TV Discussion

Python @ 50 – Out Of The Trees – Pilot Error!

Every year, of the dozens of pilot episodes that are made for TV, some don’t get picked up, while others are changed significantly or even remade when they become a full series. Our series Pilot Error! takes a look at some of them, including the ones that got away.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy has occasionally been described as being Pythonesque, and it’s hardly surprising that the comparison has been made: it shares some its DNA with the Flying Circus, through writer Douglas Noel Adams (whose initials are also DNA, funnily enough). He was part of Cambridge Footlights, whose alumni included John Cleese, Eric Idle and Graham Chapman. It was during his time at Footlights that BBC2 recorded the Footlights Revue, featuring Adams, and showed an edited version in 1974; it was also performed on the stage in the West End, and this put Adams firmly on Graham Chapman’s radar.

As a result, Chapman wrote together with Adams for a brief period, Adams seemingly taking on the role previously occupied by John Cleese, with whom Chapman had a writing partnership for a number of years. This led to Adams and Chapman co-writing the ‘Patient Abuse’ sketch which ended up being included in the very last episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, as well as a piece which was used on the soundtrack album of Monty Python And The Holy Grail; consequently, Adams is one of only two people (the other being Neil Innes, former member of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band) to get a co-writing credit on the series alongside the Pythons. He even appeared briefly in two Flying Circus sketches during the final season.

READ MORE: Python @ 50 – Holy Flying Circus – Movie Rewind

His association with the Pythons continued far beyond this, with Adams working on a video game – Starship Titanic – which included vocal work by John Cleese and Terry Jones, with the latter also writing a novelisation of the game. One of his post-Flying Circus collaborations was on a pilot for a proposed new comedy series – originally titled ‘End Of The Road Show’ – where he teamed up with Graham Chapman, along with writer Bernard McKenna (whose surname Adams most likely borrowed when coming up with something to call his Rain God character, who turned up in So Long, And Thanks For All The Fish, Rob McKenna). The end result was shown once in 1976, under the name Out Of The Trees.

Although it was a sketch show, much like Monty Python’s Flying Circus, it had the main difference that there was a central premise which was used as a framing device for the proposed series – it was to focus upon a pair on linguists (one of whom was played by Chapman) who were travelling around a Britain which was in decline; discussions of a word or a phrase would lead into a sketch about it, with the two linguists acting as the core running through the show. The majority of the pilot takes place inside the confines of a British Rail train carriage, with the linguists interacting with a number of other passengers, including the man who would later become known as Arthur Dent – Simon Jones.

READ MORE: Python @ 50 – Monty Python’s Flying Circus: Norwegian Blu-ray Edition – Blu-ray Review

In fact, this wasn’t the only connection with Adams’ subsequent Hitchhiker’s Guide work, as the pilot also included Mark Wing-Davey (a.k.a. Zaphod Beeblebrox). A scene where Adams said in a later interview he’d had an influence comes in the form of a piece about a peony being picked by Jones from a bush overhanging the pavement, only to be met with the snap attendance of the Police. Matters escalate to an absurd extent, from deployment of more of the emergency services, to the military, and finally nuclear weapons, to the point where finally the Earth ends up being destroyed, only for aliens to turn up too late, realising they’d failed to avert the peony situation.

Another significant sketch involves Genghis Khan (played by Chapman), who has a woman from one of the villages he’s conquered presented before him; fearing the worst for both herself and her family, she pleads for Khan’s mercy for them, saying that she’ll do anything to save the lives of her relatives. However, rather than the more expected route of her being violently despoiled, Khan instead wants to engage in small talk about how his day’s been, as no-one ever seems interested in seeing how he’s doing, after all the rape and pillage which comes with the day job.

A continuation of the skit sees Khan having trouble finding room in his schedule for when he’ll be able to go and conquer the world. The piece lived on beyond Out Of The Trees, as Chapman used an anecdotal version in A Liar’s Autobiography, whereas Adams wrote a short story – ‘The Private Life Of Genghis Khan’ – which turned up in The Utterly Utterly Merry Comic Relief Christmas Book, as well as The Salmon Of Doubt (a collections of Adams’ work, published after his death, which also included the completed portion of his mooted third Dirk Gently book).

READ MORE: Python @ 50 – Monty Python’s Life Of Brian (1979) – Throwback 40

Chapman had already collaborated with author and writer David Yallop on the script for a second episode of Out Of The Trees when the pilot was aired in January 1976. Unfortunately, the BBC – in its infinite wisdom – decided not only to give the show minimal publicity, but they also scheduled it on a Saturday night opposite Match Of The Day on BBC1, which pretty much killed any chance of it finding an audience. As a result, it ended up never getting a full series run, and was consigned to being a rather obscure curiosity piece, unlike other ex-Pythons’ projects around the same time, like Fawlty Towers and Ripping Yarns.

Another thing which seemed set to seal its place as being an overlooked piece of ephemera was the decision by the BBC to include the master tape of the show as part of its archival policy which was still in place in the mid-1970s of wiping and recording over programmes unless they were seen as being of cultural significance, and so Out Of The Trees went out of the archive. In fact, the only material which was known to survive for many years was the film footage done for the show – the peony sketch is probably the best known example of this, as excerpts were included in Kevin Jon Davies’ acclaimed 1993 documentary The Making Of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, to accompany a discussion by Douglas Adams about the pilot.

READ MORE: Python @ 50 – What Have The Pythons Ever Done For Us?

Thankfully, Chapman had the presence of mind to preserve it for posterity by making a domestic recording of the one-and-only broadcast. It was about 30 years later that the late Chapman’s partner, David Sherlock, revealed that this copy existed, and the tape was given to the British Film Institute, in the hopes that it could be played. Due to it having been taped on a now-obsolete format, it took two years for a bespoke player to be put together, and the recording was copied for posterity. Although not publicly available through official channels, the pilot has been shown twice by the BFI, most recently as part of their 50th anniversary celebrations of Monty Python. It was also uploaded and available on YouTube for several years, but the user’s account has now been terminated.

It’s something of a curate’s egg, as some of the material feels a tad overlong, and could have done with a bit of a polish. However, it’s an interesting experiment to see what direction Chapman chose to step out on his own, not quite totally abandoning his Python roots, but also choosing a format where there’s a continuous linking thread running all the way through, which would have gone beyond the pilot had it gone to full series. With Chapman sadly no longer here to represent himself, it’s down to his body of work to do the talking, so we can only hope that at some point Out Of The Trees gets a proper release, in order for it not only to get a much-needed reappraisal, but also a deservedly wider audience.

You can catch up on our Python @ 50 coverage here.

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