At Last the 1948 Show | Do Not Adjust Your Set | The Complete and Utter History of Britain
At Last the 1948 Show (1967) is a classic British television sketch comedy series that is now best known as one of the stepping-stones that led to Monty Python's Flying Circus, but well deserves to be recognised in its own right. The show was written by and starred Tim Brooke-Taylor, Graham Chapman, John Cleese and Marty Feldman, and was hosted by the lovely Aimi MacDonald. This was one of the last television series to be commissioned for ITV franchise-holder Rediffusion which held the London weekday franchise between 1955 and 1968 and had been informed that they had lost the London franchise in October 1967. 13 × black and white half-hour1 episodes were made in two series, the first running February and March and the second between September and November.
Unfortunately due to the television politics of the day the show was not fully broadcast outside London2. When the Independent Television Authority ended Rediffusion's franchise following changes to the ITV network3, the episodes were believed to have all been deleted along with most other Rediffusion shows. Even as they were made they were considered to be old-fashioned, as rival channel BBC2 began regularly broadcasting in colour from summer 1967.
Assembled At Last
In 1967 David Frost was a well-known British television host who when at Cambridge University had been the secretary of its famous Footlights drama and comedy society, and so knew many of the talented writers and performers there. After leaving university he established his career on satire, alternating between ITV and the BBC. While at the BBC he hosted The Frost Report (1966-7), a satirical show for which he assembled many of the leading young writing and acting talents he knew, including those from Footlights such as Tim Brooke-Taylor, Graham Chapman and John Cleese. Many of these had previously worked together on radio show I'm Sorry, I'll Read That Again (1964-1973). The Frost Report famously began the collaboration of Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett and its success allowed David Frost to create his own television company, Paradine Pictures. The enabled Frost to agree to create a satirical sketch show for Rediffusion and so turned to two of the comedy team he had assembled for The Frost Report, particularly John Cleese and Tim Brooke-Taylor, initially unsure of which of the two would be the star of the new show, however they both wanted to develop the sketch show together. Brooke-Taylor and Cleese, along with Graham Chapman, had all previously been housemates. Cleese described being offered the chance to have his own show but ultimately collaborating with Brooke-Taylor with the words,
I was both flattered and very scared, but came to the conclusion that since I could surround myself with a team of hand-picked people, I wouldn't have to carry too much responsibility myself and would therefore be able to cope. I always strongly believed in safety in numbers. So, it turned out, did Tim Brooke-Taylor.
The title At Last the 1948 Show was intended as a joke at the snail-speed at which television shows were commissioned at the time.
Together At Last
John Cleese was instrumental in bringing his writing partner Graham Chapman into the show, where he became a performer for the first time having previously been a writer only. Another writer brought into perform on the show was Marty Feldman, who was well-known for writing the first three years of radio comedy Round the Horne (1965-7). David Frost was uncertain that Feldman was suitable for television as he had Graves' ophthalmopathy, which caused his eyes to protrude and be misaligned, yet the others insisted that Feldman had such a warm, winning personality the audience would respond to his charm. Cleese has described the genesis of the show with the words,
David Frost had approached Tim Brooke-Taylor and me to do a show. I think he meant for us to do two separate shows but we said we wanted to do it together and we immediately roped Graham in. Then we decided we wanted to use Marty because I'd got very friendly with Marty during 'The Frost Report' and I thought he would be a terrific performer. Then he was only known as a writer, he was the head writer on 'Frost' but not a performer.
Following the show John Cleese and Graham Chapman would become a third of Monty Python's Flying Circus (1969-1974) while Tim Brooke-Taylor was a third of comedy trio The Goodies (1970-82). Yet Marty Feldman had the most immediate success as he was head-hunted by the BBC and given his own show, Marty, later It's Marty (1968-9), which also featured Tim Brooke-Taylor and included sketches written by the other three members of At Last the 1948 Show4. Initially nervous about performing on camera, he was given extensive rehearsing before the first series to build his confidence and give him an understanding of performing for television yet by the second series was at home. He was best able to create annoying characters that they nicknamed 'Mr Pest' while John Cleese's speciality was portraying comic anger.
Sadly the lovely Aimi MacDonald was given very little to do in the first series except to look glamourous, say And now for something completely different and other introductions to various sketches. She was there mainly to avoid the traditional comedy format of either having songs between sketches or a linkman, instead being a link girl who introduces the next item as if it was an unimportant inconvenience. She would inform the audience that the next sketch was set in, say, Spain. A running joke the first series was that in the first episode she was the only hostess, but in each subsequent show she would gain another hostess to help with the introductions until she was joined by six more hostesses all saying identical lines by the seventh episode. After being told that she would be joined by increasingly more co-hostesses during an early planning meeting Aimi replied, 'but I'm the loveliest' and from that moment on was always referred to onscreen as 'the lovely Aimi MacDonald'.
It was in the second series that she was given a larger role, launching the continuous 'Make the Lovely Aimi MacDonald a Rich Lady Appeal' as well as getting her own theme tune5. The fund actually attracted some donations which were returned where possible and donated to charity where not. Her character was convinced that she was the star of the show and the others there only doing comedy to fill in the time to allow her to change costumes.
My first little performances were in 'At Last the 1948 Show', that's where I first performed. But I played small parts, like the hand through the door, the man who comes in, the defence lawyer and one or two other things.
Idle became involved in At Last the 1948 Show as at the time it was being made, he, Barry Cryer and Graham Chapman were writing sitcom No – That's Me Over Here! (1967-70), which starred Ronnie Corbett.
Broadcast At Last
Many of the sketches that the show contained had either been written for The Frost Report only to be vetoed by David Frost as being too outrageous. Many of the early sketches were even older and created for their Cambridge University Footlights revues as this familiar material reassured all concerned that the style they were adapting would succeed. A few had even been created for I'm Sorry I'll Read That Again, with Jo Kendall appearing in a sketch as Mary, a character from that radio show.
The sketches were generally unrelated to each other and more likely to be surreal rather than satirical. There were sketches featuring numerous characters named Sidney Lotterby, named after a real television producer and director6. Sidney Lotterby would produce Broaden Your Mind – An Encyclopaedia of the Air, a 1968-9 comedy series starring Tim Brooke-Taylor and Graeme Garden7.
As the cast wanted to push the barriers in established television comedy and do what never had been done before, they chose to use an editor to tighten up the shows. This was at a time when editing was a labour-intensive process involving physically cutting the film and actively discouraged by Rediffusion executives. Cleese and Brooke-Taylor were also told that they were not allowed to credit the editor, Johnny Fielder, as this would break the audience's illusion that the show was being performed as-live. Insisting that Johnny Fielder should be credited for his role in the show he was given the credit Choreographer of Underwater Chariot Race.
Merchandising At Last
Two records were released of material from At Last the 1948 Show in 1967. The first was the double-A-side single of 'John Cleese and the 1948 Show Choir' singing The Ferret Song and 'The Rhubarb Tart Song', both originally from I'm Sorry, I'll Read That Again. An album containing various sketches was also released.
Found At Last
As At Last the 1948 Show was little seen around the UK, many of the sketches were re-used in later shows, not only those featuring the cast but even shows performed by other entertainers. This includes Marty, The Two Ronnies, How to Irritate People and The Secret Policeman's Ball as well as various Monty Python records spin-offs, Live at the Hollywood Bowl and most famous of all, the Four Yorkshiremen sketch which was written and first performed for At Last the 1948 Show.
As with many television episodes of the era, including such classics as Doctor Who, The Avengers, Dad's Army and Morecambe and Wise, Rediffusion wiped the videotapes containing the original shows in the 1970s and they were reused to record other shows on. In his autobiography John Cleese describes this by saying,
You see, back in those Palaeozoic times TV shows were recorded on enormous reels of videotape, which were expensive and also took up a lot of storage space. So unless a repeat was on the cards, TV companies liked to reuse the tape. [Destroying television series were] Acts of vandalism that, for me, equal the burning of the library of Alexandria. David Frost's hatchet man... ordered the wiping of 13 episodes.. so that he could free up four and a half feet of shelf space. So suddenly there were no tapes of 'The 1948 Show'. It was no more. It was an ex-series.
By 1990 when the surviving Rediffusion collection was donated to the BFI National Film Archive none of the company's videotapes had survived, the only material was film and filmed telerecordings8. Only two episodes were believed to have survived. Shortly afterwards the BFI (British Film Institute) began a campaign to trace missing television episodes as part of their Missing Believed Wiped campaign and there were rumours that episodes existed at Sweden's Sveriges Television. These proved to be five compilation episodes of various sketches from both series that were felt to be the easiest to understand in Sweden, and these episodes were later released in the first home media release of the show.
With the BFI continuing to pursue their campaign to locate missing episodes a collection of clips from Australia's ABC network of censored scenes and scenes used for promotional purposes resulted in the discovery of two complete At Last the 1948 Show sketches and also other fragments. It was also discovered that a teenage fan, Ray Frensham, had recorded virtually every episode's soundtrack with a reel-to-reel tape recorder for his own use by using a microphone pointed at the television and these were able to be used to reconstruct the audio. The promotion generated from the Missing Believed Wiped initiative, which has an annual event to promote what is missing and celebrate found materials as well as programmes broadcast on the BBC, led to the discovery and recovery of more episodes, including two held in David Frost's personal archive. Although most of Episode 2 and the first episode of the second series remains missing, by using the best material available, including episodes reconstructed from the clips from Sweden and Australia, this series is regarded as the campaign's greatest success. The almost-complete series was released on DVD in 2019 and is also now available on BritBox, the BBC and ITV's online streaming service.