The Complete and Utter History of Britain

Michael Palin and Terry Jones’s 1969 sketch show is (incompletely) released today on DVD. Emma Street takes a look at the forgotten forerunner of Monty Python.

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Long before there was Monty Python’s Flying Circus, there was The Complete and Utter History of Britain – a history-based sketch show written by and starring Michael Palin and Terry Jones. Well, not long before, to be honest. The series was broadcast in 1969 just months ahead of the first Python episode. It wasn’t around for long. The then fledgling television company London Weekend Television didn’t repeat or network the series and the tapes were wiped some point after transmission because that’s what you did back in the 1960s. TV was ephemeral and tape was expensive.

Luckily for us, bits of the series have been rescued from television purgatory, with two of the original six episodes now available on DVD along with newly recorded material by Palin and Jones.

The Complete and Utter History of Britain used broadcasting conventions of the time to show us what major historical events might have looked like if they had been covered by television. This provides modern audiences with added benefit of a nostalgic look at quintessential ‘60s television tropes

So we get Julius Caesar’s “What I did in my invasion of Britain” holiday video and a public information film about recognising and dealing with witches. My favourite sketch was a social realist documentary about Robin Hood ‘one of the few social workers operating in Britain’s forests today’. Played by Palin, he shrugs, mumbles and never quite looks at the camera as he talks about his heartfelt belief in wealth redistribution.  “We’re always on the lookout for rich people who might be interested in what we’re trying to do.”

There’s also a sketch featuring post-battle analysis from William the Conqueror and in his team in their communal bath. “Well, all in all, it’s a great result. The lads done really well.”  Did they really use to interview football teams in the bath in the 1960s then? I don’t know why I’m surprised by this. I have never seen a post-match interview with a footballer in my life. For all I know they’re always done in hotel rooms these days amidst coke-snorting and spit-roasting.

The series is fun but it is not perfect by a long way. It’s really a collection of very weak jokes with the occasional flash of brilliance. Palin and Jones seem unable to resist the temptation to punctuate every single joke with someone falling over.

The jokes about women are often a bit too, well, rapey for modern sensibilities. Included in the sketches are some medieval-style adverts. One of which shows a beautiful damsel swishing about in a long floaty white dress in the manner of the Timotei shampoo lady. “Soft, gentle, fragrant. Why not try…  a woman?” says the voiceover. Which is fine except it’s followed by an uncomfortably long sequence of said woman being pursued by a bunch of men as she runs away shrieking. It made me feel bad for laughing at the first bit.

It may also be a bit racist but only against the French so that’s OK.

The DVD includes both of the ‘found’ episodes as well as a 50-minute feature containing new linking material by Palin and Jones, in which they have taken some of the lines which were originally delivered by different actors and have re-shot scenes of their twenty-first century selves delivering the lines instead.

I am not entirely sure of the motivation of doing this other than to increase the Palin/Jones action.  It seems unlikely to be a way of avoiding paying royalties to the other actors as Palin and Jones are by far the youngest and sprightliest members of the ensemble in the 1960s. Some of actors looked like they should be collecting their pensions even then and I doubt many of the rest of the team are still with us.

Not that Palin or Jones are likely to be short of a few quid at the moment. Monty Python are performing in their latest farewell tour this summer at the O2 with £160 tickets selling out within seconds of going on sale. Their tour is called One down, Five to Go  in a nice acknowledgment of both Graham Chapman and their own mortality.

There’s no doubt that a great deal of affection still exists for the remaining members of the Monty Python team. Which is understandable given the considerable contribution to film and television they have made between them. Michael Palin acknowledged in an interview before The Complete and Utter History of Britain screening at the BFI that both Monty Python and the Holy Grail  and Monty Python’s  Life of Brian owe a debt of acknowledgment to this series. The coconuts/swallow scene in Holy Grail, for example, was written long before the film was.

I think it’s fair to say that this DVD will be enjoyed mostly by Monty Python completists. The producers have done their best to give you your money’s worth by packing the DVD out as much as possible with extras and by providing both the recorded and the broadcast versions of both episodes  (the second one being longer) but it’s still pretty slim pickings.

Of course you might not want to bother with DVD because you’ve still got the whole series that you recorded off the telly in 1969 onto super-8 film stashed away in your loft. In which case, I’m sure Michael Palin & Terry Jones would love to hear from you.

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