The Lost Thrill of the Script Book

❉ We pay tribute to the script book, once an essential on the bookshelf of any comedy enthusiast.

In the days before Netflix binges and bargain DVD boxsets, the constant companion of the comedy fan was the Official Script Book.  A part of the publishers’ Christmas output as traditional as the celebrity biography, we could look forward to revisiting our favourite episodes at our leisure, intently memorising every line as we contentedly sat in our propeller hats, the tones and inflections of every actor replaying in our minds.  With the summer repeats season an eternity away, these volumes were what fed our addiction.

But even in this single niche genre, the variance in quality could be wide indeed.  Some, like The Complete Fawlty Towers, were straight transcripts of what was presented on screen, while others such as The Very Best of Frasier contained illuminating notes on the process of development from page to screen.  Ronnie Barker’s All I Ever Wrote, meanwhile, takes its place as the script book equivalent of Roy Jenkins on Churchill; more than 700 mighty pages which will never be read in their entirety by anyone.

Presented here are three of the more remarkable examples of the genre, from among your humble correspondent’s library:

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Book)

Perhaps the fullest script book of all.  As well as cut scenes – including the encounter with King Brian the Wild and my history teacher’s favourite-ever line, “King Brian’s a fucking looney” – the Pythons also throw in the first draft, assorted doodlings, a letter from the Board of Censors (“Lose as many shits as possible”) and the statement of the film’s budget as of September 1975.

In true Python style, everything is launched at the reader with no explanation and in pleasingly haphazard manner, although it doesn’t exactly make it an easy read in one go.  What it does make for, however, is a fun toilet book for dipping in and out of.

Blackadder: The Whole Damn Dynasty

The first thing we all did when we got our hands on this one was flick through to Sense and Senility to finally find out the words chanted by Kenneth Connor and Hugh Paddick’s superstitious actors upon their hearing the word, “Macbeth!”  Unfortunately though, as the scripts section of this book falls firmly into the transcription camp, the dogsbody involved couldn’t be bothered finding out, opting instead to write a descriptive stage direction.

Covering every episode of the four ‘Blackadder’ series – but omitting the specials Blackadder: The Cavalier Years and Blackadder’s Christmas Carol – extra space is taken up by mildly amusing historical gags, and character pieces such as the Prince Regent’s Laundry List and Captain Darling’s Application for Emergency Transfer to Somewhere Much Safer.

More worthwhile are ‘The Blackadder Chronicles’, which fill the gaps between series by describing the adventures of the lost members of the family line.  These were expanded versions of articles written for the ‘Radio Times’ by John Lloyd to publicise the third and fourth series, giving us glimpses of such figures as the dastardly Cardinal Blackadder – father to Lord Edmund of the second series – who murdered Henry VIII by strangling him with an eel.

A century later the Duke of Blackadder, having been promised a palace by Queen Anne named after the site of his first victory, for some reason lost the Battle of Shithole in 1703.  Victorian music halls, meanwhile, toasted ‘Elegant Eddie’ Blackadder, singer of such Leonard Sachs-tickling hits as, ‘Let’s Shove, Shove, Shove (A Bayonet Up a Frenchman)’ and ‘A Can-Can Ain’t a Can-Can if You Keep Your Bloomers On (I Want My Money Back, You French Tart)’.

While not much cop as a script book, Blackadder: The Whole Damn Dynasty does provide some further mythology to the canon and, having been published in 1998, sticks to the purists’ view that the reprehensible clan died out in 1917.  We don’t like to mention that Millennium one.

Father Ted: The Complete Scripts

Comedy scholars and self-confessed fans of the script book, Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews deliberately set out to place their effort as far from the transcription end of the script book spectrum as it is possible to get.  Taking the (probably) unique decision to publish what they refer to as, “next-to-last drafts” and with extensive footnotes, every episode is preceded by a separate introduction from each writer to give further insight into its creation.  With an admirably open and self-critical view, the writers give their thoughts on where their plot ideas came from, what gags did or didn’t work, and how they felt about each episode in general.

Mathews, for instance, felt that The Passion of St. Tibulus would have made a better series opener than Good Luck, Father Ted, while Linehan reveals that Father Jack’s referring to rabbits as, “Hairy Japanese bastards” was censored in Canada as they believed it to be racist.  The ‘Beast of Craggy Island’ episode started life as a story of Ted and Dougal trapped on the top deck of a bus by a barking dog (“I defy anyone to see where that could go,” comments Linehan), while Ted’s encounter with Richard Wilson was inspired by the writers finding themselves sat behind him at a Cirque du Soleil show and imagining whispering the catchphrase into his ear after every daring acrobatic feat.

Comments on casting are also made, revealing amongst other things that mumbling Eurovision host Fred Rickwood was based on an impersonation Steve Coogan used to do of a relative, and that the role was originally intended for him.

Every cut or altered line and scene is present, including the original ending for the series.  This had been felt not to work by both writers in any case but, after the sudden and devastating passing of Dermot Morgan, was quickly revised.

The Complete Father Ted, quite simply, is the best example of the script book genre out there, and well worth a few quid if you can find it.

Having previously been an essential symbol of fanboy status on the bookshelf of any comedy enthusiast (on the off-chance that an actual human being would be coming round to see it), the official script book seems to have been superseded by our age of easily-Googled quotes and photo galleries.  They are perhaps an outmoded source of reference but – to your humble correspondent – they remain a much-missed one.

❉ What do you think? What are your favourite comedy script books? Have your say in the comments below, on our Facebook page, or join the  conversation over on Twitter.

❉ Stephen Graham is available in hardback, paperback, and easy-to-swallow capsule form. Follow him on Twitter: @PlopGazette

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