Synopsis: The Classic Series That Preceded And Inspired Monty Python
This historic, wildly silly series triggered a revolution that changed the face of TV comedy forever.
Bursting onto Britain’s small screens in an explosion of outrageous and often surreal sketches, At Last The 1948 Show featured John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Marty Feldman and Tim Brooke-Taylor. Produced in 1967, this recently discovered collection launched the Monty Python phenomenon and much like the affect of the Beatles on music, the world of comedy has never been the same.
eyelights: John Cleese. Graham Chapman. Ami MacDonald. the Pythonesque humour.
eyesores: the incompleteness of the set. the sloppiness of the direction and performances.
‘At Last the 1948 Show’ is a comedy programme that ran on British television from 1967 to 1968 for two series. It is most noted for being some of the earliest works of future Monty Python members Graham Chapman and John Cleese, as well as future The Goodies member Tim Brooke-Taylor, and for making a star out of Marty Feldman.
Unlike its contemporaries, ‘At Last the 1948 Show’ didn’t separate its skits with musical numbers. Instead, it featured hilarious little bridges with co-star Aimi MacDonald. These brief bits are absurdly self-obsessed (taking all the credit for the show, going on about how lovely she is, …etc.), which makes them extremely funny. Hilarious, really.
The rest of the show were sketches that have a raw -but undeniably- Pythonesque quality to them (in fact, many of them have been reused by the Python team in various contexts over the years). They also showcase the then-nascent comic genius of John Cleese, who had til then mostly done radio and performed in some skits on ‘The Frost Report’.
As I was reading up on the show for this blurb, I discovered that the episodes on this DVD set are actually not episodes at all; they are compilations of ‘At Last the 1948 Show’ sketches culled from whatever available sources there were at the time and edited together into “episodes”. To make matters worse, the sketches aren’t shown in their original order.
The thing is, in the (g)olden days of TV, studios didn’t always have the foresight of keeping records of their shows for reruns/syndication or home video (which didn’t exist at the time). The Brits, ever the most efficient people, regularly wiped their videotapes and reused them on other shows. And thus, many programmes are forever lost.
What’s frustrating here is that the packaging, courtesy of Tango Entertainment (the company has produced this set for the North American market) doesn’t say that these are a hodge-podge of bits from actual episodes. Instead, it suggests that they’re newly-rediscovered episodes – all the while riding on the coattails of Monty Python. Naturellement.
Still, at least we have these compilation episodes; better this than nothing.
Here are a few highlights:
- A psychiatrist (Cleese) has an absurd, nearly-Pythonesque consultation with his patient (Brooke-Taylor).
- A spy agency chief (Cleese) decides that, since they’ve ruin out of secret agents, he will enlist the office tea server (Feldman) to go burn down the Kremlin. His briefing and prepping is pretty silly stuff.
- A police chief (Cleese) loses his patience when a constable arrives in his office swallowed up by a boa constrictor (you see, it’s not the first time…).
- Brooke-Taylor shows and performs a dance called “The Chartered Accountant”. It’s not a great dance, but BT’s skill is remarkable: how he was able to remember all the moves is beyond me.
- The CLASSIC ‘Four Yorshiremen’ sketch, which Python have also performed in their live shows. And which I offered as an opening short when I screened ‘The Big Lebowski‘ at the cinema for friends and family on my 40th birthday. Brilliant, brilliant stuff.
Rating: 8.25 (would have been higher if the performances and production weren’t a bit sloppy).
- Learning English: Brooke-Taylor, Chapman, Cleese and Feldman are sitting around a table, repeating and associating words to objects around the table to help viewers learn English. Cleese, however, spends the skit contradicting them, using the wrong words, forcing them to try to undo the damage he’s doing. Very funny – especially when we discover his motivation.
- Top of the Form: This is satirical trivia show featuring two grade school groups of three students, with Cleese as MC. It’s a classic that’s been re-used for live shows.
- Topic: This is a talk show satire that was reprised in the John Cleese and Graham Chapman special, ‘How to Irritate People’ (it’s hard to say which came first). Performed by Cleese and Feldman here, it consists of a talk on freedom of speech, with the host preventing the guest from talking – to the point that the latter does outlandish things just to get attention.
- A romantic period piece TV serial (featuring Cleese and a guest actress) in which the actors are continuously interrupted by a studio boss who is showing the set to Arab guests – unaware that the show is in progress, and leaving the cast to scramble to incorporate them in their dramatic play. Amusing stuff.
- Four men quite alike meet on holidays abroad and discover they have many things in common.
- A serial-type crime thing set in a manor that plays off the clichés of the genre and which is purposely performed poorly. The fight scenes, in particular, are a riot.
- A police sergeant (Brooke-Taylor) has three undercover cops (Cleese, Feldman, Chapman) substituting for policewomen to go undercover dressed up as prostitutes. The skit is okay, but what’s great is just how much they struggle to keep a straight face. It’s sloppy, but that’s its charm.
On a sad note, Aimi MacDonald is joined by a bunch of other hostesses; it feels like a downgrade. And she’s better on her own; she’s certainly more vibrant, freer.
- A shirt salesman (Brooke-Taylor) uses pity to get his customer (Chapman) to buy more shirts. He is aided in this by his supervisor (Cleese). It seems familiar to me… was this reused in Python at some point?
- A grossly accident-prone man (Cleese) goes into a life insurance office to get coverage – but everything he touches breaks and he falls everywhere. The salesman (Chapman) watches him straight-faced, trying to sell him the insurance. It’s forced but is nonetheless a great idea. And Cleese rarely does slapstick and pratfalling, so that was neat to see.
- Aimi does Hamlet’s soliloquy while tap-dancing. Awesome
It’s unfortunate that ‘At Last the 1948 Show’ is only available in these compilations (which exist only due to having once been put together for Swedish television) because it would be nice to see it as it was intended. Thankfully, since then, much footage has apparently been found – amounting to nine full episodes, with only four remaining incomplete. So there is hope.
Either way, I had a really good time revisiting these compilations; there’s a lot of terrific material spread across the set. It’s not quite Monty Python, but you can see the beginnings of it here. So this is something I would definitely recommend to fans of the troupe. It also makes one intrigued about Feldman and Brooke-Taylor and their career, post-‘At Last the 1948 Show’.
I’m sure I will check that out at some point.
Dates of viewing: Feb 22-Mar 8, 2015