Classic TV Revisited: Ripping Yarns

What was it all about?
A send-up of the sort of stiff-upper-lip boys’ own adventure stories popular in the early part of the 20th century where jolly good chaps performed deeds of derring-do.

The first show,’Tomkinson’s Schooldays’, was a spoof on ‘Tom Brown’s Schooldays’. It was set in 1912 at Graybridge School, an establishment to which parents sent their offspring to receive proper bullying. Any pupil trying to run away was liable to be caught by the school leopard. Tomkinson’s punishment was to join the Model Boat Club where he was further disciplined for building a 14,000-ton icebreaker.

Other titles included ‘The Testing of Eric Olthwaite’, the tale of a Yorkshireman so boring that his parents ran away from home; ‘Escape From Stalag Luft 112B’, the First World War prison camp from which even the German guards escaped; ‘Murder at Moorstones Manor’, an Agatha Christie send-up where everyone confessed; and ‘Across The Andes By Frog’, the story of a 1927 British amphibian assault on the Andes.

When was it on?
A pilot show (‘Tomkinson’s Schooldays’) was screened in January 1976, followed by a five-part series in September 1977 and a three-part series in October 1979. The second series was curtailed for economic reasons. Since the episodes were shot on film, they were expensive to make and the BBC decided they could afford only three shows instead of the planned six.

How did it come about?
When ‘Monty Python’ ended, BBC producer Terry Hughes asked Michael Palin to come up with a new series. Hughes envisaged some form of variety show but Palin said: ‘I really didn’t fancy putting on a suit, coming down stairs, singing with the Three Degrees and introducing Des O’Connor.’

Then Terry Jones’s brother (who had coincidentally given them the idea for their 1969 series ‘The Complete And Utter History Of Britain’) remembered a book which Palin had once given Jones — an old annual called ‘Ripping Tales’. Palin immediately saw the comic potential in the book and dashed out ‘Tomkinson’s Schooldays’.

‘Ripping Yarns’ became an extension of the work of Palin and Jones in the fourth series of ‘Monty Python’ where their sketches were longer than before, sometimes running all through the show.

Palin played the lead in each Ripping Yarn. ‘They all have a little hero figure who isn’t really a hero,’ he said in 1993. ‘In one I played a boy of about 18, which is getting increasingly difficult, and in another I played two men of 60, which is getting increasingly easier…’

Who were some of Michael Palin’s characters?
In ‘Tomkinson’s Schooldays’, he played new boy Tomkinson and the headmaster; he played the title role in ‘The Testing of Eric Olthwaite’; he was British officer Major Phipps in ‘Escape From Stalag Luft 112B’; the intrepid Captain Snetterton in ‘Across The Andes By Frog’; suave adventurer Gerald Whinfrey in ‘Whinfrey’s Last Case’; and football supporter Gordon Ottershaw who tries to save Barnstoneworth United from extinction in ‘Golden Gordon’.

Who were the guest stars?
Ian Ogilvy (as the school bully), Terry Jones and Gwen Watford in ‘Tomkinson’s Schooldays’; Anita Carey and Liz Smith in ‘The Testing of Eric Olthwaite’; Roy Kinnear as Herr Vogel in ‘Escape From Stalag Luft 112B’; Denholm Elliott in ‘Across The Andes By Frog’; Gwen Taylor, Bill Fraser and John Cleese (as a passer-by) in ‘Golden Gordon’; and Richard Vernon, Joan Sanderson, Jan Francis and John Le Mesurier in ‘Roger of the Raj’.

Who watched it?
Although it was never going to win a huge audience on BBC2, ‘Ripping Yarns’ caught the critics’ imagination and won the Broadcasting Press Guild award for Best Comedy.

Alastair James is the editor in chief for Memorable TV. He has been involved in media since his university days. Alastair is passionate about television, and some of his favourite shows include Line of Duty, Luther and Traitors. He is always on the lookout for hot new shows, and is always keen to share his knowledge with others.