Saturday, January 28, 2012

Mapp & Lucia: Series One Part 1

Back in 2010 I wrote an article about the complete series of Mulberry. That article can be found here. When I wrote the article I had asked the question if anyone had seen Mapp & Lucia and was it worth taking a look at. Some kind soul left a comment, unfortunately anonymously, that said:

“As for Mapp and Lucia...YES! I highly recommend it. I own the VHS version of both series. Beautifully produced! If you like British eccentricity then this series is definitely that. Both MacEwan and Scales are a great match and the supporting cast all fall in line with the highly caricatured representation of 1930's society.”
I kept that in the back of my mind and finally in the summer of 2011 I picked up the complete series of Mapp & Lucia pretty cheaply from Amazon UK. The reason I was so interested in this series was as I finished up Mulberry I absolutely adored Geraldine MacEwan, I have always been a fan of Prunella Scales and I know anything Nigel Hawthorne is in will be wonderful. I was excited to watch this series again. The locations are gorgeous and the stories are humorous and memorable.

I have a rule for this stuff I randomly pick. If I pick a series that have standalone episodes I will just watch one or two episodes and then move on to pick the next series. If I pick a series where episodes have an overall theme or where episodes are connected, I will watch at least the whole series over a couple of weeks. Along time ago when I started to randomly pick shows to watch (and before I started writing a blog), I picked I Claudius. So I watched the first episode of the series and then I moved onto another series for the next week. Then about 6 months later, I picked I Claudius again and then watched the second episode. I knew if I was ever going to get through the series, I would need to come up with a better plan otherwise it would take twenty years. So now if something has multiple episodes that continue one into another, then I will watch more of those episodes. That’s what I am doing here. I decided that I would view over the course of a couple weeks the complete first series of Mapp & Lucia as Series 1 is one continuing story. I will break this up into a couple of articles as I look at all five episodes of this first series.
The Village Fete TX: 14.4.85

We pick up the series a few months after Emmeline Lucas’ (Lucia) husband passed away. It is 1930 and she lives in the village of Riseholme. She no longer does the things that she used to do as she has withdrawn from public life. Amongst the things she has given up is the yearly Elizabethan Fete which is now being handled by Daisy Quantock. Daisy stops by to try and get Lucia involved in the fete in some way. Of course the role that Lucia normally played will be handled by Daisy but Daisy has some menial role for Lucia. The thing is, Daisy doesn’t really want Lucia’s help but rather remind Lucia that she is now in charge doing something that Lucia once loved to do. These are the complexities of English upper-class in the 1930s. It is interesting as it is clear Lucia can barely stand the sight of Daisy let alone any time Daisy comes near her to hug her. Once again Lucia is not interested in taking part and Daisy leaves to continue to look after the Fete.

We then meet Lucia closest friend Georgie.  Georgie visits Lucia and learns that his good friend wants to rent a house for a couple of months in the town of Tilling. The good news is the house is owned by a woman who had a holiday in Riseholme they met a couple years before. Her name is Elizabeth Mapp and Lucia and Georgie had cruelly let her believe the French saying for good bye was not au revoir but au reservoir! Mapp has used it ever since and we soon see that now all the people of Tilling use it too.
Georgie and Lucia go down to Tilling in their chauffer driven car and they check out Mapp’s home called Mallards. It is a beautiful place with a wonderful garden and Lucia falls in love with it instantly. While they are there, they check out the rest of Tilling and meet some of the other residents of the village including Major Benjy Flint who drinks a lot, Rev. Kenneth Bartlett who speaks with a Scottish accent although he is not Scottish, Mr. & Mrs Wyse (Mrs. Wyse wears a fur coat in the summer) and Quaint Irene who is a butch painter.  Even Georgie falls in love with Tilling and decides to rent a house that is owned by Mrs. Wyse.
Now there is some kind of weird deal going on as Mapp will be making some money off of Lucia living in her house. That means that Mapp will live in the house of Ms. Godiva Plaistow and Ms Plaistow will live in the house of Quaint Irene. Lucia and Georgie return back to Riseholme where Daisy is waiting for Lucia. Daisy needs Lucia to be the Producer of the fete because Daisy cannot handle it. Lucia cannot refuse such an offer. The next day Lucia gathers all the village residents who are taking part in the fete and they all have a rehearsal. It’s not very stellar but a lot of work needs to happen. In these fetes Lucia normally would play the part of Queen Elizabeth in the production but as Daisy had taken over, Daisy gave the plumb role to herself. Now that Daisy sees she has made a huge mess of the production, she reluctantly asks Lucia to take that role as well. Of course Lucia accepts but she has little time as she is preparing to head off to Tilling soon.

This is a great opening episode to the series. The funny thing is that the series is called Mapp & Lucia but there is actually little of Mapp in this episode. That’s OK though because she is mentioned at the beginning of the episode and there is quite a bit of hype that surrounds her so by the time we get to meet Mapp, she isn’t a complete stranger to us. Mapp is the Tilling version of Lucia. Certainly not bad off money-wise and is kind of the social leader of the community of Tilling. Everyone in Tilling took Mapp’s lead to use Au Reservoir as a way to say good bye. The difference between Mapp and Lucia is that Lucia is refined and well raised being shown how to handle all kind of situations and Mapp is a rougher around the edges and really lacks tact. Au reservoir is a great example.

This is also our first look at Georgie. Georgie is a Dandy. He is well dressed and has impeccable manners. He is in his own world but adores Lucia. But more as a  friend than anything as it is clear that Georgie has no romantic interest in Lucia or probably any girl for that manner. There is a scene when Lucia and Georgie are heading back from Tilling and Lucia starts talking about how close the two of them are and how her husband is now gone. Georgie starts to become very uncomfortable as he thinks Lucia wants to marry him. He starts to fidget a lot won’t even look her in the eye. Finally she talks about how they are just really good friends and Georgie is immediately relieved. Granted, the two of them are very competitive with each other. They both play piano and actually play duets together. In the episode they play a song as a duet together that neither admit to practicing yet prior to going over to Lucia house, we hear Georgie practicing that piece. They play the duets with such vigor that it is almost their own version of making love with each other. The piece we see them play in the episode builds and builds to a climax and they stop playing breathing heavily and being very exhausted yet satisfied.
Regardless of the platonic nature of their friendship, it doesn’t stop others from thinking something might be going on between the two of them. For example, in Tilling Major Benjy assumes that Lucia and Georgie have something going on. Benjy wonders to Mr. Wyse when Lucia and Georgie are “doing it” wonders if Georgie keeps his rug on or not. The truth is that Georgie does in fact wear a rug!
Battle Stations TX: 21.4.85
We pick up this episode with Lucia running the fete back at Riseholme. She plays the queen and even though things start to go wrong during the play, such as the boat background stage falling apart, she recovers nicely. With that out of the way, her and Georgie leave Riseholme and head out to Tilling where they each will have a house that they are renting down there.

When Lucia arrives at Mallards, the name of the home she is staying at, Mapp is waiting for her in the parlour. This begins an uncomfortable series of run-ins and conversations between the two women as they both try to show who is dominant. Lucia continues to get more and more frustrated by Mapp because Mapp keeps letting herself in the house unannounced. It even leads Lucia to make sure the chain is always on the door to lock her out. There is also a misunderstanding about who gets to use the gardener Coplen. Lucia believes since she is paying his wages that she should be allowed to use him in whatever manner she wants while Mapp thinks that the gardener should be taking care of the different produce in the garden that she sells to the grocer. More and more things add up for Lucia as she is finding even knowing Mapp is tiresome.

Georgie keeps asking Lucia if this it is time for war against Mapp. Obviously Lucia has been through this sort of thing before and probably revels in it. As things start progressing against Mapp, Lucia starts inviting other people over to the house for dinner starting with Major Benjy and Diva. The next night she invites Mr. and Mrs. Wyse and then after that Quaint Irene. It is at the first dinner that Diva realizes that Mapp is making a lot more money on renting out her house than she has been telling people. Lucia is not inviting these people over because she wants to get to know them. She wants to win them over to her side and to alienate them from Mapp. This is why she is feeding them lobster and giving them plenty of drinks when they are over. She even loses at bridge so people feel happy and enjoy themselves. The one person not invited to these dinners is, of course, Mapp.
The final straw is when Lucia offers up the back garden of the house for a social. This would never have been allowed by Mapp when she was there but now that Lucia is at the house, Lucia decides that she will grant permission. Mapp, once again, comes over to the house and tries to let herself in but the door is locked by the chain. Mapp basically breaks the chain off to get in busting the chain from the wall! When she gets in, Mapp and Lucia have a very serious conversation about having the social in Mapp’s garden. Lucia does not give in. Reluctantly, Mapp agrees but before she goes, and what appears to be an act of kindness, invites Lucia and Georgie to enter a painting into the local art show. Mapp assures Lucia that she is on the hanging committee along with Mr. & Mrs Wyse. Both Georgie and Lucia submit some water colors. At the art gallery, Mapp sees the two paintings and outright rejects them sending the paintings back to the owners with a very simple rejection letter. Georgie brings his painting and rejection letter over to Lucia and tells her, “This is war!”

What I like about this series is that these are wonderful caricatures of wealthy people from the 1930s. No one seems to work! I think there is a lot more background in the novels which I might read to get some more information. Watching these made me wonder how Georgie got his money. It is funny because Lucia and Georgie seem to be in a world by themselves. They are their own little clique and none one is invited in to join. They appear to be doing nice things for other people but ultimately, it is for their own gain. It is usually for social gain or appearance. They are very flippant. I didn’t notice it the first time I watched this but there are some nice touches giving some clues for the upcoming episodes. I will talk about them a little more next week. Watching the episode this week, I noticed how pleasant the theme music is for this series. The music is by Jim Parker. It is pleasant and fits beautifully to the visuals of the series. It fits perfectly and captures the right tone. The incidental music for Mapp & Lucia reminds me a little of the music for All Creatures Great & Small in a way because whenever they are travelling or going from one location to another, this music plays and really creates a world from the 1930s that I believe in as it is very carefree. It just makes me smile when I watch it and after watching these two episodes, I found myself humming the music. It is a sweeping piece of music that has a very classical feel using a range of strings and woodwinds. It is very light and I think that is why I think it fits so perfectly because the music matches the location shots of Tilling so well. I need to get my hands on this piece of music.
Mapp & Lucia stories are a series of novels by E.F. Benson. Interestingly he was primarily known as a writer of ghost stories. He wrote six books for the series which is also known as Make Way for Lucia:
Queen Lucia (1920)
Miss Mapp (1922)
Lucia in London (1927)
Mapp and Lucia (1931)
Lucia's Progress (1935) (published in the U.S. as The Worshipful Lucia)
Trouble for Lucia (1939)

The funny thing is that Mapp & Lucia appear together only in the final 3 books. The first 3 books either only have Mapp (Miss Mapp) or Lucia (Queen Lucia & Lucia in London). In the mid-1980s two more books were published written by Tom Holt:
Lucia in Wartime (1985)
Lucia Triumphant (1986)

In 2008 the most recent book was published written by Guy Fraser-Sampson:
Major Benjy (2008)

I have never read any of Benson’s work before but I think I might want to give it a try. The thought that someone can write ghost stories and then write something like Mapp & Lucia is pretty cool.
I think it is interesting that some consider to series to be a drama. It’s a hard one to pin. I personally think it leans closer to comedy but it is not a situation comedy. It is more of a lighter series that fall in the same genre as All Creatures Great & Small or Jeeves & Wooster.

Next week: Probably will be a longer article as I will take a look at the last 3 episodes of series 1 of Mapp & Lucia: The Italian Connection, Lobster Pots, and The Owl and the Pussycat. I also will cover a little more on the cast and Gerald Savory who dramatized the episodes from the novels. I also want to talk about how this Network DVD release of these episodes seems a little different from their normal standard of releases.

Do you have feedback, article requests or want to talk about a program but not want to leave a public comment? Feel free to drop me an e-mail at

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Au Reservoir!

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Army Game: Fowler's Flogger

It’s nice to go back to real vintage British television. A lot of the stuff I write about generally spans the late 1960s to present day. Although I have stuff that spans a greater period than that, very rarely do we travel that far back and look at stuff. This week is a little different as we take a look at the 1957-1961 series, The Army Game. The series is loosely based on the 1956 film Private’s Progress, this Granada program started out in 1957 as fortnightly live sitcom. By the time we get to the episodes in this article today, the series moved from being broadcast live to being recorded on 2” tape. Based on what I saw, even though it may have been recorded on videotape prior to broadcast, it was very probably recorded as if it were live with very little or no stops in recording at all.

This article is meant to be a loose tribute to Harry Fowler who passed away on January 4th at the age of 85. I say it is loose because I honestly haven’t seen too much of what he has done. He has appeared in such series as Dixon of Dock Green, Z Cars, The Melting Pot and In Sickness and In Health. He also had a small but for me memorable role in Doctor Who. In the Army Game, he plays Corporal “Flogger” Hoskins. Although The Army Game started in 1957, there were many cast changes over the years. Some notable cast members who had left prior to series 4 were Bernard Bresslaw, Alfie Bass, and Bill Fraser. Flogger only joined in series 3 but by the time we get to the episodes in today’s article, Flogger appears to be the leader of his little gang of conscript mischiefs. At this stage there were other cast members who joined to be the soldiers including Ted Lune (Private Leonard Bone), Mario Fabrizi (Lance-Corporal Ernest “Moosh” Merryweather), and Dick Emery (Private “Chubby” Catchpole). Frank Williams is also in the series as Captain TR Pocket but I know him mainly from another army comedy series institution known as Dad’s Army where he played the Reverend. Speaking of conscription, in an article I wrote about Yes Prime Minister, Hacker is talking about trying to bring back conscription. You can read about that here.
Of course, I have to mention that William Hartnell stars in the series. I’ll touch more on this later but Hartnell plays Sgt. Major Percy Bullimore. He is in the series from the very beginning but then leaves for a couple of years and returns in 1960. From the episodes I viewed, he only recently returned.
The Do-Gooders TX: 11.10.60

The episode starts off with Flogger, Bone, Moosh and Chubby in court as they are standing for charges related to gambling. In the episode as the police officer giving evidence is a young Geoffrey Palmer. Palmer had been in other episodes of the series since the beginning but it is good to see him. The CO, Major Upshot-Bagley, meets someone at the court proceedings that can talk to the boys about the harm of gambling and try to reform them. Later, this guy goes to the base they are stationed and gives a lecture to them about gambling. No one is interested in what he has to say with the exception of Chubby. In fact, after his friends leave the mess hall, Chubby shows this guy where all the gambling paraphernalia they used is stored. This includes a roulette table, a table cloth for dice and of course the dice itself.
Bullimore is not convinced of this miraculous change in Chubby. He starts to watch Chubby very closely; in fact he is afraid the other members of Chubby’s group will use this as an excuse too.  But Chubby is just trying to do good deeds.  He is going around picking up trash at the base and is collecting clothes to give to a church. He even has leave to leave the base so he can help out at a church. Flogger has a horse he wants to bet on and asks Chubby to help him out and put some money on it for him once he gets into town. Of course being a reformed man, Chubby would never do such a thing. Suddenly Flogger has an inspired idea. Flogger and the rest of his mates could also help out at this church and he could slip away and put money on this horse. He gets permission to do so from Captain Pocket. Once again, Bullimore doesn’t believe it and decides that he will trail them himself……

We get to the church and there are old people welcoming other people in and suddenly Bullimore walks in wearing a disguise of a long black coat and a black hat trying not to look conspicuous but unfortunately he looks extremely conspicuous. He makes his way to the backroom where Flogger and the rest of the guys are hanging out. When Bullimore bursts into the room, he finds that the guys are doing nothing wrong. In fact, they are helping out like they said they would. Bullimore leaves annoyed as his plan had failed. After Bullimore leave, the boys take out all the gambling gear and start up. Confusingly, so does Chubby which is odd as he had changed his way and it didn’t seem like it was a ploy to get out of the base. That plot point seems a little sloppy to me.  As they start gambling, Bullimore returns in uniform through the back door with guards and catches the group in the act of gambling much to Flogger’s disbelief.

I know The Army Game was a huge hit for ITV. This episode is simply not that funny and I think it is for a couple of reasons. It is very obvious from the start that the timing of the episode is off in every aspect of the episode. Mainly everyone’s rhythm is off-kilter. Lines are sometimes delivered early or in a way that they don’t sound funny. Some of the lines are delivered over the top. I hate to say it but almost all the performance from Fowler in this episode is way over the top and is not funny. Hartnell fumbles some of the lines, which is something I have seen before in another series, and it just didn’t feel like a very tight production. As I mentioned above I am sure this has everything to do with the way the production was recorded and was probably just an off night for the crew. I think another reason is that it is not a very funny script. It is interesting but nothing really happens. Like I mentioned above, why does Chubby change from giving up gambling to want to start again with no hesitation. It just seems sloppy. I am not looking for art but I would like something that holds together well. This got me worried about watching the next episode but as it turns out, I didn’t have to worry about anything at all.
The Marshal’s Baton TX: 18.10.60

Major Upshot-Bagely thinks it would be a good idea if the boys had a pep talk about aspiring to be better men or even an officer. The “highlight” of the speech will be the Marshal taking his baton out of an ordinary army issued back up basically saying that anyone can be a Marshal. It is decided to store the Marshal’s baton in the Major’s safe in his office.

While cleaning the office, Flogger boasts to the men that he could open any safe in 10 seconds with nothing more than a bent safety pin. So, he is challenged to do this and is given a bent safety pin. He proceeds to open it and sees the baton. As the group are looking at it, the Major returns so they quickly shut the safe but the baton was not put back. The rest of the episode is about them trying to find a way to get the baton back into the safe before they are caught and before the Marshal arrives to give his pep talk. There is a funny moment when the baton ends up in the pig swill and Bone is ordered to go into the swill bucket and fish it out. So, Bone carefully rolls up his right hand sleeve but then uses his left to dig out the baton. It is also decided that while Flogger is in the office trying to open the safe with Bullimore and the Major watching over him that Bone will need to run in to create a diversion. It is decided that Bone will need to run into the room and say something like “Sir, Sir I have a message” and then he is told to faint. At least this is what Flogger told him to do in those words.  So as Flogger is in the office trying to open the safe Bone runs in, stands there and says, “Sir, Sir I have a message and faint!”.  Very funny. Of course Bullimore suspects something is going on with the group the entire time and will not let them out of his site which makes it much more difficult for them to return the baton. Finally they get the baton the Marshal and everything turns out alright.

This episode is much funnier than the previous ones. It is clear to see why this series was so popular. Everything I said in the above paragraphs about why I did not enjoy the The Do-Gooders does not apply to this episode. My criticism for Flogger is not warranted here at all. It is clear to see why he was a popular and engaging character. In the previous episode Bone and Moosh almost seem like incidental characters as they do very little but here they are very much a part of the plot and they do a great job in adding a lot to the episode.
Of course I am fascinated by William Hartnell in the series. He gets top billing. William Hartnell created one of the most iconic roles in television and of course I am talking about Doctor Who. These episodes I watched were from 1960. He began playing Doctor Who in 1963. It is not often I see anything Hartnell did other than Doctor Who. It is very cool to see a role he played so close to when he started playing Doctor Who. There are moments that you see him do something that you could easily see him do in Doctor Who. It is kind of weird seeing him doing flat out comedy. From watching him play the Doctor, it was obvious he was capable doing it, especially in stories such as The Romans and The Gunfighters. It was weird for me to see him do comedy. He was much better in The Marshal’s Baton than in The Doo-Gooders.  For my own viewing of Doctor Who, I am currently in episode 5 of The Keys of Marinus. It is really cool to see Hartnell in a role that was done just four years apart from The Keys of Marinus and the two roles couldn’t be any more different. That alone is a good reason to pick up The Army Game DVD set.

Speaking of Doctor Who, I would like to address missing episodes. There were 154 episodes of The Army Game made. 104 episodes are missing resulting in 50 episodes existing. From a series that aired in the late 1950s and early 1960s, this is a decent survival rate. I just want remind Doctor Who fans how lucky we are that out of 26 years of the classic series, there are only 106 episodes missing. Granted, early episodes of The Army Game were televised live and probably were never recorded at all. Picking up the series set from Network was a great buy. The prints used in the episodes are not the greatest shape but I have no reason to think that this would have been restored at all. Who is to say the negatives of the episodes even exist. It looks like the quality of the episodes are OK but they look generally pretty bad during the credits. Especially with the closing credits that have a lots of scratches on it. Some episodes don’t even have full closing credits.
It’s kind of interesting as the series itself is kind of a mystery. There are a few articles that give an over view of the series but there isn’t really any kind of episode guide that gives episode descriptions. In fact, we don’t know all the episode titles. Look it up on Wikipedia or other places and there are great groupings of episodes that don’t even have titles. Even Kaleidoscope doesn’t have episode titles for a lot of the series. If they don’t know then who would? It is even more interesting that if there were no episode titles, do we even know if there are a whole set of scripts that exist for the series? It is possible that this series may have whole swaths of episodes that we not only don’t know the names but may have no idea even what the episodes are about. If that is true, then that is truly sad.

As tributes go, I admit that this is pretty flimsy at best. If this article does anything it will hopefully entice people to maybe check out The Army Game. The set is pretty reasonably priced and with 50 episodes, there is a lot to see. Perhaps an article is not the greatest tribute anyway; perhaps it is seeking out that person’s work and checking it out for yourself!
Oi, Harry, customer!
Next week: Is it a comedy or a drama? Either way it is excellent. I will spend the next two articles writing about series 1 of Mapp & Lucia starting with The Village Fete and Battle Stations.

Do you have feedback, article requests or want to talk about a program but not want to leave a public comment? Feel free to drop me an e-mail at

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Have a great week!

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Blog Article #46: An Article about Spam written by Throat Warbler Mangrove

Which of course is Raymond Luxury Yacht spelled out above phonetically. Monty Python’s Flying Circus is, to me, about going back to the basics. I would venture to guess that if you are an American who eventually got into British television; this series had to be at the top of the first few memories of watching any British program. I am pretty positive that very few Americans will say that their first British program they ever watched was something like It’s Midnight, Dr. Schweitzer (1953) or anything like that! For me, this was one of the early programs. Not as early as Benny Hill which I was watching a long time ago but this was close. I started watching British television in earnest after I had gotten into Doctor Who in the early 1980s. After I started to get into it, I was thirsty for more programs to watch. I started to watch more and more offerings that KTCA was giving me. If I am not mistaken, by the time it left KTCA, Monty Python’s Flying Circus was being shown on Sunday nights. Before I had a chance to watch it on there, it ended. They had what they called the Monty Pythonathon for the final night it aired. So I missed out on it there.
Being a young 13 year old lad growing up in the rolling hills of St. Anthony Village going to a Catholic school called St. Charles I was very happy when we finally got cable TV. Looking through the TV listings of all these new channels offering up new and varied programs, I came across Monty Python’s Flying Circus being shown on MTV later in the evening. It didn’t take long for me to get hooked. I love comedy and this was comedy but comedy done in a way that I had never seen it done before. It opened my mind to different things. Different styles of comedy. Most obviously, how one sketch could run into the other. These sketches never ended. I was thinking about it when I was watching these two episodes recently whether this is ingenious, lazy, or both? I think the hardest thing about writing sketches is how you are going to end it. How does it wrap up? I think very few sketches end well. If you watch Saturday Night Live (and I don’t know why you would), the sketches tend to fizzle out at the end. At least I think so. Suddenly, Monty Python’s Flying Circus just eliminates that problem from their sketches. When they get bored with their sketch, maybe they walk through a door and suddenly they are in a Terry Gilliam animation or someone enters the sketch, such as Graham Chapman’s Colonel, and breaks it up. Plus there is nudity! As a 13 year old, I really thought I was getting away with something here while a gentleman walks into a shop and is helped by a topless woman behind the register. The comedy of that scene passed me right by as I was fixated to total topless-ness.

As I was thinking about it more and more, I think this series really cemented my love for the BBC. Obviously, the majority of the other British shows I was watching were made by the BBC but Monty Python’s Flying Circus was a show that kept showing us the BBC from an insider’s point of view. In particular, BBC Television Centre. These sketches often broke out of the confines of television or at least television production. Characters could be seen waiting for their cues on the side of the set as the camera shows them on the sidelines waiting to come in. Or in the case of the episode Spam, the priest in the Ypres 1914 sketch is taken out of Television Centre by ambulance to the Hospital for Over Actors. They were showing us a BBC I loved and showing us a BBC that sadly does not exist anymore. When I picked Monty Python’s Flying Circus to watch, I had some dread. I have seen these so many times. Even though I haven’t watched the show regularly in about 10 years, I knew the lines so well. Would I enjoy myself?
Spam 15.12.70
Monty Python’s Flying Circus can be a mixed bag for me. I have to be honest and say that a lot of the animation interludes often bore me. Sometimes they are really good but a lot of times, I just wished they would get on with the rest of the episode. A case in point is the Art Galleries Strike animation where all of the famous works of art are striking. It is interesting but never does much for me. I feel guilty for saying it as I think I may be committing a cardinal sin for speaking against this animation! If this is horrific to you, don’t let me tell you about my dislike for Monty Python and the Holy Grail! Don’t get me wrong, I am fully aware that this animation has brought us many iconic images. Also, stylistically it is great.
For everything that might not interest me, there is much I find brilliant. The Dirty Hungarian Phrasebook sketch is great. To say that John Cleese made this sketch is not even worth saying at all. Of course he made this sketch! His body movements and what he is saying are counter-acting each other as he tries to speak to the tobacconist and eventually police officer with less than perfect translated English. Some great Hungarian translations include:
“Do you want to come back to my place, bouncy bouncy?”
“Drop your panties, Sir William; I cannot wait until lunchtime!”
And the all-time favourite I had forgotten about:

“My nipples explode with delight!”

This sketch actually has a reasonable transition as the policeman arrests this tourist and this same officer is now seen telling his story in court. One thing Python has always done well is doing television satire especially current affairs program. This is why the World Forum sketch is so good. A very solemn and serious Eric Idle as the program’s presenter sets the stage for what is going to be a major historical television event of epic proportion as he introduces Karl Marx, Lenin, Che Guevara, and Mao Tse-tung. Idle turns to Karl Marx, “And the first question is for you, Karl Marx. The Hammers - the Hammers is the nickname of what English football team?” Fantastic stuff!
Finally, there is Spam. One of the most famous songs the Pythons ever did. It stays in your head days after you hear it and has a great chorus of singers that bring a lot of depth to the song. Too bad it is really poorly executed in the episode. It feels very cluttered. Don’t get me wrong, it is still funny but not well realized. Not nearly as good as the re-recorded version I heard first years before on Dr. Demento. Spam is all fine and dandy but what to do if you find out the Queen is going to be watching?

Royal Episode 13 22.12.70
Another reason that this series help cement my love of the BBC years ago is this episode. The premise is that it is understood the Queen will be watching this episode at some point and everyone should be ready when she tunes in. We even have a specially made opening credits animation to mark this momentous occasion. I find this really funny because it tricks the viewers (from that time) into thinking that some of this program might be live. If you think about it, you know that is not the case but you know some people out there at the time of broadcast probably thought it was real. Of course we know it was not real because Her Majesty was probably putting the finishing touches on her Christmas speech. That and of course the episode itself was made in October even though broadcast in December. Funny enough, Spam was made in June. Royal Episode 13 was made as part of the third series production block. I talk about how the animation has never really been funny to me. One exception is this fantastic animated sequence with bold images to introduce……The Insurance Sketch. My favourite from this episode was The Undertakers Sketch. A man (Cleese) brings his mother’s remains to the Undertaker (Chapman). The Undertaker gives the man three options to "burn 'er, bury 'er, or dump 'er in the Thames". The Undertaker after looking at the body suggests eating her. The man is at first shocked, then thinking about it, agrees and says that he is a bit peckish. The Undertaker then suggests that if the man is still feeling a guilty they can dig a grave for her and the man can throw up in it.

The BBC did not like this sketch. According to the article on Wikipedia, they agreed to let Python do it as long as the studio audience booed during the sketch and rushed the set at the end of the sketch. Really? The article makes it sound like it was the BBC’s idea to have the heckling and the rushing at the end. I can see the BBC objecting to the sketch but I would think it was Chapmen and Cleese, who wrote the sketch, suggesting the audience interruptions and not the BBC.

To show how far the BBC did not like this sketch, it was excised from the master 2” tape and that is how it was seen for years. When the BBC released the second series on video in 1985, they found that the sketch existed on a NTSC copy of the episode. So the sketch was converted from NTSC back to PAL and a new PAL master was created which is what we all have now.
Speaking of PAL, anyone who knows me well knows that although I live in the US, I am a PAL snob. What that means is that all my TVs can play PAL. Even my HD set. All my DVD players output in PAL and my first choice for buying British television is buying the R2 DVDs. It goes without saying that I wanted to buy Monty Python’s Flying Circus in PAL. I have the A&E R1 sets but when the complete series came out in the UK and came down to a reasonable price, I jumped at it. Everywhere I look says the series was restored. Not quite. In fact, the discs look terrible. It really ruins my enjoyment of the series and ruined my enjoyment of watching these episodes for this article. When I was done watching them, I took the disc and first made sure it wasn’t an SVCD instead of a DVD. Seeing it was a DVD, I assumed it was a DVD-5 instead of a DVD-9. A DVD-5 has 4.7 gb of space where a DVD-9 has 8.5 gb. Well, it was a DVD-9. I took out the A&E set to see how the quality compared. It looked so much better than the Sony R2 set. On the R2 set, all of stuff shot on video looks like it has film grain to it! I know it’s not grain but compression artifacting. The A&E set video looks like video. It is really pretty decent regardless of the text on the back of the case saying, “Now in glorious digital DVD format so that you, the digital aficionado, can enjoy the original scratches, pops and hisses with crystal clarity.” Just basing it on the DVD in question between the two sets where the episodes I viewed live on, here are the differences:
I know these are not the exact same frame but if you grab these full size, you can see how much worse the Sony set looks.
A&E R1 set: Disc 8, DVD-9, 4 episodes on the disc using 6.64 gb of disc space. Below is the bit rate for the disc with an average bit rate of 6.56 mb/sec

The Sony R2 set: Disc 4, DVD-9, 6 episodes on the disc using 7.95 gb of disc space. Below is the bit rate for the disc with an average bit rate of 4.25 – 4.75 mb/sec.

So, with regret, I need to let my R2 set know that its services will no longer be required and I will be using my A&E set as the new “master” version of this series until something better comes along. But will there be something better? I’m not so sure. There certainly is room for improvement. I believe film sequences exist for some of the episodes; the episodes could be cleaned up and film retransferred. The excised NTSC clip from Royal Episode 13 could be RSC’d and added back to the original 2” master. The Unofficial Doctor Who Restoration team will be available soon to work on new projects. Why not this? I have never seen the 3 volumes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus released on DVD by the BBC in 2000. The first volume was one of the original DVDs released in the first wave by the BBC. My assumption is that it probably is not too bad quality wise and certainly a lot better than the piece of crap released by Sony! This series deserves so, so much better.

Next week: We move away from British television for a week. I am continually fascinated by the Disney Theme Parks. We focus on Disneyland as we look at an episode of Disney’s Wonderful World of Color! Disneyland After Dark. Is the episode as cool as the title suggests?
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Monday, January 2, 2012

On the Christmas Buses! Two Christmas Themed On The Buses episodes!

The last time I did an article on On the Buses, it was about the final two episodes of the series. By the time the series ended, that show had really run out of steam. Two of the main actors had left; Reg Varney and Michael Robbins were already gone. It was a very quiet end to a great series. I am happy to say, that this article focuses on two holiday episodes of On the Buses during its heyday. These episodes are from Series four and Series Five and this is amongst the great seasons of this series.
Christmas Duty 25.12.71
This is first Christmas episode of On the Buses and it focuses on Stan and Jack having to work on Christmas day. Originally they weren’t scheduled to do so. As they pull into the bus station with their bus on Christmas Eve, Blakey watched them get off the bus and the two guys are unloading all sorts of shopping. Stan and Jack used the bus to stop off and do some Christmas shopping for themselves. Of course that is against the regulations and Blakey is about to write them up but Stan soon turns Blakey’s attention to some of the stuff he bought including a remote controlled bus which eventually breaks Blakey’s gift to his mum. Blakey soon gets the better of Stan and Jack as they are the backups to a couple of employees who aren’t able to work Christmas because of the flu.
This change in plans also affects the Butler household. They always have their Christmas dinner at 2pm but because Stan now has to go into work and by the time he gets off work, he will have to walk home. Ironically, no buses will be running at the time! This means they can’t have Christmas dinner until 4pm. However, will the turkey last that long? The good news is that Olive’s husband Arthur has a motorbike who can run up to the bus depot and pick Stan up after work. The bad news is that by the time Arthur needs to leave to pick Stan up, he is completely and utterly drunk. The good news is that Olive can drive to pick up Stan. The bad news is that Olive can’t drive. This doesn’t stop her and the whole family including Stan’s mum going out to get Stan. A harrowing drive to the bus station ensues….

Back at the bus depot, Blakey fixed the tea pot for his mum and is about to leave. Jack and Stan are waiting for Arthur to pick them up and he is late. As they start to get annoyed, they see Arthur’s bike but they also notice that Olive is driving (not Arthur) and coming at them fast!  They dive out of the way, as she drives past also nearly knocking over Blakey who drops his mother’s tea cup which completely smashes to the ground. Finally, Olive stops the bike, more like ramming into one of the buses in the depot. Based on how they are all laid out on the floor, it is amazing any of them weren’t killed. The bike is seriously damaged and Stan, Jack, and Arthur set about to try and fix it. This will take hours. Meanwhile, back out the house the turkey starts to burn and serious pillows of smoke start coming out of the oven. A passing police officer notices the smoke and calls the local fire brigade. The fire brigade come out, breaks a window and starts squirting fluid into the house to put out the fire. Funny enough, this is the second holiday themed series I watched in December where the kitchen starts on fire! The first is here.

Finally, the Butlers and Arthur get home, hours after leaving and very, very tired. Mum is worried about the turkey being in the oven for so long but when they get in, they don’t smell anything. But when they get into the kitchen, the room is full of nothing but white fluffy foam. When they pull out the turkey from the oven, it is completely burned. As they try to figure out what happened, the police officer stops in to let them know what happened. He also gives them a nice little warning that not everyone can be like them and be off all day to enjoy Christmas. Some people, like the police officer, has to work on Christmas!
This episode is in black & white. This is not because it once existed in colour and was lost and all we have is a black & white telerecording. Even though the series had been in colour since Series Three in 1970, there was something that happened in late 1970 and 1971 that would change that. It was called the ITV colour strike. Basically, this was a strike by television technicians who wanted a pay rise. While this was being figured out, the technicians refused to work with colour television equipment. All the ITV companies including London Weekend Television which made On the Buses, invested a lot of money into colour television equipment. The new cameras had three tubes for colour and one monochrome tube. All the technicians had to do was simply turn the colour off the cameras. What complicated matters is that any exterior filming would have still been colour film and they would have needed to do their best when the film was fed through studio to completely kill all of the colour on these film inserts. There is something crisp and engaging about programs on black & white videotape. This episode looks great but is kind of bittersweet since it should have been in colour. In addition to On the Buses in my own collection, the series that had been affected by the ITV colour strike included Upstairs, Downstairs, Timeslip, The Mind of J.G. Reader, The Benny Hill Show, and Public Eye. Just a few months later brings us a resolution to the ITV colour strike and another Christmas episode.

Boxing Day Social 26.12.71
Arthur is waiting at the bus depot for the arrival of his sister Linda and his mum. They will be coming in on Stan and Jack’s bus and as they arrive, it is pretty clear right from the start that Linda and Jack have hit it off. Hey nonny nonny! The thing is that Arthur nor his mum have no idea that Linda has any interest in men, drinking or let alone going to a Boxing Day social over at the bus depot.

Back at the Butler’s house, Arthur’s mum starts laying into Olive for not having any children. Having children would be quite a miracle since Arthur had an operation years ago. Arthur continues to tell everyone in the room that Linda would have no interest in Jack or going to the social. Meanwhile in the front room of the house, Jack and Linda are having quite a nice snog. Unfortunately for Jack, Arthur is a pretty uptight sort of person!
Arthur doesn’t even know that Linda drinks and she hides it by telling everyone her drink is just lemon. She doesn’t tell anyone that the one ingredient missing is vodka. At Arthur’s request, Olive joins the table that Jack and Linda are sitting to break them up a bit. The table has a couple rounds of drinks already at the table so they can keep drinking and Olive pounds down Linda’s drinks thinking they are just lemon. She immediately gets drunk…..and frisky. Things come to a head with Olive as she asks Arthur to get her another drink only to find he had promised to buy some other (bustier!) woman a drink. Olive flips and makes a massive scene including standing on a chair and lifting her skirt up over her head! The best part of that scene is Michael Robbins reaction as he can barely keep a straight face as he tries to deliver his lines. Olive runs off to the restroom to cry, of course it’s the men’s restroom! Finally Arthur has all he can take of Jack hitting on his little sister. Just as Jack and Linda were going to have some private time in one of the buses, Arthur threatens to beat Jack up so Jack hands off Linda to Stan. Jack is pretty lame here. He doesn’t stand up for himself at all and quickly tells Arthur that there are plenty other women at the social he can find. That annoyed me when I watched it as I thought it was rude to Linda but not to worry as Linda had a backup plan of her own. As Stan shows Linda the bus, she gets frisky with him and they start going at it in the bus. Hey nonny nonny part two! Meanwhile, Blakey is showing Arthur’s mum around and opens up one of the doors of a bus only to find Stan and Linda making out passionately in it.

Both of these episodes are fun. There is one thing I will never understand, how can Stan and Jack get anywhere with women? Is this some sort of fantasy land that I am watching? I understand that women can be attracted to men who may not be great looking but have a great personality but Stan and Jack are lecherous. In Christmas Duty, they are waiting outside the women’s bathroom to grab the first woman that comes out to kiss underneath the mistletoe hanging above the bathroom door. When two women come out, they just grab them. I guess the good news is the women liked it. I don’t know how, they are both frightening looking men. Now, I fully understand that the roles these two actors were playing were meant to be younger than the actors themselves. Especially Stan was meant to be between 10 to 15 years younger than he really was but I have seen science fiction that has been more believable than this. At first I couldn’t believe that Linda would have a huge crush on Jack but then it became clear. She wasn’t necessarily interested in Jack; she was looking for anyone to have a good time with. As soon as Jack left the picture, she turned her attention (and hormonal drive) to Stan. I know I sound like a prude; I really am not. Maybe I’m just jealous over how Jack seems to be carrying all the machismo for the UK!

I think the real stand out in the series is Michael Robbins as Arthur. He is superb. Arthur is a huge hypocrite and is constantly horrible to Olive and really to everyone else. He does it in a way that is believable. Apart when he is yelling at everyone, he is actually a pretty quiet if hugely selfish person. He is pretty unhappy with his life and would like everyone to know about it. All the time! Stan is always loud, he is loud when he is just talking. There is just an underrated quality about Michael Robbins. I have watched him in a lot of stuff over the years. Obviously, he was great in Fairly Secret Army (why the hell is this not on DVD!!!) and I also love his portrayal of Richard Mace in the Doctor Who story, The Visitation. Easily it’s one of the very best guest starring appearances of anyone in Doctor Who.
Anna Karen is also incredible as Olive. What I didn’t realize is that Anna Karen wore a wig and put on padding to be Olive. She started out her career as a stripper and was a stripper alongside Barbara Windsor. Her stage name was “Anna Karen, the Swedish Sex Bomb”. In Christmas Duty, when the bike slams into the bus, for the rest of the episode Olive has a weird stain on the back of her white pants. Being in black & white you can’t tell what colour the stain is and it looks a lot like she took a dump in her pants…..I’m just saying! Also, a shout out to Stephen Lewis for Blakey. The funny thing about Blakey is that he is not as bad as everyone makes him out to be. He just follows the rules and that’s something Jack or Stan is not interested in doing.
On December 18, Ronald Wolfe co-creator of On the Buses passed away. He wrote with Ronald Chesney. Not only did they create On the Buses but also created such shows as The Rag Trade, Meet the Wife, and one of my guilty pleasures Take a Letter, Mr. Jones. They even wrote an episode of ‘Allo ‘Allo! He passed away three days after he fell down the stairs at his home. He was 89 and will be missed.

I watched these episodes from the Network release that was boxed together of the single releases in 2006. No restoration work was done on the episodes but they include ad caps. Some of the DVDs also include slates before the episode as seen below. This is from Boxing Day Social.

All in all, a nice theme month of Holiday episodes for December. In January, we will be back to picking whatever we randomly choose and watching it. The next time we devote the entire month to a particular theme will be in May when we look at only the final episodes of a TV series. If you want a primer of what that was like, look what I wrote about the final two episodes of On the Buses here.

Finally, as I post this article it is January 2nd 2012. It was 50 years ago today Z Cars made its debut. 800 episodes were made, a lot of them missing. It ran from 1962 to 1978. It spun off into many different series, Softly, Softly (1966), Softly, Softly Taskforce (1969), Barlow at Large (1971). Two of the characters were so popular, Barlow & Watts, that two series were made where as their characters went through paperwork and evidence of old famous cases to try and contemporarily solve them. Such as Second Verdict (1976) and even Jack the Ripper (1973). With such a long an illustrious history and multiple spin offs, one would assume there would be a ton of DVDs of these series or maybe even a best of set. There is none. Nothing at all. Never the less, happy anniversary Z Cars!
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Next week: out of Christmas but not out of comedy. I think for anyone in the US who got any interest in British television, this series is probably one of the first four series they would have seen. We will take a look at two episodes of the truly iconic Monty Python’s Flying Circus with two episodes from Series Two: Spam and Royal Episode 13. I will happily explain why I think Monty Python’s Flying Circus has received the shoddiest treatment of any series to be release on DVD.