'The Complete and Utter History of Britain' - the Television Series

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

The Complete and Utter History of Britain was a short-lived 1969 black and white television comedy series written by and starring Terry Jones and Michael Palin for LWT. Seven × half-hour (25-minute without adverts) episodes were written and created as a spoof documentary series showing the events of Britain from prehistoric times until the English Civil War but only six were broadcast, and due to television politics of the day they were only shown in limited areas of the United Kingdom. Only roughly half the material survives today.

Complete and Utter Creation

By 1969 Terry Jones and Michael Palin had established themselves as reliable comedy writer-performers on such shows as The Frost Report (1966-7), Twice a Fortnight (1967), Marty (1968), Broaden Your Mind (1968) and especially Do Not Adjust Your Set (1967-9) but were keen to create their own show. Following a sketch they had written for Twice a Fortnight in which the Battle of Hastings was shown as a home movie, Jones and Palin had the idea to make a documentary of the history of Britain as if television cameras had existed and captured many of the events as they happened.

They took this idea to Humphrey Barclay who had produced Do Not Adjust Your Set and was working for new television channel LWT – London Weekend Television – beneath LWT's new Head of Light Entertainment Frank Muir. Barclay was keen to work again with Jones and Palin and - following a draft script approved by Barclay's boss Frank Muir - agreed to produce, with Australian director Maurice 'Mocker' Murphy hired to direct in July 1968. Palin and Jones were wrote both the rest of the scripts for The Complete and Utter History of Britain at the same time as writing Do Not Adjust Your Set's second series, with Jones later saying,

Mike and I were [writing] the last season of 'Do Not Adjust Your Set' at the same time we were doing 'The Complete and Utter Histories'. It was absolutely manic!

Complete and Utter Casting

Despite Barclay being keen to reunite Jones and Palin with their Do Not Adjust Your Set co-stars David Jason and Denise Coffey, Jones and Palin were insistent that the show needed actors who would reliably stick to the scripts that they had painstakingly written while Coffey and Jason were fond improvising. With the exception of Diana Quick, their co-stars were chosen by Barclay and Murphy and did not always suit the style of comedy that Jones and Palin were aiming for.

As well as Terry Jones and Michael Palin playing many of the series' historical figures, the scripts called for two regular characters. A narrator who sat in the studio and introduced each clip in the manner of a news anchor was played by Colin Gordon, an established straight-man1 on stage and radio. The second regular character was the absent-minded Professor Weaver, played by Roddy Maude-Roxby, best known today for playing Edgar the butler in The AristoCats but at the time had an established stage carer in both the UK and on Broadway and was given prominent billing.

Other co-stars included Wallas Eaton while four actors were nicknamed the 'barmy army' as they played the series' smaller parts, typically the soldiers and guards seen in the various battle scenes. They were played by Ted Carson, Colin Cunningham, John Hughman and Johnny Vyvyan. The main female roles were split between two women. The first was Melinda May2, whose figure attracted much of the initial media attention, with the Sunday Mirror particularly focussing on her 36-24-36 measurements to the virtual exclusion of what the show was about. Palin was also keen to involve a friend from Oxford University, Diana Quick, however she had limited availability due to performing commitments at the Oxford Playhouse. Though the original intention had been to have the main female roles played by one actress, May and Quick split the roles between them.

As was standard with television at the time location filming took place first, beginning in October 1968, and was pre-filmed on 35mm film. Studio recording took place 'as live' on videotape in Wembley Studios3 television studio.

Filming continued until 10 January, which was two days before the first broadcast of the first episode. Yet by then it was clear that the show was unlikely to be a success due to the internal politics and external problems besetting the television company that the show was made for – LWT.

A Frosty Reception: LWT

London Weekend Television was a television company that in the late 1960s gained the rights to broadcast to the London region of the ITV network two and a half days a week – from 7pm Friday evenings to 6am Monday morning. Following the 1967 ITV franchise review, the existing ITV network was rearranged, and new companies were allowed to bid to replace existing franchise holders. LWT was a successful new bidder, buying the London weekend slot which had been held since 1955 by Lew Grade's Associated Television (ATV), who also held the licence for the Midlands. Led by David Frost and with an experienced team also consisting of Frank Muir, LWT replaced ATV as the London weekend broadcaster from 2 August, 1968.

The Independent Television Authority who regulated the licence holders felt that Frost and Muir were experienced hands and were impressed by their promise to provide less populist programming and more educational content. Not known for his modesty, David Frost was incredibly good at spotting and developing talent, with many of Britain's television personalities owing their breaks to him, yet he tended to ensure that the talents he developed knew that they were working for him and take credit for their glories. He was known for such programmes as The Frost Report (1966-7) for the BBC and The Frost Programme (1967) for ITV. Following LWT's appointment his weekly schedule was making Frost on Friday, Frost on Saturday and Frost on Sunday for each night his company broadcast in London before jumping on Concorde to film three evenings of The David Frost Show in the United States before flying back across to London again ready for Friday's filming.

On LWT's opening night, 15-seconds was successfully broadcast of the debut programme, We Have Ways of Making You Laugh, before strike action ended transmission – the show continued to be performed in the studio but it was not transmitted. ITV staff went on strike and service did not resume until Monday 19 August. This was a disastrous start for the fledgling company; advertising revenues collapsed and LWT's more educational schedules failed to attract viewers. LWT's attempts to sell their programmes to other ITV franchise holders met with little success; ATV who still held the lucrative Midlands franchise boycotted LWT in protest of their having replaced them in London. LWT's landmark show We Have Ways of Making You Laugh that was commissioned and hosted by Frank Muir, with animations by Terry Gilliam, had failed to find an audience and was cancelled after only 12 episodes. Other failures piled up, with LWT's first crime drama series, The Inquisitors, suddenly abandoned partway through filming, satirical comedy Mrs Wilson's Diary about the wife of Prime Minister Harold Wilson was banned from being broadcast and LWT's first sitcom Curry and Chips (1969) was cancelled by order of the Independent Television Authority for racist content. By now LWT had lost its confidence and, nervous, began interfering with The Complete and Utter History of Britain.

Complete and Utter Interference

LWT weren't terribly thrilled with it. Rather than letting us get on with it, they started meddling. Frank Muir was head of comedy and he started to interfere a bit.

- Terry Jones

While The Complete and Utter History of Britain was being filmed, Frank Muir began to worry that the series had to live up to being a flagship part of LWT's 1969 broadcast schedule. He made the choice that to strengthen the series the best clips of the already filmed episodes one and two should be combined into one episode, so that though enough material had been filmed for the seven episodes as intended, only six would be broadcast. This decision created a logistical nightmare as, being a mockumentary history series, the clips that were removed from the intended episodes one and two had to remain in chronological order in the new, combination episode and still be the same length, with the advert break and finish taking place at the same time as originally planned. Half of the material that Jones and Palin had filmed for the first two episodes would therefore never be shown. New links featuring Colin Gordon were hastily filmed to make the new compilation opening episode make sense.

This gamble failed to pay off – only one other ITV franchise holder screened the show at the start of 1969 – Harlech Television which owned the Wales & West franchise screened the series at 10:20pm on Sundays while LWT showed it at 10:45pm on the same night. The six episodes shown were:

  1. From the Dawn of History to the Norman Conquest
  2. Richard the Lionheart to Robin the Hood
  3. Edward the First to Richard the Last
  4. Perkin Warbeck to Bloody Mary
  5. The Great and Glorious Age of Elizabeth
  6. James the McFirst to Oliver Cromwell

The series ended there with the original intention of being able to pick up from Oliver Cromwell should a second series be commissioned, though it never was.

Terry Jones always felt that the sketches that he and Palin had written for the opening episodes were strong, but let down by a cast who did not understand the humour as well as unclear direction. He later reflected on his experience by saying,

It was at that moment when I realised that you can't just write it, you can't just perform it, you've actually got to be there, looking at locations, checking on the costumes – everything was crucial for the jokes.

He was determined to never again work with other cast members who did not appreciate the work that had gone into writing a comedy television series and the style of humour. Jones' insistence that his material from then on be directed correctly would later lead to clashes when filming television series Monty Python's Flying Circus
with director Ian MacNaughton and give him a reputation within the BBC as someone 'difficult to work with', though he would later direct or co-direct many of the Monty Python films4.

The series' failure was not a disaster for Palin and Jones. Palin has since said that following the final episode's transmission,

John Cleese phoned and said, 'Well, you won't be doing any more of those! So why don't we do something together?' He always was a mean bastard.

Palin and Cleese discussed this collaboration proposal along with Graham Chapman, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam following recording an episode of Do Not Adjust Your Set, and this led to the creation of Monty Python.

Complete and Utter Review

The Complete and Utter History of Britain demonstrates for the first-time in-depth Jones and Palin's interest in mocking historical events and is very much in the style of later Monty Python's Flying Circus. This can be seen throughout their later work; many of the mediæval sketches would have slotted seamlessly into Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Their later co-written television series Ripping Yarns would also lovingly mock historical eras, though these were set much later in time.

Incomplete and Utter Historical Survivors

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. Of the six broadcast episodes, only the first two survive in their entirety. Director Maurice Murphy kept a primitive video recording of the unbroadcast versions of the original episodes one and two, which includes half an hour of otherwise unseen material, however the picture quality has severely degraded and discoloured. Terry Jones also kept the location film clips from throughout the series. These total approximately 52 minutes, including 'coming up in the next episode' links. In 2013 Jones and Palin recorded new linking introductions for most of the surviving film clips - except for the 'coming up in the next episode' teasers – to create a new 50-minute compilation they titled The New Incomplete Complete and Utter History of Britain. All the surviving material was then released on DVD/Blu Ray in 2014, where the series is rated '12'.

1Perhaps best remembered now for playing Tucker in The Pink Panther opposite Peter Sellers.2Real name Linda Brewer, she should not be confused with the Marvel character Melinda May, SHIELD agent.3Built as Britain's first purpose-built sound film studio in 1927 it was bought by television company Rediffusion in 1954 and in 1960 was the largest television studio in Europe. After Rediffusion lost their licence to broadcast television to the London area in 1968 the studios was leased to LWT. The site continued to be used as a television studio until 2016.4Jones' co-directed Monty Python and the Holy Grail with Terry Gilliam. He directed Monty Python's Life of Brian and Monty Python's The Meaning of Life solo. He did not direct either And Now for Something Completely Different or Live at the Hollywood Bowl.

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