“Saddlebags, saddlebags,” was an utterance that could be heard around my local school yard during the mid-1970s. We used it to signify someone talking absolute bollocks or, as an extended form of et cetera, et cetera whilst channeling your best Yul Brynner. More importantly, it was the demarcation line between those who grew-up with the Norwegian Blue of Monty Python and those who fell under the influence of Rutland Weekend Television from whence the term “saddlebags” came. Of course, part of the reason for this generational shift was age and viewing access—Python had kicked-off on very, very late night TV in 1960s, while Rutland Weekend bounced into my life at the sensible and dare I say, neatly turned-out time of nine o’clock in the evening.
Rutland Weekend Television was a spin-off from Python, the brainchild, creation and vehicle for the multi-talented Eric Idle. The Pythons have often (rightly) described themselves as being like The Beatles of comedy. There’s John Cleese and Graham Chapman as the sarcastic and ambitious John Lennon; Michael Palin and Terry Jones as the nice but bossy Paul McCartney; Terry Gilliam as a kind of hybrid Ringo Starr (with a possible hint of Keith Moon); and Eric Idle who is the George Harrison of the band—which probably explains why Harrison and Idle were such good friends. (Harrison made a guest appearance on the RWT Christmas special as a pirate.)
After the final TV series of Monty Python in 1974, each member had gone off to make their own solo “album.” Cleese had left just before the fourth series, which certainly imbalanced the show’s dynamic, to make Fawlty Towers. While Jones and Palin devised the delightful Ripping Yarns; Gilliam moved into movie-making with Jabberwocky; and Idle published his brilliant and often pant-wettingly hilarious novel Hello Sailor (apparently first written in 1970) and the series that certainly opened my eyes to the potential of television comedy and the genius of Eric Idle, Rutland Weekend Television.
Idle’s concept for Rutland Weekend Television was brilliant but simple: a TV broadcast station in Rutland (a tiny—but real—landlocked English county in East Midlands) from where a continuity presenter introduces a series of films, musical numbers, documentaries, light entertainment and chat shows. The format gave creator and writer Idle to show-off his incredibly inventive magpie-like talents with which he lampooned every kind of TV and film genre—and many of his ideas would later be reused by other (lesser) talents.
From its opening credits and introduction from mine host, a cloying, simpering, insincere idiot as you can imagine, I was hooked. This was comedy gold that tapped into a generation who had been weaned on TV and understood the inventive and playful way in which Idle spoofed the format and language of television. In the opening episode, the sketch that confirmed (for me) this was definitely classic and important TV featured Eric Idle and Henry Woolf speaking nothing but gibberish:
Eric Idle: Ham sandwich, bucket and water plastic Duralex rubber McFisheries underwear. Plugged rabbit emulsion, zinc custard without sustenance in Kipling-duff geriatric scenery, maximises press insulating government grunting sapphire-clubs incidentally.
(It’s the “incidentally” at the end that makes this quote seem all too plausible, especially in a decade where language was being mutated by Marxist sociologists into into utterable, alienating, dystopian bilge, incidentally.)
This was literate intelligent comedy that destroyed the whole artifice of television interviewing and its use of intonation to express thoughts and emotions in one fell swoop. This was also the sketch where “saddlebags, saddlebags” came from, as you can imagine. It was like watching a great scene by Harold Pinter or Samuel Beckett. Indeed, Henry Woolf who was one of RWT‘s regular cast members was the very man who had original produced and directed Pinter’s first play and was friends with the playwright from his early years.
Not only was there Idle and Woolf but the genius of Neil Innes from the Bonzo Dog Band (who had previously worked with Idle, Jones and Palin on the legendary children’s series Do Not Adjust Your Set), David Battley and Gwen Taylor. The series was made on a miniscule budget (knowing the BBC probably a bus pass, a table and chairs and some paint), but the lack of funds hardly stifled Idle’s startling invention. If ever there was a man deserving to be called the heir to Spike Milligan then it is certainly Mr. Idle—though this two bit typist believes Eric is greater than Spike for a variety of reasons. Of course, the most famous spin-off from RWT was The Rutles—Idle’s mockumentary All You Need Is Cash—which grew a life of its own with Neil Innes’ brilliant songs.
Alas, RWT only lasted two series and a spin-off book and album (which I still proudly own), and has (to the best of my knowledge) never been repeated by those anonymous controllers at the BBC. Worse no DVD has ever been issued, which has nothing to do with Mr. Idle (I have personally been assured) but all to do with the Beeb. Thankfully, some absolutely delicious bastard has uploaded the whole series onto YouTube, so you can now see what you’ve been missing, as you can imagine.
More from Rutland Weekend Television, after the jump…