Judge Joel Pearce says you should feel lucky to have five episodes of this lost classic of British television comedy. After all, he once lived for three months in a brown paper bag in a septic tank and had to watch old episodes of She's the Sheriff.
The classic series that preceded and inspired Monty Python.
For fans of Flying Circus, the discovery of At Last the 1948 Show is quite good news. Featuring Graham Chapman (Yellowbeard) and John Cleese (A Fish Called Wanda), it is a peek at what some of the members of Monty Python were up to in the years before they created the funniest series ever. Most of At Last the 1948 Show's 13 episodes remain lost, but these five episodes were recently rediscovered.
Chapman and Cleese are joined in the sketches by fellow British comedians Marty Feldman (Young Frankenstein) and Tim Brooke-Taylor (The Goodies). The four of them collaborated closely in the writing, and played a wide range of characters in the sketches. The show is hosted by (the lovely) Aimi MacDonald (Vendetta for the Saint), who fills in the spaces between the sketches but appears in only one across the five episodes. The result is a stilted but consistently funny blend of British wit, visual gags, parodies, and general silliness. Much of what made Flying Circus so great is already here, including the first incarnation of the classic "Four Yorkshiremen" sketch that turns up on every Monty Python compilation. There are a number of hilarious moments, highlighting the skills of all four performers. Fans of John Cleese will enjoy his anti-establishment bent in "Let's Learn English." Graham Chapman was already the ultimate straight man, as demonstrated in the fabulous "Studio Tour" segment. Marty Feldman is a bizarre and funny addition to the team, creating obnoxious characters at least as well as anyone else I have seen. Tim Brooke-Taylor was a chameleon, able to slide into any role that was needed.
As a series, At Last the 1948 Show isn't as consistently funny as some other comedy series. These young performers were still learning when to end a sketch, and some of these drag on nearly twice as long as they should. At times, their antics are so manic and zany that it becomes impossible to follow what's going on. The humor has aged well, though, as few of the segments point directly at political situations that were happening at the time. Like all of the best comedy, they poke fun at human nature and general societal notions that are just as relevant now as they were nearly 40 years ago. The best of these are comparable to the performers' best work, and "Scottish National Ballet Supporters," the last sketch in the set, is one of the funniest things I have ever seen in my life.
My biggest disappointment was in the team's wasting of Aimi MacDonald's talents. In her introductions, she demonstrates that she has a good relationship with the audience and a clear understanding of comedic timing. Her shallow, narcissistic alter ego is likable and pleasing. I have to wonder why on earth they didn't put her in the sketches. Segregating her from the rest of the team destroys so many potentially great moments. On her own, a number of the jokes fall flat, almost as though she was being used to highlight how funny the rest of the team were.
The technical transfer of At Last the 1948 Show is acceptable, although the series does look very old now. The series was shot in black and white, and it features a number of technical issues. There are scan lines, as well as occasional shaking when a camera operator would bump the tripod. There is little detail in darker segments, and lighter scenes are washed out. The audio is also in rough shape, with the laugh track often overpowering the voices of the performers. In the louder segments, it's almost impossible to hear what the characters are saying sometimes. None of this is Tango Entertainment's fault of course, as they had to work from a damaged and miraculously rediscovered source print. They have clearly done the best they could do, and we should be grateful for the chance to see the series at all.
I am less impressed with the special features. Although only a few episodes of the series exist in full anymore, some segments are also still intact, and the audio from the entire series still exists. Why weren't any of these remaining elements included on this DVD? As well, there is no information anywhere on the disc about how they managed to rediscover these episodes, how many episodes were originally made, and what happened to them. Instead, all we get is an unreadable "British Comedy Family Tree" and a pair of interviews. To be fair, the interview with Tim Brooke-Taylor is interesting, as he reminisces about these early days in his own career. His memories provide a useful understanding of how the team worked together. Inexplicably, the other interview is with Python member Terry Jones, who had nothing to do with At Last the 1948 Show. Instead, he discusses Do Not Adjust Your Set, which has also been released by Tango Entertainment.
If you're a fan of Flying Circus, own all of the Python movies, and desperately wish there was more, then purchasing At Last the 1948 Show is a no-brainer. It has much of the same magic with two of the same guys, and is an interesting example of where that brand of humor came from. Others will need to weigh a purchase carefully. After all, this is only five short episodes presented in quite bad shape. Although the box promises 172 minutes, five episodes at around 24 minutes each is really only two hours in total. Perhaps a rental would be a better choice for casual fans of British comedy.
The rediscovery of even a few episodes of At Last the 1948 Show is
great news. Not guilty.
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Studio: Tango Entertainment
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