‘Do Not Adjust Your Set’: The Children’s Show That Launched Monty Python
The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 120,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.)
The idea of children’s programming being “cool” feels like a relatively new idea. There’s the indie rock/alternative comedy friendly Yo Gabba Gabba!, there’s The Aquabats Super Show, and as I’m sure you already know, we now live in a world in which “bronies” are a thing. However, cool children’s shows have been around for quite some time, including one that aired for two seasons in 1968 that counted Monty Python’s John Cleese and Graham Chapman as fans.
The program was called Do Not Adjust Your Set (named for the warning that would often appear on TV screens when there were broadcasting issues), and aired weekly at 5:20 PM on the ITV network in the UK. In it’s cast were David Jason, who would later be known for staring in the BBC series Only Fools and Horses, and for lending his voice to Dangermouse, and Count Duckula, as well as Denise Coffey, an actress, director and playwright with a very long career. It featured performances/art pieces from the surreal avant-garde musical group, Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band.
Oh, also it was written and performed by Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin.
I’ve written previously in this column about the strange little sketch show entitled At Last, the 1948 Show that brought John Cleese and Graham Chapman to national attention, and here with DNAYS! we get the other piece of the puzzle. According to his published diary from the formation of Monty Python, Michael Palin remembers receiving a phone call of John Cleese after the second series of this show had aired and told Michael, “Well, you won’t be doing any more of those, so why don’t we think of something new.” With that simple phone call, the comedy supergroup of Monty Python was born as these two shows came together.
The first episode aired around teatime on January 4th, 1968. The show features a number of quick cuts, short blackout-style sketches, a single filmed piece, and appears to have been recorded live in one take before a live studio audience of (from the sounds of it) children. Throughout the humor is surprisingly sharp, and quite honestly, goes over the heads of its audience more than a few times. It feels like the first season of Monty Python’s Flying Circus if they had been a little less ambitious, and were aiming and a slightly younger demographic. That being said, it’s a pretty fun show.
The episode begins with a shot of a double-decker bus, driving by; edited as it fills the entire frame, to repeat so it seems incredibly long. It’s a quick, neat little visual trick that immediately sets a tone that something strange is going on. The title card appears as Eric Idle, using a voice that the Python’s would later dub a “Gumby,” reads the name of the program. The first sketch of the program has the entire cast introducing themselves to their viewers, as well as the Shakespearian characters they are about to portray. “I’m Terry Jones and I’m King Lear. I’m Eric Idle and I’m Edmond. I’m Michael Palin and I’m Cordelia. I’m David Jason, and I’m the King of France… the Earl of Gloucester, Edgar, son of the Earl of Gloucester, an old man, a fool, a servant, three knights attending the king, and I’m not in this bit.” The three of them, David having ran off screen, begin speaking in elaborate Shakespearian style, until we cut to them on a TV screen, with Denise Coffey, dressed in period clothes, addressing the audience: “But soft! (I’m Denise Coffey.) What are these strange demented shapes, whirling before my leering eyes upon this silvered screen? Fair friends, I cannot face this foolish flannel. There must be something better on the other channel.” She hits the television and we move on to the next sketch, seamlessly, just as we might in an episode of Flying Circus.
The premise of this sketch is simple enough, a quartet is going to perform for us, and as each instrument comes in it makes a sound that is all wrong. The violin sounds like a slide trombone, the clarinet makes accordion noises, and the cello makes noises like a speeding car. It’s simple, and probably the sketch most clearly geared towards the younger set.
The next sketch, on the other hand, works as an early version of the classic Python cheese shop sketch. Michael Palin stands at the register (the sketch begins with him exclaiming, “Morning, sir!” in the exact same tone as the aforementioned cheese shop owner) as David Jason enters with a long grocery list. After reading it, Michael sets down a tin of shoe polish on the counter before his flummoxed customer. Moments later, Terry Jones arrives and asks for a tin of shoe polish and is given the exact order David just requested. Finally, the original customer understands what’s going on in this weird grocery store and requests what that man just had. Palin tells him that he’s just sold out, but “I’ll tell you what I can get you. How about a dozen eggs, two pounds of stewing steak, a half a pound of tomatoes, three pounds of potatoes, a tin of peas, and a packet of corn flakes.” David excitedly agrees and is presented with a tin of shoe polish.
What’s fascinating to me is how many of the sketches in just this premiere episode feel as though they could work today, and in fact, have some pretty distinct contemporary counterparts. For example, the sketch that goes over the best with the live studio audience of children is one in which Eric Idle plays a teacher, hosting a science show, teaching about gravity. This satire of educational television feels very much like the later British show, Look Around You. In this sketch, Eric gives very detailed descriptions on how to demonstrate gravity (by dropping a pencil). “First,” he tells his viewers, “pick up the pencil in your right hand, or if you’re left handed, or suffer some disability, one of the others will do just as well.” He drops it, and then drops it again to determine an average. When he does this a third time at the very end of the sketch, instead of falling it flies out of view, to his astonishment.
Or what about the sketch about stool pigeons working for Scotland Yard? A very obvious police officer infiltrates a gang of criminals who are discussing their next heist. He makes every mistake possible, including taking notes in his book, referring to the mode of procedure he learned at…gang college, and correcting them when they plan on parking the getaway car in a no parking zone. The big reveal at the end, however, is that all of the gang members are actually undercover cops from a variety of different enforcement agencies. This punchline would later be expanded and used in a slightly different way in the 2008-2009 season of Saturday Night Live in the sketch “Narc School” which featured a high school in which every student was an undercover cop.
Later in the episode there is a filmed piece featuring David Jason as “Captain Fantastic,” which would run serially throughout the run of the show. In it, Captain Fantastic plays a detective on the case of the villainess Mrs. Black, played by Denise Coffey. In this episode he battles an exploding lunchbox, a submarine, and a massive navy ship. The filmed piece ends with Palin exclaiming, “Who is the mysterious tree? Who was inside the lunchbox? Who was the first man to drink the Channel? … Turn in next week for the next exciting adventure! Or don’t, as the case may be!”
There are also a number of musical performances throughout the show, including the closing piece featuring the cast as a Scottish folk band, with Eric Idle and Terry Jones on guitar singing indecipherable lyrics (to me) through heavy Scottish accents. However, we also have two performances from the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band (which featured frequent Python and future Rutle, Neil Innes). This includes a cover of “The Monster Mash” done in costume on an elaborate mad scientist laboratory set, and a strange version of the theme from The Sound of Music in which everyone in the band seems to play their own song, rather than playing together.
The final product of all of these disparate elements resulted in a strangely unique program unlike anything that had come before it. Later episodes would introduce Britain to the American animator Terry Gilliam, who produced short animated links not dissimilar to his later work for Python. Without this program, and John and Graham’s 1948, there would be no Monty Python, and without them, modern comedy would look a lot less funny. The children of the late sixties didn’t know how good they had it.