While it would be nice to think that Monty Python's Flying Circus arrived fully formed and flush with originality from its very first broadcast, the truth is far more mundane. The members of the influential troupe, the greatest sketch comedy combo of all time, all had jobs in the media prior to their fateful convergence into the ultimate enclave of hilarity history. John Cleese had been a long time writer for British icon David Frost. Graham Chapman often joined him as a partner in pandemonium. Along the fringes, Terry Jones, Michael Palin and Eric Idle were also busy, creating comedy for Frost, as well as radio and other broadcast fare. Lastly, scurrying around the edges of these elite Brit wits was American animation ex-patriot Terry Gilliam, a lost comic soul using London as a location for his concept of cut and paste lunacy.
Still, even though they occasionally worked together, and traveled in the same celebrated circles, Python wasn't a novel idea forged from concepts untried before. Instead, that seminal series that represents the best of UK joke jive is actually an amalgamation of two influential shows. On the one hand, there was the Palin/Jones/Idle/Gilliam children's series Do Not Adjust Your Set. While supposedly programmed for the wee ones, producer Humphrey Barclay mandated that the show be as funny as possible, regardless of the demographic. The other important lineage linchpin was At Last, The 1948 Show. Executive produced by Frost, it found Cleese and Chapman working with fellow funnyman Tim Brooke-Taylor and former writer turned performer Marty Feldman. Now, thanks to Tango Entertainment, we have a chance to witness five "episodes" of this groundbreaking series on DVD, and while it may not live up to the Monty myth, there is still a great deal of comic gold to be mined.
When one discusses At Last, The 1948 Show, there are several important factors to take into consideration. Perhaps the most important, from a preservationist's point of view, is that it has long been considered a "lost" series. Audio elements for most of the shows have always existed, but videotape was expensive back in the 60s, and almost all programming suffered the fate of erasure at some point in their tenure. After all, who thought people would be interested in a show once it had aired? Such is the case with this series. At Last, The 1948 Show was considered an unsalvageable memory from the past until a set of filmed kinescopes were discovered recently. Tango has taken these rare clips, combined them into individual "episodes" and presents a total of five half-hour installments on this two DVD set.
Looking over the original broadcast sketch lists, you can see how Tango "created" their offering out of fragments and pieces. The show ran for two "series" in 1967 - Series 1 contained 6 episodes, Series 2 contained 7 - and each show had a very simple format. The four actors would appear in unconnected comedy morsels, buffered by blackouts featuring on-air hostess "the lovely Aimi MacDonald". Here is a breakdown of the series as presented by Tango (with original running order in parentheses):
"Choir Won't Sing Hymns" (Series 2, Programme 5)
"Psychiatrist" (Series 2, Programme 5)
"Secret Service Cleaner" (Series 2, Programme 5)
"The Chartered Accountant Dance" (Series 2, Programme 6)
"The Four Yorkshiremen" (Series 2, Programme 6)
"Six Girls and an Exhibit A" (Series 1, Programme 6)
"Televisione Italiano Presenta: Let's Speak English" (Series 1, Programme 6)
"Top of the Form" (Series 1 Programme 5)
"Doctor Trying to Sell Things" (Series 2, Programme 1)
"Reptile Keeper Swallow By Snake" (Series 2, Programme 1)
"Thief Hiding in Public Library" (Series 2, Programme 1)
"Come Dancing" (Series 2, Programme 1)
"Someone Has Stolen the News" (Series 1, Programme 4)
"Topic: Freedom of Speech" (Series 2, Programme 4)
"Train Traveling Pest" (Series 2, Programme 7)
"Repeats Report" (Series 2, Programme 4)
"Tour Through Live Program" (Series 2, Programme 4)
"Thriller Opening" (Series 1, Programme 2)
"The Four Sydney Lotterbies" (Series 1, Programme 2)
"Robotic Hospital Visitor" (Series 1, Programme 3)
"Sleep Starvation" (Series 1, Programme 3)
"Mice Laugh Softly, Charlotte" (Series 1, Programme 3)
"Jack the Ripper Song" (Series 1, Program 4)
"Plain Clothes Police(wo)man" (Series 1, Program 4)
"Gangster Opening" (Series 2, Programme 2)
"Shirt Shop" (Series 2, Programme 2)
"The Nosmo Claphanger Show" (Series 2, Programme 2)
"Insuring the Accident Prone Man" (Series 2, Programme 2)
"Uncooperative Burglars" (Series 2, Programme 4)
"Rowdy Scottish Ballet Supporters" (Series 2, Programme 2)
Over the course of five episodes, Tango's intent is obvious. In instances where a program was missing a single sketch (Series 2, Programme 4 & 7), the company inserted something from another installment. In other cases, they've meshed together seasons and snippets to create a complete show. As there is no linear aspect to At Last, The 1948 Show, this works well. Fans who hoped for complete episodes will be very disappointed, however.
Aficionados of the fabulous funnymen featured will also be very happy. Though it pales in comparison to the mighty monument to sketch comedy it created, At Last, The 1948 Show proves that Monty Python's Flying Circus was not just some act of silliness synchronicity. Indeed, while watching the five episodes here, you can see the seeds of surreal sketch comedy that Python would plant and cultivate over the next few years. While some of the targets are tame (no jokes about cannibalism, race or religion here) and the performances less than perfectly polished, At Last, The 1948 Show is still heartfelt and hilarious, hitting its mark more times than it misses.
Perhaps the most amazing thing one learns after perusing the five episodes included on these DVDs is how absolutely amazing Marty Feldman is/was, both as a comedian and as a comic presence. Certainly, individuals who only know the actor's work in Young Frankenstein, Silent Movie, or The Last Remake of Beau Geste will be flabbergasted by how flat out funny he is here. Odd eyeballs aside, Feldman was a wonderful mimic, perfection when it came to comic timing, and replete with a seemingly endless wealth of ways to make that hound dog face work for him. Throughout At Last, The 1948 Show, he is fantastic and deeply fascinating. Watching his work here, one wonders why it took so long for him to become a superstar (he went on to said stardom AFTER this series) - as well as lamenting the fact that he is no longer with us (he died from a heart attack brought on by food poisoning at the age of 49). As an elegy to an extremely funny man, At Last, The 1948 Show does Feldman proud.
Another forgotten, but equally important facet of At Last, The 1948 Show and British comedy in general is Tim Brooke-Taylor. Though he would later go on to star in the criminally under-appreciated series The Goodies (the sitcom version of Python, more or less) Brooke-Taylor was an integral part of the pre-Monty dynamic. He studied Law with Cleese at Cambridge, and was even the president of the college's prestigious Footlights Club. Brooke-Taylor is also responsible for co-writing one of the classic sketches of all time, a skit that originated with The 1948 Show - the Four Yorkshiremen. Centering around a group of swells sharing stories about their abhorrently poor upbringing, this Python perennial (featured most famously in Monty Python at the Hollywood Bowl) is just as fresh and funny here as when it is performed before packed houses. A lot of that has to do with the participation of Brooke-Taylor. Though he is typically reduced to the roles of straight man here (usually playing off Cleese), he does get his individual moments to shine.
The final element that makes At Last, The 1948 Show novel is the inclusion of ultimate "dumb blond" icon Aimi McDonald. Though she never appears as a character in the sketches (she is seen in some group shots), she is very fetching - and very funny - as our clueless hostess. Given some irony-laced monologues by the boys, she is less of an outright sex symbol like Python's Carol Cleveland. Instead, she is a comment on the kind of eye candy that populated late 60s TV, an attempt to mock the machismo fueled Playboy perception that surrounded most television fare. Watching McDonald work, you know that she gets the joke. Her eyes almost wink whenever she's required to dress down her own intellect, and the self-centered narcissism of her speeches is spot on. McDonald's presence adds a certain symbolic element to The 1948 Show, making it seem more socially satirical than perhaps it really was.
Still, it's the sketches people will be most interested in, and almost all are winners. The highlights outrank the rejects by a wide margin. When they move into long form spots ("Mice Laugh Softly, Charlotte", " Tour Through Live Program") the jokes and joviality can dry up pretty quickly. But when spoofing the obvious (the schoolchild challenge of "Top of the Form", the game show strangeness of "The Nosmo Claphanger Show") At Last, The 1948 Show is sensational. Some of the best bits include the aforementioned "Yorkshiremen", the slapstick perfection of "Insuring the Accident Prone Man" and the 'could have been a Python piece' of "Shirt Shop" (revolving around a group of desperate and depressed haberdashers). Most of the material centers on silly accents ("The Four Sydney Lotterbies", "Scottish Ballet Supporters") or eccentric mannerisms ("Train Traveling Pest", "The Chartered Accountant Dance"). But whenever you can get Cleese and the gang in drag (the marvelous "Plain Clothes Police(wo)man" sketch), you know that hilarity is just around the corner.
Indeed, what At Last, The 1948 Show proves is that talent is timeless, no matter how you package or present it. The reason that Cleese, Chapman, Feldman and Brooke-Taylor are fondly remembered as gods (and demigods) of British humor is because they actually had the chops to deliver the delirium time after time, no matter the format, no matter the factors. With their keen eye for character, clever deconstruction of British conservatism, and artful ability to play against archetype, the quartet of actors at the center of this series argue for their rightful place in the pantheon of the pratfall. Though Monty Python's Flying Circus would cull the best parts from this, Do Not Adjust Your Set, and the work of Spike Milligan to change the face of comedy forever, At Last, The 1948 Show is a mandatory cog in the engine of English farce. It is well worth a look.
Okay, here is the VERY bad news. Though simply having these classic shows on DVD should be enough to satisfy even the most technically picky person, At Last, The 1948 Show looks awful. The 1.33:1 full frame image is a kinescope catastrophe, a fuzzy, faded fiasco where details are drowned in a haze of primitive preservation techniques. The picture flickers, the edges of the screen occasionally bend and distort, and the overall quality is several generations away from acceptable. While complaining would be pointless (this is what the only original elements look like people, so best get over it), it is still worth mentioning so that individuals anxious to get their hands on this hilarity are warned of its wanting visual variables in advance. It doesn't distract from the fun, but it can make individuals obsessed with remastered perfection very pissed off.
Naturally, if the ancient aspects of kinescope violate the images, the audio elements must suffer as well. The good news is that At Last, The 1948 Show sounds much, much better than it looks. The aural transfer is still hissy and distorted, but all the dialogue is clear and conversations are easily decipherable. Make no mistake about it - this is Mono at its most minimal and unimpressive. But consumers worried that the sonic is as sorry as the scenarios will be pleasantly surprised. The kinescope horrors here only hinder the visuals. The audio is at least acceptable.
Along with a very confusing, poorly rendered comedy "family tree" (dealing with the cast of both At Last, The 1948 Show and Do Not Adjust Your Set) we are offered just two bonus features as part of this two DVD set - and, technically, only one centers on The 1948 Show. Tim Brooke-Taylor, looking surprisingly good, discusses his tenure with the program in a nice, insightful interview. Tracing his partnership with Cleese and Chapman, as well as his memories of working with Feldman, it is a wonderful walk down memory lane. As any good Q&A should do, this feature lets us in on some of the bawdy backstage behavior of these Brit wit young guns. The second interview features Terry Jones, and while it's always nice to see this fireplug Python, he is really discussing Do Not Adjust Your Set. He makes casual mention of The 1948 Show, but this is really a bonus for the companion DVD presentation of said kid vid cavalcade (as a matter of fact, the Do Not Adjust Your Set DVD presentation offers the same exact bonus features).
There is no denying the legend of Monty Python's Flying Circus. For most people, comedy exists in terms of BP and AP (Before/After Python). Perhaps the clock should be reset a single series back. As foundation for the phenomenal funny business that would follow, At Last, The 1948 Show proves a worthy companion to all the Monty madness. Inherent in its freewheeling style and unconventional approach is the basis for a new kind of comedy, a brand of wit that - like the Beatles and music - would change humor forever. Success since Python has been spectacular (Gilliam's cinematic canon, Cleese's Fawlty Towers, Palin's travel series) or spotty (individual acting roles, Ripping Yarns) for John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Terry Jones, Michael Palin, Eric Idle and Terry Gilliam. But at least in the case of two of these celebrated comedians, the pre-Python presentation is almost as good as its offspring. This bonanza of buffoonery, still as funny today as it was nearly 40 (!!!) years ago, is deserving of the dynasty it helped to form. This is classic sketch silliness, as only the masters could manage.
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