Despite a deft mixture of traditional polish and youthful verve, At Last the 1948 Show doesn't quite cross the line from good to great.
Terry Jones is completely accurate when he says, "Monty Python was really Do Not Adjust Your Set meets The 1948 Show," in an interview included on the Tango Entertainment reissues of both seminal shows. Of the six Python members, four were the sole writing staff of Do Not Adjust Your Set (Jones, Michael Palin, Eric Idle, and later, Terry Gilliam) and the other two made up the most productive half of the writers on At Last the 1948 Show (John Cleese and Graham Chapman).
But as the five episodes presented on The 1948 Show collection demonstrate, the shows aren't merely curious predecessors to their ground breaking brethren, a neat one plus one equals two formula for Python's success, but complete entities of their own. They were both popular in Britain upon their original airing, and some of the 1948 skits were released on an album. We can see Cleese and Chapman perfecting their craft in a traditional way, with touches of the experimental hijinks that would explode into the surreal zaniness of their later work. Brooke-Taylor says in an interview included on the new DVD that they were influenced by the cutting edge satirical stage revue, Beyond the Fringe, but "We always called ourselves 'music hall,' so were sort of halfway between the two." That about captures the energetic, yet cautious vibe of 1948.
The sketches are standard, a straight man confronts a ridiculous character (in "The Scottish National Ballet Supporters," hooligan Scots disrupt a stuffy theater with their catcalls), and the responses to this increased looniness go from set up to conflict to closing punch line (a fight breaks out, an aristocrat says this is the best time he's had at the ballet). These more predictable sketches are consistently successful. The 1948 Show's most famous sketch, "The Four Yorkshiremen," in which a quartet of businessmen brag about their miserable upbringings ("We used to get up in the morning at half past 10 at night, half an hour before we'd gone to bed, eat a loaf of poison, work 29 hours a day..."), has become the kind of easy-to-adapt standard appropriated by sketch acts in need of quick filler. However, working within such a well-worn structures has its drawbacks; the closing punch-lines nearly always fall with a thud. As Brooke-Taylor says, it wasn't until Python that "they got around it [the closing punch line] by Graham Chapman coming out and saying, 'This is silly, this is boring, let's go someplace else.'"
The cast is more adventurous in their performances than in their writing, and many tics we associate with Python are in evidence. The cast is fond of speaking in ridiculously high-pitched approximations of regional accents. Cleese and Chapman stiffly exaggerate their movements like over-exuberant robots. Cleese's lifelong comic persona, the bumbling and absurd upper middle-class toff, appears more or less fully formed.
These performances are backed by a strict professional discipline. Both Jones and Brooke-Taylor cite silent film comedians, particularly Buster Keaton, as influences. One sketch has two cops chasing a robber in a public library while trying to obey the "quiet" rules and another has Brooke-Taylor performing the "Chartered Accountant" dance, which consists of the routine movements in the day of an accountant deftly condensed into a Twist-like teen craze. (The chartered accountant, dressed in Magritte's dark suit and bowler hat, figures as the show's shorthand for the salary man and corporate dullness.)
When the performers overindulge in ridiculousness, though, they often seem at a loss for how to control their manic energy. Of course, the cast was very young, in their early 20s, and a collegiate precociousness creeps into these moments. An extended James Bond spoof is particularly incomprehensible. The sketch has the villain and spy repeatedly turning the tables on each other, numerous characters exiting and entering through a door, window, and elevator with no forward momentum, focus, or structure to the sketch, and everyone wearing an off-putting, self-satisfied smile. Silliness is a difficult strain of humor to harness, but it's not accomplished by having a cast hyperactively acting on their merest whim. The Knights Who Say "Ni" would not be funny if they were sharing the screen with the Ministry of Silly Walks.
The sketches are joined together by more innovative short bits starring Aimi MacDonald as a carelessly vain, occasionally cruel showgirl. When she leads the audience in a sing-a-long of "this little song I wrote to chase away old mister blues and it's dedicated to me," called "I Love the Lovely Aimi MacDonald," she easily outperforms the other cast members. The opening credits sequences are unique to each episode, conducting simple, Ernie Kovacs-like comedic experiments with video. In one, the male actors' torsos are paired with a line of chorus girl legs; in two others, the cast acts out mystery and Western clichés juxtaposed with B-movie stock footage.
Despite a deft mixture of traditional polish and youthful verve, At Last the 1948 Show doesn't quite cross the line from good to great. While bristling with confidence and ambition, the writer/performers don't appear to trust their creative instincts. Many fans will want to see early evidence of the chemistry between Cleese and Chapman, or Eric Idle showing up in bit parts as a librarian or elevator operator. For others, three hours of better than average British music hall will only make them want to switch on Flying Circus, lean back and sigh, "And now for something completely different."