By the time Barbara Murray appeared here as Joanna (Henry’s wife) she was a familiar television face thanks to her role in The Plane Makers as Pamela Wilder.  Joanna wouldn’t really have been too much of a stretch for her, since both characters share similar traits – not least a desire for male conquests.  Joanna is already conducing an affair with Morris and now she sets her sights on Garry.  Wyngarde and Murray both cross verbal swords in a very appealing manner with Garry eventually forced to succumb to the inevitable ….

By now the plot is simmering away nicely and this leads into the frantic conclusion which sees Garry – about to set off for a theatrical tour of Africa – learn to his horror that Daphne, Morris and Joanna have independently bought tickets for Africa as well and are all dead-set on accompanying him.

Eventually matters are resolved, although those expecting the characters – especially Garry – to have learnt anything will be disappointed.  As touched upon earlier, this an exercise in farce, not realism.

Adapted by Peter Wildeblood, it runs to just over seventy minutes, so a certain amount of filleting had to be done in order to bring it down to the required length.  This means dropping some characters, such as Garry’s valet Fred, and cutting some decent lines, but on the plus side this editing means that it zips along at a fine pace.

Peter Wyngarde dominates of course.  He would later become well-known for playing a similar womanizing character, Jason King, so Garry Essendine could almost be said to be a dry run.  Clearly relishing Coward’s dialogue, Wyngarde’s a treat from beginning to end.

One of Coward’s evergreen classics (over the years it’s been revived numerous times, with Donald Sinden, Simon Callow, Peter O’Toole, Tom Conti, Peter Bowles, Rik Mayall and Albert Finney amongst those taking on the role of Garry) this cut-down version of Present Laughter is an impressive production.

present 03

Pathfinders to Venus. Episode Four – The Creature

venus 04

By this point the narrative has split four ways.  Geoff is alone in the jungle, Mary and Margaret are trapped in the rocket (whilst something large and unfriendly appears to be attempting to force its way in), Conway has disappeared whilst Brown and Wilson are making their way to what Brown believes is a Venusian city.

Mary eventually twigs the way that Brown deceived them – chopping a few words out of Wilson’s tape recording – whilst the tension of Geoff, Mary and Margaret’s predicament quickly dissipates.  Geoff returns to the rocket and the mysterious creature disappears.

The logical Professor Mary Meadows believes that the creature only appears when they’re alone, so Geoff decides they should rope themselves together and that’ll deal with it.  Eh? I’m not entirely convinced about this statement.

Brown and Wilson continue their slow trek to the city.  They find a cave which displays evidence that the Venusians have discovered fire (and presumably are flesh eaters).  This doesn’t chime with Brown’s assertion that the Venusians are harmless and friendly, but he’s not downhearted and quickly bounces back.  At this point poor George Coulouris suffers a line fumble worthy of William Hartnell.  “Three thousand miles, err three thousand, three hundred years ago …”

The point about fire is an interesting one – in the previous scene Mary was confident that they could use it as a weapon, since she thought it was unlikely the Venusians would have discovered it. Although as no-one ever mention fire again it turns out to be a totally redundant plot-point.

A few clips of stock footage are used throughout the serial.  This episode is slightly more low-rent though – as we hear the sound effect of thunder followed by a picture of lightening.  It’s only on the screen for a second so they just about get away with it.

Gerald Flood’s had an easy episode so far.  We don’t see him until we’re about half way through when Conway promptly wakes up, calls for Geoff and the others – who just happen to be close by – and they’re all happily reunited.

Brown and Wilson debate the ethics of technology.  Brown despairs about the way that scientific progress has ravaged the Earth and fears that the same thing will happen one day to Venus.  Wilson makes the logical point that without science they’d never have reached here in the first place.  Then Wilson reaches for a cigarette.  It’s somewhat jarring to see an astronaut having a quick puff (unless they were special space cigarettes) but then it was the early 1960’s.

The most entertaining part of the episode is poor Hamlet’s plight.  Trapped inside a flesh eating plant, it looks like curtains for the space-faring guinea pig.  Margaret doesn’t take this trauma at all well –  she’s frantic with worry as Conway manfully attempts to rescue Hamlet from within the flappy plant. Don’t worry, Hamlet fans, he eventually escapes unharmed.

The last few seconds give us our first sighting of a Venusian.  He’s lurking in the shadows somewhat, but think cave-man and you’ll be on the right track.

Morecambe & Wise: Two of a Kind to be released by Network – 5th December 2016

two.jpg

Morecambe & Wise: Two of a Kind  will be released by Network in December.

Morecambe and Wise, undoubtedly the best-loved double act that Britain has ever produced, first achieved their phenomenal television success in the early 1960s with this long-running hit series for ATV. Showcasing their mildly anarchic humour, impeccable sense of timing and keen eye for the absurd in a feast of uproarious sketches, onstage antics and musical entertainment, Two of a Kind propelled Morecambe and Wise towards superstardom in no uncertain terms.

Each show features fast-moving skits and musical parodies, with Eric and Ernie giving us their inimitable versions of television favourites Supercar, Face to Face and Candid Camera – in addition to memorable interpretations of key scenes from Macbeth and Hamlet, Eric’s ongoing battle to get his lines right in Samson and Delilah, and undoubtedly the most ambitious attempt ever seen to recreate the ‘fight sequence’ in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers! Among the many guest stars are Roy Castle, Joe Brown, Kathy Kirby, Susan Maughan, The Bachelors and Acker Bilk.

This eight disc set contains all 48 editions of Two of a Kind (aka The Morecambe and Wise Show) alongside a wealth of special features – including an exceptionally rare early performance from 1957, several appearances on Val Parnell’s Saturday Spectacular and the two surviving editions of Piccadilly Palace.

The Strange World of Gurney Slade – Episode Six

gurney 06

If the whole series of Gurney Slade has offered a sly meta-textual commentary on the artifice of television, then this is taken to its logical conclusion in the sixth and final episode.

A group of executives pay a visit to the studio to observe the recording of an episode of Gurney Slade.  The recursive show-withina-show nature of the series is once again highlighted, as we then meet all of the characters from previous episodes.  They aren’t actors though – they’ve been created by Gurney’s imagination and now protest that due to his lack of thought they’re unable to live full lives.

The only character traits they have are the ones provided by Gurney – their other likes and dislikes are unknown and unknowable.  The prosecutor (Douglas Wilmer) makes this clear when he tells him that “I submit, Gurney Slade that you are guilty of providing us with inadequate lives.”

Gurney doesn’t believe it’s his fault though.  “All fictitious characters are the same. They just do the bit that the author gave them. They’re not like real people.”  This is a nod to Pirandello’s 1921 play, Six Characters in Search of an Author, which depicted a group of characters who complain that their author hasn’t provided them with sufficiently rounded personalities and motivations.

But can Gurney help them?  There’s a sense that his time is coming to an end.  As the arguments between the characters are played out, a shadowy man in the production gallery notes that Gurney only has twenty minutes left (as the episode time counts down).  The same man is also able to control Gurney (without, it appears, Gurney being aware of this).

But Gurney does seem to understand that he’s as artifical as the rest.  He knows he was born in the studio six weeks ago and he also knows that someone’s coming to take him away.  The floor manager and the executives regard Gurney with the same dispassionate interest as the cameras and lights – to them, he’s just another piece of machinery.  Are they right?

As with previous episodes, there are sly comments about the television industry in general and this programme in particular.  Gurney is described to the executives as someone who “has a tendency to produce jokes nobody can understand. You pay it about five hundred a week and it’ll do practically anything.”

There are also moments that seem designed to touch upon Newley’s public and private personas.  For example, when he re-encounters the young girl (Anneke Wills) who fell in love with him in episode two, initially she’s still blindly in love with him.  But this is only because she (like the others) is a character defined by the character traits she’s been given by him.

When Gurney tells her that he pictured her aged eighteen or nineteen, she reacts to this by telling him that, in that case, he’s a little too old for her.  “Just think, when I’m thirty you’ll be forty. An old man!”  Newley and Wills would enjoy a relationship for several years following the recording of the series, but was there already something of a feeling of mid-life crisis in Newley’s psyche?  That sometime soon he’d find himself rejected by the younger women he desired?

Luckily for everybody (apart from Gurney) they’re offered new jobs by a gentleman from the Character Bureau.  The prosecutor, for example, lands a plumb role in Boyd QC (although he does grumble about typecasting) whilst Wills’ character looks aghast at having to take her clothes off in a French film.  Therefore every character seems to have been pigeonholed as archetypes, or stereotypes, depending on your point of view.

“Cue Anthony Newley”

With those words, the programme enters its final moments with an ending that’s as memorable and as weird as the final episode of The Prisoner (Fall Out).  But as touched upon before, when The Prisoner was transmitted (some seven years later) the sixties were well and truly swinging – back in 1960 it certainly wasn’t.  This makes Gurney Slade’s wild flights of fancy even more remarkable.

Although doomed to be a noble, but flawed, experiment, thanks to the 2011 Network DVD release The Strange World of Gurney Slade has gained something of a new audience.  It’s also probably the best visual showcase for the talents of Anthony Newley, whose later career was notable for its peaks and troughs.

Below is one of the trailers for the series, which is as idiosyncratic as you’d expect and offers a final, mocking, commentary on a short, but exceptional, series.

The Strange World of Gurney Slade – Episode Five

gurney 05

Gurney is entertaining a group of children with a tale about a magic tinker.  If they’re very good, he tells them, the tinker may visit and grant them a wish.  When they ask him exactly when the tinker will appear, Gurney is forced to admit that he may not arrive today – since Gurneyland (where he lives) is a long way, away.  Gurney then tells them that “the tinker is really symbolic. He’s an allegorical figure, who represents our innermost thoughts.”

He then explains a little more about Gurneyland.  It’s a place where any of your dreams can become true.  You want to be a great footballer, better than Stanley Matthews?  Or maybe the best singer in the world?  In Gurneyland, you can.

The recursive nature of the series is once more highlighted when Gurney asks one of the children why they didn’t stay inside and watch the television.  He’s told that “there’s nothing on. Just some bloke telling kids a story.”  Shortly afterwards, two partygoers Albert (Bernie Winters) and Veronica (Coral Fairweather) arrive.  And then a few minutes later, Gurney and the children are excited to see the tinker (Charles Lloyd-Pack).

Earlier, we saw Gurney explaining to the children that the tinker wasn’t real – but once he arrives (or at least someone who could be the magic tinker) Gurney is keen to see him demonstrate some of his magic.  Was he actually the magic tinker or just an ordinary tramp?  You’ll need to make your own minds up about that – although it’s not a vitally important point.

What is important is that everybody (the children, the tinker, plus Albert and Veronica) have taken a trip to Gurneyland – quite literally, as they all find themselves transported inside Gurney’s mind.  This is frustrating for Gurney, the point of his story was that Gurneyland is inside everybody (their own personal imagination).  So he’s a little upset to find so many people running amok inside his.

How to get them out?  Once he goes into his mind, he meets his dark side – a horned version of himself.  The bad Gurney suggests drinking and visits to scurrilous French films will instantly make the children want to leave.  Our Gurney is shocked by this and refuses (although at the end of the episode he realises it’s the only way to sort things out).

Gurney’s subconscious is divided into various rooms, such as the Depression Room, the Memory Room and the Common-Sense Room (the last one, he admits, isn’t used very often).  Wandering around his own psyche allows Green & Hills (and maybe Newley himself) to poke some fun at Newley’s public persona.  He admits he has “quite a big mind, but then they always said I had a big head.”

Later on, after he finds that many of the children have invited their parents to join them, he follows them and finds them all watching a version of himself.  He’s singing Strawberry Fair (which was a hit for Newley that year).  After the performance, “our” Gurney reflects that “I should have thought that would have driven them out” and critiquing his own performance he decides that ” I always had the impression I sang better than that.”

Like the previous episode, this is a very theatrical production.  Although the first half is meant to be set outside, it feels stagey and unrealistic (this is a clear production choice, had they wished to shoot on location there’s no reason why they couldn’t have done so).  Newley excels with his multiple personalities and he also plays well off the children.

Although there’s plenty of jokes along the way (such as an invisible elephant that takes a liking to Gurney) it also has some interesting things to say about good and evil, as well as the borderline between fantasy and reality.  It’s another deep and rich episode that covers a lot of ground during its twenty five minutes.

The Strange World of Gurney Slade – Episode Four

gurney 04

Gurney Slade is on trial.  “I did a television show recently and they didn’t think it was very funny.  I’m being charged with having no sense of humour.”  Given that by this time the series had been moved to a late-night slot (due to an alarming slump in viewing figures between the first and second episodes) this was a canny piece of prediction by Green, Hills and Newley.

Unlike the first three episodes, which were location based, this is shot entirely in the studio – which means that visually it obviously feels very different.  The courtroom set is quite basic – black drapes form the background, for example (giving a theatrical feel to proceedings).

When Gurney learns that the judge is the fairy-tale figure Princess Eleanor (who’s never laughed) he knows he’s got his work cut out.  Can he rely on his defending counsel, Archie?  Archie is a old-style music-hall comedian – modelled on the likes of Max Miller.  Possibly there’s something of Archie Rice (from John Osborne’s 1957 play, The Entertainer) in his style as well.  He offers a series of painfully unfunny jokes as part of Gurney’s defence, which makes Gurney believe he’d be better off defending himself.

The prosecuting counsel (a typically effective turn from Douglas Wilmer) is convinced of Gurney’s guilt and attempts to prove it by showing the jury a clip from one of his previous shows.  This is another self-reflective moment, as the clip is new – though it could have easily featured in one of the previous episodes.  We see Gurney sitting on a bus, musing about an advertisement showing a man who appears to be delighted about a new countersunk screw.

There then follows a series of arguments and counter-arguments about whether countersunk screws are funny or not.  An average family (the ones we saw in episode two) are called to the witness box.  The father says that the clip was clever.  Not funny, but clever.  The mother was less impressed.  “I didn’t understand what it was all about. Besides that, I don’t think it ought to be allowed. Bad for kids.”  As it turns out, that possibly wasn’t too far removed from the actual response of a good proportion of the audience.

With the jury being made up of twelve men dressed identically (in cloth caps and scarfs) it’s possible to sense a little contempt for the viewing audience.  This is a potentially difficult line to tread, but they seem to have got away with it (possibly because by this time, the people left watching had invested in the programme and its worldview).

Gurney interacts briefly with the jury – and they appear not to realise that he’s the one on trial.  When the foreman asks for a show of hands, Gurney is the only one who says not guilty.  He suggests they talk about it for a while (a clear nod to Twelve Angry Men).

If television is the main target in this episode, then the press aren’t immune either.  Before the jury come back with their verdict, Gurney is offered twenty thousand pounds for his life story.  He refuses, so the press turn to Leolia Plinge (“I will reveal everything.  I first met Gurney Slade at a beauty competition at Tufnell Park.”)

Gurney is found guilty – but he’s unable to be executed due to a problem with the axe.  It needs a countersunk screw to repair it, which makes the Princess laugh (and thereby gets Gurney off the hook).  It’s an ironic ending to an episode that, whilst it’s concerned with humour, isn’t particularly funny.

That’s not a criticism though.  There’s few laughs here, but it does have plenty of well-timed swipes at television makers, audiences, advertising and the media.  The stark setting and the minimal use of music helps to create a sense of tension and unease – which is unusual for a programme that’s supposed to be a comedy.  But by now it should be clear that Gurney Slade is a very unusual programme.

The Strange World of Gurney Slade – Episode Three

gurney 03a

The Strange World of Gurney Slade was a series of two halves.  The first three episodes were largely shot on location whilst the last three were studio bound.  Episode three finds Gurney in the countryside, musing that even though you may seem to be alone, you are always being observed by “bird’s eyes, cat’s eyes, sheep’s eyes, bull’s eyes, butterflies, customs and excise.”

Gurney begins by wondering exactly what life would be like in an ant colony.  He decides that he wouldn’t last very long – the life of a worker ant simply wouldn’t be for him.  Ants are able to carry approximately ten times their own body-weight – in human terms this would be akin to Gurney lugging around a grand piano (something he finds it hard to imagine).  This is a characteristically off-kilter opening to the episode – it’s hard to imagine many programmes that could feature Gurney’s internal monologue about industrious ants (although it’s possible to find an echo in the early series of Last of the Summer Wine, where plots took second place to inconsequential musings.  Although the three old boys never encountered any talking animals!).

Gurney later stops by a sign.  One way leads to Gurney Slade (such odd names they have in the countryside, he says) whilst the other points to Cuckold’s Comb.  Gurney Slade is a real place, of course.  Cuckold’s Comb is less so.

Episode three is probably the most fragmentary and plotless episode of Gurney Slade.  It’s also the one that has to be virtually carried by Newley alone – either via monologues with himself or by conversations with the various animals he meets along the way.  The most substantial encounter with another human being occurs when he encounters Napoleon (John Bennett) in a field (as you do).  Watch enough archive television and it’s almost certain that you’ll see the same actors again and again.  So only a few days after catching Bennett in the Cadfael story The Leper of St. Giles, here’s a chance to see him again (some thirty four years earlier).

Gurney wanders into a farm and has a lively conversation with a dog, who invites him to take a look around.  There’s a seperate plot which is developed between the farmer, his wife and a farmhand that pays off at the end – although it’s done with no dialogue and no interaction with Gurney.  He then chats to a cow (seductively voiced by Fenella Fielding) who tells him that she much prefers hand milking, as she points out to him that he probably wouldn’t like his “lactic glands stuffed into a vacuum cleaner.”

All in all, this is twenty five minutes that’s hard to adequately describe (and we haven’t even discussed the scarecrow who sings Greensleeves).  As we’ll see in the next episode, even at the time the show was being made it must have been clear that it probably wouldn’t be received with whole-hearted approval.

This one is probably the least engaging of the series, although it’s fair to say that the scattershot approach does generate more hits than misses.  But it’s only a slight dip, as episodes four to six are all very strong.  And it’s tempting to wonder if a young Patrick McGoohan was watching the final three and making notes ….

gurney 03b

The Strange World of Gurney Slade – Episode Two

gurney 02

In this second episode, Gurney ponders the delicate nature of relationships.  We open at a deserted airfield which quickly becomes (in his mind at least) a dance-hall.  He desperately wants to meet the right woman – but even if he did, what would he say?

He couldn’t just go up to her and ask her out, as they have to be introduced first – preferably at a nice cocktail party.  He then spies a gorgeous young girl (Anneke Wills, credited here as Annika Wills) and he eventually plucks up the courage to ask her to dance.  Except, interestingly he doesn’t.  Up until the point they start dancing, they don’t exchange a single word (although the audience has been privy to their, sometimes overlapping, thoughts).  And is she the love of his life?  After the dance she rejoins her friend and then exits from the story, so it doesn’t seem so.  Gurney mournfully considers that “you get nowhere if you don’t talk to them and yet you get the brush off if you do.”

This whole sequence shines a light on the rather repressed morals of late fifties and early sixties Britain.  But the irony is that Anthony Newley suffered from no such repression himself.  He enjoyed a well-deserved reputation as a womaniser – witness his relationship with Wills, which blossomed after the recording of this episode.  It led first to an abortion and then later to the birth of their daughter, Polly, in 1962 (which occurred at the time that Newley was considering ending his marriage to Ann Lynn so he could marry Joan Collins).

So if you know Newley’s history, it does give these scenes an extra frisson.  And it’s clear that the camera loves Wills’ delicate beauty and their bizarre (largely unspoken) meeting is all the more memorable for taking place in the middle of a desolate airfield.

The theme of love continues with the next sequence as Gurney meets a typical family – father, mother and three children.  He asks the husband, Frank (Edwin Richfield), if he feels that he married the right woman.  Or did he just marry the woman next door, the one he was expected to?  As with the airfield scene, this gently mocks the accepted values of the day.  As the sixties progressed, many things (including relationships) would change and become much more flexible (in a way that would have seemed unthinkable to most people in 1960). Again, this seems to foreshadow Newley’s own restless jump from one woman to another.  How much of Gurney Slade is actually Anthony Newley is an interesting, and unknowable, question.

After thinking it over, Frank decides that yes, he didn’t marry the love of his life – so he sets out to find her.  His wife doesn’t seem too concerned (plenty more fish in the sea) and she exits as well. This leaves Gurney with the children – a boy and girl (both aged about eight) and a baby in a pram.  Even for a series with such a tenuous grip on reality, it’s a little jarring to see the children abandoned.  But Gurney doesn’t seem to mind and he starts a lively conversation with the baby (who seems to be incredibly articulate for an infant).  He still believes in Santa Claus and fairies though – though Gurney tells him that there are no such things.

In the world of Gurney Slade, anything can happen – and a real-life fairy (Hugh Paddick) appears and grants them a wish.  This transports them to a rubbish tip which is strewn with parts of female mannequins.  He suggests to the children that they select the best parts and make a mother.  There’s something rather creepy about this – the stark black and white photography definitely helps to create a vague sense of unease.

In the end though, all is well as the children are reunited with their mother and father.  So what was the moral of the story?  Gurney ends by spouting a deliberately nonsensical series of proverbs, so we can assume that the story had no meaning.  Frank didn’t find his ideal woman and he seems happy to settle for the one he has.  And Gurney’s back in his imaginary dance-hall, looking for another woman to trip the light fantastic with.

The Strange World of Gurney Slade – Episode One

gurney 01

The Strange World of Gurney Slade was a programme that came and went very quickly – just six episodes, broadcast in 1960 – but in retrospect it’s a show that had a strong influence on some notable people and programmes (especially David Bowie and Patrick McGoohan’s The Prisoner).

At the time, Anthony Newley was a hot property.  He’d been acting since the 1940’s (including a memorable turn as the Artful Dodger in David Lean’s 1948 film version of Olivier Twist) and by the late 1950’s had also enjoyed a string of hit singles.  So a half-hour comedy series seemed to be the next logical move.

Gurney Slade was anything but logical though.  It’s a bizarre, surrealist trip through Newley’s psyche that appeared to totally wrong-foot the viewing audience, who were no doubt expecting something much more straightforward.  The muted critical response and poor viewing figures relegated the last few episodes to a graveyard slot and after the sixth and final episode limped out there were no calls to commission a second series.

The series was written by Sid Green and Dick Hills, although it’s tempting to assume that Newley himself had a considerable input in shaping the content of the show.  Green and Hills would become well known during the 1960’s as scriptwriters for Morecambe & Wise, but whilst their material was always solid (for example, they wrote the classic Grieg Skech, later remade with Andre Previn) it rarely displayed the flights of fancy seen in Gurney Slade.

What’s really remarkable about the series is that it was made in 1960.  Had it appeared later in the decade, then such a reflective, self-aware programme would have fitted in better with the overall television landscape.  But when you consider the type of programmes on offer in 1960, it makes Gurney Slade seem even more out of time.

Is it funny?  Well, it doesn’t offer many laugh-out-loud moments, but it’s wry and witty and it certainly isn’t predictable.  It’s unashamedly a star vehicle for Newley, who although he’s all but forgotten today, was a major star at the time.  His influence can best be seen in the career of the young David Bowie, who during the 1960’s copied Newley’s style almost perfectly.

Episode One sets out immediately to confound the audience’s expectations.  We open on a typical family living room, the Pagets, who have just moved into their new home .  We see the wife ironing, the son doing his homework and the mother-in-law unpacking.  Albert Paget (Newley) is sitting in an armchair, but it’s clear that something isn’t right – he appears to be disconnected from the events unfolding around him.  More visitors appear – the lodger and the man next door.  Every character (apart from Albert) is a clearly defined archetype and the dialogue is laboured and not terribly interesting.

After a moment, Albert gets up and puts on his coat.  He declines to answer the question about whether he’d like a nice egg for his tea, which throws everybody else into confusion.  The question is repeated sotto-voce several times, obviously in the hope that he’ll go back on script, but that doesn’t happen.  He walks out – and we see that the room is nothing more than a studio-set.  Newley strides past the cameras, the bewildered floor manager (Geoffrey Palmer) and escapes into the real world.  So he becomes Gurney Slade.

It’s a comprehensive “breaking the fourth wall moment”.  And things just get odder as he encounters objects and animals that can talk.  He picks up a stone and is about to launch it into the river when the stone asks him politely not to.  He then has a chat with a dog, who tells him that he likes Lassie but has little time for Rin-Tin-Tin.  When he picks up a newspaper without paying, the headline reads “Can’t You Afford Twopence Halfpenny”.

Later, he becomes enchanted with a poster that depicts a model advertising the Klean-o hoover.  The model (Una Stubbs) comes to life and he follows her down the street.  Interestingly, we also see a bystander watch him and he only sees Gurney – but not the girl.  This implies that whatever Gurney Slade sees, it’s only seen by him (and the audience of course).

With the notion that anything can happen, it’s a busy twenty-five minutes.  Most of Newley’s dialogue is prerecorded and then played in to simulate his thoughts.  This method is also used when he actually speaks and therefore it means that his words never quite match his lip movements.  This is another device that helps to give the programme a slightly off-kilter feeling.

At the end, Gurney returns to his sit-com family from the opening scene, only to find that they’ve been watching him all the time.  Although he escaped from the television studio, it’s clear that he’s still part of it.  He glumly admits that “I’m a walking television show. I can’t get away from them. Big Brother is watching me, and Big Dad and Big Mum. The whole family’s watching me. I’m like a goldfish in a bowl.”

Two episodes of At Last The 1948 Show found

at last

The news that two episodes of At Last The 1948 Show have been discovered in David Frost’s personal archive is, of course, very welcome news – as is the fact that they will receive a public screening in December as part of the BFI’s annual Missing Believed Wiped celebration.

Although At Last has sometimes been considered chiefly notable for being a clear precursor to Monty Python, it stands up extremely well in its own right. Written by and starring John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Tim Brooke-Taylor and Marty Feldman, the series also featured Aimi Macdonald.

Some of the already existing material, such as the four Yorkeshiremen sketch, would be instally familiar to Monty Python fans as it remained a staple of their live sets, right up to their farewell gigs at the O2 earlier this year.

The question now is, will these episodes together with the rest of the series, finally receive a worthy DVD release? The previously existing material surfaced on this DVD nearly a decade ago. Since it’s the only commercial way to own the series it was a must buy, although there are several problems with it.

Firstly, the picture quality is very poor. This is because the episodes have been sourced from very ropey looking teleecordings. Restoration could clean them up nicely, but the issue seems to be that whilst a company called Archbuild now owns the copyright of the Rediffusion archive, they don’t actually own the physical recordings.

Ideally, it would be wonderful for a company like Network to issue a release, such as their Incomplete and Utter History Of Britain. Maybe, thanks to the publicity generated by these two rediscovered episodes, the tangled question of copyright and ownership can be resolved and we’ll finally get the DVD the series deserves. One interesting point is that the BFI press release (link at bottom of the post) mentions they have been restoring the material of At Last which they hold. For a possible DVD release maybe?

The other major problem with the existing DVD is that it’s compiled from a series of Swedish compilations and therefore doesn’t flow in the way the original programmes would have done. The following list was compiled by Matthew K. Sharp and it shows what material was used to source the episodes on the DVD –

Episode One
2.5 choir won’t sing hymns
2.5 psychiatrist
2.5 secret service cleaner
??? the nasty way
2.1 reptile keeper swallowed by snake
2.6 chartered accountant dance
2.6 four yorkshiremen

Episode Two
1.6 televisione italiano presenta – let’s speak english
1.5 top of the form
2.1 doctor trying to sell things
2.1 thief hiding in public library
2.1 come dancing

Episode Three
??? musical item
1.4 someone has stolen the news
2.4 topic – freedom of speech
2.7 railway carriage
2.4 repeats report
2.4 tour through a live programme

Episode Four
1.2 opening
1.2 foggy spain link
1.2 four sydney lotterbys
1.3 visitors for the use of
1.3 sleep starvation
1.3 mice laugh softly, charlotte
1.4 jack the ripper
1.4 plain clothes police(wo)men

Episode Five
2.2 opening
2.2 shirt shop
2.2 the nosmo claphanger show
2.2 insurance
2.4 uncooperative burglars
2.2 rowdy scottish ballet supporters

Ideally, any future DVD would present the sketches in the correct order. This would mean some episodes would run short since various episodes are incomplete, but that would be better than the somewhat random nature of the above compilations.

Time will tell on that score, but at the very least it’s to be hoped that these two episodes will make their way into the public domain, as finding archive gems like these does seem somewhat pointless if they’re then locked away from public view.

PDF of the BFI press release concerning the rediscovery.

Update Sep 2015 – Another two episodes have been found which means that we’re getting close to having a complete run of the series (series one episode one only has about five minutes of footage in existence whilst a couple of other episodes have small amounts of material missing).  Radio Times article on the new discoveries here.