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That Reminds Me: Monty Python’s Dad

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AT the beginning of 1968, teatime television was turned on its head by a comedy phenomenon which had hordes of schoolchildren, myself included, racing home desperate not to miss a second of it.

This was Do Not Adjust Your Set, an anarchic combination of sketches and music which was a direct antecedent of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

Star billing was given to the actress Denise Coffey but the interesting point for future Python fans was the inclusion of Terry Jones, Eric Idle and Michael Palin, who wrote most of the material and appeared throughout, apart from in musical interludes supplied by the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band.

Despite the afternoon broadcasting time this was no children’s programme, with minimal concessions to the young audience. It was surreal and, at times, cerebral. That, to me and my friends weaned on Blue Peter and Crackerjack, was the beauty of it. For once, we weren’t being talked down to.

Do Not Adjust Your Set, named after the legend which would appear on TV screens when there were transmission problems, was the brainchild of Humphrey Barclay. He had produced the BBC radio comedy I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again, the stock newsreader’s apology when making a mistake during a live broadcast.

That programme was a development of the Cambridge University Footlights revue Cambridge Circus and included John Cleese and the future Goodies Tim Brooke-Taylor, Graeme Garden and Bill Oddie.

When Barclay was invited to supply a children’s comedy sketch show by Jeremy Isaacs, of the ITV London franchise Rediffusion, he turned to the unknown writers Jones and Palin, both Oxford graduates, and Idle, who was in the year below Cleese at Cambridge. Denise Coffey he had spotted in a play at the Edinburgh Festival while the ensemble was completed by a young David Jason, discovered in an end-of-the-pier show in Eastbourne.

Barclay had no intention of producing a kiddies’ programme, determined instead to produce the funniest comedy he could on a shoestring budget.

Episode 1, series 1, starts in Shakespearean mode with Jones, Idle and Palin announcing they will be playing the roles of King Lear, Edmund and Cordelia while Jason has to race on and off stage playing a multiplicity of supporting roles. To be honest, it’s no classic but nevertheless an instant antidote to conventional children’s TV.

The best joke in this opening programme features Coffey as a maternity nurse holding a new-born in front of a bunch of four expectant fathers. ‘Isn’t he a lovely boy?’ she says. ‘And he looks just like his father. Mr Thompson?’

Terry Jones steps forward throwing off his raincoat to reveal he is naked but for a nappy and he is sucking a dummy. For a teatime in 1968, this was pretty damn funny.

There is also a scene in which Palin plays a shopkeeper responding to requests for assorted groceries by repeatedly supplying a tin of shoe polish. This is the ancestor of many classic Python shop sketches, including the Dead Parrot and the cheese shop with no cheese. 

There is the first of a mini-series, Captain Fantastic, in which Jason plays a superhero in buttoned raincoat and bowler hat who faces the dark forces in the person of Coffey’s Mrs Black, ‘the most evil woman in the world’. Crude and amateurish, yes, but different.

There is also plenty of the Bonzos, with Viv Stanshall enjoying himself in a performance of The Monster Mash.

Within weeks, DNAYS had established itself as a must-see, with adults leaving work early to catch it live in the days before video recording. Eventually repeats were scheduled later in the evening to satisfy the grown-up demand.

Among the fans were John Cleese and his fellow Footlights alumnus Graham Chapman, who were involved in another Rediffusion comedy series, At Last The 1948 Show. Tim Brooke-Taylor appeared in one episode of DNAYS, as a stand-in for Palin who was having his appendix out, and the American animator Terry Gilliam also contributed.

The show ran to two series, the second going out on Thames TV, the successor to Rediffusion.

In 1969, Cleese and Chapman were invited by the BBC to provide a late-night comedy programme following their successful work on The Frost Report and At Last The 1948 Show, while Thames offered Palin, Idle, Jones and Gilliam their own series. All six men had a meal at an Indian restaurant in Hampstead after Cleese and Chapman had attended the last recording of DNAYS. They decided to join forces and, because Thames had no studio available at the time, went with the BBC. Thus was Monty Python’s Flying Circus born.

David Jason and Denise Coffey carried on with Captain Fantastic for a while as part of the ITV children’s magazine Magpie. Coffey had a moderately successful career in film, TV and radio but always refused to appear in adverts because she said it was ‘reprehensible’ to persuade people to buy things they didn’t need. She died in 2022, aged 85.

Jason, despite being surplus to the Python team’s requirements, went on to enjoy a stellar career and come top in a 2006 ITV poll naming ‘TV’s 50 Greatest Stars’. Hmm. Really?

The herding instinct

WHENEVER I go to the supermarket I always try to choose a parking slot with empty spaces either side, so as not to dent my neighbour’s car when opening the door. And invariably, when I return with my shopping, someone has parked close by on the left and right, even though there is lots of room elsewhere. Why? It can’t be for the kudos of parking beside a battered Skoda.

Recently, while our roof was being replaced, we were unable to leave our car outside the house because of scaffolding, so when the restaurant over the road was closed we used its car park. Often ours would be the only vehicle occupying the 20 or so spaces when we left it, but sure enough it would be boxed in on our return. Explanations, please, for this bizarre herding instinct.

Old jokes’ home

This one is a classic from the late Barry Cryer.

Woman pensioner on holiday in Blackpool sees an old guy sitting in a deckchair. ‘Excuse me, but aren’t you the Great Stupendo?’ she asks. ‘The magician who used to bend an iron rod over his erect member?’ ‘Yes, that’s me.’ ‘Do you still perform?’ ‘Sorry, no . . . the wrists have gone.’

A PS from PG

A man, to use an old-fashioned phrase, of some twenty-eight summers, he gave the impression at the moment of having experienced at least that number of very hard winters.

PG Wodehouse: A Pelican at Blandings

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Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth is a former national newspaper journalist now retreated to the Ribble Valley, where he grows cacti and tramps the fells. He and his wife Margaret run a website, A-M Records , which includes their collected TCW columns plus extra features including Tracks of the Day. Requests, queries and comments can be sent to alanj126@yahoo.co.uk

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