1 9 7 7 – 1 9 7 9 (UK)
9 x 30 minute episodes
The lavishly filmed series was created by Monty Python veterans Michael Palin and Terry Jones, with Michael Palin playing the lead role in each tale.
He would also play various cameo bit parts in each tale. If you look carefully you’ll also see other Python personalities such as John Cleese and Eric Idle making cameo appearances.
The pilot episode, Tomkinson’s Schooldays, aired independently under that title on 7 January 1976, and carried an unmistakable Pythonesque edge, with its intense cruelty (boys were nailed to walls), ludicrous vignettes (Tomkinson constructed a 14,000-ton ice-breaker ship in the handicraft class) and the sort of idea reversal that the two writers relished; kids cane the headmaster, parents expected their sons to get “a proper bullying” and so on.
A full series materialised in 1977, tapping old Boys Own adventure annuals for its subjects: triumph against adversity (The Testing of Eric Olthwaite), war (Escape From Stalag Luft 112B), crime (Murder At Moorstones Manor), exploration (Across The Andes By Frog) and black magic (The Curse Of The Claw).
The production values were of a uniformly high standard, and the period detail was always perfect, but this meant the costs were also high.
As a result, when Palin and Jones were planning a second series, the BBC decided they could afford only three more shows – a 1920s espionage thriller (Whinfrey’s Last Case), a football story (Golden Gordon) and a spoof of the overtly racist yarns that passed unchallenged in old schoolboy annuals (Roger Of The Raj).
Because it was shot on film rather than video, the series has withstood the passing of time much better than most programmes of the period, and Palin and Jones’s excellent scripts mean there is still a wealth of comedy lurking in these nine classics.
John Le Mesurier
Tomkinson’s Schooldays | The Testing of Eric Olthwaite | Escape From Stalag Luft 112 B | Murder at Moorstones Manor | Across the Andes by Frog | The Curse of the Claw | Whinfrey’s Last Case | Golden Gordon | Roger of the Raj