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Ripping Yarns



1977,1979. MichaelPalin, Terry Jones, Ian Ogilvy; dir. Terry Hughes, Jim Franklin, Alan Bell. 90 min. $29.98. CBS/Fox. Image: good. 


Ripping Yarns is the sort of comedy where prep school students are nailed to walls, tied in sacks, and forced to participate in 24-mile, one-legged hops; where a prisoner-of-war hopes to escape by building an airplane out of 1400 toilet paper rolls; and where a failing soccer team is sold for scrap to a metal dealer. It's the type of show where an Orson Welles-like host can't remember his lines and a Professional School Bully "is allowed certain privileges, such as having unmarried Filipino women in his room, smoking opium, and having a sauna instead of morning prayer." 


Ripping Yarns, a program that only Britons could make but which everyone can enjoy, was written by two men attuned to the absurd in both life and literature: Michael Palin and Terry Jones, late of Monty Python's Flying Circus. The nine-episode BBC series was created in 1977 as an affectionate parody of the adventure stories the pair grew up withtales of sports heroes, British spies, and Indian princes.


The result is weird and wacky comedy, with Palin excellent in three very different roles: inept schoolboy Tomkinson, crafty P. O. W. Phipps, and fanatical soccer enthusiast Gordon. Tomkinson is the best part, mostly because of the inventive script, a tale of supreme ineptitude loaded with wonderful jokes. (In shop class, the boy builds a 1500-ton model of a ship and is reprimanded because "it's not a model if it's full-scale; take it down at once!") As Phipps, he is stymied by his fellow prisoners, who tell him "there is a proper way of doing things" and that he must present his escape plans to six different escape committees for approval. Very British. Very amusing. 


There are a pair of additional volumes-More Ripping Yarns and Even More Ripping Yarns-that contain the other six episodes, including "Across the Andes by Frog," which is quite a trip.