Remember the ‘Four Yorkshiremen’ skit, or Graham Chapman wrestling himself, both staples of the Monty Python team’s live shows? How about announcing the next sketch with “And now for something completely different”? Or Terry Gilliam’s surreal animations? All part of the Monty Python’s Flying Circus oeuvre, yes?
Well, actually, no. All of these in fact pre-date the start of Flying Circus on BBC1 50 years ago, but the Python team were still involved. At the time, the show may have been the enfant terrible of comedy, but as well as a number of forerunners – such as The Goon Show and Spike Milligan’s Q – it also had some direct lineage which can be traced to two television programmes, both of which originated on ITV’s Rediffusion London franchise (immediate precursor to Thames Television): At Last The 1948 Show and Do Not Adjust Your Set.
Both shows ran between 1967 and 1969, ending not long before the Python team was formed. First out of the gate was At Last The 1948 Show, the title referring to the length of time it took TV executives to commission new programming. Made by David Frost’s own production company, it brought together Graham Chapman and John Cleese, alongside future member of The Goodies Tim Brooke-Taylor, as well as writer-performer Marty Feldman, and “the lovely” (as she was always referred to on the show) Aimi MacDonald.
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Some of the pieces turned up later on in other places, like The Two Ronnies, along with the John Cleese-fronted special How To Irritate People, live charity show The Secret Policeman’s Ball, and – of course – Monty Python’s Flying Circus (including the German language TV specials Monty Python’s Fliegender Zirkus). Perhaps the most famous example was the infamous ‘Four Yorkshiremen’ piece – as mentioned previously – which was both written and originally performed by the four male cast members on At Last The 1948 Show, yet is often mistaken as being a Python sketch. But you tell that to the young people today and they won’t believe you.
When Cleese and Chapman were writing material, they would take a break from it to treat themselves by watching the new children’s TV sketch show, Do Not Adjust Your Set. Written by Eric Idle, Michael Palin and Terry Jones, the three of them also performed, alongside David Jason (yes, that David Jason, in his first major TV role), and actress Denise Coffey. The show also had musical interludes by the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, as well as – in the second series – animations by Terry Gilliam.
Despite their importance now being seen in the development of Monty Python, the two shows had both suffered the ravages of time, with many episodes being lost for many years. As with a lot of programmes from the era, so much material ended up being junked for a variety of reasons; for example, with colour TV service starting up and both series having been made in black & white, the potential for repeats of older shows was seen as very limited. In addition, Rediffusion London also lost its franchise to Thames Television, and a lot of the Rediffusion archive simply wasn’t kept by the new operator.
While each of the pair suffered losses, At Last The 1948 Show was hit particularly badly, with only two editions thought to have survived at one time. However, five compilation shows turned up in Sweden, and – thanks to a campaign by the BFI for missing television – other recoveries have since been made. Thankfully, home audio recordings of all the episodes – along with excepts from missing Do Not Adjust Your Set instalments – were made, which have helped in efforts to reconstruct the shows for the BFI’s new DVD releases.
Both series had previously been issued on DVD over a decade ago, but contained less content than we get here. For starters, the At Last The 1948 Show set presented only the five Swedish compilation episodes; Do Not Adjust Your Set had what were all of the surviving shows from its first series at the time. Since then, significant finds of missing material have been made for the two shows, from brief fragments to whole episodes, which has resulted in the BFI’s painstaking and meticulous efforts to give us the most complete collection that we’re able to get.
At Last The 1948 Show has been the one in need of most attention, due to some of the visual material being incomplete. As a result, the BFI have used audio recordings of all 13 episodes to fill in the gaps, using either photos of cast members or images of the relevant script pages to provide us with something to look at, meaning that we get the fullest possible version of the shows, stitched together from a variety of sources. The quality may be patchy from time to time, but it’s far superior to what was previously uploaded onto YouTube, with no effort apparently made to try and clean up the prints of the existing intact episodes, and also presenting them in an almost unwatchable squeezed 1:1 aspect ratio by the previous distributor.
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For Do Not Adjust Your Set, there are more episodes which exist overall, but there unfortunately aren’t recordings of the soundtracks for all the missing parts, so a full reconstruction isn’t possible in this case. However, what audio excepts do remain are included on the set here, so it’s possible to get a glimpse of what the rest of the series contained. With too many companies prepared to just put material out without any real thought about trying to make it look as watchable as possible, thank goodness for the BFI in giving both series such loving care and attention, the level which is only generally seen on the Doctor Who DVDs and Blu-rays.
This also extends to the special features, which can only be described as being an embarrassment of riches. A series of new interviews and featurettes have all been put together with the key figures from the two programmes, such as Michael Palin, John Cleese, and Tim Brooke-Taylor. The contributions of the Bonzos and Terry Gilliam aren’t overlooked either – we get a feature-length documentary all about the band, and new scans from 35mm prints of three of Gilliam’s animations. There’s also a fascinating unseen archive interview with Marty Feldman; it’s surprising to hear just how much his comments about American gun culture – made five decades ago – still strongly resonate today.
A truly worthy collection of proto-Python material, these releases are essential not just for fans of the Flying Circus, but for anyone who has an interest in the history of British comedy. Do adjust your boxed sets, by adding both of these to your own personal archives.