Monday, March 31, 2014

At Last, the 1948 Show DVD Comments

I received two DVDs for Christmas last year. One of them was a 2-DVD set of At Last the 1948 Show. And the other wasn't.

I first learned about Monty Python's Flying Circus about the time I graduated from high school in '75 or '76, when I saw "And Now for Something Completely Different" showing as a double feature with "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" in an art house movie theater in St. Paul, Minn. For me, it was a major shock to learn that the entire production was basically sketch comedy put on by only 4-5 people in multiple roles. It wasn't the kind of thing you saw on American broadcast TV back then. From that point on, I would scour the music stores looking for comedy albums, where I found the "Contractual Obligation Album". Plus, Monty Python was also starting to run on PBS. A short time later, when I was going to tech school, I found one album by I'm Sorry, I'll Read That Again, on which I recognized the voice of John Cleese. Over the years, I've collected recordings of The Goon Show, and watched The Goodies and Marty, starring Marty Feldman.

But, during all of this, I didn't know about two anchoring BBC shows that kind of linked everything together, until now. I'm Sorry, I'll Read That Again was a BBC radio show that first started broadcasting in 1964, and consisted of cast members from the Cambridge University Footlights revue, Cambridge Circus - Tim Brooke-Taylor, John Cleese, Graeme Garden, David Hatch, Jo Kendall, Bill Oddie and Humphry Barclay. David Frost, host of That Was The Week That Was wanted to produce 2 comedy shows for BBC TV. The first was "At Last the 1948 Show" (ALT1948S), and the other wasn't. In fact, the one that wasn't was Do Not Adjust Your Set (DNAYS).

ALT1948S was a sketch comedy series that ran from '67 to '68, and featured John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Tim Brooke-Taylor, and Marty Fieldman, all as actors as well as writers. Apparently most of the archival film footage was destroyed, but at least 5 episodes remain (I think at least 5 episodes remain, there's 5 episodes on the 2-DVD set I watched). Supporting cast included the Lovely Aimi MacDonald, and had several cameo appearances by Eric Idle.

DNAYS was also a sketch comedy series, but one originally aimed more towards a children's audience, featuring Denise Coffey, David Jansen, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin. The music was provided by the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, which included Neil Innes on piano, guitar and lead vocals. At the end of the series' run there were animated bits by American artist Terry Gilliam. This show ran from '67 to '69.

On a side note, Harvey Kurtzman, cartoonist for Mad magazine, went on to create Help! (1960-65). Two of the people working on Help! were Terry Gilliam, who made gag strips using photographs, and John Cleese, the guy in Terry's gag photos.

The next step then was to have a sketch comedy series where the sketches didn't really need punchlines to finish them off before switching to the next sketch, which would be accomplished by having little animated bits inbetween. Hence, we get Monty Python, with Graham Chapman and John Cleese coming in from ALT1948S, and they already knew Eric Idle because of his cameos there, plus Michael Palin, Terry Jones and Eric Idle from DNAYS. Also from DNAYS were Terry Gilliam for the animated bits, and Neil Innes (Bonzo Dog) for the music and additional acting roles.

Additionally, from the above list of shows we have The Goodies, which combined Tim Brooke-Taylor, Bill Oddie, Graeme Green and Jo Kendall (from ALT1948S and I'm Sorry, I'll Read That Again). Marty Feldman had a short-lived show, Marty (The Marty Feldman Show in the U.S.), with writing from John Cleese, Tim Brooke-Taylor, Graham Chapman, Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam. (Feldman may be best known in the U.S. for his role as Igor in Young Frankenstein).

Now, on to the 2-DVD set.
There are five episodes, in B&W, with lots of scratches and occasional jumping around of the film. Cleese generally comes off as creepy, while the others fare better. A number of the sketches have been reworked and recycled for Monty Python, including one with London Bobbys cross-dressing as showgirls to raid a night club. The Lovely Aimi MacDonald primarily appears as a ditzy blonde who heads the charity "Donate to make the Lovely Aimi MacDonald a Rich Lady". Many of the sketches are still funny today, although a few aren't politically correct anymore. It's also interesting to hear the music of The Avengers and Perry Mason used at the beginning of 2 of the sketches (one is a spy thriller parody where John Cleese sends his secretary Feldman to burn down Moscow with just a couple cans of kerosene and a Greek passport with "Greece" crossed out and "Russia" written in with a pen. Feldman has to provide his own matches.) The DVD jacket says that there are guest appearances by Jo Kendall and Bill Oddie, but I didn't notice either of them, myself.

Another sketch I like has Chapman and Feldman as rival American gangsters, with Feldman holding a machinegun at Chapman.

Feldman: Quit stalling, Diamond. When did Prussia first acquire the hegemony of the north Germanic Confederation?
Chapman: 1866!
Feldman: Correct. What is the angle of the plane of movement of the two outer [garbled] of the 4 main satellites of Uranus with the elliptic?
Chapman: 82 degrees!
Feldman: Correct! What is the square root of 7,974?
Chapman: 89.3!
Feldman: Correct! Alright, Diamond, I don't wanna do this, but I'm gonna kill ya!
Chapman: Why!?
Feldman: You know too much.
[Machinegun fire]

The second CD has interviews by Tim Brooke-Taylor and Terry Jones. It's fun watching the interviews, but they didn't really add a lot to my understanding of what the show was like back when it was being made.

If you like Monty Python and British sketch comedy, both ALT1948S and DNAYS (both from Tango Entertainment) are must sees. If you don't like Monty Python or British comedy, and you kept reading all the way down to here, I don't know what to say to you.

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