“Ripping Yarns” remembers a Britain that is not yet lost

Terry Jones and Michael Palin’s 1970s love letter to Britain still has plenty to say about the national character

IN “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”, a 1986 American film that follows the ventures of a smooth yet mischievous truant, the Union Flag hangs on the back of Ferris’s bedroom door. During the post-war decades, Britain’s flag had come to symbolise modernity and cheek. Rule Britannia became Cool Britannia, the nation of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and punk. For a modern, sassy truant like Ferris Bueller, what could possibly be more fitting?

Back in Britain, and particularly in England, an attachment remained to the scenes of George Orwell’s “old maids biking to Holy Communion through the mists of the autumn mornings”, the land where “the beer is bitterer, the coins are heavier [and] the grass is greener”. It was possible for Britain to retain a strong sense of its former self and simultaneously forge a new global image. However, looking at the situation today, with Britain set to leave the EU and the UK Independence Party showing no signs of going away, it might seem that the two can no longer co-exist. That all depends on what you think it means to be English, and how you go about discovering it.

For this, your writer turns to “Ripping Yarns”, a comedy series created by Terry Jones and Michael Palin, members of Monty Python, in the mid-1970s. Over nine free-standing episodes the series manages to be both truly English and truly British (Mr Jones is from north Wales), through its innocent humour and depiction of quintessential English scenes from the public school to the mining town to the Raj. The past is not shut away, it is confronted in a truly British way: sceptically, lovingly.

The first episode is “Tomkinson’s Schooldays”, a pastiche of Thomas Hughes’s “Tom Brown’s Schooldays”, a classic novel. Tomkinson (Palin) attends Graybridge, where the eccentric traditions of the British public school are brought to light. On St Tadger’s Day, boys may be “nailed to the walls” by senior pupils, and all new boys must fight the school’s grizzly bear. Tomkinson’s shoulders are further weighted by Grayson, the official school bully, who is allowed to have half naked, unmarried Filipino ladies in his quarters “in return for not hitting any of the masters”. (The episodes do have plots, but they’re not particularly relevant.)

Following this is “The Testing of Eric Olthwaite” (Palin), about a young lad from the northern mining town of Denley Moor. Eric’s outstanding quality is being comically boring. He checks on the town-hall rain gauge, is monumentally impressed with his friend’s new shovel and is fascinated by black puddings: “black pudding’s very black today mother!” Eventually he forces his parents and sister to “run away from home”. As with the upper-class Graybridge, the mockery of working-class Denley Moor is always affectionate.

No series on British culture would be complete without a few other touchstones: football, imperial nostalgia and the wars. So “Ripping Yarns” has Gordon, whose devotion to footie led him to name his son Barnstoneworth after the local club (the episode begins with the Match of the Day theme tune, enough to excite most people up north); Roger, whose time with his family in the British Raj is spent resisting the Marxist teachings of his supposed Latin tutor, Mr. Hopper; and Gerald Winfrey, a top diplomat who, while on holiday in Cornwall in 1913, accidentally foils a German plot to “start the war a year early” by gradually taking over Cornish fishing communities.

“Ripping Yarns” reminds its viewers that Britishness is not lost, as those yearning for black passports and imperial measures might have you think. It also shows an Englishness that informs Britishness, even as it is distinct; in Mr Palin and Mr Jones’s Britain, it is a cardinal sin to take yourself too seriously. The series traces a variety of English scenes, not all of which survived through to the present day. But their place in history is hardly forgotten. Britain is the nation of the public school, the mining town, the football hooligan, the gentleman diplomat and the political sceptic; it was in the 1970s and remains so today. When Britons argue amongst themselves about what it means to be British, it is, rather fittingly given the creators of “Ripping Yarns”, reminiscent of the People’s Front of Judaea vs. the Judean People’s Front. So ignore Nigel Farage when he moans about the colour of his passport. It is in ordinary, humorous and innocent scenes that the spirit of Albion and Britannia is contained.