'Do Not Adjust Your Set' - the Television Series

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At Last the 1948 Show | Do Not Adjust Your Set | How To Irritate People | The Complete and Utter History of Britain

Do Not Adjust Your Set (1967-9) was an internationally acclaimed anarchic British children's television sketch comedy series. Starring Denise Coffey, Eric Idle, David Jason Terry Jones and Michael Palin and with music by The Bonzo Dog (Doo-Dah) Band and contributions from Terry Gilliam, its success inspired John Cleese to contact many of the cast and led directly to the creation of Monty Python's Flying Circus.

Do Not Adjust the Set Up

Shortly after producer Humphrey Barclay, then in his 20s and best known for creating radio show I'm Sorry I'll Read That Again (1964-1973), turned freelance he was contacted by ITV franchise-holder Rediffusion Television's Jeremy Isaacs and tasked with commissioning a children's comedy sketch show. The title had already been chosen - Do Not Adjust Your Set was inspired by a common phrase used on television when there were transmission problems potentially affecting the picture, which was felt would result in free advertising.

Barclay had been a member of Cambridge University's Footlights comedy club and turned to Eric Idle, who had been in Footlights after John Cleese and Graham Chapman had left, to front the show. Idle, who was a writer for The Frost Report, then one of the most popular programmes in Britain, asked to be joined by Terry Jones. They had met at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and had worked with on The Frost Report together and Jones requested his writing partner Michael Palin be involved too. Both Jones and Palin had been to Oxford University. Idle has since said

Humphrey Barclay came to me in '66 or something and said, 'I want you to do a children's show. I've got the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band I want you to be a writer and performer.'… And I said, 'Well, okay, but I want Mike and Terry, I must have Mike and Terry.' I got to pick them. Then the three of us wrote 'Do Not Adjust Your Set'; I would write sketches on my own, and they'd write together but also separately…

Even though it meant leaving 'Frost', moving to children's TV was a step up for us because we were performing. Now we were on television, before then we were just writers, watching and waving goodbye to our jokes in a cab. Now we were getting our own Carnaby Street suits, we were filming, we were down in the TV studios and we were using all the equipment.

In order to balance out the Oxbridge university humour Barclay also hired electrician David Jason, who he had seen perform live at Bournemouth Pier, as well as Denise Coffey who had been seen appearing in A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Edinburgh Festival. Between them they were hired to provide slapstick humour as well as their own silent serial segment, Captain Fantastic.

29 × black and white mostly half-hour1 episodes were made in two series. Following a special pilot episode intended to be broadcast on Boxing Day 1967, 13 regular episodes were broadcast in the first series on Thursdays at 5:25pm between January and March 1968. This was followed by a special episode broadcast on 29 July 1968, produced to enter the Prix Jeunesse International Festival, which consisted of some of the show's most popular sketches and some new material. This special episode was broadcast at 7pm on Rediffusion's final night of broadcasting; ITV franchise holder Rediffusion lost the London franchise following a shake-up of the ITV network to prepare the channel for colour transmission. Instead television companies Rediffusion and ABC2 merged to form Thames Television, which held the London weekday franchise until 1993. Under Thames Television a 40-minute Christmas special was broadcast on Christmas Day 1968 titled Do Not Adjust Your Stocking followed by a second series of 13 episodes shown between February and May 1969.

Do Not Adjust The Cast

During the run of the show the team split into two halves – the writer/performers Idle, Jones and Palin on one side, with performers David Jason and Denise Coffey on the other. Jason had been brought in to be a slapstick performer, much to the dismay of Terry Jones who felt that he was perfectly capable of physical humour. Jason and Coffey created their own location-shot filmed silent serial segment titled Captain Fantastic, in which Jason played the titular bowler-hatted hero who, with his umbrella, fought the forces of evil personified by Mrs Black, as played by Coffey, who had a horrible handbag with built-in fiendish devices, aided by her henchmen the Blit Men. This serial, with each 3-minute episode ending on a cliff-hanger, would outlast Do Not Adjust Your Set and appear in early episodes of Thames Television's children's magazine programme Magpie (1968-1980).

Each episode involved musical accompaniment by the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, consisting of Vivian Stanshall, Neil Innes, drummer 'Legs' Larry Smith, Roger Ruskin Spear and Dave Clague and later Dennis Cowan. They would often appear in the sketches and the cast members would also appear in their songs. The Bonzos were anarchic and rarely took the show seriously, frequently playing up and on one occasion one member of the band did not play but instead rode a tricycle around the set while wearing a sign labelled 'I Refuse To Dress Up This Week'. One song they performed more than once during the show was their big hit, 'I'm the Urban Spaceman', the single of which had been produced by Paul McCartney and was later performed by Neil Innes at Live at the Hollywood Bowl. Eric Idle sometimes filled in for Neil Innes, such as playing the piano when Innes was ill with flu.

Another presence felt, particularly in the second series but credited as a writer from the midway point of the first series, is Terry Gilliam. Gilliam had previously worked met John Cleese when he supervised photographing a fumetto3 for the May 1965 issue in America for Help! magazine, in which Cleese appeared in while performing on Broadway. When Help! magazine collapsed, Gilliam travelled to London and contacted Cleese, asking if he could help him find a job. Cleese introduced him to Barclay, who was a keen animator himself and after seeing Gilliam's portfolio commissioned animation from Gilliam for Do Not Adjust Your Set.

Famously Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin would be head-hunted by John Cleese to join him on Monty Python's Flying Circus (1969-1974). Neil Innes would also frequently be involved in Monty Python, particularly during the last series and he made appearances in all the films. He would appear with Eric Idle in The Rutles, for which he wrote the music.

Jason was spotted by Ronnie Barker and asked to appear in many of his projects from Hark at Barker (1969) onwards, including playing a recurring character in Porridge and most famously culminating in playing Granville in Open All Hours (1976-1985) and sequel Still Open All Hours (2013+). After spending the 1970s and 80s in small roles such as voice-acting for Cosgrove Hall and appearing in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy radio show as the B Ark Captain, he has since become one of Britain's most successful comic actors starring in shows such as Only Fools and Horses (1981-2014), The Darling Buds of May (1991-3), A Touch of Frost (1992-2010), Hogfather (2006) and The Colour of Magic (2008).

Denise Coffey went on to frequently appear on stage, television and radio in numerous parts and was the main female role in Do Not Adjust Your Set co-star Vivian Stanshall's film, Sir Henry at Rawlinson End (1980).

Do Not Adjust The Broadcast

As none of the team behind Do Not Adjust Your Set had any experience in making a television series for children before, they did not have any preconceptions about what was and was not suitable for children and instead decided to do what they found funny as long as they kept the humour clean. The pilot episode, specifically designed to be Christmas themed, was scheduled to be broadcast on Boxing Day4 when serendipitous disaster struck. The wrong tape was accidentally transmitted so instead of the pilot episode the first episode, due to be broadcast on 4th January 1968, was transmitted instead. Terry Jones discussed this by saying,

It was awful watching, I was at my parents' home in Reigate… Rediffusion got the wrong tape. For some reason the tape they'd put on to broadcast hadn't got the adverts spliced on to it, so it went on and there was a blank patch for about three minutes where the ads were supposed to be. It was terribly embarrassing.

The show also overran and to prevent the following programme (Benny Hill) from going out late, the show was faded out in the middle of the last sketch and not allowed to finish. This did have the benefit of making the news and generated far more publicity than would otherwise have been the case, leading to almost-instant critical acclaim. The Sunday Times declared,

A funny thing happens on your TV screen on Thursday afternoon at 5:25pm, the tea-time spot. They're putting out another in the comedy series 'Do Not Adjust Your Set'. It has no sexy sketches. No-one comes on wearing drag. There are no jokes about politicians. It's adult in a way that those late-night satirical shows never managed to be adult. But, in fact, it's a review designed specifically for children. What's emerged is all first-hand stuff, very Goonish, with its own self-contained serial – a cold-eyed cod of all super-heroes called 'Captain Fantastic'. Children love it.

While The Guardian declared,

Billed as 'grown-up comedy for children' it is consistently funnier than BBC1's childish comedies for grown-ups… in one month, a sort of underground cult of adult viewers has developed: fathers who rush home from the office to see it and university students who like discussing the way it is able to get into the spirit (instead of just the manner) of old fashioned slapstick.

The show's fourth episode won the Best Children's Entertainment Programme Award at the 1968 International Prix Jeunesse. The ninth episode features an Uninvited Guest Star in the form of Tim Brooke-Taylor, who filled in for Michael Palin who was in hospital with appendicitis. As the series progressed David Jason was given an increasingly large role.

This led to a divide in the group about whether to continue aiming their material at children. Idle, Jones and Palin were keen to continue pushing the boundaries of what they could include to increasingly entertain the growing adult audience whereas the first series director Daphne Shadwell, Denise Coffey and David Jason felt they were pushing the boundaries too far and wished to keep the show toned down to appeal more to children. This led to Shadwell being replaced as director for the second series by Adrian Cooper when Humphrey Barclay was head-hunted by rival ITV company London Weekend Television (LWT)5 and was replaced by producer Ian Davidson. Palin described this with the words,

We got another director in because we didn't feel that Daphne's view of the show was particularly the way we wanted to go. That was the first time we thought, 'come on now, we've got a bit more strength, we ought to have more say in how the programme's done'. Daphne had strong ideas about how we were all presented – I was 'Pretty Palin', Eric was 'Idle Jack'… and it was all slightly school mistressish so we got another director for the second series, a man called Adrian Cooper. Then the whole thing began to go much more toward what we were looking for, which was a more experimental off-the-wall kind of show. We pushed 'Do Not Adjust Your Set' as far as we could go with it really….

We'd just come to a natural end. David and Denise, I think, wanted to take in a slightly different direction and wanted to do more writing and be more involved in it. The way they were thinking about it was different from the way the three of us were seeing it… So it seemed as though it was something that had run its natural course and if we wanted to try something new and different, we had to go on to a different group, really.

Do Not Adjust Your Flying Circus

Between making the two series Jones and Palin decided to work more on their own material, creating The Complete and Utter History of Britain (1969) for Humphrey Barclay when he moved to LWT, writing for both Do Not Adjust Your Set and The Complete and Utter History of Britain at the same time. Michael Palin had also enjoyed working with John Cleese and Graham Chapman on television special How to Irritate People (1968) for David Frost. As Do Not Adjust Your Set progressed, Jason and Coffey increasingly deviated from the scripts that Idle, Jones and Palin had written, much to particularly Jones' frustration. While the second series was being broadcast on 11 May, 1969 Chapman and Cleese attended the recording of an episode as they were huge admirers of the show, and afterwards went with Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin all together for the first time to a curry house. Cleese, keen to escape the control of David Frost, had been offered a television contract by the BBC, though at a considerable pay reduction from what Frost had offered him but allowing him greater freedom. Palin and Cleese decided to make an ensemble comedy series and on 23 May Cleese arranged for the six of them to pitch to the BBC for the 13-part television series which became the start of Monty Python's Flying Circus.

Around this time Thames Television tried to persuade the whole cast of Do Not Adjust Your Set to make another show for them but aimed at grown-ups, which Eric Idle was keen to do, but Thames had no available studios to film it in for at least a year. Michael Palin and Terry Jones were much keener to work with John Cleese for the BBC. Sir David Jason OBE has since revealed in his autobiography that he felt it was a 'huge blow' not to be asked to join Monty Python too and felt that this was because of his humble working-class, uneducated background and unlike the others he had not gone to university, and tensions with Eric Idle. Cleese has since said that he wished to assemble a team of writer/performers, which is why his close friend Tim Brooke-Taylor was not included as a Python.

Do Not Adjust Your Dustbins

As with many television episodes of the era, including such classics as Doctor Who, The Avengers, Dad's Army and Morecambe and Wise, the videotapes containing the original shows were wiped in the 1970s and they were reused to record other shows on.

Today only 14 episodes are known to exist. From the initial Rediffusion episodes the Pilot and Episodes 1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 9, 10, 11, 12 and 13 as well as the Special Edition are known to have survived. Of the Thames Television series only the Christmas Special 'Do Not Adjust Your Stocking' and Episode 2 still exist, though an off-air audio recording of episode 13 exists. These have since been released onto DVD, where the series is rated 'PG'.

1As this show was made for commercial televisions episodes were approximately 25-minutes allowing for an advert break in the middle.2British television company Associated British Cinemas (Television) and later Associated British Corporation that was a subsidiary of Associated British Picture Corporation, not to be confused with ITV company ATV which had also briefly used the name ABC standing for Associated Broadcasting Company before being sued by Associated British Corporation. There are similarly titled television companies worldwide, including the American Broadcasting Company and Australian Broadcasting Corporation.3A photographed comic strip.4The same day as the premiere of Magical Mystery Tour on BBC2, which also featured the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, while on BBC 1 the final episode of The Frost Report, titled 'Frost Over Christmas', featured live performances by John Cleese and sketches written by Terry Jones and Michael Palin.5London Weekend Television held the licence to broadcast to London at weekends between 1968 and 2002, though LWT was taken over by ITV conglomerate Granada in 1994. Between 1992 and 2001 Granada and Carlton bought every ITV franchise in England and Wales – but not Scotland and Northern Ireland - and in 2002 merged to create ITV plc.

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