by Allan Fish
(UK 1976-1979 270m) DVD1/2
In memory of St Tadger
p Terry Hughes d Terry Jones w Terry Jones, Michael Palin
Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Gwen Watford, Ian Ogilvy, Roy Kinnear, Barbara New, John Barrett, Liz Smith, Isobel Dean, Frank Middlemass, Iain Cuthbertson, Harold Innocent, Denholm Elliott, Don Henderson, Charles McKeown, Eileen Way, Hilary Mason, Tenniel Evans, Aubrey Morris, Edward Hardwicke, Gwen Taylor, Bill Fraser, Roger Sloman, Richard Vernon, Joan Sanderson, John le Mesurier, Kenneth Colley, Jan Francis,
By the late summer of 1975, the institution of Monty Python was, if not actually over – two more films would follow – then essentially over. It had been an amicable split as the sextet went onto different things; Fawlty Towers for Cleese, direction for Gilliam, and lesser comedies for Idle and Chapman along the road to the latter’s alcoholism and a tragically premature death. For Michael Palin and Terry Jones it led them first to writing the likes of black comedy play Secrets, about a chocolate company into whose chocolate machine fall three employees, only for the cannibalistic confectionary to go through the sales roof. Yet something else was stirring, memories of all those Boys Own adventures from the days between the wars, days of the British Empire and it were grim up north tales, when upper lips were as stiff as bayonets on the western front.
It started with one half hour in 1976 and others followed over the next three years. There were only nine in all, but that was never a bad thing as familiarity was never allowed to breed contempt. There was ‘The Testing of Eric Olthwaite’ in which the most boring man in Yorkshire, Eric Olthwaite, lover of shovels, black puddings and rain gauges, falls in with a bank robber after his parents run away from home to escape him; ‘Escape from Stalag Luft 112B’, about a group of chaps who try to escape a Hun POW camp in World War I; ‘Murder at Moorestones Manor’ in which everyone is first suspected of murder, then confesses to murder and is finally murdered; ‘Across the Andes by Frog’, a thoroughly silly tale which rather speaks for itself; ‘The Curse of the Claw’, with a delicious, rare-disease loving old uncle; ‘Whinfrey’s Last Case’, where a suave British gentleman saves the Empire from Germany’s threat to start war without telling everyone, and gives up his holiday to do it; ‘Golden Gordon’, following the most loyal fan of the world’s worst football team, Barnstoneworth United; and ‘Roger of the Raj’, in which a British officer finds himself up to his neck in socialism. They’re all quite perfectly in key with the stories they are skewering, sometimes too much, as in the case of ‘Across the Andes by Frog’, which is certainly the weakest of the bunch. I have a particular fondness for that boring little tit Eric Olthwaite, with his fiancée shagging her brains out in a final fling in her bedroom (which seems to go on longer than the orgies of Gaius Caligula), encouraged by her mother while her father tends to his racing vultures, of the regimental dinner where faux pas like passing the port the wrong way require suicide, and of dear old Barnstoneworth United’s lamentable run of results.
Yet who am I kidding? It’s one episode that propels Ripping Yarns from the realms of the cult and very clever to the imperishable, and it’s the one I deliberately left out of the rundown above, ‘Tomkinson’s Schooldays’, quite simply one of the half-dozen greatest half-hour comedy episodes in television history. Set in Graybridge Public School at a time when, to quote the DVD box, corporal punishment was an A-level, it follows the eponymous Tomkinson through the hell of regular beatings (not of him but of the headmaster!), the fifty mile hop against St Anthony’s, model boat class, the wrestling of the grizzly bear, the awful school song, escape and capture by the school leopard, the attentions of the aristocratic school bully (an exquisite Ian Ogilvy), a position which has to be advertised in the best papers (“parents send their children to Graybridge just to be bullied by you” the headmaster tells him when informed of his leaving to go to Eton). Oh, and St Tadger’s Day, a ritual that some beleaguered teachers would doubtless like to re-enact on the more uncontrollable miscreants of modern comprehensives. Absolutely top hole!