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Ripping Yarns (1976-79)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Ripping Yarns (1976-79)
2 series of 9x30 min episodes total
Written byTerry Jones, Michael Palin
DirectorsAlan J.W.Bell, Jim Franklin, Terry Hughes

Cast: Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Denholm Elliott, Roy Kinnear, Richard Vernon, Joan Sanderson, John Le Mesurier

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Nine tales of derring-do and good old British pluck and gumption, as our heroes triumph over adversity (or fail miserably) in such varied settings as Victorian London, Depression-era Yorkshire, Nazi Germany, Peru and the Raj.

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After Fawlty Towers (BBC, 1975/79) triumphantly proved that there was life beyond Monty Python for John Cleese, Terry Jones and Michael Palin wrote 'Tomkinson's Schooldays' (tx. 7/1/1976), a note-perfect take-off of traditional British boarding school sagas such as Tom Brown's Schooldays and Anthony Buckeridge's Jennings cycle. Here, though, the headmaster is ritually beaten by his pupils, the school bully is an official post (filled by a suave Raffles type festooned with half-naked Filipino women), boys are nailed to the wall for minor breaches of discipline and Tomkinson's mother seems to have forgotten his first name.

This led to a whole series of equally silly Ripping Yarns (tx. 27/9/1977-25/10/1977): 'The Testing of Eric Olthwaite' (the adventures of the world's most boring man); 'Escape from Stalag Luft 112B' (a Colditz parody where escape plans are stifled by British bureaucracy); 'Murder at Moorstones Manor' (a more than usually convoluted Agatha Christie-style mystery); 'Across the Andes by Frog' (British derring-do in South America) and 'The Curse of the Claw' (a melodrama set in an insanely repressed Victorian England).

The second and final series (tx. 10-24/10/1979) only had three episodes as the result of Jones and Palin's refusal to compromise on production values in the face of a reduced budget. It featured 'Winfrey's Last Case' (a dashing detective prevents World War I from starting a year early); 'Golden Gordon' (the last hurrah of a failing football team) and 'Roger of the Raj' (the heir to a British Empire outpost finds himself caught up in an Indian Marxist revolution).

Each episode was self-contained, the only common elements being Michael Palin's participation (Jones only appeared in 'Tomkinson's Schooldays'), the title sequence and the impression that they could all have been sourced from a typical Boy's Own adventure comic from the turn of the 20th century, were it not for the many Pythonesque absurdities. That said, 'The Testing of Eric Olthwaite' and especially 'Golden Gordon' were also rather touching, sharing their Yorkshire roots with the Sheffield-born Palin.

Palin and Jones' track record and big-screen experience (the first series was made between Monty Python and the Holy Grail in 1975 and Life of Brian in 1979) meant that production values were unusually lavish, with meticulous period reconstructions shot on film rather than videotape. As a result, Ripping Yarns has dated far less than most of its contemporaries, and is just as funny today as when first broadcast.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. Introduction (2:33)
2. Cup final night (2:53)
3. He wanted schoolgirls (2:34)
4. Shooting the radio (3:35)
Across the Andes by Frog (complete) (31:33)
Elliott, Denholm (1922-1992)
Jones, Terry (1942-)
Le Mesurier, John (1912-1983)
Palin, Michael (1943-)
Smith, Liz (1921-)