1 9 6 9 (UK)
6 x 30 minute episodes
This absurdly funny Monty Python-esque series from London Weekend Television took a very light-hearted look at major historical events and social customs in British history.
Many highly eccentric historical figures were played by Terry Jones and Michael Palin (who also wrote the series) aided and abetted by Roddy Maude-Roxby, Wallas Eaton, Melinda May and Colin Gordon
The idea was to replay history as if television had been around at the time: interviewing the vital characters in the dressing-room after the Battle of Hastings; having Samuel Pepys present a TV chat-show; showing an estate agent trying to sell Stonehenge to a young couple looking for their first home (“It’s got character, charm . . . and a slab in the middle”); and replaying Caesar’s home-movie footage of his British invasion.
A victorious William the Conqueror is interviewed in the showers in a parody of post-match football analysis, while Richard the Lionheart returns from the Crusades loaded up with souvenirs and raucously describing his boozy escapades as if he had been on a cheap package holiday in the sun with ‘the lads’. In another sketch, King John signs Magna Carta in the mistaken belief that he is only giving his autograph to a child.
The sketches were well written but the series suffered slightly from the fact that, in this pre-Monty Python period, Jones and Palin were not yet able to dictate that they take on all the lead roles.
As a consequence, a number of other actors joined them to form a historical repertory company – each person had several parts per show – and, while they were all capable, these outsiders perhaps did not fully sympathise with the material in the same way as the writers.
The series was directed by Maurice Murphy and produced by Humphrey Barclay. Seven programmes were actually written and made but LWT amalgamated the highlights of the first two episodes into one, resulting in a six-part series.
Sadly, the shows were wiped after transmission and the only elements to survive are some filmed inserts that Terry Jones copied (he tries to archive all his own material).
A better fate awaited Palin and Jones’s next TV excursion into history, Ripping Yarns shown by BBC2 in 1976 and 1979. Jones then made what he called another ‘hectic jog through the passages of history’ in the one-off humorous documentary So This Is Progress…, screened by BBC2 on 6 December 1991.