End of Part One arrived on screens in 1979. Devised by David Renwick and Andrew Marshall, the series borrowed concepts from Monty Python’s Flying Circus and paved the way for satirical sketch shows such as Not the Nine O’Clock News and The Fast Show.
The first season of End of Part One centres roughly around the Straightman couple who are the latest inhabitants of a northern soap opera. As they go about their lives they collide with characters from other shows, stumbling into commercial breaks and encountering all manner of technical effects. Essentially a bridge between sketches and impersonations, Norman and Vera’s scenes clearly attempt to subvert the inanity of Seventies’ soap and sitcom, effectively slaughtering Coronation Street and twisting the knife in Terry and June.
Anarchic and bizarre, the Straightman scenes are among the most interesting; paving the way for what would become Renwick and Marshall’s triumphs in One Foot in the Grave and 2 Point 4 Children. The pretence of a cosy sitcom laced with bizarre, dark humour and bad taste is exemplified by Vera whistling for “Mr.Sprouse”, offering a saucer of milk. A slow, long shot of the room reveals a small cupboard opening with Mr. Sprouse crawling out – a filthy old tramp who scurries towards the milk to lap it up like a “good boy”. Unexpected, inappropriate and instantly funny, it sets the off-note tone for the series.
End of Part One features a cast who were to become familiar faces. Tony Aitken, as Norman Straightman, is instantly recognisable as the dancing beggar from Blackadder, whilst his wife is portrayed by Scottish character actress Denise Coffey – known to a generation as the librarian from the Look and Read programmes. They are joined by a glamorous Sue Holderness, a few years before she’d assume the role of Marlene in Only Fools and Horses, along with David Simeon, a busy actor throughout the 1970s, who provides an impressive collective of impersonations. Fred Harris (of Play School fame) and the late Dudley Stevens provide additional support as a host of various personalities and grotesques.
Sketches and scenes come at a rapid pace. Some setups run at less than a minute and it’s astounding to realise that full sets were designed and built to furnish such brief gags. Television was very much a studio-based environment in the late 1970s and as such the quick turnaround of scenery was very much the norm. Today, sketches would most likely be recorded in appropriate locations to save on costs and give more visual scope. End of Part One also leaves the confines of the studio for some location filming, parodying the glossier style of a filmed series and again, brandishing some impressive production standards; a car is dropped onto Dave Prowse, an army of Valkyries ambush a street and a medieval village is stormed by a Wig Finder General with Hammer Horror accuracy. The scope of creativity and scale seen in these segments are the beginnings for Hollywood director Geoffrey Sax, who would go on to direct Stormbreaker, White Noise and the infamous Doctor Who television movie.
End of Part One proves that nobody is safe from a comedy roasting. Esther Rantzen is a goofy baby-factory, David Frost is a sneering snob with Concorde tickets, whilst poor Jon Pertwee pops up as a gibbering, cuprinol-stained medallion man - murdered three times over. To a younger audience some of the targets may be less recognisable but the sketches themselves still hold up thanks to the solid payoffs and outright anarchy which invariably ends every scene.
What makes End of Part One quite radical is the complete subversion of professional broadcasting during each episode. Monty Python’s Flying Circus and later Eric Idle’s Rutland Weekend Television series often parodied and imitated BBC programming. End of Part One, however, purposefully hijacks LWT for thirty minutes, presenting doppelgänger parodies which blur the line between sketch show and reality. Renwick and Marshall construct skits to imitate commercial breaks, presenting mock-adverts with a sincerity which must have been disorientating to the less sophisticated audiences of 1979. Indeed, perhaps due to some corporate knuckle-wrapping, later episodes have clearer signals as to where the genuine advertisement breaks begin and end, with the acerbic: “Commercial break now over – turn sound back up” caption appearing occasionally.
Fans of captions and idents from the period are also in for a treat, as the LWT logo – a proud piece of branding and ubiquitous in the 1970s – is fearlessly bastardised in a manner which must have had marketing men weeping into their single malts. Arguably, the show feels very much like a revue made by television professionals for their own amusement. Several times the bare guts of the LWT studios are shown, along with cameramen, mechanical credit scrollers, grid lights and even a giant test card. It’s almost as if the show desperately wants to expose the backstage workings of a very magical industry, criticising the crazy methods that go into making, or faking, television broadcasting.
The sheer pace and excitement in End of Part One makes it feel like a young person’s work. Its vibrancy and pace has future echoes of the chaos to follow in The Young Ones, with all the political energy, fury and verve of a vocal undergraduate. The series exploits all sorts of technical wizardry to make the sketches come alive and there is a genuine feel of a production team at play and enjoying every minute. Some of the topics may now be outdated, but it’s hard not to love the sheer energy which End of Part One maintains through its constant inventiveness. The show also has the distinction of having no two episodes alike; a remarkable feat for sketch show which, today, would rely upon endless repetition of a concept or catchphrase to pad out the series.
On DVD release, Network have maintained their duty of care in terms technical presentation, providing all fourteen episodes of the series in optimal condition. Sound is mono, yet is crisp and clear. The picture is presented in the original 4:3 ratio and videotaped studio sequences are of an excellent standard, with only a little bit of video noise apparent in darker scenes. 16mm film content is restricted to the soft and grainy transfers done at the time, though appear no worse than they would have in the 1970s. On the whole, a well-handled presentation of vintage videotape nearing thirty-five years of age.
Always entertaining and often surprising, End of Part One’s anarchic superficiality belies a content which is often high concept. Written by upcoming authors with fingers on the pulse of modern satire, and executed by a young, technically cutting edge director, gives rise to a show so forward thinking and self-critical that it almost operates outside of the telly box. Would the casual audiences of 1979 really have got the gag about landing on Planet Chromakey in a critically cheap Doctor Who skit? Would a throwaway comment about an impending live transmission from 16mm film really have chimed with anybody else outside of the television industry? Perhaps End of Part One was just a little too cleaver for its own good in 1979, but thirty years later stands to reap laughs again from a more media-orientated audience. Its witty, technically savvy and nerdy humour has matured with age and stood the test of time. Furious, fearless and ultimately very funny, End of Part One is a series in urgent need of reappraisal by a new generation.
Theatre Manager, Writer, Film Photographer & Printer, Reviewer, Reader. Secular biped mammal with own views. © Samuel Payne 2016