Continuing our series of TV shows you need to see, it’s Palin and Jones’s post-Python comedy, Ripping Yarns.
Everyone’s at least heard of the televisual milestone that was and is Monty Python’s Flying Circus, but when Python’s final episode was aired in December 1974, the ingenious minds that created it didn’t stop working. Ripping Yarns followed, written by Michael Palin and Terry Jones and in its day going up against John Cleese’s Fawlty Towers and Eric Idle’s Rutland Weekend Television. Of the three shows, Fawlty Towers was met with the most critical acclaim and has remained iconic, but Ripping Yarns has been, unfortunately, largely forgotten.
Ripping Yarns harnesses the absurdity that made Monty Python a comedic institution and threads it through an actual story
But Ripping Yarns does deserve a place in our memories. The appeal of Ripping Yarns is the way it harnesses the absurdity that made Monty Python a comedic institution and threads it through an actual story. This format change allowed Palin and Jones to poke fun at British pre-war literature, with its parodied tales of ‘terrifically British’ heroism and adventure – the episode Winfrey’s Last Case, for example, vaguely parodies something between a Sherlock Holmes book and Biggles, while Across the Andes by Frog plays out as a ridiculous story of heroic British exploration, influenced by the literature surrounding the likes of Scott of the Antarctic.
This continued a theme that had run throughout Monty Python’s Flying Circus; Ripping Yarns making a mockery of British institutions and culture played perfectly to Palin and Jones’s strengths, not to mention their reputations as anti-establishment comedians.
Episodes The Testing of Eric Olthwaite and Golden Gordon also continue a Python tradition with a grim mimicry of the grey North. Golden Gordon tells the tale of a man who supports a football team that have never won a game, featuring a slow, miserable brass version of the Match of the Day theme tune throughout and no end of bleakness. As these suggest, many Ripping Yarns episodes could feasibly be seen as elongated Python sketches – no bad thing. Ripping Yarns essentially offers a continuation of the absurdity that Python endeared us to.
Ripping Yarns was unfairly overshadowed by the genius of John Cleese’s Fawlty Towers as its contemporary competition
The jewel in the Ripping Yarns crown is its last episode, Roger of the Raj – set in India under the rule of the British Empire, it lampoons the aristocracy and British superiority fantastically. The titular Roger’s mother, Lady Bartlesham, has shot more grouse than any woman in history, while his father, an established military officer, takes the centre of a notable scene in which many officers commit suicide due to slight infringements of dinner etiquette. While all this ensues, Roger dreams of nothing more than running away to open a small shop, despite his aristocratic background, and other colourful characters including Roger’s Marxist tutor create the bizarre contradictions and intelligent comedy we’ve all come to expect from Palin and Jones.
Ripping Yarns, then, is not far removed from Monty Python in many ways, though it was overshadowed by the genius of Fawlty Towers as its contemporary competition. The series breathed fresh life into a style of comedy that Monty Python had pioneered, and as a result became an extension of a fantastic vein of creative comedy. This alone makes Ripping Yarns well worth watching if you’re a Python fan, Palin fan, or just a fan of great comedy.
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All images: BBC