Marty - The Whowrotewhat Wotnot (series 1)
by Peter Gordon
Anyone play the who-wrote-what game? You know, you see a comedy show with a great long list of writers and you try to guess which ones wrote which sketches. Did Clive Anderson write that one about Mel and Griff in the sauna? Was that Sez Lez sketch a David Nobbs? And who the bloody hell is this Colin Bostock-Smith?
Oh. Right. Only me, then.
If there are any players of this wonderful is somewhat solitary pastime out there, then they must surely have noticed the intriguing possibilities offered by the BBC’s Marty shows. In two series recorded in quick succession (April to June 1968 and December 1968 to January 1969) plus one special (Marty Amok March 1970), the show central writing team of Feldman and Barry Took was supported by, among others, a just-pre-Python John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Terry Jones and Michael Palin. The director for bother series was Roger Race and producer the comedy veteran Dennis Main Wilson.
The Pythons-to-be had worked together before during Feldman’s stint as head-writer on The Frost Report (1966-7), from where Feldman, Cleese and Chapman went to on to produce At Last The 1948 Show (1967) with Tim Brooke-Taylor, who eventually became a regular on Marty. Palin and Jones, meanwhile, went from The Frost Report to their own show, Do Not Adjust Your Set (1967-9), which helped them define their own television style.
But Marty deserves better than to be remembered simply as yet another footnote in the all-too-often told story of “How Monty Python Conquered The World”. Its marriage of mainstream success with wild comic invention, innovative visuals (particularly in the loving tributes to the era of the silent movie), use of real characterisation and superb cast (Feldman, Brooke-Taylor, John Junkin, Roland MacLeod and Mary Miller) mark the show out as one of the great series of the 1960s “Golden Age” of TV. Yet the show and its star are constantly overlooked.
The future-Pythons certainly seem to be ambivalent about their contributions to the show. John Cleese was apparently rather taken aback when some of his sketches were rejected for the show while Terry Jones complained that Feldman would mess with the scripts.
If the hired hands were unhappy with the show’s production team, the feeling seems to have been mutual. In a memo in the BBC archives, series producer Dennis Main Wilson complained that each show was in danger of running short because “the Cleese/Chapman, Jones/Palin writing teams did not submit scripts in the quantity and quality we required of them in their contract”.
The word “contract” is important here. Each 30-minute show was intended to be written by three teams of two, with Feldman and Took supplying 20 minutes of material for each show and the Cleese/Chapman and Jones/Palin partnerships providing 5 minutes each. As Main Wilson’s memo indicates, the shows were more often written by Feldman and Took alone with only sporadic contributions from the other writing staff writers along with members of the cast and various freelance writers.
Took and Feldman took on the lion’s share of the writing, including all the lengthy pre-filmed tributes to silent cinema and the continental comedies of Jacques Tati and Robert Dhéry, along with most of the studio items.
The Cleese/Chapman team start the first series with their strongest sketch, Bishop, one of the most popular from the series, concerning a “working class Bishop” who invades a peaceful railway carriage demanding collection plate contributions with menaces (”You get up there, mate, tell ‘Im you’re an agnostic – ‘E’ll smash your teeth in, in ‘Is infinite mercy”).
Sadly, after this terrific start, their contribution to series 1 of Marty tails off. In what is almost a rewrite of Bishop, they have another sketch about a working class headmaster who visits the home of the parents of one of his pupils and demands money to stop their son being beaten up. Another, Woodworm, is about an insecticide squad who stake-out their quarries like B-movie cops and gangsters (a theme used previously in At Last! The 1948 Show and returned to in Monty Python).
Palin and Jones’ efforts for the first series are equally sporadic. There’s a sketch with a gnome applying for a mortgage and a highly inventive piece called Tabletop Battleground. Some old soldiers are seen replaying their famous attacks at dinner, using salt pots for tanks, napkins for deserts and so on. We then zoom down to the table to see miniature soldiers making war with giant cutlery and vast condiment containers.
With the production team’s disappointment in the C/C and J/P partnership it became necessary to look elsewhere for writers. John Junkin and Dennis King contributed a number of songs to the show from their album I Feel A Song Going Off with Feldman, namely Feet, My Father’s Shirt plus a piece not featured on the LP, an adaptation of the old Yale drinking song Whiffenpoof.
As a sketch writer, Junkin had a great deal of input into the series. His skits ranged from rather lightweight pastiches of scenes such as Dr Jeckyl and Salome to the truly inspired. Worthy of special mention is the Eye-O-Fry sketch, about an aged street seller hawking a mystery substance, and The Wedding. This latter sketch feels far more like a Python sketch than anything in the series written by the Pythons themselves (an impression helped perhaps by the fact that, for the only time in Marty, Cleese, Chapman, Palin and Jones all perform together). The wedding ceremony reaches the “Speak now or forever hold your peace” line and a succession of increasingly absurd objections are raised by the crowd. Junkin stands up to object that the Groom’s trousers are too tight, a teacher (Palin) objects to the previous objector’s grammar, a milkman (Jones) turns up and Cleese and Chapman come on, rather prophetically, as the two ends of a pantomime cow. Finally Bill Fraser enters the church and objects by doing an impression of Alfie Bass in Fiddler On The Roof.
Fellow cast member Tim Brooke-Taylor, in partnership with Graeme Garden, chipped in a couple of sketches, including Marriage Guidance (a second outing for the old couple who enjoy destroying John Junkin’s sanity, originally created by Took and Feldman) and another about a man who runs people over just so he can talk to them afterwards in hospital (Eat that, Chris Morris!). Other contributors to the first series old TW3 hands such as Donald Webster and John Law, Light Ent stalwarts George Evans and Derek Collyer, Terry “Daleks” Nation and William Lynn, a little-known Canadian writer of gently absurd sketches who offered For Want Of A Better Word, a rather lovely father and son, facts-of-life sketch.
Not all the contributors were entirely happy with the series. Frank Muir wrote to complain that a sketch he wrote with Dennis Norden, Opera Without Music, was used without his permission. Muir had more reason than most to be upset with Feldman. As head of Light Entertainment at the newly formed London Weekend Television, Muir had originally been offered Feldman’s solo series before Feldman pulled out at the last minute and signed up with the BBC. Displaying a rather cavalier attitude to copyright, Main Wilson wrote to reassure Muir that he was simply desperately short of material and had needed to use the sketch. He couldn’t always find out who wrote what and, after doing his best to track down the author(s), he decided to use it anyway in the hope that the original writers would “pipe up”. A cheque for twice the normal fee was sent out as compensation. Also writing in to complain was Eric Sykes. The fourth show featured a sketch called Bullfighter Policeman. Written by Took and Feldman, the sketch featured a traffic cop who daydreamed of being a matador, an idea Sykes felt, with some justification, was ripped off from his 1967 film The Plank. Main Wilson claimed it was simply a coincidence and the matter went no further.
To be continued….
This is an edited version of an article which originally appeared in Kettering 4