Written by Michael Palin and Terry Jones
Starring Michael Palin
Monty Python's Flying Circus was the greatest run of sustained comic brilliance in television history. But all good things had to come to an end* and the six main performers ended up going their separate ways. John Cleese struck pay dirt immediately with Fawlty Towers, another comic landmark. Michael Palin and Terry Jones did nearly as well with Ripping Yarns,** a show that's clearly overlooked.
It may have been the concept. Ripping Yarns was a send up of the British boys' adventure novels (and other genres) of the 1920s and 30s, with derring do and British upper class locales (generally). Palin and Jones used these stories -- which certainly looked very silly when they were writing it -- and turned them into wild humor.
Palin played the lead actor in all of them; Jones appeared once or twice, but pretty much stuck to writing. The episodes were filmed, not videotaped, and the stories took their genre and added many pythonesque absurdities. There were six in the first season:
- Tomkinson's Schooldays. The British schoolboy novel (think Harry Potter without the magic), where Tomkinson is tortured by upper classmen as he tries to prove himself in the school's great event, the Thirty Mile Hop.***
- The Testing of Eric Olthwaithe. Called "a northern yarn," this evidently parodied books about the people in the north of England. Olthwaithe is the most boring person in his Depression-era town, until he accidentally gets mixed up with bank robbers.****
- Escape from Stalag Luft 112B. About Major Phipp's maniacal plans to escape from a POW camp -- where the others don't want to escape.
- Murder at Moorstone's Manor. An Agatha-Chrystie type murder mystery where nothing is as it seems. Or everything is. It has my favorite exchange:
- Charles (after his brother is murdered): But why? Why do we have to have a funeral?
- Mother: People like funerals, dear.
- Charles: We didn't have a funeral for Aunt Mabel.
- Mother: Well, we know why that was dear, now please.
- Charles: Why? Why did we never have a funeral for Aunt Mabel?
- Mother: Because we couldn't find her, dear.
- Charles: We found most of her.
- Across the Andes by Frog. Captain Walter Snetterton out to prove his theory of amphibian migration.
- The Curse of the Claw. The evil "monkey's paw" whose horrific influence haunts a man's life.
- Whinfrey's Last Case. England's greatest hero foils a plot by the Germans to start World War I a year early.
- Golden Gordon. A soccer mad man goes to extreme measures to revive the local team to its glory days. Actually, rather sweet overall.
- Roger of the Raj. The story of the heir to a peerage who gets caught up in an rebellion in India.
The show was expensive to produce, so after nine episodes, the BBC canceled it. But while Fawlty Towers became a favorite in reruns, Ripping Yarns got very little play in the US. I'm not sure why. It had only nine episodes, but Fawlty Towers only had 12. It's possible that the references of the parodies just didn't go over well in the US.
Michael Palin moved on, appearing in the underrated The Missionary and eventually finding his niche doing travel series. Terry Jones started writing children's stories. And, of course, Monty Python continues to be the gold standard for comedy.
But Ripping Yarns also deserves its place among the greats.
*And, to be honest, the final season of the show -- without John Cleese -- was very uneven and often very unfunny. Yes, I'm looking at you, Mr. Neutron.
**Eric Idle took a long time to find his niche, but eventually developed Spamalot for the stage and has been successful as a standup comedian.
***This actually was supposed to be a one-time special, but the BBC liked it so much they ordered more episodes.
****The ending is a neat dig at our passion for celebrities; one of the jokes is that the same dull monologues that drove Eric's acquaintances to run away to avoid mind-numbing boredom are not interested once he becomes famous.