At Last the 1948 Show Review

You’ve all heard this one: four Yorkshiremen sit round a table and try to outdo each other with tales of how they had it tough when they were lads. It’s one of the most famous sketches to come from the Monty Python team, and has been restaged several times, including the album Monty Python Live at Drury Lane and the Amnesty International charity show (and film) The Secret Policeman’s Ball. But in fact it’s not a Python sketch at all, first appearing on TV on At Last the 1948 Show.

The title was John Cleese’s, a joke at the length of time TV production took. Cleese had worked as a writer and performer on David Frost’s BBC show The Frost Report, where amongst others he performed the classic “Class” sketch with Ronnies Barker and Corbett. Frost suggested to Cleese that he join forces with Tim Brooke-Taylor, another Frost Report writer. Cleese agreed, bringing along his usual writing partner Graham Chapman. He also suggested that Marty Feldman (another Frost Report writer, who had co-created the radio hit Round the Horne with Barry Took) come on board. Frost sold the idea to Rediffusion – formerly Associated-Rediffusion, the company which held the weekday London franchise for UK’s commercial channel ITV at the time, and the result was At Last the 1948 Show. This was a series of unrelated sketches, often surreal and quite hard-edged for TV comedy at the time. They were linked by “the lovely Aimi Macdonald”, dressed in a variety of glamorous outfits and playing the dumb blonde to the hilt, the conceit being that she is under the impression that this is her show.

At Last the 1948 Show debuted on 15 February 1967 and ran for two series, thirteen shows in total. Although it made the top ten for the London area, it was less successful elsewhere. ITV didn’t network the show across the whole country, and some regions only saw one or other series and some none. However, in retrospect, !948 Show is of considerable interest, along with the contemporary Rediffusion children’s show Do Not Adjust Your Set as a forerunner of not only Monty Python’s Flying Circus but due to Brooke-Taylor’s presence (not to mention brief appearances by a clean-shaven Bill Oddie) The Goodies as well. Certainly the Python style was almost in place: all that was missing was the inspiration that sketches didn’t have to have punchlines and a more freeform style could work just as well.

Cleese and Chapman’s Python contributions add an abrasiveness to the mix, their sketches based on verbal conflict and often involving exasperated and ridiculous authority figures. (It’s said that Cleese and Chapman tended to be cast in these roles as they were the two tallest of the six Pythons.) Take the Psychiatrist sketch in the first episode on this DVD. It wouldn’t be out of place in Python, being a classic Chapman/Cleese confrontation sketch in which a Mr Gibbon-Posture thinks he’s a rabbit, and Cleese as the psychiatrist working himself into a fine pre-Basil Fawlty frenzy of exasperation…except the patient is played by Tim Brooke-Taylor instead of Chapman. One thing that dates Python nowadays is the portrayal of women, something I’ll go into in more detail in my review of the simultaneously-released DVD of Do Not Adjust Your Set. Aimi Macdonald’s links are intentionally separate from the male-only sketches. It’s fair to say that she has does what she has to do well enough, her performance of Hamlet’s soliloquy while doing a tapdance being a highlight.

At Last the 1948 Show was shot on 405-line black and white videotape. (BBC2 had started colour broadcasts in 1967, but BBC1 and ITV didn’t follow suit until November 1969.) It suffered from archiving policies that saw most TV as ephemeral and of little value, especially monochrome material in the new age of colour. Of the thirteen episodes, all but two were wiped. However, in 1989, it came to light that Swedish television had five episodes in their archive, which included the long-feared-lost Four Yorkshiremen sketch. It turned out, though, that these five shows were not the original ones as broadcast in the UK but were compilations made up from several episodes, presumably using the sketches that were considered to have most appeal overseas. However, help was at hand. In 1967, Ray Frensham was a teenage fan of the radio show I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again, which had featured Cleese and Brooke-Taylor and was in fact where the Four Yorkshiremen sketch originated. Given a reel-to-reel tape recorder as a Christmas present, he taped and kept every episode of I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again and also TV programmes involving its participants – including all thirteen episodes of At Last the 1948 Show. With the help of these recordings, it was possible to reconstruct three more shows – and since then further episodes have been found. Visual material now survives from all of the episodes except the very first, though only six episodes are complete as I write this in July 2005.

You feel that this DVD should perhaps have been released five years or so ago, when we would be grateful that this material – much of it still funny and clearly of interest to fans of the Pythons and TV comedy in general – is available at all. However, the bar has been raised quite considerably in the last few years, even for archive black-and-white TV shows, and this set’s shortcomings can’t really be ignored.

One major strike is that none of the original broadcast episodes are present on these DVDs. What we have here are the five compilations which were recovered from Sweden. BBC4 broadcast an episode (Series 2 Programme 2, for the record) in 2003 as part of a “Missing Presumed Wiped” evening. Comparing my taped copy to this DVD reveals the following: much of the material in that programme is present as Episode 4 of this DVD. However, the BBC4 broadcast had “End of Part One” and “Part Two” captions, to allow for the original ITV broadcast’s commercial break, which are not present on the DVD. More significantly, the original’s “Take Your Clothes Off” sketch is replaced in the compilation by the “Uncooperative Burglars” sketch, which originated in Series 2 Programme 4. The upshot of this is that there is a considerable amount of material which exists in the UK archive which isn’t on this DVD – and considering that the DVD spreads just two hours of material and half an hour of extras over two single-layer discs, there would certainly be room for it!

The discs appear to be a direct port of the US release. One giveaway is the FBI warning at the beginning. The second is that, despite what it says on the back cover, these DVDs are NTSC and not PAL. They are correctly labelled as Region 0, though. The shows are transferred 16mm telerecordings of material originally recorded on videotape. That need not be a bad thing, as recent restorations of 16mm film recordings have produced wonderful results, in particular DVD releases of 1960s Doctor Who and 1950s Quatermass serials. These film recordings look like they haven’t been restored at all: they’re dark and lacking in contrast, very grainy, with scratches and splices galore. The soundtrack is mono, as it should be: it’s a little quietly recorded so may need turning up, but otherwise it’s acceptable.

It doesn’t seem that much effort has been put into this release. The lack of any subtitles is another sign. And so is the fact that the extras are duplicated on this DVD and on the one of Do Not Adjust Your Set. These are both on Disc Two of each DVD set and comprise new interviews with Tim Brooke-Taylor (16:57) and Terry Jones (15:16). The latter didn’t appear on At Last the 1948 Show and the former guests in only one episode of Do Not Adjust Your Set. There’s nothing much wrong with these interviews in themselves, but as most people who would buy one DVD are likely to buy the other, then such duplication seems like short-changing. The same goes for the trailers which cover both DVDs, separate ones prepared for the USA (1:51) and the UK (2:19), and for the comedy family tree included as a booklet.

In a sense we should be grateful that much of this material survives at all, when so much else remains tantalisingly lost. If Python is to your taste, you’ll certainly enjoy much of it and for that reason I recommend this DVD, with considerable reservations detailed above.

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