Review: The New (Incomplete) Complete and Utter History of Britain / Cert:12 / Director: Maurice Murphy / Author: Michael Palin, Terry Jones / Starring: Michael Palin, Terry Jones, Roddy Maude-Roxby, Colin Gordon, Johnny Vyvyan / Release Date: April 7th
Screened in January 1969, just nine months before the debut of the groundbreaking Monty Python’s Flying Circus and never aired nationally (being produced by and screened only in the region then known as London Weekend Television), The Complete and Utter History of Britain is very much Python in embryo. The natural accompaniment to earlier free-form comedy shows such as Do Not Adjust Your Set and At Last The 1948 Show, Britain (as we shall call it for the sake of brevity) establishes the style of offbeat, surreal and slightly slapstick comedy which the Python series would later refine and fine-tune. Here, Pythons-to-be Palin and Jones work with the core idea of important historical events viewed through the imaginary prism of contemporary television coverage, using still-popular sensationalistic reporting techniques. William the Conqueror is interviewed post-Hastings in a football team’s communal bath, Rome’s first incursions into England are displayed as larky holiday home videos and more traditional sketches depict Stone Age man’s attempts to patent the first chair and Palin’s wily estate agent espousing the virtues of draughty Stonehenge as a first home for a pair of newlyweds: “It’s got character, charm – and a slab in the middle.”
Only two episodes of Britain exist – and even on Blu-ray the quality is pretty ropey – so it’s hard to get a feeling for how the series might have developed across its six episodes (seven were recorded but LWT demanded that the first two were amalgamated into one episode because they weren’t funny enough). Even from the two which remain, however, its easy to see what works and what doesn’t. Palin and Jones bring the same wide-eyed enthusiasm and versatility they’d bring to Python, though Colin Gordon as the ‘narrator’ is an uneasy fit, slowing down the proceedings and looking distinctly uncomfortable. The highlight of the remaining footage, though, is Roddy Maude-Roxby as dotty Professor Weaver, a clueless and clumsy resident history expert whose meandering monologues descend into a series of fitfully funny mannerisms and well-observed sight gags.
Network have done an admirable job in turning a massively incomplete TV series into a worthwhile purchase, but even without the comprehensive bonus material, Britain is an important release because it’s pretty much the last step on the road which would lead to Monty Python.
Extras: Episode footage presented with new, original linking material from Palin and Jones/ Interview with producer Humphrey Barclay/ The two episodes as transmitted and recorded / Film insert material / Collector’s booklet / Picture gallery