Judge Joel Pearce says this show is not like unraveling a big cable-knit sweater that someone keeps knitting and knitting and knitting and knitting and knitting and knitting...
Tales of derring-do and good old British spunk, subverted by a pair of comic geniuses…
…Which begs the question: Why isn't this series more exciting and funny? All the pieces are there for a great comedy series, but it has not aged nearly as well as some of the other Python members' series. Fortunately, it's saved by a great set of performances by Michael Palin and Terry Jones.
Facts of the Case
Shortly after the virtual demise of Monty Python, members Michael Palin (Brazil) and Terry Jones (The Crusades) set out in a new direction. It has been largely forgotten over time, never achieving the same status as Fawlty Towers, which ran at the same time. The premise of Ripping Yarns is simple: Each episode is a parody of British pulp adventure stories, whether they be war tales, colonial adventures, or sports yarns. Palin stars in each one, taking on a wide range of different roles.
Now, I should begin this review with a bit of a disclaimer. I am far too young to have grown up with the literature that Ripping Yarns is lampooning. From that standpoint, I simply don't have the context necessary to understand the show. That said, there is little "ripping" about these tales, and some of them don't even count as yarns. Here's how they break down:
• "Tomkinson's Schooldays"
• "The Testing of Eric Olthwaite"
• "Escape from Stalag Luft 112B"
• "Murder at Moorstones Manor"
• "Across the Andes by Frog"
• "The Curse of the Claw"
• "Whinfrey's Last Case"
• "Golden Gordon"
• "Roger of the Raj"
The success of Flying Circus came from the involvement of so many talented writers and comedians, cramming as many funny moments as possible into a series that never made any sense whatsoever. And it was glorious. The BBC was quick to cash in on the projects of these men once they parted company, perhaps a bit too quick in this case.
The biggest problem with the series is the format. Half an hour is too long to do the abbreviated brand of parody that the Python members are known for, but not long enough to settle into the proper rhythm of a full-fleged parody. As a result, some of the episodes feel stretched out, with the occasional funny sight gag punctuating the rushed storylines. With humor that includes everything from subtle references to the parodied stories, to the bizarre absurdity of the raunchier bits, it feels almost as though Palin and Jones were trying to satisfy too wide an audience.
Of course, the good thing about cramming too many jokes in is that sometimes enough of them tend to stick to make an episode funny. Some of the episodes of Ripping Yarns are downright hilarious, and most have several moments that remind us how brilliant these two men can be. "Murder at Moorestones Manor" is a good example. The episode starts slowly, focusing on one of the character's obsession with cars. This is funny for a few minutes, but begins to drag. The second part of the episode is far too obvious and silly, failing to capture the feel that a murder mystery should. Towards the end, when the formula is turned on its head, the episode finally hits its stride, leading to a witty conclusion.
The show's saving grace is Palin and his remarkable range. He is infinitely watchable. Although he's always easy to recognize, the characters in the series are all unique and well played. He poured a lot of himself into this show, and it shows. Serious fans of British comedy will probably find enough to enjoy throughout Ripping Yarns to forgive the dull stretches. Those who pick up the series expecting a continuation of Flying Circus will be quite disappointed. It's hard to judge a series that is so closely connected to something that famous, because it will always live under the shadow of the other greater work.
What I can recommend highly is Acorn Media's jaw-dropping DVD set. I'm not sure I've ever seen this much work go into a television set, especially considering the narrow audience. The episodes have been nicely remastered, as shown in the restoration featurette. It doesn't look new and shiny, but it looks a lot better than most BBC series from the era. Also, in perhaps a DVD first, there is the option to watch the episodes with the original soundtrack or with the obnoxious laugh track removed. This makes an astounding difference, especially in a series like Ripping Yarns, which counts more on clever parody than pandering for constant laughter. I hope this becomes a more common option. Palin and Jones also recorded commentary tracks for all nine episodes. They aren't able to fill all of this running time, but they are still a pair of funny guys, so completists will want to have a go at them. They spend a lot of the time watching and laughing, though, as they have obviously not watched the series in a long time.
There are a number of other special features on the discs as well. Scans of Michael Palin's original scripts are on the disc for you DVD-ROM types, complete with hand-written notes and coffee stains. Also included is a look at Palin from the Comic Roots series of the '80s. It is quite comprehensive and entertaining. The remainder of the extras are in the form of deleted scenes and a photo gallery. Perhaps most impressive, however, is the booklet that accompanies the discs. It contains an almost excruciatingly detailed history of the series, which will exhaust even its greatest fans. If you ever have any questions about the development and history of Ripping Yarns, it's in this booklet.
Casual fans of Palin or the Monty Python team in general will probably be deeply disappointed by Ripping Yarns. It never quite lives up to its promise, despite a number of delightful moments. Fans of the series must pick up this set, though, and quickly. It has been lovingly restored and packaged, along with some very valuable extra features.
Alas, I have come to Ripping Yarns 25 years too late. It has enough to still recommend it though, so I will release it once again upon the unsuspecting world.
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