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It's a Square World (1960-64)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of It's a Square World (1960-64)
BBC, 26/4/1961-20/12/1964
56 x 30 min edns in 7 series plus 2 specials, black & white
Producers includeJoe McGrath
 Barry Lupino
 John Street
Devised & written byMichael Bentine
 John Law

Cast: Michael Bentine; Dick Emery; Frank Thornton; Benny Lee; Leon Thau; Clive Dunn; Deryck Guyler

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Madcap comedy from the unconventional mind of Michael Bentine.

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As one of the original Goon Show team, Michael Bentine helped revolutionise radio comedy (though he left before the show enjoyed its greatest popularity). His madcap mind and anything-goes style first found small-screen success with the wacky children's programme The Bumblies (BBC, 1954) before he switched channels to appear with fellow-Goon Peter Sellers in the Dick Lester-directed Yes, It's the Cathode-Ray Tube Show! (1957), one of several ITV attempts to find a visual complement to the Goons' aural style. Bentine and Lester's subsequent After Hours (ITV, 1958-59), a hotch-potch of sketches, stand-up routines and special guest stars, paved the way for Bentine's most successful foray into this territory.

It's a Square World employed location filming, ingenious special effects and elaborate models to realise the more extreme visions from the imaginations of Bentine and his co-writer John Law. Ranging from gentle satire to surreal slapstick, the fast-moving agenda was anchored by Bentine, usually appearing as a hapless authority figure trying manfully to remain calm in the face of a conveyor belt of unlikely eccentrics and lunatic situations. Recurring characters included Oil Sheiks speaking in a cod-Arabic language of Bentine's own invention; feuding magicians; inept Russian spies and incident-prone Egyptologists. Themes included the military, the United Nations, uncharted lands and the BBC itself.

Skits were often linked by Bentine as a newsreader introducing stories and introducing assorted correspondents in the field. Memorable moments included the BBC Centre portrayed as a POW camp that held the Corporation's creative staff to prevent them defecting to ITV; the Slabodian mountaineering team's attempt to scale the Woolwich gasometer; the Triffid invasion of the BBC; and the sinking of the House of Commons by a Chinese junk.

Many of the themes and character types were echoed later by the Monty Python team, especially Bentine's linking newsreader and his preoccupations with the military and bizarre officialdom (a Square World sketch featuring the Ministry of Holes predates the Pythons' Ministry of Silly Walks). The series was hugely successful, with a 1963 special edition winning the coveted Golden Rose of Montreux.

1977 saw one last visit in Michael Bentine's Square World (tx. 19/4/1977), a pilot for a putative (but unrealised) series. In the wake of Monty Python, the links between the two series seemed even more obvious, and the concluding sketch, featuring witches and wizards working in the RAF during WWII, could have easily slotted in among the Pythonalia.

Dick Fiddy

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
1. The ancient game of boggling (4:30)
2. Finding the source of the Thames (4:35)
3. BBC prison camp (7:41)
Complete edition (21:22)
Monty Python's Flying Circus (1969-74)
Q5, Q6 etc. / There's a Lot of It About (1969-82)
Show Called Fred, A / Son of Fred (1956)
Bentine, Michael (1922-1996)
The Roots of Monty Python