'Ripping Yarns' - the Television Series
Created | Updated Mar 21, 2023
Translated from the Swedish, cleaned up, put in a nice green folder and sent to the BBC by MICHAEL PALIN and TERRY JONES
- Joke introductory credit
Ripping Yarns is a quality television comedy series made by Michael Palin and Terry Jones. Nine half-hour episodes were broadcast between 1976 and 1979, each spoofing Boys' Own style stories that were popular in Victorian and Edwardian Britain1 which often featured stories about cricket, heroism in the empire, public schools and tales of daring do. In these stories, heroic exploits could be found around every corner and a hero lurked in the heart of every man – provided, of course, they were British. For this was a time when boys were boys, British men were real men and yarn, presumably, was yarn.
Unlike their previous comedy collaborations which were very sketch-based and included Do Not Adjust Your Set (1968-9) and Monty Python's Flying Circus2, Palin and Jones decided they would try something completely different. Each episode was a self-contained story rather than consisting of unrelated sketches. Considered a highly prestigious production and made with the talented pairing of Michael Palin and Terry Jones, unusually for British television comedy of the time the BBC filmed the series on expensive film rather than the standard, and much cheaper, medium of videotape3.
Letting Rip: Making Ripping Yarns
After television series Monty Python's Flying Circus (1969-1974) ended, Michael Palin was looking for a new project to work on. He was approached by producer Terry Hughes who wanted to commission a half-hour variety show special that Michael Palin would host. Uninterested, Palin instead offered a spoof public school story in the vein of Tom Brown's Schooldays (1857). Allowed to proceed, Palin began writing it on 29 May, 1975. In early June he decided to allow his long-term writing partner Terry Jones to help him tighten and improve the script. Location filming took place at Milton Abbas School in Dorset with 16mm film used on location but indoor scenes recorded on videotape. In his diary, Palin described making this series as:
The most solid week's work in my life... I have been totally involved – in the setting-up and shooting, as well as the acting, of almost every shot... I feel [Terry Jones] is waiting just behind me to take over. I don't mean that in any malicious sense, it's just that I fear his enthusiasm.
Following episode 'Tomkinson's Schooldays', a series was commissioned and titled Ripping Yarns after a similarly-titled book, Ripping Tales, owned by Terry Jones, that had been a gift from Palin. The series was to spoof the typical Boys' Own adventure stories.
Initially there was tension in the working relationship between Jones and Palin, with the BBC and Palin keen to make the show his, while Jones wanted increasingly greater creative input but without appearing on screen. On the strength of the positive reviews of 'Tomkinson's Schooldays' in January 1976, the BBC was able to pre-sell the series to an American television company before the episodes had been made in order to get the money required for filming, though the BBC in their urgency to sign the show to PBS were unable to later accept a potentially more lucrative offer from ABC. Palin recorded this in his diary with the words:
The continuing backwash of enthusiasm for 'Tomkinson's Schooldays'… Only on a couple of occasions after 'Python's success did I ever feel this warm glow of BBC approval…. Then there's the... front money from America… Time-Life4 (whom Gilliam and I dragged into court less than a month ago!5) [have expressed an interest to] buy a series based on the successful 'Tomkinson' and therefore put up front money so that the BBC can afford our expensive services… In the end the [BBC] agreed that we could, if we needed to, do entire shows on film – I never thought I would live to hear a BBC Head of Comedy make such a heretical suggestion. In return for all this, Terry and I will supply the BBC with thirteen [episodes] by mid-summer 1978.
In the event only nine episodes were made. A budget of £34,000 per episode was agreed – double the average sit-com episode of the time, and over twice what each episode of Monty Python's Flying Circus was made for. Despite this the BBC weren't enthusiastic about Terry Jones' involvement as he had a reputation for strong opinions, having frequently clashed with Ian MacNaughton, the director of Monty Python's Flying Circus6 and the series had been intended to be a Michael Palin vehicle. Jones again didn't get on with producer Terry Hughes, who was keener to have a more traditional approach than Jones wanted to promote, and so Jones was involved only in the writing stage of subsequent episodes.
Episodes were filmed on an ad hoc basis during gaps in Palin's schedule. After the first six episodes the BBC, worried about the expense, chose to commission only three episodes of a second series. With spiralling inflation of the late 1970s and limited resources, the BBC declined to order a third series, stating that Ripping Yarns 'though prestigious [was] beyond the BBC's resources'. Palin was happy to agree having found the juggle of filming this along with his many other projects increasingly difficult.
The first episode, 'Tomkinson's Schooldays', was broadcast in January 1976 to an impressive reception which led to the commissioning of further episodes. The only recurring character was that of the Introducer, who was a spoof of Orson Welles who regularly introduced episodes of Orson Welles' Great Mysteries (1973-4).
Following the pilot two series were made, with a break between in which Palin and Jones co-wrote Monty Python's Life of Brian with their fellow Pythons as well as Palin appearing in Terry Gilliam's Jabberwocky and Eric Idle's Beatles-spoof The Rutles.
The opening and closing theme tune was 'Fanfare from the Façade Suite' with period library music used to convey each episode's time setting and because it was cheap.
The first three episodes were directed by Terry Hughes, best known for directing shows such as The Harry Secombe Show and The Two Ronnies. However after three episodes he was promoted to be the BBC's Head of Variety and no longer permitted to direct. He later moved to America, co-directing Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl7. Hughes was replaced by Jim Franklin, director of The Goodies and the second series included episodes directed by Alan JW Bell who later directed the television adaptation of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. This was his directorial debut having been a PA on earlier episodes. Episodes are listed in broadcast order, which was different to production order.
Pilot and Series One
All but one episode stars Michael Palin in double roles.
1. Tomkinson's Schooldays (1976)
|Plot||Tomkinson is miserable living at the Graybridge Public School, haunted by terrible teachers, his missing father and uncaring mother - and the constant attention from the official school bully.|
|Setting||A Public School in 1913|
2. The Testing of Eric Olthwaite (1977)
|Plot||Eric Olthwaite is the most boring man to have ever lived in Denley Moor, only interested in talking about shovels and rainfall, until he inadvertently finds himself in a bank as it is being robbed, leading to a life of crime.|
|Setting||West Yorkshire's Denley Moor in 1934|
This is a successful cross with elements of kitchen sink films and crime dramas that glamorise the life of gangsters and their molls. The robber's outdoor hideaway scenes were filmed at High Force Waterfall with the town scenes were filmed at Beamish Open Air Museum and Tow Law in County Durham instead of Yorkshire because, according to Palin,
We filmed in Durham because Yorkshire wasn't grotty enough.
While he was filming this episode Michael Palin's father died. Palin also records in his diary that
[Yorkshire shovel-making firm] Spear and Jackson are suing the BBC for libel in the 'Eric Olthwaite' Yarn! What's more it sounds as though the cowardly Beeb are settling out of court… My reference to Eric Olthwaite's 'Spear and Jackson No 3 with a reinforced brass handle' was meant fondly, but clearly not taken that way by the manufacturer.
3. Escape from Stalag Luft 112B (1977)
|Plot||During the First World War prisoner of war Major Errol Phipps is determined to escape from camp Stalag Luft 112B.|
|Setting||German Prisoner of War camp in 1917|
A spoof of prisoner of war films, with 'Stalag' the name of German prisoner of war camps during the Second World War rather than the First World War of this episode's setting8. The prisoner of war camp was filmed at a real army barracks at Salisbury Plain, which Palin described with the words.
Huts… built during the First War, which are still used during training exercises. They are spartan and the attempts to brighten them up are very tacky and only emphasise the gloomy temporariness of the camps themselves, which cling unconvincingly to the Plain in the teeth of vicious winds. It's so remote and exposed up there that one could almost be in Labrador rather than one and half hour's drive from London.
4. Murder at Moorstones Manor (1977)
|Plot||At a Chiddingfield family gathering at the isolated Moorstones Manor most of the family are murdered one by one. Who is the killer?|
|Setting||A stately home in Scotland in 1926|
A perfectly spoofed Agatha Christie style whodunnit, Moorstones Manor was filmed at Harefield Grove, Rickmansworth.
5. Across the Andes by Frog (1977)
|Plot||Explorer Walter Snetterton wants to lead an expedition proving that frogs are capable of scaling the Andes and find a path across those treacherous mountains. However his expedition is beset by superstitious natives, his troops determined to resign and marry the locals and the British Consul unwilling to miss listening to tennis from Wimbledon on the radio.|
|Setting||Peru in 1927|
This episode re-used an idea included in book co-written by Michael Palin and Terry Jones, Bert Fegg's Nasty Book for Boys and Girls (1974). Michael Palin made this episode shortly after filming on Jabberwocky and wrote in his diary,
In the village [set] our cameraman was directing a lighting rig the size and scale of which made 'Jabberwocky' look like home movies, a track was being laid, flags being nailed up, statues erected. A feature film atmosphere of bustle and preparation.
The impressive village set had been originally built at Pinewood Studio for The Spanish Gardener (1956), with Glencoe in Scotland doubling for the Andes themselves.
6. The Curse of the Claw (1977)
|Plot||Young Kevin is warned by his diseased 59-year-old uncle Jack that unless the Sacred Claw of the Naga Hills is returned to the temple from whence it came by his 60th birthday, the curse will kill him and then ruin Kevin's life. When the claw is lost on the journey, how will Kevin's life work out?|
|Setting||Maidenhead and Burma between late Victorian times and 1926|
A spoof of WW Jacob's famous short story 'The Monkey's Paw' (1902), this was filmed at Rippingale House in Lincolnshire and on the tug Cervia at Maidstone.
For the second series Michael Palin chose to play only one character per episode.
7. Whinfrey's Last Case (1979)
|Plot||In 1913 the British Government learn that the Germans plan to start the First World War a year early, before the Royal Navy has finish purchasing all the cutlery it will require for its sailors' meals. They call on top gentleman agent Whinfrey to investigate but, having been saving the world daily for over a decade, Whinfrey instead decides to go on a fishing holiday to Cornwall instead. Will the world be safe without him?|
|Setting||England in 1913|
This was created as a spoof with the main character a cross between literary characters HC McNeile's Bulldog Drummond and Captain WE Johns' Biggles. Filming this episode met with difficulty due to a strike at Ealing Film Studios where the Smuggler's Cave interiors were due to be filmed, which meant that some parts had to be recast.
8. Golden Gordon (1979)
|Plot||Gordon Ottershaw is the last fan of Barnestoneworth United, Yorkshire's worst football team, who haven't won a match for six years. He bets that Barnestoneworth will win their last match, otherwise they will be disbanded and the grounds used to store scrap. Can Ottershaw reunite the legendary winning Barnestoneworth team from 1922?|
|Setting||Barnstoneworth, West Yorkshire in 1935|
The idea and initial drafts of this episode were written in Tunisia while Palin was making Life of Brian. This is perhaps why the legendary lineup of Barnestoneworth heroes are 'Bunn, Wackett, Buzzard, Stubble and Boots', which had been the working title of what became Monty Python's Flying Circus. Visually stunning and matching the spirit of Yorkshire in the 1930s in every way, this was filmed at the Keighley & Worth Valley Railway, the Saltaire UNESCO World Heritage Site and Salts FC, a genuine 1930s football pitch. Another location was Kildwick Hall, filming in the same room and in front of the same fireplace as had appeared in the Laurence Olivier Wuthering Heights (1939) which shows the initials W C9, with the C standing for the Currer family, who were so close friends of the Brontë family that Charlotte Brontë used the penname 'Currer Bell'.
9. Roger of the Raj (1979)
|Plot||The world is poised on the brink of war and young, aristocratic Roger Bartlesham longs to give up his privileged life and set up a little shop with his sweet-heart, Miranda. Yet commissioned into his father's regiment and sent to India, how will he cope with the breach of etiquette when officers pass the port the wrong way around the table while the men plan a Marxist uprising?|
|Setting||England and India in 1914|
A spoof of the British Empire and particularly the class system during the Edwardian era. John Le Mesurier delights in his brief cameo appearance.
Ripping Yarns perfectly embodies and spoofs Britain before the Second World War. It was also the last television project that Michael Palin and Terry Jones wrote together. The series' tone is surprisingly changeable as each episode is virtually a short film made in a different location with a different cast and set in a different period, yet each episode retains a sense of nostalgic whimsical charm as well as being the perfect pastiche. Critically acclaimed, it won the 1980 Best Light Entertainment BAFTA Award.
As the series was made before home media such as videocassette existed the scripts were published as a book available for fans to purchase. This was publicised with a book signing tour of the country. It was released on VHS in the 1980s and has since been released on DVD in a boxset that includes 'Secrets' (1973), a Jones and Palin-written episode of the dark Black and Blue television series.
A recurring theme in many of the episodes is that of exploration. In later life Michael Palin would prove to be a popular host of travel documentaries, travelling around the world in 80 days, heading from the North to South Pole, circumnavigating the Pacific Ocean and crossing the Sahara and Himalayas among others.