At Last The 1948 Show – BFI DVD Review

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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.

Sez Les – Series Three

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Broadcast during August and September 1971 and running to a measly four editions, series three of Sez Les clips along at a fair rate of knots (although Dawson himself is in short supply). This is due to the fact that he has to share the stage with regular acts The Skylarks (a rather decent vocal harmony group) and the Syd Lawrence Orchestra as well as a number of guest performers. With each edition only running for twenty five minutes, there’s a fair amount to be crammed in …

The formula tends to run as follows. After the Syd Lawrence Orchestra and the Skylarks have welcomed him to the stage, Dawson kicks off proceedings with a short monologue (returning in the second half with a longer monologue). Each edition has a single sketch with the remainder of the time being taken up with the guest performers as well as spots for the Skylarks and the Syd Lawrence Orchestra (who close proceedings). The final two editions also have some brief film inserts, showing Dawson interacting with ordinary members of the public.

Luckily I have an almost unquenchable thirst for 1970’s LE, so the number of musical performers isn’t really a problem for me. But for those who are interested in seeing more of Dawson, you might be advised to skip ahead to one of the later series (plus the arrival of David Nobbs helped to sharpen the series’ comedy sensibilities quite markedly).

Guest wise, Manitas De Plata strums a mean Spanish guitar, Dana has a very credible stab at a George Harrison song (Isn’t It A Pity), Frank Ifield warbles in an entertaining fashion, Anita O’Day jazzes things up (her obituary makes for interesting reading) whilst Georgie Fame and Alan Price are good value in the final edition, as is Kathy Kirby. For those familiar with other LE programmes of this era (such as The Two Ronnies or The Morecambe & Wise Show) many of those names will be familiar.

Brian Glover assists Dawson with the sketches seen in the first two editions – the second (Dawson as an extremely nervous dentist attempting to remove Glover’s tooth) being the better of the two. It’s not subtle, but it’s good fun. After leaving Monty Python John Cleese would become a Sez Les regular, but it’s slightly more surprising to see him pop up here in a couple of brief sketches.

It’s likely Cleese recorded his contributions in something of a hurry. The train sketch in show three should have been tailor-made for him, but it’s rather thrown away and there’s little bite to his reactions of Dawson’s improbably dressed Highlander – complete with caber! The second sketch with Cleese is rather better (it also switches from VT to film in a way that’s almost Pythonlike).

Maybe the budget for the last few episodes was a little greater. In addition to this brief film insert, Dawson also went out and about on the streets, ensnaring unsuspecting members of the public with hidden camera stunts. Presumably these gags were real and not staged (although since Dawson had been a television regular for a few years it’s surprising nobody seemed to recognise him).

Producer/Director David Mallet had worked with Dawson before on Joker’s Wild. Knowing that Mallet would later pursue a career as a top music promo director (Queen and David Bowie were amongst his clients) it’s interesting to look back at his early work to see if there’s any visual flair in evidence. For Joker’s Wild, probably not – but then it was a rather static sort of series (the main highlight being a wobbly camera zoom into Barry Cryer at the start of the show).

He had more to work with during Sez Les though and the Syd Lawrence interludes do have some fast intercutting and unusual camera angles, suggesting that Mallet was interested in shaking up the visual grammar of this type of show.

Not a rib-tickling 100 minutes then, but entertaining nonetheless. As my occasional rewatch continues, it’ll be interesting to see the point at which the series began to grow. Several changes – increasing the running time, dropping the musical acts for a while – helped to shake the format up.

Doctor Who – City of Death. Episode Four

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Both the Doctor and Scarlioni have one last encounter with the Countess, although Scarlioni’s is rather more deadly. The Doctor once again switches from playful joshing to a more serious persona in a (double) heartbeat.  Tom’s in full pop-eyed form here.  Whereas the Count once again gets to show his true features, which comes as something of a surprise to his wife ….

This is another of those odd moments. The Egyptian scroll depicting a splinter of Scaroth had white skin with a green blobby face – was this a touch of artistic licence, or are all Scaroth’s splinters like that?  It would make undressing a little easier, as surely otherwise the Countess would have noticed that her husband was not as other men.  There’s the possibility that they shared separate bedrooms, but the way that the Countess went on the hunt for the Count at the end of the first episode implies otherwise.

I also have another burning question – how did Scaroth manage to make face masks throughout time and why did he always use the same face?  I’d have assumed he’d have wanted a touch of variety.

John Cleese and Eleanor Bron pop up briefly and are excellent. But everybody knows that.

There’s a chance to luxuriate with Ian Scoones’ modelwork again as the story reaches its conclusion. Unlike the cut-price effects on, say, Nightmare of Eden, there’s no scrimping here – film, instead of videotape, was used and the difference is quality is startlingly obvious.

For once, Duggan’s propensity for hitting everything that moves turns out to be a good thing. It’s another gag moment, but it works – although the following brief scene (as Scarlioni returns to 1979) has always seemed to be something of a bodge.  Possibly the clock was ticking ever closer to ten o’clock, which meant that something had to be cobbled together.  What we have – a brief shot of Scaroth and Hermann, an even briefer explosion and then an abrupt jump cut to the Doctor and Romana saying farewell to Duggan – is a little disorientating.

DUGGAN: Where do you two come from?
DOCTOR: From? Well, I suppose the best way to find out where you’ve come from is to find out where you’re going and then work backwards.
DUGGAN: Where are you going?
DOCTOR: I don’t know.

They don’t make them like this anymore. Indeed, they didn’t really make them like this back then, which is all the more reason why City of Death should be savoured.  Because it’s like a fine wine, with an attractive bouquet, etc, etc …

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The Two Ronnies – Series One, Show Eight

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Original Transmission – 29th May 1971

Written by Eric Idle, Spike Mullins, David Nobbs, Peter Vincent, Dick Vosburgh, Gerald Wiley. Additional material by Gary Chambers, Tony Hare, David McKellar.

Introduction/News Items
Doctor’s Sketch
Tina Charles – Remember Me
Ronnie B Solo – Statistics
Hampton Wick – Episode Eight
Class Sketch (with John Cleese)
New World – Tom Tom Turnaround
Ronnie C in the Chair
Christening Sketch
Big Jim Jehosophat and Fat Belly Jones

Notes: I rather like this news item. “The world’s greatest jigsaw puzzle designer was divorced today after his wife found he was keeping a piece on the side.”

No party sketch, instead it’s a sketch with Ronnie B as a doctor and Ronnie C as a patient who complains of not being there all the time (and promptly vanishes). He also tells the doctor that he gets this floating feeling sometimes and – via the magic of CSO – does just that. A fairly indifferent effort, although Cheryl Kennedy as a nurse with a very short skirt provides a brief moment of interest.

For only the second time, Tina Charles is up before New World. For this final show she tackles Diana Ross’ Remember Me. New World bid us farewell with their biggest UK hit, Tom Tom Turnaround, which made the top ten.

Ronnie B is in his familiar spokesman guise, this time as a Statistician. “A recent survey conduced in Bolton has proved conclusively that 10 out of 10 people who live in Bolton, live in Bolton. Although 3 out of 10 people who live in Bolton think they live in Birmingham. On further questioning, 5 out of 10 people agreed with us, agreed with us that they agreed with us. Of the remaining 5, 5 out of 10 remained out of the 10 from which the 5 out of 10 who agreed with us that they agreed with us remained.”

Hampton Wick concludes in a rather recursive way, with Henrietta waking up in 1971 after a long illness, realising that everything she’d experienced had been nothing but a dream. But Barker and Corbett, playing themselves, happen to be sitting on a bench outside the hospital, and after they see her leave both decide she’d be perfect for their show …

There’s another Class Sketch with John Cleese but once again there’s no speciality act. Double boo!

After Ronnie C in the chair and a christening sketch (Ronnie B as a vicar, Ronnie C and Cheryl Kennedy as parents who are surprised to find their baby is Chinese) we end as we began, with Big Jim Jehosophat and Fat-Belly Jones.

Although series one was a pretty mixed bag, the Python influence (and the appearances of John Cleese) make it pretty noteworthy. There might have been the odd production misstep, but even this early on the formula of the show is pretty much set in stone. That’s not a criticism, as whilst Python and Q might have delighted in unpredictability, there’s also a place for a series which delivers precisely what the audience expects and rarely lets them down – and The Two Ronnies is a perfect example of that.

The Two Ronnies – Series One, Show Six

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Original Transmission – 15th May 1971

Written by Spike Mullins, David Nobbs, Peter Vincent, Gerald Wiley. Additional material by Garry Chambers, Tony Hare, David McKellar

Introduction/News Items
Party Sketch – Trends (with John Cleese)
New World
Ronnie B Solo – Appeal on behalf of the very clumsy
Hampton Wick – Episode Six
Class Sketch (with John Cleese)
Tina Charles – Got To Get You Into My Life
Ronnie C in the Chair
Wasta
Musical Number- Elizabeth Aa Ha
Outro

Notes: The party sketch simply screams early seventies. There’s a variety of bizarre fashions (Ronnie B has to be seen to be believed) whilst attractive women lounge around in hotpants.  A poster of Che Guevara on the wall is further evidence that it’s a hip and happening joint. The only person not hip and happening seems to be Ronnie C, dressed in a normal suit, but he’s doing his best to try and be in with the new scene, telling the others that jumping up and down is the latest, fun thing.

No-one else seems impressed with this as the sketch – a sly swipe at fashion and trends – continues. It’s only when a new guest appears (John Cleese) and starts doing Ronnie C’s hopping that it instantly becomes accepted. Nice to see Cleese, who pops up again later.

New World are standing up this week with a slightly more uptempo foot-tapper. But if they’re still operating in fairly gentle territory, which might lull some into a sense of slumber, there’s no chance of dozing when Tina Charles is around. She belts out the Beatles’ Got To Get You Into My Life with the sort of full-hearted gusto that’s already become her trademark, six shows in.

Ronnie B is in his element as a very clumsy man making an appeal on behalf of others equally afflicted. “I myself to tend to knock over the occasional table. In fact, last month I knocked over five occasional tables.” Although Barker never liked to appear as himself before an audience, once in character he was in total command.  This is seen here after an onscreen caption causes a little titter amongst the audience and slightly throws him off his stride. But he’s able to say “thank you” and carry on, keeping in character all the time.

Next, there’s a reprise of the famous Frost Report sketch featuring Cleese, Barker and Corbett as examples of  the upper, middle and lower class members of society. As with the original, it’s Ronnie C who gets all the laughs whilst the other two play his straight men.

Wasta is this week’s speciality act. He’s a physical drunk act and is rather good (not a great many other credits I can find, apart from a few appearances in The Good Old Days, which would make sense – it’s the sort of non verbal comedy that would work well there).

The closing musical number is an Elizabethan costume drama set to music. Ronnie B as Queen Elizabeth I fairly takes the breath away, although Ronnie C’s Sir Francis Drake (sporting a very modern pair of glasses) is equally as eye-catching. Mind you, this sketch is probably best known for the impressive entry of John Owens.

Owens was a very dependable Two Rons performer (chalking up many credits between this one and their final Christmas special in 1987). He should have come running in and then slid to a kneeling position, but possibly the floor was a little too slippery, which meant he ended up on his backside. Ronnie B just about keeps it together, although the extras in the background are less restrained. They could have gone for another take, but since it’s a nice moment (the audience always likes to see a few fluffs and mishaps) it wasn’t surprising they kept it in.

Six Dates with Barker – 1971: Come In and Lie Down

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After the disappointment of Lola, things take an upward turn again with Come In and Lie Down.  Doctor Swanton (Barker) is a brusque, seen-it-all psychiatrist who’s possibly met his match with Mr Matting (Michael Bates).  Matting’s tale of being observed all the time by a small man in a Robin Hood hat with binoculars seems like a typical sort of delusion, but then Swanton sees the man as well ….

Since it’s scripted by John Cleese, it’s possibly no surprise that it has a definite Python feel (for example, Reginald Maulding is namechecked).  Bates gives an energised performance as a man who has an intense fear of being labelled a looney.  To this end, when he first enters Swanton’s consulting room he pretends to be the gas man, sympathising about the difficulties Swanton must face.  “Blimey, what a job eh? Talking to loonies all day. Wouldn’t catch me being a psychiatrist, not me. I’ll stick to gas. A load of nutters aren’t they? In here, hopping around on one leg, squawking, think they’re Napoleon.”

Bates, best known for Last of the Summer Wine and It ‘Aint Half Hot Mum, freewheels in a most impressive fashion.  To begin with, it appears that he has the more showy role (Barker comes off as rather pallid in comparison).  But once Swanton believes he can also see Matting’s imaginary man, the power dynamic between the pair subtly shifts and Swanton begins to act in a hysterical fashion.  Matting is rather irritated when Swanton declares Matting isn’t a looney.  “Oh that’s nice isn’t it? If I can see him he’s imaginary but if you can see him he’s real. I get it. You think you’re Lord God Almighty don’t you? If a patent can see something you can’t see, he’s a looney, he should be down on the funny farm, but if Doctor Smartypants can see him, he’s there mate.”

The reveal of the imaginary man (Ian Trigger) is done subtly, as for a few minutes the audience is aware of him, but neither Swanton or Matting react.  As Matting’s used to him being there all the time that’s understandable, but are we viewing the scene through his eyes only?  It’s only when Swanton double-takes that the fun really starts.

Swanton’s mounting hysteria is a gift for Barker, who doesn’t disappoint.  The conclusion, as all three debate the nature of existence, is also nicely handed.  After Swanton proves that the imaginary man is real, Matting is able to leave a happy man – safe in the knowledge that he isn’t a looney.  You can see the final story-beat coming a mile off, but it’s really the only obvious punchline.

Given how the early series of The Two Ronnies recycled material from their time at LWT, it’s easy to see  a cut-down version of this working as a sketch, with Ronnie C taking the role of Michael Bates (despite the twenty five minute length, it’s played very much in the tempo of a typical Two Ronnies sketch).  It’s certainly one that still stands up well today.

Fawlty Towers – The Hotel Inspectors

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Fawlty Towers is as close to sitcom perfection as you can get.  If one were being picky then you could say that the second series does have one sub-par effort (The Anniversary) but this is only because the other eleven were so good.

There are several obvious reasons as to why the series clicked from the start (even if the public and critical feedback for series one was a little muted to begin with).  These include the scripts by John Cleese and Connie Booth and the four regulars (Cleese, Booth, Scales, Sachs).

But equally important were the guest casts.  Basil Fawlty has to have strong characters to interact with, otherwise his manic personality ends up unbalancing the show.  Strong characters require good actors though, but Fawlty Towers never had a problem in acquiring the best comic actors around.

Joan Sanderson, Geoffrey Palmer and Bruce Boa were amongst those who were able to stand toe-to-toe with Cleese.  Some sitcom stars (especially if they were the co-writer as well) may have found themselves threatened by having to share the screen with experienced old pros (there’s plenty of evidence down the years to suggest that certain actors hated to have the limelight shone on anyone but themselves).  Cleese had a refreshing lack of ego on this score though and never seemed worried that others may get bigger laughs than him.

The Hotel Inspectors has one of the series’ most recognisable guest stars.   Bernard Cribbins (b. 1928) remains a national treasure.  He first came to prominence in the 1960’s with a number of film appearances (several Carry Ons, The Wrong Arm of the Law with Peter Sellers, etc).  In the 1970’s he became a children’s favourite, narrating The Wombles and making regular appearances on Jackanory.  He continues to act, probably his most high-profile recent credit was as Wilfred Mott in Doctor Who.

Mr Hutchinson (Cribbins) has arrived for a stay at Fawlty Towers.  His profession is a bit of a mystery but Basil, getting the wrong end of the stick, mistakenly believes that he’s a hotel inspector.

If Basil was rude to every guest who walked through the door then it would be amusing, but the joke would wear thin pretty quickly.  The genius of Cleese and Booth’s scripting is that Basil is a man of many and varied prejudices, which then informs us about which guests he favours or disfavours.  If you’re a member of the promiscuous society, for example, you’ll attract Basil’s ire, but a titled or professional person is guaranteed a much easier ride.

To begin with, Mr Hutchinson irritates Basil, mainly because of the way he talks.

Mr. Hutchinson: There is a documentary on BBC2 this evening about Squawking Bird, the leader of the Blackfoot Indians in the late 1860s. Now this starts at 8.45 and goes on for approximately three-quarters of an hour.
Basil: I’m sorry, are you talking to me?
Mr. Hutchinson: Indeed I am, yes. Now is it possible for me to reserve the BBC2 channel for the duration of this televisual feast?
Basil: Why don’t you talk properly?
Mr. Hutchinson: I beg your pardon?
Basil: No it isn’t.
Mr. Hutchinson: What?
Basil: It is not possible to reserve the BBC2 channel from the commencement of this televisual feast until the moment of the termination of its ending thereof, thank you so much.

The sudden gear-change which occurs when Basil believes Hutchinson to be a hotel inspector is a lovely moment.  From indifference and contempt, Basil quickly becomes the perfect host.  But even when Basil’s trying his best, things never quite work out (witness the saga of the omelette) and like every other week his house of cards slowly collapses until he’s left humiliated and isolated.  This sounds a little bleak, but luckily for us Basil always seems to recover from whatever crushing reversal he’s received in order to do battle the following week.