Inside Graham Chapman and Douglas Adams’ Lost Sketch Show ‘Out of the Trees’
In 1974, when Monty Python’s Flying Circus came to a close, without John Cleese, the members of the troupe knew they weren’t quite finished. Holy Grail would come out the following year, and more live appearances, films, and records would follow, and with these ventures into other mediums beyond television they would finally break into America. But this didn’t mean that the five members would be working exclusively with one another. John Cleese and then-wife Connie Booth would begin the first series of the legendary Fawlty Towers in 1975, Palin and Jones’s Ripping Yarns would following in 1976. Today we look at another solo project to spring from the Pythons that never made it beyond the pilot stage; from Graham Chapman and Douglas Adams comes 1975’s Out of the Trees.
Now if the name Douglas Adams rings a bell, but you’re not quite sure why: don’t panic. Adams is best known as the author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books, which have been adapted into radio dramas, a television show, a movie, and a towel. He also left a wide assortment of various other writings throughout his career including episodes of Doctor Who, a number nonfiction works, and a pair of very innovative computer games. He was discovered by Graham Chapman in 1974 as a writer/performer on the West End in the storied Footlights Revue, and along with Neil Innes became one of two non-Pythons to be credited writers on the original Flying Circus.
In 1975 they decided to work together once again on a new show entitled Out of the Trees. For fans of Flying Circus, Out of the Trees will feel very familiar. It followed a very similar stream-of-consciousness format in which one sketch folds seamlessly into the next with short links between them. Fans of The Hitchhiker’s Guide will recognize Adams’ voice throughout, for instance, as the program begins we see a satellite image of the furthest reaches of space as a narrator announces, “a multitude of mighty galaxies, in each galaxy: a myriad of mighty star systems. Within each star system: a multiplicity of mighty planets. In just one of these mighty planets: the mighty British Rail Electric Train.” (For any serious DNA fans who haven’t already watched this, the word “Procol” is also randomly inserted into a scene.) Moving from the very large, down the very minuscule, obviously this overblown introduction then then leads to a sketch taking place on a train car.
Chapman arrives in the show, entering through the window of the train car and announcing that, “Than is a word very rarely used to start sentences.” Chapman himself described the show as being about two modern-day linguists traveling around a Britain gripped by decline. One problem tackled by Chapman’s linguist character is a misunderstanding between a passenger and a train attendant. The passenger wants both coffee and a sandwich, but the train attendant has already given him coffee but can’t understand why this man is now changing his mind and wants a sandwich instead. Chapman’s character, who up until now had been speaking in a very posh British accent, switches to a much lower class accent and tells the attendant that he used to work the same job on a different train. He’ll just have three coffees and a sandwich, and that’ll do. The train attendant gives him everything the car needs, and all on the house to boot.
Graham sits opposite a man who does voice over for television, played by Roger Brierly, including a story on Genghis Khan which we then see (it plays on the green screen outside the train car).
In it, Genghis (Chapman) and his Mongols have conquered another village and rather than see the murder of her family, one village woman offers herself to their leader in exchange for the lives of her family. She is brought to Genghis and he asks her if she knows who he is. She does. He then asks if she knows what he wants of her. “I’ll do anything for you, O Khan. But spare my family.” Fearing far worse, he then demands her to ask what kind of day he’s had. Confused, she complies and he responds, “Oh, not too bad, really. Violent. Same as usual.” What proceeds is a young woman forced to make marriage small talk under threat of death until she breaks down and demands to be raped. Khan refuses, exiting the room saying, “Oh, you’re just like the others. You’d only laugh.”
The second half of the sketch involves Khan and his son attempting to schedule the date that they should conquer the world. The problem is, Genghis has a very busy schedule. “The thing is that next week I’ve got this lecture on carnage techniques in Bokhara, and I thought I’d use tomorrow to prepare it.” This continues on as the two of them end up throwing April out as Genghis’ travel plans get in the way, with a tentative scheduling of world conquering in May.
Clearly this piece was one that both Adams and Chapman saw much potential in as the Genghis Khan sketch would live on in different formats from both writers: Adams would turn it into a short story that would appear in an anthology in 1986 entitled The Utterly Utterly Merry Comic Relief Christmas Book and it would be told as an anecdote in Chapman’s book A Liar’s Autobiography.
Though two scripts were written for Out of the Trees, only one was ever filmed which would go on to be aired on BBC2 only one time, opposite Britain’s equivalent of Monday Night Football. As was the tradition at the time, the BBC’s master tapes that contained this episode was eventually wiped so that it could be reused. For some time, only the elements that were done on film, such as the Genghis Kahn sketch, survived which was included as a bonus feature on the DVD for the Hitchhiker’s TV show. Eventually, Chapman’s long-time partner, David Sherlock revealed that he had a copy of the show but it was trapped on some primitive television recording format. He handed it over to experts, but it took two years for them to determine how to transfer the video to a digital format and made a custom playback machine that would also automatically film the results in case the tape disintegrated after one play. Ultimately it was successful, and some kind soul eventually uploaded it to YouTube, where you can enjoy (?) it below. The description for the video sums it up rather nicely: “As you can see it isn’t a lost masterpiece, because it’s no longer lost and it never was a masterpiece.”