A major step on the way to Monty Python, and still fresh and funny to this day, Do Not Adjust Your Set has all its surviving episodes released on DVD from the BFI.
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. Among 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 the most evil woman in the world, 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. Among adult fans were John Cleese and Graham Chapman, who would take a break during their working days to watch it. Along with At Last the 1948 Show (and others such as the BBC’s Broaden Your Mind and the Palin/Jones ITV show The Complete and Utter History of Britain) 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. 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. Although the directive was to keep things clean for the intended audience, a few more adult things are slipped in. The Bonzos’ front man Vivian Stanshall at one point mentions LSD, and you suspect he’s not just referring to pre-decimal pounds, shillings and pence.
The fourth show of the first series 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 due to having his appendix out, and “uninvited guest” Tim Brooke-Taylor appears in his place. As for the Bonzos, they were a band formed at art school, and their appearances, drawing on music hall and vaudeville as well as rock and roll, their routines often involving elaborate costumes, were once a week in between a lot of touring the country. In episode ten, Neil Innes (who went on to work with the Pythons collectively and individually, with Idle especially on Rutland Weekend Television and The Rutles) had the flu, so Eric Idle stands in for him.
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 to the first series. With the second, 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 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” (mostly Captain Fantastic, with Jason). A little older (born 1936) than her colleagues, she continued to act and perform on TV, radio and in the cinema. David Jason has since become very well known indeed and was knighted in 2005. Palin was knighted in 2019.
The show did not get off to a good start. The pilot show was intended for broadcast on Boxing Day 1967, and is appropriately seasonally-themed. However, Rediffusion showed in error the actual first episode due for 4 January 1968, and because it overran had to fade it out before the end. The first series ran to thirteen episodes, and there was a special edition in July 1968, a mix of new material and redone versions of previous sketches. All of the above were directed by Daphne Shadwell.
Then on 29 July 1968, the weekday ITV franchise for the London area changed hands, and a Christmas 1968 special (Do Not Adjust Your Stocking) and a second series of thirteen was made for the new franchisee, Thames Television, in 1969. Daphne Shadwell was replaced as director by Adrian Cooper, though she continued to produce Captain Fantastic. That was it for Do Not Adjust Your Set, though Captain Fantastic continued for a third year as part of ITV’s children’s magazine programme Magpie.
Do Not Adjust Your Set was shot on black and white videotape (405-line, at least for the first series) with some location-shot material, and all of Captain Fantastic, on 16mm and telecined in during the studio recordings. 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 and could not be reused. As with many other TV programmes, especially black and white videotaped ones, the tapes were wiped, though episodes still existed on 16mm film telerecordings of the videotapes which could be sold abroad. These DVDs contain all the surviving episodes: the pilot, all of the first (Rediffusion) series except episodes three, seven and eight, the special edition, Do Not Adjust Your Stocking but only one of the second (Thames) series, the second episode.
The BFI’s release of Do Not Adjust Your Set comprises three PAL-format discs, encoded for Region 2 only. The pilot and the surviving Series One episodes up to the tenth are on Disc One, with extras. The remaining episodes are on Disc Two, also with extras, and there are further extras on the third disc. The set carries a PG certificate.
Do Not Adjust Your Set was previously released on DVD in 2005, and I reviewed that edition here. That release was far from satisfactory – for more details, see the review I linked to – but at least it did contain the then-surviving Rediffusion episodes as they were originally broadcast, which wasn’t the case with the simultaneous DVD release of At Last the 1948 Show. However, this new release from the BFI makes that old one completely redundant. The pilot, special edition and the two Thames episodes were not on those discs, and Episode Four of Series One (the Prix Jeunesse winner) was located in a video copy in Munich, held by the Prix Jeunesse Foundation.
As with At Last the 1948 Show, you do have to make allowances for the available materials, as the episodes survive from 16mm telerecordings of videotape originals (most likely 405-line for the most part). That’s the case up to an including Do Not Adjust Your Stocking, though as mentioned above, Series One Episode Four was found on a videotape copy (Phillips 1500). There’s a noticeable jump in picture quality for Series Two Episode Two, as it seems that the Thames series was shot in 625-line, still black and white though. That would make sense, as colour television was about to come to ITV, certainly in the London area, and it duly did so in November of the same year, 1969.
The soundtrack is the original mono, and is clear and well balanced. Hard of hearing subtitles are available for the episodes but the extras. There are some oddities in these: a book of the Bible (Habakkuk) becomes “Abbacock” and Denise Coffey is anachronistically addressed as Ms instead of Miss in the Bonzos’ performance of “The Intro and the Outro”.
The extras on the first disc begin with “Doo-Dah Discotheque” which enables you to jump to the band’s performances on the episodes on this disc. Next up is “Do Not Adjust Your Scripts”, or reproductions of the shooting scripts for the missing Rediffusion episodes Three, Seven and Eight. On Disc Two, we get a series of picture postcards and photos and newspaper cuttings from the Humphrey Barclay scrapbook.
Also on this disc is more of the Doo-Dah Discotheque, which includes two different performances of “I’m the Urban Spaceman”, written by and with lead vocals by Neil Innes. It was first performed on the Special Edition. It went on to be released as a single, co-produced pseudonymously by Bonzos fan Paul McCartney. When the song was performed again on Do Not Adjust Your Stocking, it had reached its peak chart position of number five, their only hit single.
On to Disc Three, which begins with “Gilliam Graphics”, three animations transferred from Gilliam’s 35mm masters with a Play All option. Gilliam’s animations began to appear in the Thames series. “The Christmas Card” (2:52) can be seen, naturally, in Do Not Adjust Your Stocking. “Beware of Elephants” (3:09) is in an episode now lost, as is “Learning to Live with an Elephant” (3:34), which is from the lost Episode Seven, and it can be heard in audio form elsewhere on this disc. These three show Gilliam’s style of cut-out animation fully-formed ready for Python which was just a year away, though these are in black and white while Python is in colour.
The next section – “Articulate Adjusters”, again with a Play All option – comprises interviews. Do Not Adjust Your Set is a rare Sixties show where all the principal cast are still alive. Inevitably, Terry Jones – who has dementia – cannot be interviewed (he was on the 2005 DVD, but that hasn’t been brought forward to this edition). David Jason is interviewed in the booklet, of which more below. Eric Idle and Denise Coffey and for that matter Daphne Shadwell (still with us at ninety-two as I write this) don’t take part in new extras. However, we do hear from Michael Palin (31:27) and Humphrey Barclay (32:17), who give detailed information about their backgrounds and how the show came to be. Also interviewed are the uninvited guest for one episode, Tim Brooke-Taylor (5:18) and John Cleese (6:23) who talks about how he watched the show and it prompted him to invite Palin, Jones, Idle and Gilliam to join him and Graham Chapman to form Monty Python.
“Discursive Dogs” showcases the Bonzos and begins with a short (1:42) introduction by Neil Innes. It’s followed by “Bonzos on the Box” (58:12), a documentary on the lifespan and career of the band – about five years in total – featuring surviving members Innes, Rodney Slater, Roger Ruskin Spear and “Legs” Larry Smith. There’s quite a lot of information about the Sixties scene and changes in music – from trad jazz to rock and roll, in brief terms, plus extracts from several performances from Do Not Adjust Your Set.
The final section on this disc is “Lost Listens”, or off-air audio recordings of otherwise missing episodes, or parts of them, played over a black screen. It begins with 1:16 of the braodcast of Episode One instead of the pilot, and features the Rediffusion announcer telling us we’ll have to leave the programme partway through the final number. The remaining audio clips are from lost episodes from the Thames series: half of Episode One (12:16) and bits of Episode Seven (3:58, including “Learning to Live with an Elephant”), Eight ([email protected]:42), Nine (4:57), Eleven (4:36), Twelve (3:14) and the whole of the thirteenth and last episode (24:53).
The BFI’s booklet runs to thirty-two pages and begins with a short introduction, “Silliness and Anarchy” by Michael Palin. This is followed by “Upsetting the Applecart”, an overview of the show by Vic Pratt, an essay “Seizing the Opportunity” by Humphrey Barclay, a two-page interview with David Jason by Vic Pratt, The remaining text pieces concern the Bonzos: an overview by David Christie (editor of a online resource devoted to the band), and reminiscences by Neil Innes and “Legs” Larry Smith. Dick Fiddy contributes a short piece on the show’s comedy connections, and there are notes on each episode by Vic Pratt, and notes on the extras, the restoration and transfers.