Rediscovering Eric Idle’s Post-Python Sketch Show, ‘Rutland Weekend Television’

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The TV show you just worked on has ended. It did reasonably well, running a few seasons, but it was definitely a fringe success. You and your fellow writers/cast-mates have started to drift apart somewhat after working together for a very long time, but you’ve always been kind of the lone wolf of the crew. Why switch gears now? You’ve proven that you’re good at this stuff; why not keep it going on your own?

This, roughly, is the situation Eric Idle found himself in at the end of Monty Python’s Flying Circus in 1974. Whereas the other members of the show worked in partners, Eric mostly wrote solo, leaving him the best set up to seamlessly continue his work after his fellow Pythons broke away. The result was Rutland Weekend Television on BBC2 which ran for 13 episodes on a very, very limited budget.

Rutland Weekend Television takes its name from a John Cleese joke (Idle paid him a pound for the title) about England’s smallest county (Rutland) and the television station ITV’s offshoot London Weekend Television (the joke being that if a Rutland specific TV station was tiny, a Weekend TV station would be incredibly tiny). The premise is very similar to what would later be done on a different continent with SCTV and their fictional town of Mellonville. On both shows, we see a number of short sketches meant to comprise a programming day for these small-town stations, complete with their own local celebrities and attempts at doing what the big guys do on their scale.

Though Eric was primarily a solo writer on Python, he did bring someone along with him for Rutland: the Python’s main musical collaborator, and member of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, Neil Innes. Neil contributes a number of songs to the show which appear in the form of live performances, such as Neil’s character Stoop Solo, a Gary Glitter parody, or as early music videos.

Neil’s most famous contribution to the show, and arguably the show’s legacy, would take the form of the band The Rutles. Though they would truly take off when appearing on Saturday Night Live, The Rutles are not just a parody of the Beatles, they are a truly loving parody while also transcending said parody and producing some truly catchy songs. (Here’s “Hold My Hand” as an example of The Rutles’ early, more innocent period.) Eventually the full saga of The Rutles’ career would be told in the form of an NBC special entitled All You Need is Cash featuring a number of SNL original cast members, as well as George Harrison.

But getting back to Rutland Weekend Television, a big part of the reason behind the construct of the small town making their own TV stuff their own way is the fact that the actual show had a very limited budget. According to an interview with Innes in 1975, RWT wasn’t developed by the BBC’s department that would usually create comedy shows. Instead, it was produced by the Presentation Department which “was designed to accommodate programmes of people’s heads talking into microphones.” To get the most bang out of their buck, the cast and crew of Rutland would rehearse throughout the week for three to four days, and then film an entire episode over the course of one manic day in studio, moving sets up to the fourth floor and then back down. Apparently Idle has no desire for the show to be released on DVD due to it having been “an unhappy time” in his life. I can imagine having to take that many elevator trips from the costume department in the basement to the studio on the fourth floor in one day may have colored that memory.

Rutland began a year after Flying Circus ended and as a result there is a very clear link in style from one show to the other. The opening sketch of Rutland is an interview show featuring Idle as the show’s host who speaks only in gibberish, but with the intonation of someone who is conducting a very meaningful interview. “Plugged rabbit emulsion, zinc custard without sustenance in Kipling-duff geriatric scenery, maximises press insulating government grunting sapphire-clubs incidentally,” he says, introducing his guest. The opening graphic looks very Terry Gilliam to me, but if it was in fact done by him it was done on a budget far lower than what he was used to.

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For me, the highlight of the show’s first episode is a Neil Innes song called “Star of the Sexy Movies.” (The description for the video embedded below describes it as an “Eric Idle penned song” performed by Neil, but I haven’t been able to confirm this.)

Despite its very small budget and very short run, Rutland Weekend Television very much feels like a proper Python “solo album.” Eric’s voice, as the show’s sole writer, clearly shines, but it’s surprising when a little bit of the non-present Python’s bleeds in, this being so close to his time collaborating with them on a daily basis. There’s something very Michael Palin-y about a man trying to save fish from drowning, and something a little Cleese-y about a telegram from the government that inspires a debate between a soon-to-be executed prisoner and his guard that asks for the execution to be “candled.”

Though it will probably never be released on DVD, the kind souls at PythonNET have put the series on YouTube in ten minute chunks, allowing us all to enjoy them. Enjoy, laugh, and marvel at just how thinly a budget can be stretched.

Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, podcaster and a guy on Twitter. Check out his webseries “Ramsey Has a Time Machine” featuring Chris Elliott!

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