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I wish to register a complaint!
on 25 January 2013
Sorry, I couldn't resist that title. I was anticipating tearing into this book so much, really immensely looking forward to it, but when it arrived the problem became apparent. I shall now explain it in a rather roundabout way. Luke Dempsey wants to annotate the already published scripts of the Flying Circus television series, and so realises his annotations can fall into the following categories -
1. Information that was left out of the original published script book (descriptions of It's Man sequences, animations, etc.)
2. Ways in which the recorded programme differed from the original and published script (cuts, fluffs, additions)
3. References encyclopaedia
4. Production trivia (anecdotes, sketches that were removed)
And also plop in bits of criticism when he feels necessary. That's fine. So... why all the blank spaces in the margin? There are loads of sketches which go uncommented on, and this is exacerbated by a lot of the comments taking up so much space being very poorly written. Many opportunities for fascinating and important pieces of information to be included are denied in favour of repeating certain entries (Reginald Maudling and Eton are described unnecessarily alongside every mention) and overblowing the hilarity of supposed bloopers (did Chapman really bump into a teenage boy during the Olympic Hide and Seek Finals sketch? Nope) Saying that Palin has to wait for laughter to die down before saying his next line in Interesting People is entirely needless. Some entries are also just plain inaccurate. Dempsey that the word 'mentch' as used in Biggles Dictates A Letter is an abbreviation of mention, when it's plain to anyone watching that he Chapman is saying 'mensch' in the Jewish sense, i.e. somebody who borrows from those around them. The line 'hate to be a mensch, but can I borrow that lawn-mower' (only slightly paraphrased, as the book is out of reach) should have made this clear.
To give an example of something that was left out, I have always been intrigued by a caption saying "Sandy Wilson's version of 'The Devils'" during the silly song at the end of the Language Laboratory sketch (Proust episode). This wasn't explained. Looking it up, I find out this brief joke relies on knowledge of both the sombre films of Ken Russell and the camp musicals of Sandy Wilson. Apparently Russell directed a version of Wilson's musical The Boyfriend much to Wilson's umbrage, making it rather grittier than it was intended to be. And so the gag implies that was as ridiculous as getting Wilson to direct a version of one of Russell's films. I find this fascinating and believe it was the sort of information that should have been included! Rather than espousing on almond cakes and saying a certain beard is funny, although both activities are of course fine in moderation. There is also an incident in which David Frost's telephone number was flashed up as a prank then later edited out, which could well have been included and there would have been much rejoicing. (For more information on how the shows were put together, search 'SOTCAA Python edits' with Google)
The final point to make is that Dempsey's writing style in the other sections feels very rushed. And why would somebody who has bought an in-depth analysis of Python need a quick-fix bio of each of the members anyway? I also feel there's far too much bashing of the British. Mr Dempsey, now living in Australia, begins the book by apologising for being British which is surely bizarre and unnecessary. His other comments on Britain read like something from the type of 1950's schoolbook that Palin and Jones would go on to mock. We could also do without Dempsey's prissy apologies for more daring material. 'The sight of the critic strangling his wife seems, to modern audiences, rather crass' Really? Wow. I'm sure it was at the time. He also quotes from Wikipedia an awful lot. Also, at second glance, many of the stills from the episodes are very blurry and could have been improved by waiting a few seconds before selecting the image.
BUT! Here's the thing. I still love this book, in an odd way. It's great as a reference guide, the colourful images making 'which bit is from where' queries easily resolved and some snippets of information reaffirm why I admire Python so highly. Yes, some of the information is very interesting. The derivation of the Northern expression 'I'll go to the foot of my stairs' meaning 'I'm so excited I could wet myself' for one thing, and the reason a reference to lampshades doesn't get a laugh in the Mr Hilter skit made me cringe. Ultimately people who are less obsessive than myself will surely delight in the book as it stands. All the shows, y'know. It's great, it's bright, it's massive. It's just a shame it isn't as good as it so easily could have been.