Than the Universe

TJ Worthington on Out of the Trees

First published March 2007

Early in 2007, Channel 4 broadcast a documentary entitled What the Pythons Did Next, which charted the post-series career of the six-man team behind the seminal television comedy sketch show. Although The Pythons did continue to make highly successful feature films together and most of them have since brought their individual comic skills to bear on such unconventional avenues as global travel, musical theatre, historical documentary and Oscar-winning feature films, what is often overlooked – and what the documentary just about managed to remember to cover – was that they all initially strove to further their careers in straightforward comedy.

John Cleese’s Fawlty Towers is, of course, generally regarded as one of the greatest sitcoms of all time. Michael Palin and Terry Jones’ historical spoof, Ripping Yarns, also enjoys a strong reputation, as does Eric Idle’s Beatles parody The Rutles. Idle’s sketch show Rutland Weekend Television – which gave rise to the spoof group, – is less frequently glimpsed but still talked about in hushed tones by comedy fans. And Terry Gilliam’s first couple of feature films are generally regarded as erratic masterpieces.

Graham Chapman, on the other hand, only really had one solo British television show to speak of, and it is more than likely the problems he had in getting it made, combined with the subsequent poor response, were instrumental in his decision to explore other areas of work. By the time of the team’s last television series in 1974, his well-documented battle with alcoholism was at its most intense, and was having a serious effect on his ability to concentrate on writing and performing. Nonetheless, the BBC were still keen to continue working with him, and in 1975 some initial meetings with the light entertainment department led to a commission for Chapman to start work on a solo sketch show.

Simultaneously reflecting both his personal problems and his perennial keenness to work with “new” collaborators, he brought in two co-writers to work on the project with him. As a student, Douglas Adams had been a member of Cambridge Footlights alongside Simon Jones and Griff Rhys Jones. Although he had actually taken part in a BBC2 presentation of the 1974 Footlights Revue, it was in fact while performing the same show during a subsequent theatrical run he came into contact with Graham Chapman, who suggested working on material together. By the end of the year he had contributed to the fourth and final series of Monty Python as both a writer and performer. In contrast, Bernard McKenna was already an established and prolific comedy scriptwriter, whose credits by the mid-1970s included Comedy Playhouse, Hark at Barker, The Top Secret Life of Edgar Briggs and, with Chapman, Doctor in the House.

The resultant script, entitled Out Of the Trees, was always tentatively viewed as the first of a series, and indeed a reference was made to this in the finished show. However the BBC were initially only prepared to commission a single pilot episode as a tryout. It is possible this was a consequence of Chapman’s unreliable behaviour during later series of Monty Python, which occasionally caused serious problems in the studio – but it’s also worth bearing in mind pilots were made of both Fawlty Towers and Ripping Yarns before the go-ahead was given for a full series.

Subtitled “The End of the Road Show”, the pilot was recorded in October 1975 with a view to transmission in the new year. Produced and directed by Bernard Thompson, whose name was more usually found in the end credits of cosy mainstream sitcoms like Last of the Summer Wine and Are You Being Served?, the show featured Chapman alongside Tim Preece, Simon Jones, Maria Aitken, Mark Wing-Davey, Jennifer Guy, Roger Brierly, Marjie Lawrence, and Maggie Henderson, the latter of whom had started out in revue comedy but who was probably better known to television audiences as the presenter of such children’s programmes as Play School and Ragtime. Meanwhile, the theme music was provided by longtime Python associate Neil Innes.

Opening (and closing) mid-sentence with half of a bombastic scientific documentary voiceover, Out of the Trees was made up of a series of extended sketches sharing running themes and recurring verbal visual gags – Genghis Khan growing tired of looting and pillaging and yearning for a quiet life; a parliamentary meeting where formality and procedure hamper an attempt to warn everyone that the building is on fire (started by Khan); and a courting couple who pause to pick a flower and inadvertently trigger a chain of events that leads to the destruction of the Earth.

The already ambitious concept was held together by a television linkman (Chapman) and a voice-over artiste (Brierly) who meet on a train, holding surreal conversations (“You work in the railways then?”, “Well, not as such, I more sort of … don’t”) that dovetail in and out of the sketch items, all the time fully acknowledging they are part of a television show. Indeed, at one point they go as far as to comment on the unusual opening of the programme, wryly noting that “‘than’ is a word which is very rarely used to start sentences … one could certainly never start a television series with it”. Also on the train are a boring scoutmaster who sends a pair of tourists into a coma with his dull ramblings about bicycles, a belligerent waiter, and two screeching women lewdly comparing notes on their husbands.

Overall, the show is not unlike a wilder expansion on the underrated fourth series of Monty Python – to which Adams had of course also contributed – which used unlikely narratives and linear concepts to link seemingly disparate sketch items.

As Chapman would later wearily recount on many occasions, Out of the Trees received its sole showing at 10pm on Saturday 10 January 1976, up against a solid schedule of light entertainment on ITV, and Match of the Day on BBC1. As a consequence few viewers bothered tuning in to an under-promoted comedy sketch show. Although some newspaper television critics were enthusiastic, the muted audience response was doubtless a major factor in the BBC’s decision not to proceed any further with the series, despite Chapman having started work on a second script in collaboration with David Yallop, revolving around the schooldays of a haddock studying at Eton (this script was later published in full as part of the Chapman anthology Calcium Made Interesting). It was almost certainly equally influential on the BBC’s decision not to retain a copy of the show.

Out of the Trees was one of the very last programmes to fall victim to the BBC’s former policy of routinely erasing and reusing videotapes once the shows they contained were deemed to be of no further use, and the master tape was wiped barely 18 months after transmission. Although rumours (but not the actual tape!) of an off-air audio recording circulated among Python fans, for years all that was known to exist of the show was a complete version of the filmed sketch in which the picking of a peony leads to the destruction of the Earth – albeit minus audience laughter – and a short filmed insert from the introduction to the Genghis Khan skit.

It is arguably almost entirely due to this that the show has been saddled with such a poor reputation. All that most interested parties have ever had to go on have been the hazy recollections of the small audience who watched it at the time, and the rather sweeping generalisms made by some of his erstwhile Python collaborators (penning an obituary for Chapman in 1989, Michael Palin referred to it as being “full of good ideas badly resolved”), not to mention Douglas Adams’ own professed embarrassment at his early efforts. Certainly, neither Roger Wilmut nor Mark Lewisohn could find very much to say about it in their otherwise exhaustive and well-researched books on television comedy.

Out of the Trees was to be Graham Chapman’s only major solo project for British television. Shortly afterwards he began work on the feature film The Odd Job, co-scripted with Bernard McKenna, which was a creditable effort marred by poor promotion, although his more madcap follow-on feature Yellowbeard had a more troubled genesis, and is not quite the film it could have been. By this stage, however, he had beaten his longstanding alcoholism and the continuing series of Monty Python films had made him a huge star in America. He was able to pursue a career there guesting on television shows as diverse as Saturday Night Live, Celebrity Squares and Crazy Like a Fox, and also carved out a lucrative sideline in college campus lecture tours. However, he still remained a popular guest on television and radio in the UK, appearing on countless talk and panel shows as well as participating in major events like Comic Relief and – courtesy of his membership of the notorious Dangerous Sports Club – Sport Aid, which he officially opened by being launched across Hyde Park from a giant catapult.

At the time of his death in 1989 – one day short of the 20th anniversary of the first broadcast of Monty Python’s Flying Circus – he was close to getting Jake’s Journey, a pilot for a UK-set lunatic comedy sci-fi show co-starring Peter Cook and Rik Mayall, accepted as a series by CBS. Sadly, the pilot remains unscreened to this day.

While Out of the Trees had been pretty much forgotten about even by the time the tape was wiped, it was still to prove to have a significant legacy. Many of the themes that dominate the show – the destruction of the Earth, the time wasted by minutae and bureaucracy, the idea of small insignificant events having far greater ramifications – were also to dominate much of Adams’ later work, notably the continually unravelling saga of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy and his two underrated novels featuring “holistic” private eye Dirk Gently. Indeed, there are obvious hints of what was to come in the voiceover and the general structure of the show, and the cast included two performers – Simon Jones and Mark Wing-Davey – who would later play major roles in the radio and television incarnations of Hitch-Hiker’s.

Even aside from the obvious links to Adams’ later work, a small amount of material from Out of the Trees did later find its way into other projects by its authors. The “peony” sketch formed the basis for one of the wilder passages in Chapman’s A Liar’s Autobiography, while a substantial portion of the script was reworked by Adams – with a nod to The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to The Galaxy, into the short story “The Private Life of Genghis Khan” for The Utterly Utterly Merry Comic Relief Christmas Book in 1986. The lone surviving sketch item was incorporated into Kevin Davies’ made-for-video documentary Don’t Panic!: The Making of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to The Galaxy, and subsequently found its way onto the DVD release of the series, but few held out much hope of any further visual material turning up.

However, during research for his Douglas Adams biography Hitchhiker, writer MJ Simpson was informed by several cast members that they were aware of at least one home video recording of the show having survived. After being informed of this by a group of Monty Python fans, the British Film Institute managed to locate a videotaped copy of the original broadcast in the possession of Chapman’s former partner David Sherlock. This was on an obsolete format and it took some time and care for a useable copy to be extracted from the now fragile videotape, but perseverance by dedicated technicians paid off, and an impressively good quality copy of Out of the Trees was given its first public airing in 30 years as part of the BFI’s annual Missing Believed Wiped event in December 2006 – something that caused a good deal of surprise to fans when it led to this once-forgotten show becoming the subject of numerous national news bulletins.

Shortly after this showing, extracts from Out of the Trees were used in What The Pythons Did Next. Many newspaper and magazine columnists previewing the documentary singled out these extracts for negative criticism, most notably Alison Graham of Radio Times who made an unhelpful wisecrack about it perhaps being better if the show had stayed lost after all. It is entirely possible that such critics might not enjoy the full show anyway, but in fairness Out of the Trees is not really suited to evaluation in clip show form.

Whereas Monty Python’s Flying Circus had a strong and definite structure, but was made up of shorter sketches that worked in isolation from each other, Out of the Trees relies far more heavily on self-reflectivity and escalating visual motifs for its humour, and many sections simply would not make sense out of context. By way of contrast, the BFI showing played out to huge howls of audience laughter throughout, and rapturous applause at the end.

Out of the Trees will probably never achieve quite the same standing as Fawlty Towers, Ripping Yarns, The Rutles or Jabberwocky, but all the same it is good to know that it is once more available to view, and that opinions on its relative worth can now be formed beyond the few shrugged write-ups that did appear in the intervening years. As an obscure Python spin-off, an encapsulation of the unrestrained comic invention of Graham Chapman, and a fascinatingly obscure stage in the development of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to The Galaxy, its appeal is already obvious. However it is also a fantastic piece of comedy in its own right, and deserves better than the hazily negative reputation it has been saddled with since its first and only broadcast in the whole of the universe than.