Region 2 (UK) Edition - Reviewed by Ceri Laing

Directors:  Terry Hughes, Jim Franklin, Alan J. W. Bell

Featuring:  Michael Palin

Michael Palin, spoofing Orson Welles, introducing another Ripping Yarn.

Terry Jones in "Tomkinson's Schooldays"


Following the 1974 demise of Monty Python’s Flying Circus (or Monty Python as the last series had been shortened to), Michael Palin was given the opportunity to write and star in a special which would act as a pilot for a new series on BBC 2. This he did with his long standing writing partner Terry Jones. What they created was an extension of the long form sketches they had been writing for Python, but with a narrative structure over a half hour episode, and Palin playing a variety of parts. The series was called Ripping Yarns, a play on words, with the stories being pastiches of Boy’s Own Adventure tales, with appropriate daring-do opening titles in the style of an illustrated book jacket of the period.

The first story, entitled Tomkinson’s Schooldays, being a ‘rip’ of Tom Brown’s Schooldays, highlighted the rigours of 1920s public school life, such as accidentally being shot, flogging the headmaster and being nailed to the wall.

This was a success, and a further five stories were made: The Testing of Eric Olthwaite (a tale of precipitation, shovels, homing vultures and the triumph of one boring little tit); Escape from Stalag Luft 112 B (one man’s story of determination to escape the clutches of his German captors and failing miserably); Murder at Moorstones Manor (a whodunit with a mighty confusion over the who); Across the Andes by Frog (one man’s belief that exploration using the frog is supremely possible); and The Curse of the Claw (one man’s struggle to lift the blight befallen his family from the actions of his uncle – luckily he wasn’t passed on the mange as well). These were broadcast, together with a repeat of Tomkinson’s Schooldays, in 1977.

Having successfully lobbied for the series to be made on film, this meant they cost quite a bit more to make than a series shot on video, so only three more episodes were made after that: Whinfrey’s Last Case (espionage and intrigue in the lead up to the First World War); Golden Gordon (the tale of the endless determination by a man in his football team); and Roger of the Raj (the story of Army life in India and the changing values of the British occupation at the outbreak of the Great War). These which were broadcast in 1979. And that is were the series ended with only nine, but oh-so perfectly formed, episodes.

The writing for the series was top-draw, but not only that, so was the guest list as well. Terry Jones appears in Tomkinson’s Schooldays along with a pre-Return of the Saint Ian Ogilvy (who’s other genre credits include Witchfinder General, Out of the Unknown, And Now the Screaming Starts and I, Claudius), giving a superbly measured performance as school bully Gregson. The Testing of Eric Olthwaite features Kenneth Colley (perhaps best known as The Accordion Man in the TV version of Pennies from Heaven, but also has appearances in Life of Brian, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi and Brassed Off) and Liz Smith (who had a long and varied career as a character actress before finding fame as Nanna in The Royal Family). Roy Kinnear (Till Death Us Do Part, The Three Musketeers film series, and The Dick Emery Show) appears as the inept Vogal in Escape from Stalag Luft 112 B. The wonderful Frank Middlemass (Poldark, To Serve Them All My Days and As Time Goes By) is a highlight of Murder at Moorstones Manor along with the brilliant Iain Cuthbertson (Budgie, The Stone Tape, Children of the Stones and Supergran) and Isabel Dean (who starred as Judith Carroon in the TV version of The Quatermass Experiment). Denholm Elliot (The Signalman, Brimstone and Treacle and the Indiana Jones films) and Don Henderson (Star Wars, Bulman and The Paradise Club) give solid support in Across the Andes by Frog. The Curse of the Claw features Tenniel Evans (The Navy Lark, Out of the Unknown, Knights of God), Aubrey Morris (Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb, The Wicker Man, The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) and Judy Loe (Ace of Wands, Edward the Seventh, Casualty). There’s a blink and you’ll miss him cameo from fellow Python Eric Idle in Whinfrey’s Last Case along with appearances from Maria Aitkin (Armchair Thriller, A Fish Called Wanda) and Edward Hardwicke (best known for being the second Watson opposite Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes). Golden Gordon has Gwen Taylor (Rutland Weekend Television, Life of Brian, Duty Free); Bill Fraser (Hancock’s Half Hour, The Army Game) and another blink and you’ll miss him Python cameo in the form of John “Otto” Cleese. Finally, Richard Vernon (Edward the Seventh, The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Yes Minister), Joan Sanderson (Please Sir!, All Gas and Gaiters and Fawlty Towers’ hard of hearing Mrs Richards), Jan Francis (Secret Army, Just Good Friends) and Dad’s Army’s John Le Mesurier round things off in Roger of the Raj.

There were three directors for the series Terry Hughes (The Two Ronnies, The Golden Girls, 3rd Rock from the Sun) who was behind the camera on Tomkinson’s Schooldays and Across the Andes by Frog. All the other episodes from the first series and Roger of the Raj from the final batch of three were directed by The Goodies stalwart Jim Franklin, and the experience of the action scenes in that show stood him in good stead for Ripping Yarns, most notably in the chase scenes in The Testing of Eric Olthwaite. For the other two episodes of the final series Alan J. W. Bell (The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and endless series of Last of the Summer Wine) was at the helm. In these two Bell directed episode also employed was Michael Radford as photographer, who later went on to direct the 1980s film version of Nineteen-Eighty Four, White Mischief and Il Postino.

Roy Kinnear in "Escape from Stalag Luft 112 B"

John Le Mesurier in "Roger of the Raj"

Ian Ogilvy in "Tomkinson's Schooldays"


This is a Network release, so how have they prepared things…

Each of the nine thirty-odd minute episodes has been digitally restored. Each was shot on 16mm film on location and in studio, with the exception of the pilot episode Tomkinson’s Schooldays, which does have some VT studio sequences.

All the film episodes (apart from Murder at Moorstones Manor, as it only exists as a VT transfer) and other film sequences have had new transfers, with the VT material having gone through the BBCs PAL Transform Decoder which separates the luminance and chrominance information, reducing evidence of cross-colour patterning on fine detail. All the VT sequences, including the video-generated credits and captions on some episodes (the others are film-captions), look incredibly clean.

The film has been cleaned, removing traces of dirt, dropout and scratches, with any faults on the VT sequences also being removed and picture noise being reduced. Luckily, some of the original film sequences still exist, meaning much-improved restoration utilising new transfers of this material could be done.

Tomkinson’s Schooldays has had the most work done it, being effectively remade from the elements, combining the newly-transferred original film sequences with the cleaned VT material from the completed episode. The opening introductory sequence still shows some very faint scratches, but this sequence had around six passes in the clean-up and it may not be possible to remove them completely. What remains is very feint, though. Also, the flashback montage when Tomkinson is cycling back to Greybridge has been reconstructed from the separate original film elements, and graded to match how it appeared in the original edited episode. The overlaid VT captions and credits have been completely re-made, and added to the new transfers of the opening and closing film sequences. The episode’s original studio countdown clock also exists, and has been retained at the beginning, accessible via the now-familiar means of rewinding when the episode is started.

Unfortunately, as Murder at Moorstones Manor only exists as a VT transfer it does betray a lot of film grain, compared to the new direct film transfers of the other episodes. However, the opening clean background film sequence for the title does exist allowing that that to be remade in the same way as the Tomkinson’s Schooldays one, but the end credits are original, though they are improved due to the Transform Decoder reducing the fuzziness a little.

The end film credits of The Curse of the Claw have also been remade, because the original film sequence and the credits roll both still exist, with the two being composited together.

Aside from the issues with Murder at Moorstones Manor the episodes look gorgeous – the best they’ve ever been – and free from any artefacting problems.

All the sound on the episodes is fine, as you expect from BBC television material from this period. All the episodes feature laughter tracks, where the completed episode was shown to an audience and the track recorded to be mixed into the programme, with the exception of Tomkinson’s Schooldays (being partly taped it was really assembled in front of an audience). Apart from Tomkinson’s Schooldays and the aforementioned VT-only Murder at Moorstones Manor the original completed film versions of the other episodes also have their original sound, clean of the audience laughter track and these are presented as well. Some of the laughter tracks (which as its how they were broadcast, and here presented as the default sound mix) feature a slightly annoying echo on the dialogue of the film sound, which is more noticeable in certain scenes than others (in several scenes in The Testing of Eric Olthwaite it can be heard), but this is how the material exists, and the fault seems to have been introduced during the process of creating the laughter track. On the whole though, it generally isn’t that intrusive, and it doesn’t feature at all on the original film soundtracks, so you can swap over to that track if you do find it a problem.

Iain Cuthbertson in "Murder at Moorstones Manor"

Richard Vernon in "Roger of the Raj"

Frank Middlemass in "Murder at Moorstones Manor"


Astoundingly, all nine episodes feature commentaries by Michael Palin and Terry Jones. Initially, they recorded commentaries for three of the episodes and apparently enjoyed themselves so much they asked to record some for the others as well, and it does show! Their experience of recording commentaries for other releases, such as the Monty Python films, stands them in good stead here. They are funny, warm and insightful being the first time in many years since they’ve seen the episodes. In the commentary for Tomkinson’s Schooldays (which begins on the timeclock – so rewind, folks!) they reveal the background to the creation of the pilot and the commissioning of the series, and why Jones decided to remain just on the writing side and not appear in the other episodes after the pilot – I won’t spoil these for you here you’ll have to find out by listening for yourself! Throughout the commentaries they discuss and commend different guest stars and members of the production crew. Regularly highlighted is film cameraman Peter Hall (before you start thinking not that Peter Hall, a different Peter Hall!) through his superb photography in the first series. In some of the episodes they do run out of steam in places reduced to laughing at the jokes (can’t fault ‘em!) or very minimal comment. At these points though the comments invariably revolve around the historical underpinning of some of the actions or opinions of characters, giving an indirect insight into the ideas they wanted to put across or textures they wanted to give to their writing.

A short sequence from Murder at Moorstones Manor was edited out after the original transmission (this may explain why the original film version wasn’t retained), and the original version now no longer exists. All subsequent repeats, the VHS versions, and Revelation’s DVD version have featured the edited version. Unfortunately the original excised sequence was kept, but the soundtrack has gone missing. A call was put out to see if anyone had an off-air copy of the original broadcast, to overlay the soundtrack on the sequence, but sadly to no avail. So, the sequence has been presented in full as an extra (if the soundtrack had been found it would have been fully restored to the episode) with the dialogue lifted from the parts of the sequence which were kept in the re-edited episode, and with subtitles for the missing potions of the soundtrack. It’s from a scene involving Jehovah’s Witnesses pulling a gun on Lady Chiddingfold and Manners the Butler at the front door just before the arrival of Doctor Farson – in the re-edited version you can just see the two Jehovah’s Witnesses walking away up the driveway as Lady Chiddingfold greets the Doctor by his car. There were either complaints about the scene or someone got cold feet after the broadcast and felt it was better removed for future airings. There is also a couple of lines of dialogue removed from Lady Chiddingfold’s telephone conversation in the lead up to the scene, which may have been excised to allow for easier editing or just to tighten things up, as it may have been felt the joke of her acting as if everything was normal was being stretched a bit thin. The excised sequence runs to around three and half minutes and is preceded with a note of explanation (which pushes the full extra to just over four minutes), and entitled The Mystery of the Missing Morsel of Murder at Moorstones Manor.

In 1983 Michael Palin made a programme for a BBC 2 series called Comic Roots, in which he went back to his home town of Sheffield, and explored his upbringing and how it influenced him to become involved in comedy. This thirty minute programme is also included! In it Palin talks to his mother; highlights his family life and growing-up; visits his old school; interviews Spike Milligan, as The Goon Show was such an essential part of this childhood; discusses forays into acting, and going to Oxford to study Modern History, where he performs some of his initial sketches he wrote with his original partner, and then on to being picked for The Oxford Review (which also involved Terry Jones) at the 1963 Edinburgh Fringe, all of which led to his decision to go into comedy. The programme is a joy to watch, being (from a current perspective) a hybrid of the calm presentation style that is now known from him, through his travelogue programmes, which draws you in, and wonderful Pythonesque asides that pop-up unexpectedly. It’s a great little programme, which I remember with fondness from its original broadcast. The programme did use Python clips liberally throughout, but unfortunately these couldn’t be cleared, so have been replaced with clips from Ripping Yarns to maintain the original flow. It’s a shame, but as the programme is included on a Ripping Yarns release it’s not noticeable for the average purchaser who didn’t know that the substitutions have had to be made. It was shot on 16mm film and then transferred to VT with captions and credits overlaid. The film is un-restored, so it exhibits the usual sorts of faults you’d expect from film used in television at the time – lots of dirt, dropout  and grain – with some sequences being worse than others. It does look like it’s been through the Transform Decoder, however, as the captions and credits are very clean.

In addition to that, also included is the 1973 BBC 2 play Secrets, which was the first in a series of comedy dramas entitled Black and Blue. This was written by Michael Palin and Terry Jones, and is very in keeping with the comedy drama element of Ripping Yarns. Set in contemporaneous Britain, it features a fantastic cast of Warren Mitchell (best known as Alf Garnett, a character he’s really been tied down with as he’s a superb actor in his own right as this piece shows) as the Managing Director of a sweets company called Secrets, with Clifford Rose (best known as Kessler in Secret Army and its follow-up) as the company accountant, Julian Holloway (a face most familiar from the Carry On  films from the late sixties onwards, but his other genre credits include many TV appearances he was, somewhat improbably, also the dubbed voice of Kronos in Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter) as the Head of Marketing for the company and the ever reliable David Collings (Silver in Sapphire and Steel and the voice of Monkey in Monkey) as the marketing executive who provides the campaigns. James Cellan Jones (Out of the Unknown, The Forsyte Saga, McLibel!) was the director of this fifty-three minute black comedy – a darkly comic satire combining consumerism and cannibalism – made in the mix of film and VT.  It’s a great piece which belies the negative reputation of Consuming Passions, the 1988 film based on Secrets: for starters there's a brilliant sequence towards the beginning where Warren Michell and David Collings are arguing whilst Clifford Rose stares impassively on not saying a word – er, how often do you find pieces involving these three talents together? It’s fantastic! There is a down side, though: the other episodes of Black and Blue were retained by the BBC and Secrets wasn’t. Fortunately, the series’ Producer had kept a personal copy made on an early video recorder – it was transferred to VHS at some point and a digital copy of this was taken by the National Film and Television Archive – which is the source of this recording. So, the quality isn’t the best, however, unlike the Steptoe and Son off-airs from a few years previous, this recording does have colour! There is an on-screen explanation before the programme begins explaining the quality issues. Overall it exhibits large amounts of noise, tracking faults at the bottom of the screen and the occasional picture and colour instability (as shown on the screen grab of the title): pretty much what you’d expect from a multi-generation copy of a thirty-one year old recording. In preparing the picture for the DVD it had to undergo a lot of manual drop-out repair and the image was shrunk to about 85% - this way some of the picture noise was shrunk meaning the recording could go through less digital noise reduction (which can take some of the vibrancy out of the colour). It’s does mean, though, if you watching on a computer monitor you will get a black border around the image (sometimes known as a window-boxed presentation), but on a normal TV this border will probably be lost in the overscan (and images of this quality should really be watched on a TV if possible to get the best out of them). The play’s audio is quite clear: there is no hiss – it underwent some audio noise reduction - however, some very slight background hum remains. Overall the encoding does struggle a bit with the picture noise, creating some smeary artefacts close up, but this more than understandable due to the limitations of the material. As ever Network should be commended for simply including material like Secrets, not to mention for cleaning it up as far as reasonably possible. For presentation purposes on DVD the play has been broken up into 10 chaptered points, though these aren’t accessible via menus, only manually through your remote control.

Next up is a Gallery of sixty-six images (the movement between which is manually controlled through your remote control). These are predominantly promotional and behind-the-scenes stills, but also included are pictures from the private collections of Assistant Cameraman Bill Dudman and Michael Palin. Also, included are other interesting nuggets, like the menu from the Glencoe hotel where the cast and crew stayed during the filming of Across the Andes by Frog, Spike Milligan’s hand written note to Palin commending him on Ripping Yarns and an ad and flyer for the US Ripping Yarns book.

Finally, on the discs, they’re a collection of scripts provided from Michael Palin’s private collection in PDF form accessible via DVD-Rom. These are an original script for Tomkinson’s Schooldays¸ a camera script for The Testing of Eric Olthwaite, a revised script for Murder at Moorstones Manor, the script with alterations to the beginning and the radio commentary script for Across the Andes by Frog, the original handwritten script for The Curse of the Claw and an original script for Whinfrey’s Last Case. As ever, these are a joy to see, but especially the handwritten script for The Curse of the Claw! Top marks again for including this sort of material!

Also included in the set is what should be a very nice commemorative booklet. I say should be as I’ve not seen it! I’ve only had the discs to review. But, word is it’s very good – if previous Network efforts are any yardstick, it should be very glossy and contain lots of nice stills! It is also compiled by all round ‘Mr Know-it-all’ Andrew Pixley, so you can take for granted that it’s going to be very detailed and very thorough. Containing lots of interesting nuggets of information that’ll be a pure delight to read and make you go “oh, I never knew that” every couple of lines. In other words, in lieu of a definitive book on the background to the series, this’ll be the business.

Countdown clock for "Tomkinson's Schooldays" Secrets: Clifford Rose and Warren Mitchell


There are two discs in the set.

Disc one: Six episodes (Tomkinson’s Schooldays and the five episodes of the first series); together with The Mystery of the Missing Morsel of Murder at Moorstones Manor, the audience-free tracks to episodes two, three, five and six and the commentaries for each episode. The disc has runtime of just over three hours, with most episodes averaging around a bit rate of 4.90 Mb/sec and The Mystery of the Missing Morsel of Murder at Moorstones at bit rate of 6.00 Mb/sec. The sound is presented in the original 1.0 mono, at 192kbps.

Disc two: the three episodes of the second series, together with Comic Roots, Black and Blue: Secrets, the gallery; audience-free soundtracks and commentaries for each episode and the scripts in PDF form. The disc has runtime of just under three hours,  with the three episodes averaging around a bit rate of 4.93 Mb/sec, Comic Roots at a bit rate of 4.55 Mb/sec and Black and Blue: Secrets at a bit rate of 4.80 Mb/sec. The sound is presented in the original 1.0 mono, at 192kbps.

The menus echo the packaging, being in the style of a Boys Own Adventure annual with images pasted down as if in a scrapbook. The main menus are identical on each disc with options to Play All, Select an Episode or go to the Special Features menu and are backed with the theme music. The Select an Episode menus follow the same format on each disc with options again to Play All or go back to the Main Menu and stills from each episode leading to Episode Chapter menus (each episode is divided into six chapters). On the Special Features menu you can select any of the extras to be found on each disc and switch on or off either audio bitstream of the commentaries or audience free tracks.

Again Network does lose points for not including HoH subtitles for those with hearing problems (or for those struggling with some of the accents).

Note that the first batch of discs were released (in October 2004) with an audio fault that will potentially affect many users. The problem is that the two front channels are presented out of phase, which may result in audio cancellation (no sound, or extremely quiet "hollow" sound) on single-speaker set-ups, or audio only coming from the rear channels in Pro-Logic or Dolby Digial set-ups. 


This is a fantastic series brimming with throwaway lines, comic ideas and imagery which stay in the memory long after the first time you experience them. Largely forgotten amongst the general public in the wake of the tall one’s Torquay adventures, it’s only right this series should get a release it justly deserves, to allow old fans to reacquaint themselves with it, and, at the same time, gain new ones.

The programmes have a high production standard throughout with well-researched period costumes, sets and locations. This, together with it being shot on film, gives the series a completely different quality to standard VT-based comedy shows. This, combined with Michael Palin’s love of history and geography imbuing detail to the writing, and Terry Jones giving structure and form to the ideas, makes for a perfect series. They’re mini-comic dramas rather than a series of sitcoms – reality always re-enforces comedy and makes it stronger.

That’s the series, what about the actual release?

Right, let’s look at this in black and white…

Up until a few years ago Revelation held the video rights to Ripping Yarns. In the mid-1990s they had licensed a job lot of old BBC Video title rights which the corporation had released during the late 1980s (along with the video masters that had been prepared at the time). Amongst those titles was Ripping Yarns, which had originally been released on three tapes, each containing three episodes apiece. Revelation re-issued the series, using the old, un-restored copies, which were probably taken from whatever prints the archives had to hand. Then, in the late 90s, they released two DVD volumes (again using the same tired old home video masters), for an RRP of £19.99. That was a plain vanilla release. The third VHS volume didn’t make the transition to DVD, and Revelation’s rights expired shortly afterwards.

Then we have this new release from Network, which contains all nine episodes created, where possible, from new, digitally-restored and re-mastered transfers, and they look stunning. The excised sequence from Murder at Moorstones Manor is included in the set as an extra, after great pains were taken, without luck, to locate a soundtrack, so it could be fully restored into the episode. Special features also include a special archive documentary about Michael Palin, presented by Michael Palin; a fantastic Palin and Jones-scripted TV play from 1973, otherwise lost from the BBC Archives, now only existing in a poor quality format, but cleaned-up as much as time and budget would allow; a gallery featuring promotional stills and behind-the-scenes material from private collections; a selection of Michael Palin’s personal scripts; seven episodes with audience-free soundtracks; oh, and nine (nine! count ‘em!) commentaries from Palin and Jones. All nicely brought together with what’s probably a very nicely-detailed commemorative booklet and packaging. And you get that lot for an RRP of £24.99, which you can pick up for around £17.99 online.

Er… It’s a no-brainer really. Network has done it again. This set oozes quality, not only in the episodes themselves, but in the time, money and effort blatantly on show in all aspects of this release. Does this set the new standard for a Network release? I think so… well, until the next one comes along.

With thanks to Network

Terry Jones and Michael Palin, on video, in "Tomkinson's Schooldays"

Michael Palin as Mad Jack, in "The Curse of the Claw"

Denholm Elliot in "Across The Andes By Frog"











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