Everyone has their favourite hot take on Monty Python – Dead Parrot sketch (‘isn’t Cleese just hysterical?’), no traditional punchlines (‘just incredibly radical’) and cartoon segues (‘so surreal!’) – but ‘Ripping Yarns’, a short-lived television series which Michael Palin and Terry Jones put together in their post-Python incarnations, is really fascinating in its own right, a rich creation as funny as Flying Circus and far cleverer than Fawlty Towers.
In a series of Boy’s Own-style adventures, Jones and Palin cast a wry but affectionate eye over the mythology of Edwardian England.
There’s Working Class Yorkshire in ‘The Testing of Eric Olthwaite’, in which the most boring man in England (he’s obsessed with the weather: “It were always raining in Denley Moor. Except on days when it were fine”) accidentally falls into a life of derring-do criminality.
‘Whinfrey’s last case’ is a debunking of the John Buchan pre-Great War espionage story. Gerald Whinfrey, super-spy and all-round good egg, tries to take some holiday (after saving the day yet again) only to find the remote Cornish cottage infiltrated by German spies trained to deliver ‘typical Cornish hospitality’, but with a Prussian accent.
Palin plays the lead throughout and puts together brilliant, virtuosic performances, as comfortable speaking in a silly Yorkshire vernacular – he’s a Sheffield native of course – as he is playing the late Imperial English gentleman. There are so many brilliant episodes: ‘Across the Andes by Frog’; ‘Escape from Stalag Luft 1123’; and ‘Roger of the Raj’, but the best ripping yarn is by far and away ‘Tomkinson’s Schooldays’, a playful look at life in a British Public School.
The episode begins with the school song: “My schoooool, my schoooool, how gravely she stands…” bawled out by hundreds of boys. And Tomkinson introduces us to the petty humiliations of life at ‘Greybridge school’: “Beating the headmaster was just one of those ghastly chores which produced such depression within me.”
It’s full of hilarious inversions of traditional forms of authority. Fagging, the disciplinary hierarchies among the boys, is given a twist – there’s even a salaried “school bully” with a Filipino live-in girlfriend.
Monday prayers start with the bogus mish-mash of hearty bravado and pop-theology of Edwardian ‘muscular Christianity’: “Oh Lord, we give thee humble and hearty thanks for this your gift of discipline, knowing that it is only through the constraints of others that we come to know ourselves and it is only through true misery that we find true contentment … May the fire of your just and awful wrath fall on Biggs, Normanton, Potter Minor and Tookey. Amen, amen.”
There’s a distant Mother, who sends cake once a term, and a famous Polar explorer Father who may not be quite what he seems: “He may not be back from the Pole – he has another woman down there”, Tomkinson is told.
Tomkinson dreams of escape from boarding school. First off, he beats the whole rugby team and doesn’t stop running after he scores, off, off into the distance: “I was seventeen miles from Greybridge when I was caught by the school leopard.” In model boat club, he builds a full-scale ‘icebreaker’: “It’s a bit big for a model”, says a weary Housemaster, “melt it down at once.”
So buy the DVD here and rediscover this lost classic and meet its cast of glorious characters: Eric Olthwaite, Roger of the Raj, Gerald Whinfrey and of course, Tomkinson.