DVD Review: At Last the 1948 Show
You’ve all heard this one: four Yorkshiremen sit round a restaurant table and try to outdo each other with tales of how they had it tough when they were but 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. It first appeared 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 but wasn’t then a performer) 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, the second beginning on 26 September of the same year. There were thirteen shows in total, all directed by Ian Fordyce. 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, 1948 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. Here, the sketches do end in punchlines, which are often the weakest part of them. You can see what the future Pythons were thinking. Satire had been big in British comedy in the early 1960s, with the success of That Was the Week That Was, but by the middle of the decade there was a sense that it had run its course, and a more surreal, not to mention deliberately silly, style was making itself felt. This of course led to Python, which began broadcasting in 1969, but 1948 Show is an important precursor, along with Do Not Adjust Your Set, the BBC2 show Broaden Your Mind (made in colour, mostly lost apart from off-air audio recordings) and the partly lost The Complete and Utter History of Britain.
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. Cleese and Chapman tended to play 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 Gibbonposture 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. By comparison, Feldman – the shortest of the four men – excelled in playing a character type the team dubbed Mr Pest, and there are several good examples of this.
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. In the first series, she’s sole hostess in the opening episode, but each week introduces another one, so that by the final show there are six of them - “but I’m the loveliest,” says Aimi. In the second series, it’s Aimi solo. 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. Some of the other hostesses in the first series make brief appearances in the sketches elsewhere in the episodes, but most of the female roles that aren’t played by the men in drag are the work of Jo Kendall.
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 the series and also TV programmes involving its participants – including all thirteen episodes of At Last the 1948 Show, though the recording failed halfway through the last one. With the help of these recordings, it was possible to reconstruct three more shows – and since then further episodes have been found. As I write this, some episodes are missing their final credits, two others stop before the end and two still have substantial parts missing. The gaps on this DVD have been plugged by Ray Frensham’s audio recordings (you can hear the Rediffusion continuity announcer at the end of them), stills and script pages.
At Last the 1948 Show, along with Do Not Adjust Your Set, were previously released on DVD in 2005, and I reviewed that edition here. That edition of 1948 Show was unsatisfactory to say the least – not least because it presented the five Swedish compilations instead of any of the episodes as they were originally broadcast. However, this three-disc BFI DVD release makes the old DVD completely redundant. The six Series One episodes are on disc one, the seven from Series Two on disc two, both with extras, and there are further extras on the third disc. The discs are PAL format and encoded for Region 2. The release as a whole carries a 12 certificate.
As mentioned above, all the surviving material on these discs are 16mm film telerecordings of shows that were shot on 405-line PAL videotape. The transfers on these discs derive from these telerecordings, scanned at 2K resolution. Needless to say, none of this will ever be of reference quality, and is inevitably soft and blurry in places, but short of the invention of time travel or broadcast-quality memory retrieval on an elderly relative, this is as good as these episodes will ever look.
The soundtrack is the original mono, as was broadcast back in 1967, and where missing material has been reconstructed using the off-air recordings, it and the telerecording audio do blend well together. English subtitles are available for the hard of hearing on the episodes but not the extras.
Those extras begin on Disc One with “At Last a Script”, namely the shooting script for Series One Episode Two, the one from the first series which has still substantial material missing. Also in this disc is the Humphrey Barclay Scrapbook, pictures, press cuttings and other material. Barclay did not work on 1948 Show, but he had a long association with the future Pythons, from the Cambridge Footlights to I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again on the radio. More from Mr Barclay on the Do Not Adjust Your Set DVDs.
On Disc Two, there is another shooting script for an episode still largely missing, Series Two Episode One. Also on this disc is a brief introduction (1:40) which John Cleese recorded for the BFI’s annual Missing Believed Wiped event in 2003.
Disc Three begins with newly-recorded interviews with the two surviving male leads: John Cleese (31:20) and Tim-Brooke-Taylor (37:43). Both talk about how they started in the Cambridge Footlights, which initially made their names on stage, and which led to Cleese, already then writing with Graham Chapman, being recruited by David Frost. Frost was the executive producer of 1948 Show, and more than once the show bit the hand that fed it, with a long sequence of Brooke-Taylor parodying Frost as “Marvin Bint”.
The next item is an interview with Cleese by Dick Fiddy (36:02) at Missing Believed Wiped in 2014 (not 2006 as it says in the booklet and on the cover slip). This was held in between showings of two episodes which had recently been recovered, the first and the last as it happened, in the possession of David Frost and found after his death. (I was in the audience for this.)
Now and Then was an interview programme in which Bernard Braden, off camera, talked to various celebrities. The programmes were never finished nor aired, and the footage is now in the possession of the BFI, who have included it as disc extras when appropriate. This edition, recorded in 1968, is with Marty Feldman. It shows Feldman, who is smoking throughout, in thoughtful mood, about to embark on his BBC show Marty (to which Tim Brooke-Taylor contributed).
The remaining two items on this disc are audio-only against a black screen.”Reconstructing the 1948 Show” (44:23) was recorded at the BFI Southbank. Steve Bryant begins by interviewing Ray Frensham about his home recordings of the show, and the second and longer part of this item has Bryant interviewing Aimi MacDonald and Tim Brooke-Taylor. Finally, there is Brooke-Taylor, Chapman, Cleese and Feldman’s rather disruptive appearance on the BBC1 chat show Dee Time on 13 July 1967 (12:13), in between the two series of 1948 Show. Simon Dee, a regular face on British TV at the time, all but forgotten now and no longer with us, seems quite hapless in the face of this. The extract ends with a performance of the Ferret Song which ended the first series of 1948 Show. All together now: “I’ve got a ferret sticking up my nose...”
The BFI’s booklet with this release runs to twenty-four pages. It begins with “Not Quite 500 Words” from Tim Brooke-Taylor and an overview, “The 1948 Show: Inspiration, Innovation and Influence” by Steve Bryant. In “At Last: Recovery, Restoration and Reassessment”, Bryant details how the series, with originally just two episodes held in Rediffusion’s archive, was pieced together with those compilation finds in Sweden and also material from Australia, Marty Feldman’s widow and two employees from Teddington Studios. Steve Bryant also contributes notes on each episode. There is also an article by Ray Frensham on his home recordings and a piece by Dick Fiddy outline the connections between 1948 Show and other British comedies of the time. Also in the booklet are credits and notes for the extras and on the transfers.