Ripping Yarns is a British television comedy series, written by former members of the Monty Python team, Michael Palin and Terry Jones. The series ran on the BBC from 1976 to 1979. Each episode had a completely different setting and completely different characters, each looking at a different aspect of British culture. The idea of "ripping yarns" parodied a pre-World War II schoolboy genre.
The series grew out of a one-off BBC
programme called "Tomkinson's Schooldays" (1975
), loosely inspired by Tom Brown's Schooldays
by Thomas Hughes
. Palin and Jones both wrote and starred in multiple roles.
Palin and Jones then developed the idea into a series. Following a repeat of "Tomkinson's Schooldays" as the de facto pilot episode, a further five episodes were screened in 1977. A second series of three episodes followed in 1979. Jones did not appear in any of the later 8 episodes, and Palin usually confined himself to one or two roles per episode.
- "Tomkinson's Schooldays" (1913)
First series (1977)
- "Tomkinson's Schooldays" (1913) (repeat of pilot with series title sequence added)
- "The Testing of Eric Olthwaite" (1934)
- "Escape from Stalag Luft 112 B" (1917)
- "Murder at Moorstones Manor" (1926)
- "Across the Andes by Frog" (1927)
- "The Curse of the Claw" (1926)
Second series (1979)
- "Whinfrey's Last Case" (1913)
- "Golden Gordon" (1935)
- "Roger of the Raj" (1914)
The series is introduced by a bearded man in an opera cape (Michael Palin) standing at some cliffs, who takes a lot of attempts to say the phrase “The follies of our youth are in retrospect glorious when compared to the follies of our old age”. The director (Terry Jones) keeps cueing him and finishes by saying it himself. This is a parody of Orson Welles' appearance in a sherry commercial, made explicit by Palin saying "Our sherry tonight...".
England 1912. In a takeoff of Tom Brown's Schooldays
, Tomkinson (Michael Palin
) is a new boy at an old traditional school, Graybridge. He tells of the horrors of the school life: beating the headmaster (also Palin), fighting the grizzly bear, being nailed to the wall on St. Tadger’s day, having to ask permission to breathe after 10 pm and Grayson (Ian Ogilvy
), the school bully, who gets whatever he wants: alcohol, cigarettes and the company of an unmarried Filipino woman. The school bully addresses other pupils with endearing comments such as "you dismally untalented little creep" and "you spotty little oik".
One day, Tomkinson is shot during French translation. When his mother (Gwen Watford) visits him in hospital, he begs her to take him home, but she refuses and tells him that his father, a polar explorer, has returned to the Antarctic because he has got a woman there. Tomkinson is shocked - for starters, his father is homosexual. Tomkinson decides to escape. During a rugby match he scores a try and keeps on running, but is caught some miles away, by the school leopard (he is carried back to school on a stretcher). Then he tries to get out disguised as a woman and is caught by the Spanish master (Jones), trying to molest him. In model boat club, Tomkinson builds a full scale model icebreaker, but is told to melt it down by Mr. Ellis (Terry Jones). When a polar explorer comes to the school to do a speech, Tomkinson hides in his trunk, but then discovers that the polar explorer was only Mr. Ellis.
After three weeks detention in the school maggot pit, Tomkinson is brought before the school bully. He tells Tomkinson that he and the chaplain control the way out of the school, and that he wants Tomkinson to test the chaplain’s new tunnel. An hour later, Tomkinson finds himself behind the headmaster’s writing desk, completely drunk, with 200 cigarettes and accompanied by a half-naked, unmarried Filipino lady, as the tunnel finishes too early. He is sentenced to the worst penalty: The 30-mile hop against St. Anthony’s, a Buddhist public school.
During the first half of the hop, Graybridge students drop out one by one, and just as Tomkinson feels his end near, Grayson comes and gives him a stimulant. Tomkinson wins the hop and he hops on to his home, where he finds his mother entangled with a half-naked man. He again tries to persuade her to let him stay, she again refuses. He is about to leave when another half-naked man joins them: it is his father (Terry Jones).
Tomkinson returns to Graybridge, where he is appointed new school bully, Grayson having been offered a place at Eton. Tomkinson sees his chance in changing Graybridge, but decides he will have to do it in small steps, and carries on the bullying tradition.
The Testing of Eric Olthwaite
Denley Moor, 1934. Eric Olthwaite (Palin) is interested in precipitation
patterns in West Yorkshire
and black pudding
(his mother makes pudding so black, that even the white bits are black). His family avoids him. His mother (Barbara New
) always gives him something to do the moment he starts talking, his sister Irene (Anita Carey
) simply tells him to shut up, his father (John Barrett
) pretends to be French
in the hope that Eric won't talk to him. One morning, Eric discovers that his family has left him. He tries to talk about it with his girlfriend, Enid Bag (Petra Markham
), but she’s too busy having an affair with another man. Her father (Reg Lye
), a vulture
keeper, tells Eric what his problem is: He’s boring. He advises him to make something out of his life. Eric tries to start at a bank, but the manager (Palin again) tells him that he’s too boring for the job. Eric’s about to leave when the bank is robbed by a man called Arthur (Kenneth Colley
), who takes Eric with him. They run for it and manage to escape. Arthur is about to shoot Eric, when the two of them discover how much they’ve got in common: They’re both interested in rain, shovels and black pudding. They decide to form a gang together. Their new fame
actually makes Eric interesting. Enid joins them, Eric’s mother and father are interviewed about him and in the end, Eric Olthwaite is appointed mayor
of Denley Moor.
Escape from Stalag Luft 112B
Germany, 1917. Major Errol Phipps (Palin) is a legend among prisoners of war. He has attempted over five hundred escapes, two hundred of them before he left England. One day, he is transferred to the most infamous prison camp: Stalag Luft 112B. He tries nine escapes en route and one just after arriving, but is stopped by fellow British officers. They are comfortable where they are, bossing the Germans around. One of the officers is even callen "Attenborough", alluding to Richard Attenborough
's rôle in the film The Great Escape
, which the episode parodies very successfully. Escape attempts have to be organized by a special committee which only meets very irregularly. Phipps tries to escape nonetheless: He starts to construct a glider out of toilet rolls, maps the wires and perimeters and starts digging tunnels in the flower beds. One day, he is woken up by the furious guard Vogel (Roy Kinnear
): All the others have escaped. To give Phipps no chance to do the same, he is from now on closely watched. One night, the guards ask him for help: They want to escape; they’re fed up with this. Phipps refuses, saying this would be collaboration. The next morning he finds all the guards, except Vogel, have escaped. Vogel tries to persuade him to help him shoot them, Phipps again refuses. When Vogel shoots, he accidentally kills the Kommandant and has no choice but to escape. Phipps is left alone and has at last time to complete all his escape plans: He finishes his glider, builds a tunnel system so elaborate, that it later became part of the Munich underground and a giant catapult. He’s about to start a hot air balloon, when peace is declared. Major Phipps was the only man never to escape from Stalag Luft 112B. He dies a broken man; two months after the burial, his body is found near the cemetery fence.
Murder at Moorstones Manor
Scotland, 1926. Sir Clive Chiddingfold (Frank Middlemass
), the irascible proprietor of Moorstones Manor has his birthday. His sons Hugo and Charles (both played by Palin) drive up with their fiancées. Hugo, the elder, is only interested in motors and seen as a loony by the rest of the family. He even leaves his fiancée Dora (Candace Glendenning
) on the moor, when she makes him choose between her and the car. Charles, the younger, arrives with his fiancée Ruth (Ann Zelda
). During dinner, Ruth drops unconscious into a cottage pie, due to Sir Clive’s stories of cruelty. Hugo comes down for a chat, his mother takes him up to bed again, when they hear a shot. Sir Clive has just been murdered. Charles claims having seen nothing as he just watched a trapdoor open. Lady Chiddingfold (Isabel Dean
) then discovers that Ruth has choked on her pie. Charles offers to go and check whether Hugo still lives. There is another shot and Charles comes down saying Hugo was shot and that he again saw nothing due to the fact that he watched a secret passageway open. In the middle of the night, Dora reaches Moorstones Manor, in a terrible state. The next morning, Dr. Farson (Iain Cuthbertson
) comes to check on Dora and the dead. He is obsessed with Lady Chiddingfold and at last confesses that he shot everyone to have her all for himself. The butler Manners (Harold Innocent
) comes in and confesses to the murders. He did it as revenge, because he didn’t want to be ordered around anymore. Dora arrives and claims she shot everyone as a revenge for having had to bear Hugo for six years. Charles comes down and also confesses to the murders, having been after the money. The four confessed murderers then shoot one another and only Lady Chiddingfold is left.
Across the Andes by Frog
Peru, 1927. Walter Snetterton (Palin) is an explorer unluckily forgotten. His expedition had been trying to prove that frogs could scale the highest mountains. He wanted to cross the Andes by frog. The expedition starts in the sleepy village of Quequeña, where they are not quite greeted by the British Consul (Denholm Elliot
), and meet some problems: Due to Cup final, the only guide available is an old woman (Eileen Way
), who nonetheless is able to climb the mountains much faster than Snetterton and his men. Then the natives think the frogs bring bad luck. Snetterton dismisses this as superstitious nonsense, but has three men guard the frogs. The next morning, after his Sergeant Major (Don Henderson
) has left the army to marry a native girl, he discovers, that they all have left their posts for a love night with the beautiful native maidens and that someone has set all the frogs free. He makes the whole village search for the frogs, but they are distracted by the radio, transmitting the Cup Final. Furious, Snetterton shoots the radio and has to realise he’s gone too far. Pursued by the angry villagers, he grabs the last remaining frog (the Himalayan sleeping frog) and runs for the mountains. Later, only his journal is found, saying that after three weeks he had to eat the frog. However, we are told that the other frogs hopped to Mexico City, therefore proving his theories right.
The Curse of the Claw
Maidenhead, 1926. In a dark and stormy night, Sir Kevin Orr (Palin) is visited by a bunch of strange men: Captain Merson (Keith Smith
) leading an expedition to the Naga Hills
of Burma with a few natives in tow. On this name, Sir Kevin gets excited and tells Merson a long hidden secret: he grew up in a very strict house; his parents (Tenniel Evans
and Hilary Mason
) had his sister imprisoned for putting too much butter on her scone and his brother killed for walking on the flower beds. Young Kevin (Nigel Rhodes
) had a secret sweetheart, Agatha -- so secret that she herself didn’t know. The only excitement in his life was visiting his Uncle Jack (Palin), who loved dirt and filth and had about every disease known to man. On his sixtieth birthday, he tells his now grown nephew a secret: he had taken a sacred claw from the Naga hills in Burma, but had discovered there was a curse on it. The owner had to return it before his sixtieth birthday to the tribesmen or die. Kevin promises to do his best and on no account touch the claw. He tries to persuade his parents to let him go, but of course they refuse. His father touches the claw in spite of Kevin’s warnings and breaks two legs just as a thunderstorm tears the house apart. Kevin runs away with the Claw. He becomes Captain of the “Greasy Bastard”, a small ship carrying rubber goods between England and Burma. But the curse starts to operate on him, and he finds himself attracted to the Chief Petty Officer Russell (Judy Loe
). After some agonising, he discovers that the officer is a woman and that in fact nearly all members of the crew are. The voyage becomes a paradise and they don’t want it to end when they reach Burma. Kevin tries to explain the situation to his crew, but Russell throws the claw into the sea. The ship explodes and Kevin is the only survivor. He returns to his Uncle, who tells him that the Claw will find a way to return to him and that he shall live in this house until it does. Then he dies. Kevin, after his parents’ death, marries Agatha (Bridget Armstrong
) and lives happily in his Uncle’s house until the morning of his sixtieth birthday, when he finds his wife dead and the Claw lying next to her. He hands it back to the Naga tribesmen. But it has one final trick to play on him: His Uncle and wife are returning from the dead, Kevin and Agatha become kids again and suddenly his father is standing in front of the door to fetch him.
The season is introduced by the same presenter as the first. This time, he knows his text and explains in length about a London building, about to be important in the story. Only, a truck stops just in front of him, blocking him from view. Two cars crash in front of the truck and the truck driver does a tap dance when realising he’s on film. The presenter doesn’t notice and is rather surprised when told this had to be done again.
Whinfrey’s Last Case
England, 1913. In the war office in Whitehall, rumours abound that the Germans will start the war one year early. The British government ask Gerald Whinfrey (Michael Palin
) to look into this. Whinfrey, however, refuses. In the last four months, he has stopped the Balkan Wars, sold submarines to France, annexed two new colonies and started an insurrection in Brazil. He feels he has deserved a holiday. So he goes off to a small Cornish village, Torpoint, for a fishing holiday. A lot of strange events happen there. First, a porter on the station tells him, that he got off the train wrong. In the pub, the waiter is a small lady (Ann Way
), who does not reach over the counter. She also drives the taxi to Smuggler’s Cottage, even though she can’t see the road. Whinfrey arrives and is greeted by a housekeeper, Mrs Otway (Maria Aitken
) and a staff of at least 20 people. Before sleeping, he has to chase the butler, the master of the bedchamber, Mr. Girton (Edward Hardwicke
), the bedmakers and the boy for tuning the bedsprings out of his room. The next morning, he finds the house surrounded by about eighty gardeners, his clothes removed and his door locked. He overhears Mrs Otway and Mr Girton plotting on how to stop him getting out of the house and poisoning his breakfast. Remembering that he is in smuggling country, Whinfrey finds twenty-three secret passageways in his room and escapes, pursued by Girton and Mrs Otway. He reaches Torpoint and enters the pub again, where he finds the villagers sitting and singing a Bavarian drinking song. One of them introduces the others in uneasy English and somehow a good half of them are called Eddie or Tony. The cottage’s staff burst in and reveal their plans: They’re from Germany and had wanted to infiltrate Britain with nannies, shepherds, judges, village idiots, vicars etc. They would have succeeded if it had not been for Whinfrey. The British war office staff burst in, arresting them all. The Germans thank Whinfrey, saying it was an honour to be caught by him, the British General tells him he nearly believed Whinfrey was really going on holiday and thanks him for saving the world once again.
Huddersfield, 1935. Barnstoneworth United is a small football club, once playing in the top leagues, now losing every game. One of their fans, Gordon Ottershaw (Palin), who has named his son Barnstoneworth United (John Berlyne), comes home after every lost match and smashes the furniture in fury. His wife Eileen (Gwen Taylor
) quietly accepts this. She keeps trying to tell him that she’s having a baby, but he seems not to notice. After an 8-1 defeat by a elderly team, it is decided that the club be sold to a scrap dealer. The upcoming match against Denley Moor (the town featured in 'The Testing of Eric Olthwaite') will therefore be the last. Gordon visits the owner of the corporation, Mr. Foggen (Bill Fraser
), and tries to persuade him to keep the club alive. Foggen refuses. But Gordon has another idea. He starts visiting the players from the great 1922 team, reassembling them for the last match. The day of the match it looks bad for Barnstoneworth. They have only four players (and three pairs of shorts), whereas the captain of the Denley Moor team is the famous Eric Olthwaite. At the last minute, Gordon arrives with the old team, who defeat Denley Moor. Gordon arrives home and the family smashes the furniture together in happiness. (John Cleese
makes a brief cameo as a passer-by in the street, who peers at Eileen after she shouts to her husband.) The inspiration is Huddersfield Town
's decline in the late 1970s; while Ripping Yarns
itself was being filmed.
Roger of the Raj
England/India, 1914. Roger Bartlesham (Palin) grows up in a wealthy family. They have a large number of houses, an overflowing breakfast table, even more servants. Roger’s mother, Lady Bartlesham (Joan Sanderson
), has killed more grouse than any woman in history and quite a few beaters, who looked too much like grouse. His father, Lord Bartlesham (Richard Vernon
), can’t get used to the fact that slavery no longer exists and that all his servants are free men/women. Roger is rather uncomfortable with his parents and spends a lot of time with his Latin tutor, Mr. Hopper (Roger Brierley
), a former child molestor, who doesn’t teach him Latin (because he knows none) but about Marxism and socialism. When the war breaks out, the Bartleshams move to India and do their part for King and country (which is having Indian servants playing their croquet for them). One evening, after dinner, the ladies are about to withdraw from the table when Captain Morrison (Charles McKeown
) suddenly exclaims: “We’ll be in to spank you later, you firm-buttocked young amazons”. Bartlesham tells him, he knows what he’s got to do, so Morrison steps outside and shoots himself. A moment later, another man is caught passing the port from left to right. He too has to step out and shoot himself. Another man stands up and says he thinks you should be able to pass the port any way you wanted to. He follows the other two. Another one gets up and says the women should be allowed port, too. After his death, Colonel Runciman (John Le Mesurier
) gets up and says he also wanted the women in here. He also wanted to abolish the Loyal Toast, the National Anthem and set up a socialist republic. After he shoots himself (needing two attempts because he misses the first time), Roger gets up, leaving his father alone. Roger visits his girlfriend Miranda (Jan Francis
). They dream of having a small shop, pharmacy maybe, but Miranda first refuses, saying that there also have to be rich people. However, she is won over by Roger’s ideas. They prepare to leave for England, but in the meantime, the Russian Revolution has started. Mr. Hopper is delighted and tries to make Roger join him and the regiment in the mutiny. The Bartleshams wake and mistake the noise for a Pathan (local tribe) uprising. The regiment force Roger to be their leader and talk to his parents, Lady Bartlesham, convinced by Hopper that Roger really was the leader is prepared to shoot him. The soldiers shoot back at her, Miranda comes to rescue Roger, the chaos escalates and, under its cover, Roger and Miranda escape. They realise their dream of a small shop in the big manor belonging to Roger’s parents.
The pilot was shot on videotape with filmed exterior scenes and has a laugh track
. The remaining episodes were all shot on film. They were also originally shown with laugh tracks, but with a couple of exceptions these have been omitted from repeats.
The opening title music for the series is "Fanfare" from William Walton's Facade Suite No.2.
The scripts were published in book form, with suitably sepia-tinted stills, as Ripping Yarns and More Ripping Yarns, and later collected in an omnibus volume, ISBN 0-413-77360-4, The Complete Ripping Yarns (1999).
The "Across the Andes by Frog" tale originally appeared in Bert Fegg's Nasty Book for Boys and Girls, co-penned by Palin & Jones.
Video and DVD
The series was released on three VHS tapes in the UK in the 1980s. Two of these compilations were reissued (not by the BBC) on Region 0 (worldwide) DVD in 2000, but fans were disappointed that no attempt had been made to remaster the sound and picture quality and that only 6 of the 9 episodes were included.
Fans continued to hope for a fully-restored complete edition, and this was finally fulfilled in October 2004 with the release of The Complete Ripping Yarns on a 2-disc Region 2 DVD set, with extras including commentaries on all nine episodes by Palin and Jones and a deleted scene (without soundtrack) from "Murder at Moorstones Manor". All of the episodes except "Tomkinson's Schooldays" and "Murder at Moorstones Manor" also have optional laugh-free soundtracks.
The DVD set also includes the only surviving (and rather poor quality) recording of Palin and Jones's comic BBC play Secrets from 1973, as well as a documentary by Michael Palin entitled "Comic Roots" in which he goes back to visit his home town. Not linked in the menu are scans of the first drafts of the scripts for six episodes (Tomkinson's Schooldays, The Testing of Eric Olthwaite, Murder at Moorstone Manor, Across the Andes by Frog, The Curse of the Claw, and Whinfrey's Last Case), type-written with Palin's handwritten comments and changes in the margin. There is an informative booklet enclosed, written by Andrew Pixley.