Monty and Me

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October 5th1969 was a cool and misty autumn Sunday – I remember it like it was yesterday, rather than 50 years ago. In the late afternoon I went to visit my cousin, who was in a local hospital after an unfortunate accident. We were both fans of TV comedy – Not Only, But Also (BBC, 1965-70) and At Last the 1948 Show (Rediffusion, 1967) were particular favourites – and I told him there was a new programme starting that night on BBC1 which looked interesting. It had some excellent names involved – above all, John Cleese, who, through his radio and TV work had become a firm favourite of us both.

 

At 10.55pm my father and I sat down to watch it – the next day was the start of the school week, so this was quite late. The show opened on a seashore. A man emerged from the gentle waves and slowly made his way to the beach. He was wearing torn clothes andUnknown-4 had a straggling beard – the classic image of a castaway. He falteringly dragged himself towards the camera, collapsed and looked up into the lens – we knew this was comedy and could hear the audience laughter, so we prepared ourselves for the traditional laugh line, which was surely about to be delivered. But all he said was……….”It’s”.

 

There then followed a sequence of surreal animated images incorporating the opening title, with Cleese’s unmistakable tones calmly announcing that it was, indeed, Monty Python’s Flying Circus. But, back in the studio, things were still not going as anticipated. A presenter (Graham Chapman) took his seat and a pig squealed, at which point one of a Unknown-2line of drawn pigs on a blackboard was crossed out. This became a running gag throughout the show, both in the sketches and the animations which interrupted them and (sometimes) linked them. A number of parodies of arts programmes made up the bulk of the show and the laughs began to flow (particularly, from me, at the unfortunate Arthur “Two Sheds” Jackson). At the end, we got an extended sketch which seemed to be on more familiar ground – a parody of World War II movies, in which the British were developing a killer joke, that would not have been out of place in the Goon Show.

 

Finally, the castaway was prodded back into life and made his way back into the sea as the end credits rolled, incongruously giving the title of the episode as “Whither Canada?” (many years later, I won a set of Python scripts in a competition in the Independent newspaper for knowing this subtitle, a well as the line of the Lumberjack Song following “I cut down trees, I skip and jump, I like to press wild flowers” – answer at the foot of this blog). We were not to know at the time, but this was one of what became very rare occasions when the opening titles started the show and the end credits closed it, as Python began its constant parodying and flouting of television conventions.

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To be honest, I wasn’t really sure what to make of that first episode. I hadn’t laughed as much as I had expected, but I had most certainly been intrigued by its bold experimentation and I knew I would be back for more. And was I ever back – back for good and for ever! And did I ever start to laugh – often uncontrollably and until it hurt and I couldn’t hear the next line. And, as that first series progressed, so the team began to develop the seamless flow of material, linked by Terry Gilliam’s brilliant animations, which became their trademark. Before long, we were getting episodes which were coherent and integrated works of genius, rather than a collection of outstanding and hilarious sketches.

Python hit me at just the right time – between finishing at school and starting at University. It was ideal fare for the student – intelligent and anarchic – and one of the first things I joined in my freshman year was the Oxford University Monty Python Appreciation Society (OUMPAS). I wasn’t one for going on street demonstrations (very images-1popular amongst students in the early 70s) but I did take part in the OUMPAS Silly Walk through the streets of Oxford. My walk was not particularly silly and could certainly have done with a government grant to develop it, but then it would have taken a lot of effort to be really silly over the distance involved. I bought all the long-playing records (the only way of re-experiencing the show at the time) and played them over and over, memorizing both the words and the inflections by osmosis. I can still give you all the cheeses from the Cheese Shop sketch, in the correct order.

 

Later on, my career as a television archivist gave me opportunities to be more than just a fan. I met all the Pythons apart, alas, from Graham. As the BBC TV Archivist, I was able to ensure that series 2 episode 13 was reconstituted as originally transmitted (with the Undertaker Sketch at the end) when the BBC Library only contained the re-edited version. When I was at the BFI, recovering lost episodes of At Last the 1948 Show brought me into contact with John, while I was able to work closely with Terry J on restoring lost material from The Complete and Utter History of Britain (LWT, 1969), recovered on an obsolete videotape format which only we could play. Terry G was a governor of the BFI while I was there, Michael a visitor to our Conservation Centre on one of his less exotic travels and Eric a guest at a National Film Theatre event.

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On the 25th anniversary in 1994, I went into a central London studio on a Sunday lunchtime to do a live satellite interview about the significance of the show on (appropriately) Canadian (CBC) breakfast television. They asked me to say that the UnknownArgument Sketch was my favourite, because that’s what they had a clip of. Fortunately, it was, indeed, one of my very favourites, so I was able to eulogise without argument. The interview was just five minutes rather than the full half-hour.

 

As I said in an earlier blog (Ten TV Programmes that “Made Me”, Aug 6 2018) my entire world outlook has been influenced by Monty Python’s Flying Circus – my general air of flippancy, of not taking anything too seriously, of always immediately looking for the funny side of any situation, the cheerful atheism, the always looking on the bright side;  and, just as so much of our language contains phrases and sayings that originate in Shakespeare, so barely a day goes by without my regular discourse containing something that can be traced back to Python, whether in conversation or commenting on Facebook or this blog. For me, personally, it is the most important television show I ever saw.

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And the answer to the second question in that Independent quiz is: “I put on women’s clothing and hang around in bars”. As if you didn’t already know.

 

 

Ten TV Programmes that “Made Me”

A few weeks ago, I was tagged to take part in one of those Facebook games where you have to create a cultural list over 10 days. It may be favourite books, it may be films or other things. In this case it was the TV programmes which “made me” – which I interpreted as being those with the greatest influence on my life, rather than my all-time top ten. I chose to take a chronological approach, spreading the choices fairly evenly across the decades, and explained my choice in each case. I am reproducing my posts below as I wrote them, partly because they make a reasonably coherent narrative, but mainly because there is so little currently on TV that I want to blog about, so I might as well re-cycle something I’ve already written. My first blog on this site, 11 months ago, was about last year’s “glorious summer” of great TV shows. This summer, by contrast, is a drought, both literally and televisually, so let me take you back through time instead…..

Day 1

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It’s November 23rd 1963 and the 10-year-old me is really at a loose end. Somebody important was shot in America yesterday and all my favourite Friday night programmes, even Bootsie and Snudge, were cancelled! Things aren’t much better today, but there’s a new programme starting at teatime which looks intriguing, so I’ll give it a go. That new programme, Doctor Who, expanded my imagination like nothing on television had done before. There was mystery and menace in every dark corner of the monochrome screen. I was hooked for the rest of the sixties, through the Hartnell and Troughton years (I still think Troughton is the best Doctor, though Capaldi came close). I rather drifted away from it after that, but then it became a professional concern when, as the BBC’s TV Archivist, I became involved in the search for missing episodes in the 1980s (with some success, including some of the earliest dalek episodes). And, of course, I’ve been a fan since it was revived by Russell T.Davies earlier this century. It is one of three titles on my list first transmitted in 1963/4 which have been with me throughout my life and are still going strong. I will post about the second one tomorrow but leave the third (which is very dear to me) until the end of my list.

Day 2

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Today’s choice is my TV equivalent of comfort food – a programme which I have watched (and occasionally fallen asleep in front of) most Saturday nights since I first caught the football bug in the mid-sixties (and that’s “soccer” to my American friends!). It’s a bug I have never shaken off – in fact, the infection becomes more severe with every passing year. Through it all, MOTD has been a constant – the familiar theme tune, the presenters (Kenneth, David, Jimmy, Des and Gary), the commentators (Motty), the pundits (Hansen, Shearer) the “goal of the month” competition. The quality of the coverage has developed, but the format stays much the same. It’s officially the longest running football programme in the world. My favourite period? – probably the seventies, when it was the closing part of the legendary BBC1 Saturday night schedule. My favourite edition? – has to be the one when the Bees led the show thanks to an FA Cup upset over Premier League opposition. I just can’t wait until we reach the Premier League (as we will) and feature every week!

Day 3

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Today, “It’sssss…….” – the big one! The one programme which I would say “made me” more than any other. If I was doing this by importance rather than chronologically, this would be top. Just as so much of our language contains phrases and sayings that originate in Shakespeare, so barely a day goes by without my regular discourse containing something that can be traced back to Python, whether in conversation or commenting on Facebook. You may have noticed – maybe not. But it doesn’t stop there. My entire world outlook is influenced by this show – my general air of flippancy, of not taking anything too seriously, of always immediately looking for the funny side of any situation, the cheerful atheism, the always looking on the bright side. It hit me at exactly the right time, between reaching the end of my school days and going on to university. I was never one for going on street demos, but I did take part in a mass “silly walk” through the streets of Oxford. I had been a big TV comedy fan throughout the sixties, especially things like Not Only, But Also, but this was on a whole new level. At times, I laughed so much it was painful, and so much of it still gives that reaction. The first season was a revelation from the start, but the gradual development of the stream of consciousness style throughout that run is what made it so compelling. If I have a favourite sketch it may be the argument, which is pure poetry, as well as being one of the many Cleese/Palin highlights. So, time’s up….No it isn’t!

Day 4

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So, it’s late 1973 and I am into the final year of my degree in Modern History – there are some wonderful lectures by the great historian AJP Taylor on the Second World War. But then a mammoth TV documentary series arrives which presents the same serious history in a way that is so much more compelling and direct than any book or lecture could be. I’d like to tell you that, in that moment, I resolved to spend a life’s career working in film and television archives, but it wouldn’t be true. Nevertheless, the seed was sown and after I had embarked on that course some five years later, I never lost any opportunity to cite TheWorld at War as an inspiration. It remains the beacon in terms of the use of archive material – research, selection, correct presentation and attribution – something which became a bit of a professional obsession to me, to the extent that I would bore my fellow Peabody jurors to tears over it in later years. It was the work of many fine historians, writers and producers, but the guiding hand was that of a TV hero of mine – Jeremy Isaacs, who ran the programme department of Thames TV, one of our major commercial broadcasters, as though it were a PSB and then invented the ethos of Channel 4. I was fortunate to be the organiser of a 75th birthday tribute to him at the National Film Theatre in 2007 and spent many fascinating hours with him selecting and editing the clips for that event. The pitch-perfect narration by Olivier, the haunting score by Carl Davis – everything is right about TheWorld at War.

Day 5

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There had to be a Dennis Potter on my list. Yes, The Singing Detective is his masterpiece, but Pennies from Heaven is arguably the greater leap of imagination as to what could be done with a TV drama series and it does mean more to me personally. It was transmitted just a couple of weeks after I joined the BBC in 1978. I had immediately begun to take a closer interest than previously in the BBC’s output (after all, this was the material I was now handling every day) and a new Potter was a big event. I was mesmerised and immensely proud that I now worked for an organisation which could produce such a thing. I was pretty obsessed with exploring the art of film at the time, to the exclusion of most else, but here was a studio-based TV drama which could engage me, entertain me and make me think just as much, if not more, than the greatest cinema. The use of popular songs of the thirties, mimed by the actors to express the characters’ thoughts and hopes or as an ironic commentary on the narrative was revolutionary and never bettered. Thought for today: “Though things may not look bright, they’ll all turn out alright, if I keep painting the clouds with sunshine”.

Day 6

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I’ll say it up front. For me, this is the greatest TV drama series of them all. Some people will tell you it is a film – made on 35mm by a film director, Edgar Reitz – and, indeed, I first saw it in a cinema. But it was co-produced by TV companies, WDR and SFB of (then) West Germany and is clearly designed for television presentation in 11 parts of irregular length – the shortest under an hour, the longest almost two and a half – and, in that respect, it anticipates by 30 years the sort of thing now being produced for streaming platforms. Reitz went on to make 2 sequel series, a prequel and some spin-offs, but none of them matched the ambition and historical sweep of the original. Telling the story of a village in the Hunsruck from 1918 to the early 1980s, it is basically German history in the turbulent 20th century in microcosm, seen through the eyes of a number of ordinary families. There are elements of soap opera about it, which is partly what makes it so effective. Who will survive the war? How much did ordinary Germans know (or care) about the crimes of the Nazis? How did technological advances like radio, telephones, motorways and TV affect their lives? The trivial is given the same attention as the momentous, and the weight of memory accumulates. Some characters are played by several actors, others by the same one through the whole series, but you get closely involved with them all.

Day 7

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Having reached the period of my life when the assessment of the significance of television programmes was my professional concern, it becomes harder to isolate individual titles which had a particular effect on my attitudes, not because there are too few, but because there are too many. I choose The Royle Family because it pioneered the metamorphosis of the sitcom into the half-hour comedy/drama. It dispensed with the studio audience and the laughter track, even though it hardly ever left the single set – the front room of a Manchester terraced house – and relied on the brilliance of its writing and characterisation to capture you, to make you laugh, and sometimes to make you cry. Many of the programmes I most treasure from the last two decades owe it a debt – from Getting On and the work of Stefan Golaszewski to Fleabagand Detectorists. At a time when TV drama was reaching a new plateau by becoming cinematic, these programmes (and their US equivalents from Louie to One Mississippi), by virtue of their duration, expanded the dramatic and comedic possibilities of a purely televisual form. And, of course, the Royles constantly referenced TV itself because watching TV was what they were doing most of the time, just like those of us watching them. Post-modernism, my arse!

Day 8

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Today’s choice is for my daughter Hanna as well as myself. One of the joys of having a daughter with learning disabilities is the extended childhood, with the result that I have been watching programmes for kids for much longer than most parents – not only that, but many of the same things again, again, again – so that I have come to appreciate how well-crafted and subtle the best of them are. I have reached the stage when I am keenly anticipating the next offering from that crazy genius Andrew Davenport, but my two favourites have to be Charlie and Lola and Peppa Pig. I chose Peppa because, whereas Charlie and Lola has wonderful visuals and music, Peppa has the better humour, which is firmly aimed at the kids but with the occasional wink towards the adult audience. It doesn’t moralise – just presents family and school life though animated animals. There’s even the occasional political satire, such as the school’s International Day, when Madame Gazelle (brilliant name) gets the children to dress up as different nationalities to promote peace and harmony, but they end up arguing over access to the sandpit. The voiceover artists include the Welsh contingent from Absolutely, Morwenna Banks and John Sparkes, plus the familiar tones of Brian Blessed, Andy Hamilton and others. And if I were to be asked which TV character I most identify with it would have to be Daddy Pig – a genial everyman constantly out of his depth and something of a British equivalent to Homer Simpson. I didn’t expect such a programme to become a big part of my life at this stage, but ultimately everybody loves jumping up and down in muddy puddles.

Day 9

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So, there I was, six or seven years from the end of my career in television archiving/curation and drifting along happily towards retirement, doing much the same as I had for the last 25 years, when something wonderful happened. I was invited to join the Peabody Board of Jurors. Not only did this involve engaging with American TV in much, much greater depth than I had before, but also enhancing my critical approach in order to participate in the rigorous and exhilarating board discussions. It also coincided with an explosion of creativity in US output, both drama and documentary, driven by cable and online platforms. So, I got to see masses of marvellous programmes, many of which I either followed thereafter or caught up with in full, and The Leftovers has to be my favourite of them all. In the same way as another favourite recent drama, the French series Les Revenants, The Leftovers uses a supernatural event to explore questions of grief, love, relationships, spirituality and the search for meaning in a meaningless universe. It appeals to atheists like me and believers alike because there are no answers but lots of questions, asked in the most strikingly imaginative and dramatic way possible. Max Richter’s score is outstanding and the acting and direction uniformly brilliant. The ending, appropriately after three series, is overwhelming and open to multiple interpretation, but I choose to let the mystery be.

Day 10

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This is the only thing I could have as my final choice. It reaches back to where I started (Seven Up was transmitted in 1964), but it justifies its place at the end of my chronology because it also represents the future – 63 Up is due to air next spring and I really can’t wait. To say this is a programme that “made” me doesn’t quite get it: it is me, just as it is countless others of my generation. Like a short-period comet, it returns every seven years and each return is more momentous than the last. I can find points of identification with every one of the participants, and they are only three years younger than me, so seeing their lives develop in parallel with my own and against the backdrop of the same social, political and technological changes, and regularly looking back on how they got to where they are, is an incredibly moving experience. Leaving seven years between each catch-up is a stroke of genius, because they can get back to normal lives away from the media spotlight (though their fame has impacted in some ways on some of them). We know there has been the first death among the group since the last visit, so it may start to get a little painful, but Michael Apted is the perfect intermediary – I wish him extreme longevity, so that he can go on making the series. I am very proud to have been part of the Peabody Board which gave the series an institutional award (the same year, coincidentally, that my first choice, DoctorWho, was similarly honoured). The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that this is British television’s greatest achievement.

So, there you have it – three dramas, two comedies, two docs, two children’s programmes and one sports show to sum up TV’s influence on my life.

Four Yorkshiremen hit 50 (comedy, not cricket)

 

Who’d have thought, 50 years ago, I’d be sitting here writing a blog about what is still the greatest TV comedy sketch ever? That’s my opinion, of course, and nothing divides opinion quite like comedy.

There are plenty of lists of the greatest ever sketches and the results differ wildly (especially depending on whether the lists or polls are of British or American origin), and recent hits sometimes usurp the greats (Little Britain’s Lou and Andy topped the Channel 4 poll), but there are certain classics which feature quite regularly. The Dead Parrot, the One-Legged Tarzan and Two Soups usually make an appearance, as well as a much-loved routine by the Two Ronnies – you know the one. But in my humble estimation, the Ronnies couldn’t hold a candle to the sketch that would top my list – in fact they couldn’t hold FOUR candles to it. That sketch was first broadcast exactly 50 years ago tonight, on the 31st October 1967, though it has become such a classic that it has been performed by different casts on different occasions down the years and is regularly wrongly associated with a different show to the one it premiered in.

at-last-the-1948-show-20050930031415462The Four Yorkshiremen sketch first appeared as the last item of the 6th edition of the second series of At Last the 1948 Show, written and performed by John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Tim Brooke-Taylor and Marty Feldman. The show featured sketches by members of the quartet, linked by a hostess – “the lovely” Aimi MacDonald. The final sketch of each show usually featured all four writer/performers. Which of them actually wrote the Four Yorkshiremen sketch was long a matter of dispute, though it seems that Tim came up with the original concept and he was given a credit of thanks for it on the recent Monty Python re-union shows.

But what makes this sketch so special? Of course, it is hilariously funny and the performances are brilliant, but what else? What makes it such a great experience, no matter how many times you have seen it? And why is this, original performance so much better than the ones which followed? For a start it is beautifully structured – almost musical. I would compare it to a string quartet playing a series of variations, like the second movement of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden quartet. It starts with a few short comments which gradually lengthen into these wonderful exaggerated reminiscences which are repeated in style and elaborated in content as they are passed around the four performers, each echoing and then outdoing the previous contributor. The four are actually seated like a string quartet – Cleese at first violin, Brooke-Taylor as second, Chapman on viola and Feldman as ‘cello. And the script is just so poetic, full of alliteration and echoes: “But it were ‘ouse to us”; “Corridor? We used to dream of livin’ in a corridor”. The direction by Ian Fordyce is brilliant too, full of close-ups and two shots and cut to the rhythm established by the script. Above all, the performances by all four are perfectly timed and judged.

yorkshiremen1_203x150The thing that has made this sketch seem such a classic is the fact that it has been re-performed many times, with different casts, usually as part of live theatre shows, particularly charity galas. it’s first stage outings were as part of Monty Python Live shows, first at Drury Lane (recorded in audio only), then at the Hollywood Bowl, which was filmed. Strangely, Cleese was not involved in that performance – Eric Idle taking his part. Chapman played the same role as he did in the original, with Michael Palin filling in for Brooke-Taylor and Terry Jones for Feldman. And so began the association with Monty Python’s Flying Circus which persists to this day, and it is regularly referred to as a Python sketch. Other performances followed in such events as The Secret Policeman’s Ball and Comic Relief, as well as the most recent Python re-union shows at the O2 referred to earlier, though none have come close to rivalling the perfection of the original, probably because the need to declaim in a theatre ruins the essential rhythm of the piece. Guest performers have included Rowan Atkinson and a revival for Amnesty inFour fundraisers 2001 featuring Eddie Izzard, Harry Enfield, Vic Reeves and Alan Rickman was more of a parody than a performance. More recently, the Four Fundraisers sketch for Comic Relief starred Izzard, John Bishop, David Walliams and Davina McCall trying to outdo each other with their tales of the remarkable things they had done for charity (of course, the sketch is introduced with the Monty Python theme!). You can see them all on YouTube, together with countless amateur versions and even one in Hungarian! (hopefully not a misleading translation).

And the Four Yorkshiremen was not the only 1948 Show sketch re-cycled in other shows. One even turned up in Monty Python’s Fliegende Zirkus (the show the Pythons did for German TV), while Marty Feldman revived the wonderful Bookshop Sketch and a few others in his own show, Marty, for the BBC. Cleese and Atkinson also performed a version of the Beekeeper sketch on stage.

But there’s another major reason why the stage performances usurped the original and the association with Python was cemented – the recording of the 1948 Show in question, along with most of the other editions, was lost for many years. In addition, the show had only been seen in its complete form in the ITV London (Rediffusion) area. Fortunately, that was where I lived and, being a massive devotee of TV comedy in the sixties, I never missed it (I also bought the album of sketches from the first series and bored people by reciting them word-for-word at any opportunity). When I joined the BFI archive in 1988, one of the first things I did was search the Rediffusion collection, which the archive had acquired, for copies of the show and was disappointed to find only two had survived. Then, in 1990, Dick Fiddy, my friend and colleague at the BFI, told me he had heard rumours that there were some copies of the show in Sweden. So, at that year’s gatheringSVT_logo of the International Federation of Television Archives I approached Sten and Lasse from SVT and asked them if they had any knowledge of this. “Oh, yes”, they replied, “we have them. We bring them out every Christmas for a laugh”. They promised to send me copies and confirmed that they had five shows, but when they arrived they turned out to be compilations of sketches from both series, edited together for international distribution, rather than original programmes. The Four Yorkshiremen sketch, however, was there and we showed it at the National Film Theatre. Shortly after that, Dick, Veronica Taylor and myself foundedmbw the BFI’s Missing, Believed Wiped campaign to search for lost British TV shows and At Last the 1948 Show has been one of the great successes. Copies of the shows have come back from private collectors, from overseas (ABC Australia) and from the archive of David Frost (who was Executive Producer). There are now only three of the 13 shows which are incomplete, and the search goes on for those.

1948 showAnd the existence of the telerecordings allows a long-overdue re-evaluation of the show itself, which until now has been seen mainly as just a pre-cursor to Monty Python’s Flying Circus, but deserves recognition as a true classic in its own right. Python was more formally innovative and had the greater impact, but the 1948 Show is more consistently funny across its 13 editions. John Cleese, Tim Brooke-Taylor and Aimi MacDonald have all enthusiastically joined in the screenings of the recovered shows and Cleese notes in his autobiography, So, Anyway (Random House, 2014) that he was delighted and surprised at just how good the material was when he got to see it again. The 1948 Show also beat Python to the use of a well-known phrase now indelibly associated with the latter: the words “and now for something completely different” were first spoken by Aimi MacDonald in one of her links between the sketches.

So, please join me in raising a passable glass of Chateau de Chasselas in honour of the 50th anniversary of the Four Yorkshiremen – undoubtedly the greatest TV comedy sketch of all time. But try telling Two Ronnies or Little Britain fans that – will they believe you?