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Classic TV Revisited: Ripping Yarns

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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.’

ripping-yarns-golden-gordon

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.

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Kick-Ass TV Heroines: Xena – Warrior Princess

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Xena Warrior Princess

What was not to love about Xena? As Lucy Lawless says: “Xena is a bad-ass, kick-ass, pre-Mycenaean girl.” Evildoers, clearly, must stand down, but not only bad guys (and girls) have Xena-phobia. Even heroes quake when she swings her broadsword.

Originally created as a syndicated complement to Kevin Sorbo’s Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Xena pretty much kicked Herc to the curb. It was like when the Bionic Woman made us lose interest in the Six Million Dollar Man–only more so.

Unlike Lindsay Wagner’s early half-woman, half-machine, Xena wasn’t prone to frailty. Nor did she need robot parts. In fact, the Warrior Princess never lost. If she’s down, it’s not for long.

Plus, she was in touch with the dark side: This big-boned bruiser had definite moments of blood lust, as well as lust of some other varieties. Garbed in a leather miniskirt and armed with her trademark razor-edged, boomerang-action chakram, we watched Xena single-leggedly kick down entire platoons of Roman soldiers.

Sure, there were murmurings about Xena and her softer female sidekick, Gabrielle (actress Renée O’Connor). So what if they liked to conserve bathwater by doubling up? And what’s wrong with close friends frenching once in a while?

Then again, maybe it was true–and there’s anything wrong with that.

Actress: Lucy Lawless
Show: Xena: Warrior Princess
Character: Xena

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Classic TV Revisited: McMillan And Wife

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McMillan And Wife

Starring Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James, McMillan and Wife was a super cute crime-solving saga from the 1970s made for the NBC’s Mystery Movie series.

Who were they?
Hubby was the debonair San Francisco police commissioner Stewart McMillan.

And wifey?
Sally was a foxy, rather scatterbrained dame with a knack for finding corpses.

Worked down the morgue did she?
Hardly. Sally’s finds were usually in some glitzy mansion which the couple were frequenting for a weekend cocktail party. She also had a habit of getting her life threatened or being kidnapped.

Who was in it?
Tragic Hollywood star Rock Hudson no less. He took on Stewart McMillan in his first TV role, after years as a matinee idol with movies such as Giant.

Tragedy?
Fans of the lantern-jawed star were dismayed when he went public about having Aids. He had long kept his homosexuality secret. He carried on working in ’80s glam drama Dynasty, but make-up could not disguise the deterioration of this once-statuesque man. He died in 1985, aged 59.

What about Sally?
That role fell to raven-locked Susan Saint James. The Ali MacGraw lookalike was previously in shows such as Alias Smith And Jones and The Name of the Game.

Other characters
A vital ingredient to McMillan And Wife was sharp-tongued housekeeper Mildred, played by Nancy Walker. Somebody needed to keep the place tidy while they gallivanted about solving crime.

Famous guest stars?
Kim Basinger

The couple’s conception?
Like Hart To Hart, the idea was borrowed from Dashiell Hammett’s Thin Man books of the ’30s.

Gritty crime drama?
Hardly. These were cosy whodunnit cases, where the brutality of murder was never portrayed. The show was more about the interplay between McMillan and Sally.

Had viewers arrested?
Certainly in the US. It was the fifth highest-rated show in 1972 and 1973.

Fate of the golden couple?
Susan Saint James quit in 1976 over a contractual dispute. Nancy Walker also packed away her duster as housekeeper Mildred.

The dame’s exit was a fatal blow?
Certainly for the character of Sally – she was killed off in a plane crash. But Rock soldiered on with new assistant Sgt Steve DiMaggio (Richard Gilliland). The show became McMillan.

A winner?
Audiences dwindled and the plug was pulled.

Distinguishing features?
Cosy pillow talk, cocktail parties, Rock Hudson, pyjamas and numerous corpses.

Do say
Let’s go to bed. Turn the light out, darling.

Don’t say
Must you eat toast in bed, darling. Apologies, but I’ve got terrible flatulence. Separate bedrooms.

Not to be confused with
My Wife Next Door, Harold Macmillan, The Merry Wives Of Windsor and Mr And Mrs.

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Classic TV Revisited: The Royal

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The Royal

The Royal was an ITV drama commission and was inspired by its sister programme Heartbeat.

The lowdown: This nostalgic family drama is set in the swinging 1960s and centres on the staff of a cottage hospital in Yorkshire. Newly qualified doctor David Cheriton (Julian Ovenden) is determined to make a difference to the world and arrives at St Aidan’s Royal Free Hospital in Elinsby full of big ideas. But he clashes with the hospital’s secretary TJ Middleditch (Ian Carmichael) who is determined to run things his way. Then there is the Matron (Wendy Craig) who rules her nurses with a rod of iron and tries in vain to stop them being distracted by the handsome arrival.

Memorable moments: Watch out for former Heartbeat favourite Bill Maynard who crosses dramas and continents as Claude Jeremiah Greengrass. Greengrass has returned from a Caribbean holiday with a mystery illness but that doesn’t stop him trying to earn a fast buck. It doesn’t take long before Claude attracts Matron’s ire.

Trivia: The Royal is a family affair for real life husband and wife Robert Daws (Ormerod) and Amy Robbins (Weatherill). No fewer than seven members of their clan have appeared in the series including their daughters and stepson.

Michelle Hardwick, who played receptionist Lizzie, says her favourite moment in the whole series didn’t come on screen but in the actors’ green room. She says: “I was sitting in there with Wendy Craig and Honor Blackman and we were having a lovely conversation. I sat back and thought ‘Wow, this is great, I can’t wait to tell my gran’.”

A modern day set version called The Royal Today aired 7 January – 14 March 2008.

First broadcast: 2003

Starred: Wendy Craig, Ian Carmichael, Michael Starke, Robert Daws and Julian Ovenden

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