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Complete and Utter History of Britain, The (1969)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment Ltd

Main image of Complete and Utter History of Britain, The (1969)
London Weekend Television for ITV, 12/1-16/2/1969
6 x 30 minute episodes, black & white
DirectorMaurice Murphy
ProducerHumphrey Barclay
ScriptMichael Palin
 Terry Jones

Cast: Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Wallas Eaton, Colin Gordon, Roddy Maude-Roxby, Melinda May

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A look into some unexplored corners of British history from early man to the rise of Oliver Cromwell.

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Along with At Last the 1948 Show (ITV, 1967-68) and Do Not Adjust Your Set (ITV, 1967-69), The Complete and Utter History of Britain was a key step in the development of what became Monty Python's Flying Circus (BBC, 1969-74). Its origins lie in a sketch about the Battle of Hastings that Michael Palin and Terry Jones wrote for Twice a Fortnight (BBC, 1967). Following a suggestion from Jones' brother, the pair, who met while both studying history at Oxford, developed the innovative idea of showing how television might have covered historical events had the medium been around at the time.

While allowing an abundance of history in-jokes, this enabled them to satirise broadcasting conventions as well as society. A victorious William the Conqueror is interviewed in the showers in a parody of post-match football analysis, while Richard the Lionheart returns from the Crusades raucously describing his boozy escapades as if he had been on a cheap package holiday in the sun with 'the lads'. Though at other times the learned insights into obscure points of history seem to have preceded the comedy, overall it suggests Peter Watkins' Culloden (BBC, 1964) played for laughs rather than bitter effect, or a distant ancestor of Blackadder (BBC, 1983-89).

Linking the studio sketches and filmed inserts, Colin Gordon as the irritable presenter does little more than fill the role of weary straight man. Slightly more effective is Roddy Maude-Roxby as resident historian Professor Weaver, whose idiosyncratic viewpoints and verbal tics provide a desultory interlude to the sketches. But the uneven performances justify Jones and Palin's anxiety that other performers didn't always 'get' their humour, and explain their desire to play almost all roles themselves thereafter.

Viewed today, the series seems to anticipate a number of aspects of Monty Python, most obviously its title sequence (clearly by an uncredited Terry Gilliam) and fascination with historical lore, from the Knights of the Round Table to the Spanish Inquisition. But the Pythons' love of word games ('Norman of Williamdy') and marketing spoofs is also on show, as is their occasional less welcome foray into Benny Hill-style sexism, with attractive young women being chased around for little reason. But the relative absence of adult themes and recurring use of endearingly daft slapstick jokes (two figures who were said to 'fall out' literally fall out of windows) betray its creators' recent work in childrens' TV.

James Donohue

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Video Clips
1. The Invention of the Chair (2:43)
2. Augustine in England (4:28)
3. Great Spiders of History (3:24)
4. The Norman conquest (2:13)
5. Trade in the 12th Century (1:35)
Complete episode: Part 1 (14:04)
Complete episode: Part 2 (10:47)
Pimple's Battle of Waterloo (1913)
Monty Python's Flying Circus (1969-74)
Jones, Terry (1942-)
Palin, Michael (1943-)
The Roots of Monty Python