Sir Michael Palin reflects on the "step into the unknown" that would become a comedy classic
Ripping Yarns, the masterly anthology series that Palin created with fellow Python Terry Jones, is 45 this week – and now on BritBox. So how did it come about? And which is Palin's favourite episode?
"There was this nicely unique formula with chances to do lots of little jokes – and I think that’s what makes them watchable again. There’s always something to see..."
Sir Michael Palin is talking to Radio Times about Ripping Yarns, a comedy where anything could happen – and frequently did. It was set in an early 20th Century in which you could cross the Andes by frog, the most boring man in the world became a fêted bank robber and a plummeting football team reversed its fortunes by employing OAPs. Its arcane world of hopping contests and crusty colonials tore into a world of derring do made popular in The Boy's Own Paper.
The rituals of boarding school, scarcely credible sporting heroics, displays of aggressive imperialism... all were ripe for affectionate ridicule in a show that was lapped up back in the day, and is now ready for reappraisal on, effectively, its 45th anniversary in its new home on BritBox.
Ripping Yarns ran for just nine episodes – one season in September 1977 following a well-received pilot the previous year, then a three-part second season in 1979 – but it soon became embedded in the national consciousness, evolving from the seminal work of surrealism that was Monty Python's Flying Circus.
Costing £34,000 per half-hour – double the average sitcom episode at that time – it was artistically filmed, full of period detail and great gags, and peopled with prestige actors.
It came during a flowering of post-Circus creativity: John Cleese went on to Fawlty Towers, Eric Idle to Rutland Weekend Television, Terry Gilliam to fantasy films like Jabberwocky and Time Bandits, and Michael Palin and Terry Jones to their majestic upending of adventure tropes.
I asked Sir Michael who had the initial idea for the Yarns. "Terry and I were looking round for something to write, and Terry had a book on his shelf, which I might well have given him because we exchanged old-fashioned books: it was called Ripping Yarns: a Collection of Tales.
More like this
"Terry’s brother Nigel said, 'That might make a good idea for a series.' And when we were discussing it together we said, 'Let’s have a go' and I went away and started to write Tomkinson’s Schooldays in the style of those ripping yarns. So it’s a bit of a mix between Terry, his brother Nigel and myself."
It's a period that Palin delights in remembering, a time when he collaborated with his great friend Terry Jones (who sadly died in 2020 aged 77), although he admits that the project was not devoid of awkwardness.
"I always look back fondly on working with Terry because he was such a good companion and such a genial presence. But it was also quite difficult because I felt that if I was going to be acting in the Yarns, it would slightly change our relationship. I think Terry would probably like to have been involved as thoroughly as I was but there wasn’t room for both of us doing the same amount of work, so Terry ended up writing with me but not acting." In the event, Jones only appeared in the first story.
"But relationships were changing then anyway really. John wasn’t writing so much with Graham Chapman and Eric had gone off to do his own series, Rutland Weekend Television. So it was a time of change but in terms of writing the Yarns, Terry was great because he was rather good at plot and I was better at character, I suppose, and so it was quite a good combination."
Its fans are legion, especially among comedy cognoscenti. Bestselling author John O'Farrell, who was a lead writer for Spitting Image and Have I Got News for You, tells Radio Times: "I loved Ripping Yarns when I was a teenager growing up in Maidenhead, and was of course thrilled that our local paper made an appearance in The Curse of the Claw!
"My favourite was The Testing of Eric Olthwaite – I loved that his father pretended to be French so that he didn’t have to talk to him. It’s actually very hard to write a boring character, without them just being, well you know, boring – but poor Eric was both funny and sort of lovable."
Eric Olthwaite was a character that Palin loved inhabiting: "It was very enjoyable because he was such a sort of wonderfully odd, irritating person to play (laughs)." And in Python tradition, Palin took on multiple roles in most episodes: "The idea was that I should be the central performer I suppose – this was what the BBC wanted. And of course I enjoyed playing the characters I’d written.
"This was a characteristic of Python: I think some of the best performances were by people who’d written the material as well. So I thought, 'I’ll guard this material carefully by playing it because I know how it should be done' (chuckles) – and all sorts of arrogant things like that. But Terry said that, 'Sometimes you tend to play the straight man in the middle, around which all the silliness happens,' and it was very fair point, because I like taking sort of odd and strange characters like the two brothers in Murder at Moorstones Manor.
"But I was aware also that sometimes, as in something like Across the Andes by Frog, you’ve got a central character who’s quite straight. Mad but straight. And he’s the anchor of the whole lot really and if you don’t get his character and motivation just right, the characters around him aren’t going to work so well."
The adventures were also blessed with a superb cast, from Liz Smith and Kenneth Colley to Jan Francis and John Le Mesurier. "We got some wonderful people," agrees Palin. "In Tomkinson we had Gwen Watford who was just so marvellous as the mother wandering into the sanatorium with her shoe trees (laughs). I mean she’s just so wonderfully sort of gently British and beautiful and lovely and carrying these shoe trees... it was hilarious. To get her and Ian Ogilvy as the school bully was terrific. A wonderful start."
Any particular favourites? "I was delighted to get Denholm Elliot to play the seedy consul in Across the Andes and there were some great performers in Roger of the Raj, getting Joan Sanderson and Richard Vernon at either end of the table as a Lord and Lady discussing the toast. Absolutely excellent. And John Le Mesurier as one of the people in the room where various members of the dinner party were going out and shooting themselves for getting the etiquette wrong. That was terrific."
The star did have reservations, however: "Sometimes I did have the feeling, and I know Terry did too, that we hadn’t got quite the right person to play it. We got a very good actor but very good actors don’t always trust the script and they try to make it funny their way – actually very often the real humour is by underplaying it completely.
"That occasionally happened and on some mornings as I woke up early I’d think, 'Oh my God, ideally we’d have all the Pythons playing these parts,' because you never had to tell the Pythons how to hit the comic tone – they always got it right. It was an instinctive thing. But that was the thing about Ripping Yarns: it was different from Python. We were using straight actors and sometimes it worked very well, other times not so well."
Doing something different was, Palin confesses, "a bit of a step into the unknown, quite bracing", particularly as the stories were self-contained. Writer John O'Farrell can testify to this: "When you make the early decision to do a different set of characters every week, there is no momentum gained, no regular characters for the audience to fall in love with. This actually occurred to me when I was writing Murder Most Horrid with Dawn French. With AbFab, Jennifer Saunders had created a show with characters that we grew to love week after week, whereas Dawn was starting from scratch every episode."
That maintaining of impetus was a concern to Palin, too. "I know what John O’Farrell means. We only did nine in the end, mainly because the BBC said that they couldn’t afford to do any more because they were rather expensive, but I think that was a sort of code for saying that they weren’t getting quite the ratings! We found a different genre for each of the nine shows. Beyond that I don’t know where we would have gone."
In the days before green screen, some of the action and stunts had to be performed for real. The 1913-set Whinfrey's Last Case for example, filmed in Devon and Cornwall, featured a clifftop drive in a period car.
"We were really on the top of that cliff and it was quite dangerous. The joke was of course that the woman who was driving couldn’t see over the steering wheel, so you couldn’t see her at all: just a couple of hands on the steering wheel! This had to be done and it was done with a stuntman, obviously – but I was in the car. Nowadays with CGI and all that you’d probably get something that looks very impressive but didn’t have the feel of some of these great moments of effects, which worked very well and were quite hairy to do."
The perils of location filming extended to being threatened with an injunction for gunshots fired at night in Roger of the Raj (a scene in which an Army regiment mutinies). "Yes! There was a tremendous amount of shooting. Joan Sanderson was given a proper machine gun, which was incredibly noisy. I have to say she really enjoyed firing it, you could tell! There was one great burst, then silence and suddenly you heard, 'Shut that bloody noise up!' I don’t know if we did get an injunction but the neighbours certainly weren’t happy."
A fondly remembered Yarn, and one of Palin's favourites, is Golden Gordon, about the obsessive fan of the worst football team in England in 1935. Was it a tale born of bitter experience?
"I’m not going to put anyone in the dock here (laughs) but I was born and brought up in Sheffield so I’ve supported Sheffield United. And with all the teams, every Saturday, when the results come it’s a time of high, nervous excitement. I’ve been though all that when we’ve been beaten at home by the bottom club and you just plunge into total gloom, so it was really exaggerating that – and of course with moments when they win, you feel the other way.
"Funnily enough I dreamt that story up in Gabès in Tunisia filming Monty Python's Life of Brian. I was about to be crucified later in the day and I was walking along the beach early and I suddenly hit on this idea of the ultimate football supporter whose team always loses. By the end of a half-hour walk on the beach I almost had the full story.
"I remember John Cleese was walking the other way and we stopped and I told him the idea and he chuckled and I thought, 'Well that’s a good sign.' [John] ended up making a brief appearance as a passer-by. He didn’t take much persuading – he thought it would be good fun and was very happy to do it.
"There were some wonderful performances. One of the greatest was from David Leland, who was our friend who directed films himself, playing the manager who has a nervous breakdown – 'It’s not the shorts, it’s what’s inside them that matters!' – and you just get this team of derelicts looking bewildered as he races off, pulling his shorts off (laughs)."
With comedy fans treated to both Ripping Yarns and The Life of Brian, it was a very fulfilling time for Palin, professionally. But there was plenty of "first-night" anxiety. "The trouble is, anything you do that’s new carries with it a certain sort of nervousness about how it will be received. With hindsight, Life of Brian had been very well received and was much admired and the Yarns are much loved, but at the time it was striking out in a different direction.
"There was always a feeling that, 'We’re not doing Parrot Sketch, we’re not doing Cheese Shop, we’re not doing Spanish Inquisition, people are going to miss these things.' So you didn’t know how an audience would take to the new work until the material had been out. So although it was liberating to be doing so many different characters and writing really quite fluently, it was always tempered by the fact that, 'Is this the right thing to be doing?'"
However, after the last Yarn to be filmed, the BBC pulled the plug. "John Howard Davies who was BBC head of comedy then – and funnily enough he’d directed the first four Pythons [Flying Circus episodes] – he just said we’re not going to do any more because we don’t have enough money. So that was it really, that was the reason they gave me. There’s always a feeling that perhaps if they had more confidence, if they really got it, if they really understood it, we could have done more.
"I think what they meant when they said it was too expensive was that there was a great sense of place in all these, and we shot on film. Nowadays everybody does that – with comedy just as much as with drama – but they didn’t at that time. Drama got the money and comedy was supposed to be done really in a studio with a few plywood walls and all that. And it was obviously more expensive than Fawlty Towers, which had been much more successful. But I think it was part of the BBC’s thinking at the time, you know, that you shouldn’t spend that much on comedy series."
Made with love and still enjoyed 45 years later, Ripping Yarns' legacy is assured. Palin must be proud of them? "Yes I look back on them very fondly because I think there’s a sort of spirit that people either get or they don’t get. Within them there are lots of really nice Pythonic little moments and jokes. George Harrison and a lot of the music set liked the Yarns very much and they liked Golden Gordon, particularly the exchange 'How’s Vera?' 'Not bad. Farting’s stopped.' They loved that. Joe Brown used to go around saying 'Farting’s stopped' all the time!
"I don’t think they all worked quite as well as they should but they all were quite distinctive and have left a flavour behind, which I don’t think was matched by anything. No one’s really tried to do anything like that."
And a final word from John O'Farrell: "It remains one of my favourite comedies from the period, a slightly overlooked gem from the Python alumni – and it deserves much wider exposure. Because any television comedy with Michael Palin should be made available to us 24 hours a day as a form of therapy for modern Britain."
The entire Ripping Yarns are now available on BritBox UK.