Do Not Adjust Your Set Review

Do Not Adjust Your Set was devised by producer Humphrey Barclay as a children’s show for ITV. It was made by Rediffusion, which at the time held the weekday commercial TV franchise for the London area. However, he didn’t fall into the trap of thinking that his audience would accept any old rubbish, and instructed his writers to come up with the funniest material they could, regardless of the age of the audience. Barclay recruited three future Pythons, the then little-known Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin. Palin and Jones had been writing for the BBC’s The Frost Report and had an urge to perform their own material as well as write it. When performing in the Oxford Revue at Edinburgh, they met Eric Idle (then part of the Cambridge Footlights), who became another Frost Report writer and joined them on Do Not Adjust Your Set. Twenty-seven year old David Jason was just then beginning to make his mark on TV. The fifth part of the ensemble was Denise Coffey, whom Barclay had seen in a play on the Edinburgh Fringe. Included amongst the sketches were musical interludes from the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. There was also a serial, “Captain Fantastic”, being the story of the good captain (Jason in a raincoat and walrus moustache) and his fight to save Britain from the clutches of the evil Mrs Black (Coffey).

This was a children’s show which soon caught on with adults. The second series was repeated in the early evening after complaints from employers that staff were leaving work early to get home in time to watch it. Along with At Last the 1948 Show you can see the roots of Monty Python’s Flying Circus: certainly the surreal style and lashings of good old English silliness, minus the harder-edged, more adult material that John Cleese and Graham Chapman contributed to Python. Add to that Idle’s characteristic wordplay and musical numbers, some fine character acting, from Palin (always the best Python actor), Jason and Coffey in particular, and you have a show which is still fresh and funny to this day. The fourth show of the first series (the second on this DVD) won a prize at the Prix Jeunesse International TV Festival in Munich in June 1968. Palin does not appear in the ninth show of the first series (the fifth on the DVD) due to illness, and Tim Brooke-Taylor guests in his place.

A further ingredient in the mix was Terry Gilliam, who had met Cleese in New York and was referred by him to the Do Not Adjust Your Set team. He contributed some material and made brief appearances in the first series. With the second series, he began to contribute short animated sequences in the style that would be his most recognisable contribution to Monty Python, which began broadcasting on the BBC five months after the final show of Do Not Adjust Your Set.

One thing that dates Python nowadays is that women play very little part in it. They’re either incidental dollybirds (often played by Carol Cleveland) or grotesques played by the men in drag. This tendency – which to be fair is of its pre-feminist time – is also present in 1948 Show, though Aimi Macdonald does do her dumb blonde routine very well. However, refreshingly, Denise Coffey – who gets top billing due to alphabetical order - is an equal performing partner and writer of “additional material”. Somewhat older (born 1936) than her colleagues, she continued to act and perform on TV radio and in the cinema, with her most recent IMDB credit dating from 2001. Neil Innes, writer of much of the Bonzos’ material, made contributions – mostly musical – to Python and collaborated with Idle on Rutland Weekend Television and The Rutles.

Do Not Adjust Your Set was shot on black and white 405-line videotape. As Jones says in his interview on this DVD, the shows were recorded “as live” as they were forbidden to do any editing. This, which would have involved physically cutting the videotape, meant that the tapes would no longer be worth £40. As with many other TV programmes, especially monochrome videotaped ones, the tapes were wiped. As I write this (July 2005), nine of the thirteen shows in the first series, produced by Rediffusion, survive in the archive as 16mm film recordings, and these comprise the contents of this DVD. Also surviving are the 50-minute special broadcast on Christmas Day 1968, Do Not Adjust Your Stocking, and just one of the thirteen shows in the second series. This may be due to copyright reasons: in July 1968, between the first series and the second, ITV franchises changed and the London area in weekdays was given to Thames Television. They produced the Christmas special and the second series, and maybe the rights to these are held elsewhere. (“Captain Fantastic” continued for a third year, as part of the children’s programme Magpie.) It’s to be hoped that these shows might make it to DVD some day, as despite what the packaging says, there are no Gilliam animations on the present discs.

Do Not Adjust Your Set is released simultaneously with the DVD of At Last the 1948 Show. As I say in the review of the latter, five years ago this DVD would have been quite acceptable and we’d have been grateful for the chance to see some rarely-shown classic comedy. However, standards have raised and this DVD’s shortcomings can’t really be ignored, however grateful we remain.

The nine episodes are spread across two single-layer discs. The DVDs are a port of the US editions, which is given away by the FBI warning at the beginning and the fact that the DVD transfers are NTSC instead of PAL, despite what the back cover says. The DVDs are encoded for all regions.

These nine shows are transferred from 16mm film recordings of material originated on videotape. You can’t expect a state-of-the-art DVD transfer, but given what can be done with archive TV material, what is on display here is distinctly disappointing. It seems that no restoration has been done: the results are dark, soft and grainy and contrasty, with a plethora of scratches and speckles. The soundtrack is the original mono, and while it won’t win any hi-fi awards it’s quite acceptable.

As I say in my review of 1948 Show, it doesn’t seem that much effort has been put into these DVDs. The lack of restoration is one indicator, as is the lack of subtitles. A third is the duplication of extras from one DVD set to the next. These are, on Disc Two in each set, interviews with Jones (15:16), Tim Brooke-Taylor (16:57), UK and US DVD trailers (2:19 and 1:51 respectively). Included as well is a fold-out comedy family tree.

Given that dedicated repeats channels like UK Gold rarely show black and white material these days, it’s certainly good to have at least some of this influential and still funny TV series available, for those of us not old enough to have seen it first time round. And for that reason I’d recommend this DVD, although I have reservations about its presentation.

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