Techs: A Weekend In Rutland or How I Survived 24 Hours In Tunbridge Wells
Techs: A Weekend In Rutland or How I Survived 24 Hours In Tunbridge Wells
Born out of a momentary lapse of mild reason or enthusiasm for Monty Python, Rutland Weekend Television was conceived, carried and strenuously given birth to by the most convincing of the MP team, Eric Idle.
The ex president of Footlights at Cambridge came to us as being one of the most forward thinking comedy writers of the 20th Century, leading the path already paved by performers such as Peter Sellers and Kenneth Williams. Idle had been a solo writer from his days at Python so working on an idea created from the depths of his own brain was not a difficult concept to perform. From originally thinking of an project based around a spoof radio station (strangely, Radio Five, was to be the title,) Idle was convinced that the general idea of a ‘spoof something’ was to be a winning show. Yet, after two years of two series and one Christmas special, the ‘studio’ of Rutland Weekend television closed it’s doors and hung up the ‘To Let’ sign outside.
Back in the days of proper script writers sweating on a continues theme behind even sweatier desks, the BBC were known throughout the land as being not just the high almighty of the broadcasting universe but also the stingiest so and so’s for paying decent wages to worn out performers and sleep deprived writers. A story was busting out of the mind and chest of the young Idle – a creation for one of the greatest comedy serial killer serials ever to be ignored by both Beeb and audience – it could only be the sounds and smells that graced our screens in the fuzzy form of – Rutland Weekend Television.
So what would the man in the street with microphone in hand, have to say to a fast moving cameraman about the show? We revelled (or at least, some of us did) at the spoofier than spoof take off ‘documentary’ ‘The Rutles’, which came from the placenta of Rutland Weekend Television. (Those of you smarter than the average bear may notice a minute connection with the word, ‘rut.’) The idea, brain stormed by our blond hero came from the very essence that kept and still does, the BBC tied down to leather arm chair – money. Auntie had offered a rather poor budget for Idle’s project, since their money was, they insisted, far more of an investment in yet another series of Monty Python, than an off the cuff comedy sketch show. Young Eric was not having any of this and turned the game around. By showing to the outside world what life was like inside the box, he decided to centre the whole show around the low budget that the Beeb had offered him. RWT was a hit, if only to the team behind it at first. The concept of the show was about producing a broadcasting company on a budget. Due to the ‘mess up’ of the government by moving the borders around of the once, smallest county in Britain in the Seventies, ‘a producer’ namely, Sir Nat Kosher, from the Beeb thought it would be an amazingly good trick if he could produce a company in a county that actually didn’t exist. The tax man couldn’t touch him and neither could a long line of money grabbing authorities. Thus – Rutland, was put back on the map, with cunning dignity….apparently…
The show that was probably the fore runner of such meaningful sides of broadcasting as ‘KYTV,’ the television spin off of the Radio hit, ‘Radio Active,’ with Angus Deayton, ten years after RWT, should have been, a true to the bone, cult television show, but it wasn’t. Due to the over powering force that was better known as Monty Python, RWT didn’t actually stand a chance. However, just as the yanks take part in knotted hankie conventions even today (of which George Bush is the president (!)) there is still a small corner of British society that hold up their ‘Ticket To Rut,’ Rutle singles with pride and continue to flop over lines and trip over feet whilst pretending to hold a mic and talk to an invisible cameraman.
Fever hit the several houses of eager viewers between 1975 and 1976 and Rutland fever grew into a mild cold. Mr Neil ‘Bonzo Dog,’ Innes and great acquaintance of Idle provided the silliness of the songs whilst Idle became writer, actor and tea boy to all involved. From Innes’s website today, he recalls and still does receive the odd email each year, from people who actually thought the show came from a production company in Rutland. When it was pointed, very kindly out to them that Rutland wasn’t big enough and they should mind their own business, their enthusiasm for the show didn’t seem to budge.
What the public failed to also realised is that what they saw to be a pathetic budget as a visual gag, was actually the very budget that Idle and his chums had been given to spend on RWT. Innes’s and his happy band of erm, musicians who knew a thing or two soon had the rest of showbiz tuning in for the half an hour slots each week.
George Harrison quite suddenly leapt at the chance of appearing on the show’s Christmas special as a unusual pirate character presumably because he went back miles with Innes and the other Beatles. (Appeared as a friend that is, and not as a pirate.) Minor, low key guests followed, probably hoping for quirkiness on their C.V, but it all made for great filming and an enjoyable show, for the team, even if the BBC thought it was to be a waste of time, and no one out there was actually watching it, but hey, that’s showbiz….
The full outline of each episode was brought to us in true London Weekend Television style (this weekly feature in our viewing was making quite an impact at the time, anyway) an announcer, usually in the shape of Idle in a badly fitting toupee, would appear, fumble over some words, ruffle a few papers and notably fall off his chair. (Not as dull sounding as that, but genius comedy all the same. It’s Eric Idle, did you expect anything less?) The show was faultless, sketches were on cue and the act of such an amateur set up of chaotic broadcasting was polished, perfected and of the highest low budget quality that made this show the best thing since Python. (And all the others were jealous – Idle…)
It doesn’t take long before we can instantly start recalling all the great shows that have graced our screens since RWT that have worked successfully on the same cheap broadcasting theme. Victoria Wood’s ‘As Seen On TV,’ first came on air in 1985, revelling secretly in the delight of the ‘can’t fail’ ethics of the sudo budget broadcast. It was here that she gave us the gem equal to RWT’s The Rutles, titled, ‘Acorn Antiques.’ Proving that this theme can work even in the strongest of winds. The original, although, not covered before, didn’t fail to impress Idle’s family and Innes’s closest of friends.
Sadly, none of the original BBC tapes still exist today (one can imagine the Beeb once having a spring clean of what was so great about Seventies shows, including the entire collection of ‘Please Sir’ and ‘Terry And June’,) There is a site, where one can reminisce with pure affection at the scripts of each classic episode from the land of Rut. (Where it is in amongst my Rutlemania, I haven’t a clue,) if you don’t feel the need to go that far, and it could only be nearer to you that Rutland, itself, you can always swoon happily over Neil Innes’ site that makes one proud to be on the net – site address at the bottom of this review.
We can, however, take stock (where from?) of what has been before us, or at least, to some of us. Whilst still in nappies (the terry kind) at the time, (of course, not now,) we can reflect on this great show that everyone, including Greg Dyke forgot. It is easy to analysis such a programme and delve deep into the psyche of Idle and chums and try to find a meaning underneath it all. Was it an introverted reflection on the lack of diversity surrounding the theories of modern communication? Perhaps it was an intuitive science of an adaptation of what the British Broadcasting Company appeared to be controlling to the essence of a great comedy writer and performance? Personally, I think it was a neatly produced stab at the Beeb who refused to write out a fatter cheque to someone who now, should be knighted, not just for co creating Monty Python but releasing RWT to an unsuspecting Britain.
The making of such a ‘messy’ show was hardly thrown together, although, it was its amateur like production that was the biggest gag. Idle spoke of shifting scenery up and down four floors for each sketch to keep to budget as well as time since Idle’s budget was of presentation level and not even enough for a comedy show. Each three minute piece of comic surrealism was worked upon for ten hours a day and then on each take, made to look as if the whole show took only an hour to record. It was this, on a serious note, where Idle flourished and returned to the outside world with material that was tighter, funnier and more professionally produced.
It is sad to find that the only piece of RWT left to this day is the film Innes and Idle produced of ‘The Rutles.’ A published book of Idle’s entitled, ‘The Rutland Dirty Weekend Book,’ (Idle 1976) was the only piece that consisted of any material to do with the show, yet the album, ‘Rutland Weekend Songbook,’ is also apparently still in existence, somewhere.
The giant over grown baby, ‘The Rutles,’ which set off on it’s own path to stardom paradoxing The Beatles, spawned a book of the film and the soundtrack LP, but even with this, there is still not enough left of one of the better, yet forgotten programmes of our historical British T.V. Who can forget such characters as the one that Innes was famous for in RWT whose name was Stoop Solo (think about it) and David Battley who also appeared in The Rutles as the character who most likely to be George Harrison?
Whilst gathering up the initial notion for a feature length film about ‘The Rutles’, Idle stepped over the pond and guest hosted a recording of Saturday Night Live, where, in front of a gullible American, partially awake audience, he convinced them that the real Beatles were about to reform, showing the crowd a few well rehearsed clips of The Rutles, he magnificently convinced the dumb audience that The Beatles really were ‘coming back to life.’ The reaction from the crowd was far from what Idle had been expecting. Literally on this excitement from the show, a full length film ‘The Rutles’, was made. In March 1978, this movie created almost equal mania in the U.S as well as the U.K, from the initial Beatle revolution – and the only evidence of Rutland Weekend Television that still exists and we still treasure today, (well, some of us do…) Gary Weis from Saturday Night Live was interested to get involved with the film. The budget was upped somewhat and he was invited to co direct it. The biggest names in music and comedy queued around the block to get a few seconds on the same celluloid as ‘The Rutles’. Mick Jagger, Roy Wood, John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray and Paul Simon, to name only a handful of names, that got their minute of Rutle time. The first spoof ever of it’s kind to be produced, long before the days of ‘Bad News’ and ‘Spinal Tap’.
Despite the growing audience towards the end of it’s reign, another series wasn’t in the making. Innes went on to grow ever further into the world of silly song writing and floated into a preVH-1 style of hosting on a musical scale in ‘The Innes Book Of Records,’ between 1979 and 1981. A pleasurable comedy show that featured more humour that musical talent. A certain new-ish comic appeared on this childlike show – Rowan Atkinson.
So, there went yet another comic masterpiece from the doors of the BBC, alone out in the snow, homeless and soon to be forgotten, making way for another series of sketches and musically whimsical interludes. Perhaps the most fitting of swansongs for Rutland Weekend Television was the one record that Innes wrote and performed for as one of The Rutles; dear BBC, ‘All You Need Is Cash.’….. The one thing the Beeb didn’t have enough of…
Mr Idle wrote the book and the lyrics behind the immense ‘Spamalot’ which goes to Las Vegas in March this year.
The original Broadway cast featured David Hyde Pierce better known as Niles in Channel Four’s ‘Frasier.’
The author’s father appeared as an extra on RWT on a handful of occasions.
The underpaid RWT cast were;
Written by Eric Idle and Neil Innes
1975 – 1976. First shown on BBC2 Monday (S1) and Friday (S2)
©Michelle Hatcher 2006
(sam1942 2006 Ciao and dooyoo.)