The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

The Trees

Another blast from the archives, this time from 2006, a review of the Douglas Adams/Graham Chapman sketch show 'Out Of The Trees'. The only surviving off-air copy was shown at a Missing Believed Wiped event at the NFT; I'm surprised and disappointed it hasn't been commercially released since then.

Out Of The Trees

Douglas Adams once described his ill-fated collaboration on a sketch show with Graham Chapman and Bernard McKenna as 'only semi-brilliant'. This sounds like modesty until you bear in mind that he only wrote about half of it, and the brilliant half to which he was referring to was his half.

Adams' main contribution seems to have been the Genghis Khan scenes, and the peony sequence at the end, and certainly the Khan scenes are the highlights. To begin with there is a worry it is going to dissolve into look-we've-hired-an-actress-with-big-tits sniggering of the type found in Spike Milligan's Q shows, but instead we get some extremely well-constructed, economical sketches - the first of which even has a decent punchline.

The second Khan sketch is, as has been mentioned elsewhere, Graham Chapman taking the piss out of John Cleese never having time to do 'Python' because of his business interests and wanting to get more reading in. Clearly the character is written as a Cleese character, but Chapman does a good job, and there are some great sequences later on with Khan massacring and becoming a businessman.

However, saying that Khan is written as a Cleese character kind of points up one of the problems with the show. There's another character, a Scout Leader, who has obviously been written as Michael Palin (or has been written as a Michael Palin-type character) - who just doesn't work when played by Tim Preece, even though he is quite close to Palin in terms of voice. Similarly the two bickering women would have been much better played by Chapman and another 'Python' in drag, but played by actresses, they don't quite work.

This leads me on to a couple of other criticisms. The sketches with which Adams doesn't seem have been involved - one about firemen politicians, another about businessmen - feel like very generic 'Python', and in particular, series 3 and 4 'Python' when the formula was beginning to look a little tired. There are good lines but a feeling that it's all been done before. Also, the linking device of the show feels like pastiche 'Python' - three or four half-finished sketches being played out in the same location, plus some self-referential 'deconstruction of the form' which felt rather-sixth form-revue without being particularly amusing. And these three or four half-finished sketches were all very familiar - the boring cycling enthusiast, the 'Four Yorkshiremen'-esque game of one-upmanship between two housewives, the waiter who gets the wrong end of the stick (a la the two guards in 'Holy Grail').

On the other hand there is the line 'Well, not as such, I more, sort of, don't' - which doesn't quite work written down but is very funny spoken.

The other odd thing about the show is how little Graham Chapman has to do in it. Apart from his turn as Genghis Khan, he is present in most sketches but only as a bit-part player. It's not quite because it's an ensemble piece, it's more a general lack of focus. In some scenes he looks, well, bored. In others, plain drunk. He doesn't quite know what to do when he hasn't given himself any lines, so he throws in unnecessary 'reacting along' acting. And yet when the focus is on him, when he takes centre stage, he is utterly self-assured.

But you can see why it didn't go beyond a pilot (and my suspicion is that the decision was made even before this one episode was broadcast, as the script mentions it being a 'series' and yet they haven't even bothered giving it a title sequence). The BBC would have been expecting a Graham Chapman vehicle, just as Rutland Weekend Television was Eric's and Ripping Yarns was Michael's and Fawlty Towers was John's. Instead they got a show with some not-very-good-at-comedy actors not making the most of some half-hearted material. I mean, Simon Jones is fantastic, and Mark Wing-Davey does the best with what he's given, but they are also barely in it. Instead there's far too much Roger Brierley, a sort of bank manager of an actor, and nowhere near enough Graham Chapman.

And yet it is, as Douglas said, semi-brilliant. A lot of money seems to have been spent on it - particularly the film sequences with Khan and the end bit with the peony - and to be fair it's on about the same level as the last series of 'Python' or something like End Of Part One - not terrible, but with too much self-indulgent funny-when-written-down weirdness instead of jokes. For Graham Chapman, it feels like he's going through the motions, and for Douglas Adams, it feels like he's doing a John Cleese impersonation - he hasn't really found his authorial 'voice' yet.

But it was lovely to see it at last and, if you ever get the chance to see it, do.

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