Monday, June 1, 2015

Voyage of the Greasy Bastard


RIPPING YARNS parodies the golden age of empire, and won the 1980 Light Entertainment Award presented by BAFTA; in THE CURSE OF THE CLAW, gothic horror comes to 1926 Maidenhead.

RUNNING for nine BBC budget-busting episodes between 1976 and 1979, Michael Palin and Terry Jones' RIPPING YARNS showcased different characters and settings each time, but always against a backdrop of archetypes from boy's own papers. Made when the memory of British empire-building was fading under the swath of punk-rock, the show was initially developed under the vague guise of "The Michael Palin Variety Show." Palin baulked, and preferred to write longer, more cohesive narratives with Jones that took them away from the Pythonesque norm and into territory explored by such stand-alone FLYING CIRCUS episodes as THE CYCLING TOUR from 1972. RIPPING YARNS is infectiously silly; TOMKINSON'S SCHOOLDAYS, for example, depicted the horrors of public school education - such as eluding the school leopard - and WHINFREY'S LAST CASE sees Britain's most famous spy foiling the Germans who want to start the First World War a year early.

THE CURSE OF THE CLAW begins with Sir Kevin Orr (Palin) visited by Captain Merson (Keith Smith), who is leading an expedition to the Naga Hills of Burma with a handful of natives. On hearing this name Orr tells Merson that he grew up in a very strict house and had a secret sweetheart, Agatha, and his only excitement was visiting Uncle Jack (Palin), who had every disease known to man. Uncle Jack had taken a sacred claw from the Hills, but discovered there was a curse; Kevin promises to return the claw, running away and becoming the captain of The Greasy Bastard, a small ship carrying goods between England and Burma. Kevin finds himself attracted to Chief Petty Officer Russell (Judy Loe), and the voyage becomes a paradise that the crew don't want to end. Kevin tries to explain the danger but Russell throws the claw into the sea; the ship explodes and Kevin is the only survivor. Orr, after his parents and Uncle Jack's' death, marries Agatha, and lives happily in his uncle's house until the morning of his sixtieth birthday, when he finds his wife dead and the claw lying next to her. The horned digit then nightmarishly folds back time: his uncle and wife return from the grave, and Kevin and Agatha become children, only to see his father appear to instantly stifle his life once again.

Michael Palin stars as Kevin Orr, anxious to return the sacred Burmese vulture claw to its homeland before his sixtieth birthday, or die.

This "Ripping Yarn of fear, tragedy and terror" was created from two separate scripts: one dealing with black magic (with a healthy nod towards W.W.Jacobs' The Monkey's Paw), the other sexual repression. Like all the stories, THE CURSE OF THE CLAW is filled with colourful supporting characters and here the performances are pitch perfect: Aubrey Morris as naughty servant Grosvenor, and Tenniel Evans and Hilary Mason as Kevin's emotionally suffocating parents ("as soon as the entire human body is covered the better.") Dramatic and numeric errors grate slightly; there is a sense at the beginning that Agatha has been dead for some time rather than just earlier in the day, Grosvenor doesn't recognise a reincarnated Uncle Jack even though he was his servant for many years, and it is revealed that Kevin was born in 1881, the show is set in 1926, but its his 60th birthday. Yet these are disposable errors for what is such a, well, ripping yarn.

As Palin has stated, characters in RIPPING YARNS tread that fine line between British arrogance and madness. Each tale evokes a repressive world that has all but vanished from modern living. British colonialism and the establishment are ridiculed expertly, factors explored in the fine documentary
ALEXANDER ARMSTRONG'S REAL RIPPING YARNS. Armstrong interviews Palin and Jones who are both still evidently enthralled about the bygone days of boys adventure stories, but it is also evident that they are also telling a story of lost innocence and the erosion of risk. Away from today's social media, this was a childhood of wonder and national belonging. Exploring the show's inspirations, it is amazing how popular the boy's own papers were, with their character-building topics of public school life, sport, war, hobbies, espionage and outdoor pursuits. They may have been overtly racist in their depiction of scheming, sinister foreigners - a constant threat to the plucky Englishmen - but the articles and letter pages are both hysterical and heart warming (the dire warnings about masturbation et al).

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