25 March 2004 | Lupercali
Palin's answer to Fawlty Towers
In the early years of the post Monty Python split, everybody went on to their solo projects, with greater or lesser success. Although Cleese's 'Fawlty Towers' is rightly celebrated as one of the greatest sitcoms of all time, Michael Palin and Terry Jones's 'Ripping Yarns (same period, also two seasons) gives it a very close run for its money - especially for those who prefer the surreal Palin/Jones Oxford humour to the slightly more orthodox Cleese/Chapman Cambridge style.
'Ripping Yarns' is basically a send up of 'Boys Own' style between-the-wars boys adventure magazines, which might not make a great deal of sense to American audiences, but when I played the episode 'Winfrey's Last Case' to a friend in San Diego he was almost reduced to tears.
There were twelve(?) 'Ripping Yarns' stories, and one shouldn't infer anything from that. Each of the episode/stories was entirely different and unique; almost a mini-movie based on a generic Boy's Own/Chums 1920-30's tale. A couple of them ('Across the Andes by Frog', for example) fall slightly short, but most of them are inspired works of genius.
There is 'Tomkinsons's School Days', where the horrors of British public school life are parodied to hilarious effect (have you ever built an Icebreaker in metalwork class?), 'Golden Gordon', about a football-obsessed father who smashes his house to pieces every time his team loses (which they've done every week since about 1913), 'Winfrey's Last Case' - a hilarious Biggles type adventure about spies on the Dorset coast, Escape From Stalag 117' (or something), a tearfully funny send-up of 'The Great Escape' type yarns, and perhaps the most celebrated episode 'The Testing of Eric Orthwaite', where a boring young northern man obsessed with rain gauges and shovels is thrust into a life of crime to impress his love interest. It sports the unforgettable newspaper headline:
'Orthwaite gang strikes again: Bank manager tells of night of boredom'
(This episode has just a few shades of Woody Allen's 'Take the Money and Run')
Pound for pound, 'Ripping Yarns' stacks up against any British comedy series of the 70's, and proves that Palin was the best actor of the Python crew, and along with Cleese and maybe Jones, the best writer.