Time Life: The Golden Age of Comedy Box Set One Review

The title of this marvellous box set from Time Life is slightly misleading. Although the five DVDs it contains features many if not all of the undisputed stars of comedy on American television in the 1950s, all the episodes are taken from the live variety shows that were such a staple of that early period in TV history. You’ll find none of the established sitcoms of the era, trailblazers such as I Love Lucy or The Phil Silvers Show, shows that did as much as, if not more than, the live shows to help make television the dominant form of entertainment for America by the end of the decade. Any story about this fascinating period in the growth of onscreen popular entertainment is incomplete without some samples from such shows, and it’s regrettable that it would appear that a companion volume to this set, which was scheduled to be released this year, appears to have been cancelled.

But that’s about the only criticism I can find to say about the contents of this set. In all other regards, it is a fabulously entertaining collection that succeeds both in representing the era these shows hail from and also painting a picture of the culture in which they were made. It turns out that the things that made people laugh fifty years ago were not so very different to what does now, from satirical digs at people in the news and laughing at each other’s idiosyncrasies to out-and-out buffoonery and slapstick. The style of the shows is one that, while quaint by today's standards, are instantly recognisable. Before a live theatre audience (theatre being the operative word, complete with curtains on the stage and one-dimensional backdrops) the star enacts a series of monologues and sketches, sometimes with a common theme, sometimes not, helped along by a special guest star, and with regular breaks for a word from the sponsors, often delivered by the star themselves. This was a world in which the audience were a vital player in proceedings, made complicit in the mayhem being enacted in front of them through the comedians’ direct interaction with them and their raucous responses to what they were seeing. Together with the fact these shows were being transmitted live there is a dangerous, often hysterical quality to many of the shows, performers and watchers egging each other on, thrilling when a line is fluffed or a comic corpses. It is an atmosphere entirely without artifice or ironic cynicism, and all the more refreshing for it - this is good, old fashioned entertainment in all senses of the phrase.

All the shows share the same cultural heritage as almost without exception the stars came from a background of first vaudeville theatre and then radio, and it’s that vaudeville tradition that shines through. One of the kings of the era was Jack Benny, appearing on Volumes One and Three in the set, was one of American's television's first breakout stars and his history is characteristic of the other stars in this collection. Born Benjamin Kubelsky in 1894 in Illinois, he began his comedy career almost by accident. A promising violinist in his teens, he had begun to tell jokes during his time in the Navy during World War One, and following the cessation of hostilities had begun to tour the vaudeville circuit with his act “Ben K. Benny: Fiddle Funology.” Over time the comedy became the overriding focus of his performance, and after a decade spent refining and honing his comic persona, he was a respected and much-liked personality on the vaudeville circuit.

His big break came when he appeared as a guest on a radio programme presented by Ed Sullivan in early 1932. So good was he on that that he was instantly signed up to host The Canada Dry Ginger Ale Programme which was not, of course, a show singing the praises of popular soft drinks but a variety show which featured monologues from Benny alongside music and adverts. It was an instant hit and by the end of the same year Benny was voted “Most Popular Comedian on the Air,” beating such luminaries as the Marx Brothers and Burns & Allen to the accolade. But he was no flash in the pan; Benny continued to be loved by millions of listeners to his show for more than two decades. During that time the series evolved, moving away from the variety-style of Benny’s early career to a far more conventional situation comedy set-up, with Benny playing a character who, although also called Jack Benny, was virtually the antithesis of the man himself; smug, lazy, vain and basically an all-round jerk. In real-life Benny, who Bob Hope at his funeral described as “a gentle man,” was none of these.

When television came along Benny simply followed the axiom of if it ain’t broke don’t fix it and his TV show, broadcast first on CBS and then NBC, aped the format and style of his radio (indeed, he re-used several radio scripts for the visual medium). His first show, with the opening words “I’d give a million dollars to know what I looked like!” was broadcast in 1950 and, just as with the radio, was a big success right from the word go. At first Benny continued with both his television and radio shows but as the decade wore on it became clear that the golden years of radio were over, and his last radio show as broadcast in 1955. By that time he was a television star and everyone in the country knew what he looked like.

Although the episodes had two slightly different styles, the show always had exactly the same feel to it. One style opened with a monologue from Benny, then some jokey banter between him and his special guest, followed in the second half by some kind of skit which often tied in with whatever the guest was most famous for. The second style, which to be fair was not very different, was what we would see now as a conventional, albeit deeply primitive, situation comedy, in which Benny was surrounded by a cast of recurring characters, with the most notable being Benny’s butler Rochester, played by Eddie Anderson. One of the few coloured actors to be on television in those pre-Civil Rights days, Anderson’s participation in the series was made more extraordinary by the fact that more often than not he had the best lines, and was shown to be the voice of reason whenever his boss came up with his latest wacky schemes. In many ways, Anderson was a pioneer, and it’s heartening to see that even in those early days television was doing its bit to break down barriers.

As for Benny himself, television benefited him enormously in that now he was able to bring in the more physical comedy which had been a mainstay of his act during his vaudeville years. The four episodes on these discs showcase his visual talents perfectly; his dashing around, his facial tics, and, especially, his constant turning to the studio audience milking his laughs for all they are worth. His rapport with the audience was one of the main reasons for his success; like all really good comedians in the theatre, he made them feel part of the act, as though not only are they enjoying a good show but that they are in on an extra joke, such as the frequent times he and his guests crease in laughter. The routines themselves are, of course, very dated to a modern sensibility, simplistic but also touchingly innocent, and even though these days they are unlikely to raise much of a genuine chuckle (not least because so much of the style is so clichéd) it’s still genial enough and Benny’s command of the stage shows why he stayed on the top of his game for well over three decades.

Fittingly, he is the most represented of the stars on these DVDs, with four episodes from his show included. The first three fill Volume One of this collection, subtitled The Secret Word is Jack. This title is a reference to the first episode, which guest-stars a tired-looking Groucho Marx (who had, of course, also started his career in vaudeville and been a friend of Benny’s their entire working life), and sees Jack taking part in Marx’s gameshow You Bet Your Life (the one with the Secret Word and the duck which Bill Cosby had a go at reviving in the 1990s) and dates from April 1955. It’s vaguely amusing, particularly the first scene between Benny and Rochester. The second comes from October two years earlier and sees Humphrey Bogart making a rare appearance on television playing Babyface Bogart, who gets pulled into the local police precinct but manages to get away, obligatory gangster’s moll on his arm. This is an episode with a larger cast than the other two on the disc, and goes down extremely well with the audience, but, despite Bogey’s presence, the highlight is Benny’s monologue at the beginning, not especially because it’s rip-roaringly funny but just as a sample of seeing how the comic works his audience. The third show, coming from May 1954, guest-stars Bob Hope (with an uncredited cameo from Dean and Jerry) and sees Hope and Benny frolicking through a sketch called “Road to Nairobi” in which some cannibals put them in a cooking pot and sing about the joys of smoking Likely Strikes, the sponsors. As with the Bogart episode, the highlight of this show is not the sketch itself but a monologue, this time delivered by Hope, beforehand.

One of the things Jack Benny was most known for was the long-running “feud” he had with fellow comedian and real-life chum Fred Allen. Allen was arguably one of the most influential of his generation of comics, a genuine wit whose ad-libs and sense of the ridiculous made him yet another hugely popular performer on the radio. Best known for his Allen’s Alley slot in which he would ask denizens of said alley about news items of the week, he had a running battle with his network’s censors, who were constantly chiding him for what he could and couldn’t say, but they were perhaps the only people who didn’t appreciate his talent; certainly his fellow professionals held him in the greatest esteem. Unfortunately by the time television came along he was nearing the end of his life, and his only real success came as a panellist on What’s My Line? which he appeared on for two years until his death in 1956.

The running gag of his perpetual feud with Benny dated back to 1937 when Allen made a derogatory remark about Jack Benny’s violin playing. Over the next decade they kept at each other regularly over the airwaves, appearing on each other’s shows expressly to trade insults. Audiences loved it (aside from the ones who actually believed it was real, that is) and, as can be seen from the episode of Benny’s show on Volume 3 of this set, it carried on right up to Allen’s final years. The sketch sees Allen trying to persuade Jack’s sponsor to dump their man and put him in his place. It’s all good natured stuff and, in the fact it’s a simple, focused narrative with some good gags, is probably the best Benny episode in this collection. The two have that chemistry that comes from old friends who have worked together for years and while near the end it risks looking a little smug it’s still an entertaining show.

Benny’s show lasted on various networks until 1965 when, as is the way, a younger, hipper audience found him old-fashioned. However, he continued to work on television specials and popped up in movies for the remainder of his life; indeed, he was still working on a new show the week of his death, from pancreatic cancer, on Boxing Day 1974 leaving behind a legacy as one of the first true stars of the small screen.

Indeed, the only comedian who was arguably more popular - although he was certainly the bigger star - was Bob Hope himself. He simply was Mr Comedy in America for virtually his entire life, beloved by a nation who generally didn’t realise that he was born to the sound of bow bells to an English father and Welsh mother. Coming to the US at the age of four and becoming an American citizen when twenty, Hope swiftly rose up the ranks of the vaudeville circuit before moving on to radio and the movies. By the late 1940s he was already close to a national treasure with his Road to… series of films with Bing Crosby, live shows and radio broadcasts, all of which made him one of the most wealthy celebrities at that time. His fame continued through the 1950s with the comic regularly turning up on television shows, both presenting and guest-starring, and his regular gig presenting the Oscars. He did this a total of eighteen times, famously opening one ceremony with the line “Welcome to the Oscars or, as it’s known in my household, Passover,” and although he never won an Academy Award for a specific role, he did receive several honourary statues for his outstanding contributions to the merriment of the nation. Together with his frequent shows put on for the American army in hotspots around the world, from World War II to Vietnam and beyond, he was a genuine legend of showbusiness, which not even the persistent snipes about his army of scriptwriters feeding him his one-liners could tarnish.

Personally, though, he’s a performer I always find it hard to warm to, and the sample episode from his series on this collection illustrates the reason why perfectly. The show is found on Volume Two of this collection, a volume entitled Bob Loves Lucy which gives away his guest star Lucille Ball. This fifty-minute sketch show, sponsored by Chevrolet (to whom Hope refers often) also features Diana Dors in a weak duo of sketches illustrating the differences between a European couple and an American one, an on-form James Cagney doing a bit of a song and dance, the baseballer Don Larsen who had just pitched the first perfect game ever seen in a World Series (and who subsequently spent the rest of his life being asked about it) and the cast of I Love Lucy. It’s an interesting contrast to the Benny shows from Volume One; despite the odd jump cuts the presentation is slicker, with Hope, as well you might expect, the consummate professional but one who doesn’t have the genuine warmth of Benny - the modern-day Letterman, if you will, to Benny's Letterman of the early years, and one I personally always have a hard time actually liking. Still, it’s fun to see Ball and husband Desi messing around.

Of course, not all the stars with shows in that time were quite so successful as Benny and Hope. One whose TV career never quite managed to get off the ground was Ed Wynn. I’ve always felt a bit sorry for him; although in many ways a trailblazer for the likes of Jack and Bob, he never had the same breakthrough success as those luminaries and ended up an also-ran in the pantheon of American comedy. Perhaps this is down to his comic persona; unlike those who achieved greater fame Wynn was not an ordinary Joe who just happened to wisecrack but a clown in the old-fashioned sense of the word, complete with silly costumes, dippy voice and comic props. In many ways he reminds one of an earlier version of Tommy Cooper who had a similarly perpetually jolly but baffled manner. Unlike Cooper, however, Wynn never made it on television as a front man; after having a successful radio show in the 1930s he never found a niche for himself on TV, despite the fact his slapstick was far more specifically suited to the visual medium than, say, Hope’s gags.

Perhaps why he wasn't a success can be discerned from the two episodes from his 1949-50 show included here. Both episodes, one starring Buster Keaton (on Vol 2) and one the Three Stooges (Vol 3), suggest that although obviously an accomplished comedian, he doesn’t entirely convince as an MC while his ramshackle manner was possibly a style which America, never a country that likes to lose control, found difficult to take. A shame as he is many ways more appealing, and while the Three Stooges episode, in which the goons run round pretending to be television executives with the mission of improving Wynn’s show, is spoilt by the fact it has the Three Stooges in it, the Keaton episode is reasonably good. It’s far less sophisticated than the Hope extravaganza, consisting of only two sketches, but, while the first is quite weak the second, in which Keaton recreates an early routine of his with Wynn in support, is great fun.

Sadly, it didn’t last, and when Wynn found his comedy career weaning he followed (albeit reluctantly) his son’s advice and turned to acting. Here he had more success; although initially nervous about performing, he acquitted himself well, with perhaps his best known roles being Uncle Albert in Mary Poppins and the voice of the Mad Hatter in Disney’s Alice in Wonderland. Initially lacking confidence in his dramatic abilities, his concerns proved ill-founded when he was nominated for an Academy Award for The Diary of Anne Frank in 1959 but still acting wasn’t his first love and sadly he died of throat cancer in the mid-Sixties. Although he did lots of good work and had a career many others would have killed for I still can’t help feeling his was a struggle that once again proved that behind the smile of every clown there are tears.

Another performer television audiences found hard to take was Ernie Kovacs who, I suspect, I would have been a fan of had I been around in those days. Unlike most of the stars in this collection, who were effectively bringing to television the same style of shows they had performed for years on the stage and radio, Kovacs was one of the very first performers to actually sit down and think about how the medium of television itself could be used to best effect. A true innovator, he spent the 1950s confusing and thrilling audiences in equal measures as he experimented with the form a TV show could take, from employing elaborate camera tricks through to an absurdist, satirical sense of humour that parodied the style of other programmes, with a self-referential style which saw him incorporating his own life into his routines and outrageous comedy characters such as Pierre Ragout and horror hostess Auntie Gruesome. One of those comedians for who the phrase “years ahead of his time” was invented, most middle-of-the-roads audiences, used to seeing the conventional comedy schtick of other shows, were mystified. Where were the jokes? Was what he was saying real or made up? Why does he keep spinning the camera around? As a consequence, although he had a few shows on during the decade none lasted for more than a season (aside from a game show he hosted, which doesn’t really count) and sadly nowadays very few episodes of his work are in existence; shortly after he was killed in a car crash in 1962 (ten days before his forty-third birthday) his widow discovered that most of the tapes of his shows were being wiped and reused. Despite that he had a lasting influence on the small screen, and in a diverse series of ways, from the character comedy and anarchic streak that paved the way to Saturday Night Live (indeed, when Chevy Chase won an Emmy during his time on the show he thanked Kovacs) through to talk show hosts who adopt a casual air (David Letterman has often hailed him, and indeed for one year Kovacs co-hosted The Tonight Show with Steve Allen).

The episode on Volume Four of this set is from 1956 and is a good showcase of his material. It opens with a lengthy monologue in which he discusses getting a passport, before segueing into a spoof in which his real-life wife Edie Adams (who often co-starred with him) pretends to be Marilyn Monroe reading a self-written poem. The highlight, though, is a parody of a television newscast which in intent foreshadows Chris Morris’ work on The Day Today by some four decades and contains many of the same gags. It’s a remarkable sketch for its time and a reflection of what Kovacs wanted to do. What a shame he didn’t live long enough to see his work become standard practise; he would have loved the self-referential irony of the Nineties in particular.

Technically speaking, of course, few of these stars actually owned the shows that bore their name. Instead, it was the sponsors who wielded the power, and many of the shows should technically be called something like, for example, The Lucky Strike Show starring Jack Benny. - indeed, witness the sketch from the Benny/Allen show, in which Benny and Allen compete with the sponsor for Benny’s show. This was an era when “selling out” was not so much a stigma as a necessity, with performers relying on big corporations to give them airtime and publicity. As a result, not every performer appeared on a weekly basis; certainly Benny didn’t in the early years of his show, alternating with a few other people. One of the shows that made a policy out of this revolving door system was The Colgate Comedy Hour (1950-55) which had a cycle of four acts who took it turns to host the NBC show. Who the four were varied over the five years it ran, with such names as Jimmy Durante, Bob Hope (inevitably), Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis and Abbott and Costello. These shows benefited from the extra length, both with the number of sketches and also the design and style of the show, with more extras and more interesting backdrops being two readily noticeable differences from, say, the Wynn or Benny shows.

The good news is that this set features three samples from The Colgate Comedy Hour. The bad news is that two of them star Abbott and Costello. Truly the Little and Large of their day, they were massively popular at the time but in retrospect it’s really hard, even allowing for the different times they performed in, to imagine what people ever saw in this irritating duo. As with their contemporaries they had begun life on the stage, but unlike most of the other comedians being discussed in this set radio was not the medium that gave them their big breakthrough; instead they went almost straight from treading the boards to the high life in Hollywood. True, Hollywood had first noticed them on a wireless show in 1938 but it was their scene-stealing antics in One Night in the Tropics (a 1940 film ostensibly starring Allan Jones) which made the world sit up and take notice. For the next decade and a half they were regular attractions on the silver screen, making well over thirty films, nearly all of them unbearable to this reviewer, as well as a radio show (which this reviewer has never heard but suspects would be equally unbearable) and in the end, it was this excessive prolificacy that proved to be their undoing. By the time they joined The Colgate Comedy Hour their back catalogue of films, still a massive draw, were being regularly replayed in theatres which, combined with the facts that they were still making new additions to their cinematic canon (often two a year) and could be seen on television every four weeks meant people became first used and then tired of their antics. Theirs was a formulaic schtick which, while apparently amusing America if it saw them every so often, began to grate and grow repetitive when seen constantly. As a result, they became arguably the first stars to realise a hitherto unappreciated danger of the new medium of television: over-exposure can kill. By the middle of the 1950s they were struggling; the two began to row and the IRS started chasing them for unpaid taxes, leading to their breakup in 1956. Three years later Costello died of a heart attack, neither performer having found much to do once their partnership had dissolved. In later life Abbott expressed regret about how things had ended and, while he tried to find other sparring partners, said ruefully that none of them could hold a candle to Costello.

The two episodes they star in on these discs are typical. One episode, from January 1952 (and found on Volume Three) sees the gruesome twosome in a number of sketches based around a Western theme, and includes a scene-stealing, and utterly knowing, turn from Errol Flynn who, even in these last years of his life could still play the charmer, in a scene recreating one of their classic sketches. Abbott and Costello are my Ant ‘n’ Dec - I can never remember which one is which - but the small shouty one spends his time shouting while the taller one is relegated for much of the time into the background. That said, it’s a well put together show, far more confident than even the Hope show in the number of sketches and general construction, and while it won’t tickle your funny bones that much, it’s actually surprisingly entertaining, with Flynn on wryly amusing form. The second, on Volume Five, dates from May 1952 and sees a plot in which the two, through a series of sketches, travel to Paris for the small shouty one to get singing lessons while encountering singers Vera Zorina and Tony Bavaar. It’s standard fare and I’m not sure I even cracked a smile once during its thirty-seven minute running time, but watch out for the list of sponsors at the end which is just fab.

Far better, of course, is the regretfully single episode presented by Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. The title of Volume Five, A Really Big Show, refers to the first sketch in which Jerry starts out by spoofing Ed Sullivan (who hosted a rival show broadcast at the same time) while sounding like Dr Evil, then there’s an amusing but overlong baby-sitting sketch, then Jerry spends four minutes telling everyone where Dean and he are touring before the show ends with a dance number. This is an interesting episode to see as it comes near the end of the Martin and Lewis partnership, in May 1955. There’s no sign of the animosity they were apparently already bearing each other (they split up acrimoniously the next year) and Lewis still has the youthful exuberance and Martin the slight weariness that had borne such fruit in their ten year partnership. It was a partnership that had been the making of both of them; before they had teamed up Martin had been a struggling crooner who didn’t seem to be anything out of the ordinary and Lewis a comedian just starting out on his career. Teaming up in New York they had swiftly found that their easy rapport translated into comedy gold on stage, club audiences lapping up their adlibbed banter. Martin, of course, was the straight man, Lewis the hyperactive manchild, with the latter ruining the former’s attempts to get through a song without being heckled.

In 1949 Paramount signed them to appear in My Friend Irma the first of seventeen films they made over the next seven years (the last, appropriately, called Hollywood or Bust.) Like Abbott and Costello they mixed their film work with regular appearances on TV; unlike the more established men, they were new and fresh, their anarchic spirit seeming to sum up the youth of 1950s America and reflecting a future that was exciting, full of possibilities and almost totally unpredictable. When they weren’t filming they were touring, and, as with so many others over the years who have lived in each other pockets for months at a time, they eventually began to have differences. Lewis (reportedly) was jealous when Martin made the hit record That’s Amore in 1953 while Martin began to feel that eternal frustration of the straight man. In 1956 it grew too much and the two men went their separate ways, not speaking for years (indeed, even when Frank Sinatra managed to get the two of them back on screen together for a 1976 telethon Martin walked away afterwards, not wishing to make amends, although to be fair he was having a lot of personal problems at the time). Out of everyone featured on this set, it’s Martin and Lewis that I wish had been around when I was young - one gets the impression that their live shows would have been a lot of fun.

They’re not the best thing to be found on these discs, however. That accolade goes to the last episode, chronologically speaking, and comes from Phil Silvers in 1960. Of course, he had spent the 1950s up to no good on Fort Baxter in the guise of Sgt Bilko but at the beginning of the 1960s decided to return to his roots in variety comedy shows. This disc holds one such special from 1960, Just Polly and Me. Unsurprisingly given that it comes from a later date than most of the shows on this collection this is a technically more ambitious show, with many more sets and costume changes in its relatively short thirty-five minute running time, but what does take one aback is how sophisticated the comedy is. Whereas the likes of Benny and Hope were content to spout out one-liners and make cultural references, the Silvers show is intelligent and has something to say, most notably about the artificiality of fame in an extended sketch in which he imagines what it would be like if a plumber became famous. Another sketch muses on the destructive nature of jealousy while even the last, which at first appears to be a one-gag scene extended beyond its natural running-time, ends on a delightful piece of whimsy that redeems it and makes for a heartening end to the programme. Throughout Silvers is given able support by Polly Bergen who, given that she has a large variety of different personalities to perform as opposed to Silvers one, is often the more impressive performer. Although Silvers never quite recaptured the magic of Bilko, this is a show that illustrates there was far more to him than just that one character, and from a detached viewpoint this is easily the most impressive show of the entire collection.

Of course, much on this set looks quaint now. There are shows which just aren’t funny at all - Abbott and Costello, I’m looking at you - and most of the material is badly dated, both in old-style unsophisticated jokes (one sketch between Hope and Benny consists entirely of people wearing the wrong trousers) and in cultural references which are today meaningless. It’s also hard for a cynic to watch some of the stuff without feeling that the pudding is being over-egged; the comedians can sometimes appear self-satisfied, especially when sparring off a chum (Hope is particularly bad at this), while there’s also the double-edged sword of knowing the fates of those one is seeing, especially someone like the unfulfilled Kovacs or the despondent Wynn, which can be a bit of a downer. The commercials, too, are hardly to be believed; there’s so much criticism these days of blatant product placing, but it’s nothing compared to moments when stars chat away at length about the sponsors of their show, even more chilling when that product is tobacco. The epitome of all that has changed from then to now is to be found in a scene from the Hope/Benny show in which a group of cannibals dance around on stage singing how marvellous it is to smoke Lucky Strike cigarettes. It fair takes your breath away, and reminds you that life was not all was the sweetness and light that these shows portray.

But there’s no getting away from the fact that also these guys truly were the best in the business at the time. As a chance to see the stars of the day doing their thing these shows are priceless, and represent not only the shows themselves, but the entire history of live American comedy of the first half of the twentieth century, charting the progression from the wooden boards of vaudeville theatre through to the heydays of the radio in the 1930s and on to the emerging dominance of television as the century grew into middle age; that these guys were able to stride like giants across all three mediums shows just how talented they were. Seeing them do their thing is one of the great joys of this collection, the other being seeing a snapshot of mainstream entertainment of that time. It’s well thought out too, with inclusions from the mainstream (Benny, Hope) to the avant-garde (Kovacs) to the also-rans (Wynn) meaning we are getting a full spectrum of the style out there. For anyone not interested in the history of US comedy it is, of course, a complete waste of money, as there’s little modern entertainment to be had. For those who are, it’s a marvellous dip into a world which is both very recognisable to our own and very, very different. Great fun.

The DVDs
The episodes come on five DVDs, and are accompanied by a music CD. Each one is held in a slimline case which comes with a couple of paragraphs worth of detail about each episode held on that disc which are never less than interesting and genuinely informative. The six cases are held in a sturdy cardboard box with similar artwork which reflects the many number of stars appearing.

The menus have a uniform format. Each one has the same sort of illustration as the cover, and lists each show, with the options Play Show and Chapters underneath. The Chapters pages are nicely illustrated by stills from the appropriate chapter, and the whole thing is accompanied by some jaunty Fifties music which, with all looped DVD menu music, will drive you mad if you listen to it more than a couple of times.

Ranges from the barely acceptable to abysmal. These are prints that, while generally not showing a huge amount of wear and tear, still have an aged look to them, with plenty of artefacts popping up. The transfer is not successful, with just about every kind of digital artefact imaginable popping up regularly and some truly horrendous glare that bleaches some scenes almost completely white. It takes a lot to blank Diana Dors out, but somehow this manages it. It’s soft too, and overall some scenes are really hard to watch. That said, nearly all of the time you can tell what’s going on, you just can’t always see it. It doesn’t ruin the watching experience but does sometimes make the image look like you’re watching it through half-closed, blurred eyes. Some of the episodes do better than others - the Phil Silvers episode, for example, looks far better than most of the others, while the Benny and Hope shows in particular suffer.

Again, very clearly showing its age. It’s never crystal clear, and when there’s a lot of noise - such as some particularly enthusiastic audience laughter - much gets lost. That said, it’s of a far more steady quality than the video. Most of the time its muffled but audible, and it’s atmospheric rather than a chore to listen to, in the same way listening to a crackly old recording is.

Although not classed as such, two items in this collection would count as extras. The first is a five minute sketch from the 1962 show The Soupy Sales Show in which Soupy and a mailman battle over a garden hose. Sales, the only presenter on this collection still alive today, is a long-running children’s comedian on television with a pleasing knack for attracting controversy, whether it be advising his young audience to pilfer “funny green bits of paper” from their parents wallets and post them to him or the constant rumours he had a habit of sneaking in double entrendres into this act. Never having seen his show I can’t comment whether this is typical fare or not, but I think I’d much rather have seen the incident when a topless dancer nearly infiltrated his show, her modesty protected only by a balloon, than this sketch. Brian Cant must wonder where he went wrong.

There's not a lot more to be said; a collection that does exactly what it says on the tin, this is a must for nostalgia buffs with an interest in this period or one of the many guest stars featured. Of course not everyone from that era is included (there's no Sid Caesar or Milton Berle for example) while there are collections of these shows already doing the rounds, with plenty of Best of Jack Benny boxsets or Dean and Jerry shows, but as a potpourri of that era and genre it can't be bettered, a pick 'n' mix of the great and not so great. For anyone with more modern tastes there's nothing really here to appetise, but I loved it. Even if there is far too much of Abbott and Costello.

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