"Good heavens no, I feel that thieves are totally irresponsible!"
-- Alan Bennett and Peter Cook, "The Great Train Robbery"
Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Jonathan Miller, and Alan Bennett helped usher in the era of British satire with Beyond the Fringe, an irreverent and smart 1960s West End and Broadway comedy revue that inspired, in part, Monty Python. The show broached topics that were at the time extremely risky, and helped embed Cook and Moore into British pop culture, as well as launch Moore's moderately successful film career. While audio recordings of the act are widely available, it was thought that no film existed of the performance until recently, when their 1964 farewell performance was discovered in a producer's vault.
The cover says that this has been called "the funniest show ever." Well, no, but Beyond the Fringe definitely has its moments. Of the 23 segments on the two-hour DVD, there are some that really shine, such as the above-quoted "The Great Train Robbery" (an interview with the head of Scotland Yard about their progress – or lack thereof – in tracking down the perpetrators), "Civil War" (a panel discussing nuclear deterrence and providing helpful hints on what to do in case of Armageddon), and "Sitting on the Bench" (a coal miner's rambling story about why he never became a judge).
The best skit on the set, though, is "Aftermyth of War," a theatrical sketch about fond memories of World War II. It pokes fun at how a horrific tragedy became a warmhearted recollection, among other things:
"Perkins, I'm asking you to lay down your life. We need a futile gesture at this stage – it'll raise the whole tone of the war. Get up in a crate, Perkins... pop over to Bremen... take a shufti... don't come back. Goodbye, Perkins. God, I wish I was going, too."
"Goodbye, sir. Or is it... 'au revoir'?"
It's pretty apparent that the talent in the group isn't exactly evenly distributed, though. The bits by Cook are hilarious, but Bennett's are only sporadically funny, and Miller's are just plain tedious. "Words... and Things" is an especially awful example; "Man Bites God" is pretty bad, too. "Studio 5" absolutely grinds to a halt when he appears halfway through, despite a very clever joke by Bennett beforehand on the state of British science. Moore, on the other hand, is mostly in a support role throughout the show. His solo bits are at the piano, where he shows off some incredible talent.
So Beyond the Fringe, as the whole, isn't quite as refined as some of the things it would later inspire, but it's still a worthwhile way to spend a couple of hours. And if it creates some new Peter Cook fans along the way, all the better.
This is a transfer from a 40-year-old black and white film that was apparently kept in someone's basement. So understandably, it's fuzzy and indistinct, there are parts that are poorly lit, and there are even a few parts where the film drops out altogether for a few seconds. In an effort to remedy the poorly lit parts, it appears that the contrast was brought way up on the transfer in a handful of places, making the problem worse.
Really, the small print on the back of the box speaks for itself, albeit a bit modestly:
"Due to the age of these programs and the improved resolution that DVD provides, you may notice occasional flaws in the image and audio on this DVD presentation that were beyond our ability to correct from the original materials."
The video fares a bit better than the audio (mono, of course), although there are a few places where the sound drops out for one or two seconds. It's hardly spectacular, but there's no hissing or anything, and the lines are easy to understand. The track is close-captioned.
There are three main extras included on the disc: a history of the revue, good biographies for all four leads, and a mildly-interesting 1962 issue of Broadway Playbill in PDF format, which has a few pages devoted to biographies of the actors and a set list, among lots of ads. Not terribly impressive is the fact that the file is called "playbill.pfd," so you have to copy it to your computer and rename it to actually view the file. Nice.
Beyond the Fringe is funny but uneven. If you're a big fan of British satire, you'll definitely want to pick this up, but those with more of a casual interest can get away with adding it to their Netflix queue. Rent it.