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Ripping(ale) Yarns  and The Curse of the Claw

It was nice to see Michael Palin and Terry Smith on the BBC's "The One Show" (2nd March 2012) promoting the re-launch of a DVD of their TV series "Ripping Yarns".

The iconic "Monty Python's Flying Circus" ended in 1974, signalling decisions by individual Pythons to branch out on their own. Palin and Smith had been working on an idea to develop a series of comic parodies of "Boys' Own" schoolboy adventure stories, set in the early 1900's - the first was to be "Tom Brown's Schooldays".

One day in 1975, Palin, later even more famous for his film acting and travel programmes, was driving south towards Bourne down the A 15 and passed the signpost for the village of Rippingale. The name stuck in his mind and was bounced round until he and Jones came up with a series of six episodes of a series they named "Ripping Yarns," - the first was the Tom Brown parody called "Tomkinson's Schooldays."

The first six were broadcast in 1976 and 1977 on BBC 2 - three more followed later. They were hugely expensive because they were filmed - so expensive that they had to be made in two separate financial years to fit inside the BBC TV comedy budgets.

Those first six episodes were called "Tomkinson's Schooldays," "The Testing of Eric Olthwaite," "Murder at Moorstone Manor," "Across the Andes by Frog," "Whinfrey's Last Case," and last but not least, "The Curse of the Claw."

Palin took lead roles in each and was keen to involve straight actors, so there were also several familiar faces from the worlds of film and TV like John le Mesurier, Roy Kinnear and Denholm Elliott.

That last episode "The Curse of the Claw," - "A Ripping Story of Fear, Tragedy and Terror," deserves special mention. Why? Because Palin could not forget the name of Rippingale and came back to the village to make his film in 1977. Shooting started on Wednesday 8th June and finished - in Rippingale at least - two weeks later.

He needed a "Manor" in which to set his adventure and chose the former Rectory of St Andrew's Church, now known as Ringstone House, in Rippingale High Street - although in the programme the story was set in Maidenhead - for comic/dramatic reasons.

Palin took two roles in this episode, first broadcast on October 25 1977 - Sir Kevin Orr and his Uncle Jack - Hilary Mason and Tenniel Evans also starred. The Orr's were a very strange Victorian family, who believed everything was sinful - Kevin's sister had been imprisoned for putting too much butter on her scone, his brother had been killed for walking on the flower beds and his mother was engaged in knitting black, head-to-foot body coverings for the whole family.

Uncle Jack had a dreadful secret - he'd stolen a big sacred bird's claw from the Naga Hills of Burma - the foot of the Holy Burmese Vulture - and there was a curse on it. To lift the curse, Kevin had to return the claw to the Naga tribesmen, or Uncle Jack would die on his 60th birthday. The story is mainly flashbacks about Kevin's youth and the journey back to Burma - aboard a ship, with an all-female crew - but the gardens and interior of Manor Farm played their own important roles in the story - scenes in the main bedroom, in the hall, sitting room and on the landing took three days to shoot. I've just watched it again and it's still very funny.

Palin clearly had a fascination with Rippingale and "Curse of the Claw," because he held on to the stage prop of the claw for many years afterwards and then donated it to the Pitt Rivers Museum at the University of Oxford - regrettably it's not actually on show.

What's slightly odd though is that few Rippingale folk of that generation remember the film crew and cast descending on the village for the production. Surely some of them popped out for a pint at The Bull? There are vague memories of big vans parked on High Street and catering staff taking food and drinks across the road into Ringstone House - and Eric Jessop remembers a white pony and trap trotting up and down High Street - that was from a flashback scene of Kevin as a boy.

Apart from that, they seem to have made little impact on village life.

© Jim Latham, March 2012


The image of the Claw is from the book “Ripping Yarns,” first published in 1978, courtesy of Eyre Methuen Ltd.