01/12/07
Reviews by - Lindsay Planer

If the holiday yielded you a small fortune in cyber certificates and gift cards, you certainly aren't alone. In order to aid those stymied by choices, this week we're gonna serve up a heapin' helpin' of vintage TV that has recently surfaced on DVD.


Monty Python's Flying Circus -- 16-Ton Megaset™ (A&E Home Video)

Talk about complete! This 14 disc compendium definitely earned the revered Megaset™ moniker as it contains all 45 episodes during Monty Python's Flying Circus' four-year run ('69 - '74).  This means every one of the crazy characters from John Cleese's Minister Of Silly Walks to Michael Palin's sexually ambiguous "Lumberjack Song" are all presented in their original context, exactly the way they first aired.

For most anthologies that would be a gracious plenty, however the Megaset™ extras boast a pair of full-length 'bonus discs'. Found within are the troupe's farewell to live performing as captured on Live At The Hollywood Bowl (1980). There is also the 1998 reunion (minus the late Graham Chapman) filmed Live At Aspen during the 1998 U.S. Comedy Arts Festival Tribute To Monty Python. Other supplementary features are the Steve Martin-hosted retrospective Parrot Sketch Not Included: 20 Years Of Python (1989), and the German language Monty Python's Fligender Zirkus Episode #1 (1973). The latter was a program actually commissioned by and for German television with the otherwise unavailable "Merchant Of Venice" sketch. For die-hard fans -- Bavarian or not -- this treat is the icing on an already gluttonous good time.

The 16-Ton Megaset™ comes with a full-colour 15-page booklet that is jam-packed with a sketch-by-sketch guide to each DVD as well as brief character bios for the five Python members.

Edward R Murrow -- The Best of Person to Person (CBS News/Koch Entertainment)

Even though Person to Person aired during the infancy of television, there hasn't been a show like it since. Each week, Edward R. Murrow -- already a well established broadcast news veteran -- took viewers into the homes of public figures and personalities from entertainment and politics.

Armed only with his trademark chair, ashtray and window into the home of the nation's  movers and shakers, Murrow is nothing short of riveting. For the first time ever, more than seven hours of highlights from the show's six-year ('53 - '59) run are spread over three DVDs with footage that has remained unseen for more than five decades.

Among the "American Icons" on Disc One are Dick Clark, Rev. Billy Graham, John F. Kennedy, Norman Rockwell, Oscar Hammerstein, Andy Griffith and Eleanor Roosevelt. Disc Two takes on "Hollywood Legends" that includes Tinsel town couples Humphrey Bogart & Lauren Bacall, Tony Curtis & Janet Leigh, Paul Newman & Joanne Woodward, and even Elizabeth Taylor & (then hubby) Mike Todd. Plus, respective chats with Marlon Brando and Marilyn Monroe can also be found here. Disc Three goes beyond the silver screen for insights into such "Legendary Entertainers" as Milton Berle, Jonathan Winters, Jerry Lewis, Frank Sinatra, Liberace and 1st Lady of the American Stage, Ms. Helen Hayes.

The audio and video quality are worthy of mention as both far exceed expectations of six-plus decade old kinescopes.

Prisoner Cell Block H -- Sets One & Two (A&E Home Video)

Leave it to the gurus of fine culture -- or, perhaps more accurately in this case -- the counterculture -- to re-introduce North America to the ladies of Wentworth Detention Centre. If ever the term 'cult classic' applied to a TV show, it would have to be Prisoner Cell Block H (PCBH). The Australian-based soap opera was as infamous for its cheap sets, questionable actors/actresses and remarkably ill-conceived plot lines as it was for being ahead of its time on the subject of women behind bars. In honor of PCBH 's silver anniversary, A&E has chosen two dozen -- from the nearly 700 -- episodes for these two anthologies. Each 3½-hour DVD is thematically subtitled.

Set One consists of "The Early Years" with the inauguration of characters such as Joan "The Freak" Ferguson -- a prison official who has a proclivity for unannounced "body searches" of the inmates. "The Terrorist Siege" plot is covered with three consecutive episodes, while "The End" suitably wraps things up with iniquitous "Lou Kelly" riot as Kelly takes over the institute. There are many twists and turns as the terminally ill Rita tries to escape and The Freak finally gets hers … or does she? You'll have to tune in to find out! There are some really cool extras on Set One with interviews featuring casting director Jan Russ, Val "Queen Bea Smith" Lehman and Anne "Myra Desmond" Phelan. Each DVD also has a gallery of behind-the-scenes continuity photos.

Set Two goes all the way back to "The Beginning" with the show's first four chapters. Here the world meets the likes of Frankie Doyle, "Queen" Bea Smith, and of course the tragic tale of guard Meg Jackson -- whose husband, a fellow prison employee, is killed by one of the inmates. Other discs cover a quartet of "Great Escapes" as well as "Not So Quiet Riots" -- including the two-installment conclusion to the "Sandy Edwards" melee.

Rather than present the shows edited the way that many US stations broadcast them -- usually late at night somewhere between The Tonight Show and the station sign-off -- these are completely unedited. Here is hoping either PCBH will catch on and begin to re-air stateside or that A&E Home Video chooses to spring for another installment.

Sesame Street -- Old School Volume One:1969-1974 (Sony Wonder/Sesame Workshop)

What began as an experiment back in 1969 to see if children could actually learn using the medium of television, has turned into a childhood staple for every growing mind since then. This three DVD collection brings it all back home with five complete episodes of Sesame Street and literally hours of additional songs, sketches and skits from the first five seasons.

Opening the package is the November 10, 1969 debut. Introduced to people worldwide are Bert & Ernie, Big Bird, Kermit The Frog, an orange-furred Oscar The Grouch, as well as the short-lived concept of interchangeable 'anything' muppets. Disc One's 'Bonus Trash' includes Kermit's "Bein' Green," the singing alphabet with jazz vocalist Lou Rawls, Ernie's "Rubber Duckie", James Earl Jones reciting the A-B-C's and even the original sales pitch or demo reel called the "Itty-Bitty-Nitty-Gritty Kiddie Show".

Disc Two puts the second and third seasons (1970 and '71 respectively) into view with favorites such as Big Bird's "Everyone Makes Mistakes", 'What's My Part?' with host Guy Smiley and a surreal segment on Carole Burnett's nose. The 'Extra Cookies' on disc two are arguably more enticing for nostalgia mongers with the "King Of Eight" stop-animation, Gary Owens-narrated "Astronaut Drawing", Cookie Monster's theme "C Is For Cookie", the "Ladybugs Picnic" cartoon and jugband song, as well as a very special recitation of "I Am Somebody" with the Reverend Jessie Jackson.

Disc Three packs in the best moments from the fourth (1972) and fifth (1973) years. Primary among them are The Count (doing what else but) counting Ernie's blocks, elucidations on the concept of 'heavy' and 'light' with Grover, a quick and completely edible take on the alphabet with Ernie and Cookie Monster, and Bert's "Doin' The Pigeon". And talk about your blasts from the past as "More Paper Clips" augments the full-length episodes with Kermit's "Muppet News" flash featuring Rapunzel, the soulful animation with a kid trying to remember to buy bread, milk and butter at the corner market, Johnny Cash recounting the musical tale of "Nasty Dan," Ernie's window-box planter inhabitants The Twiddlebugs as they go to the zoo and the continuing adventures of Super Grover.

If the nearly 7½ hours of video content aren't enough, Old School Vol. One: 1969-1974 adds a 16-page booklet with fun facts, photos and an 8-page pullout of activities for kids of all ages.


Lindsay Planer is a freelance journalist and technical producer at WBT AM/FM in Charlotte, NC. He is a regular contributor to All Music Guide, CrutchfieldAdvisor.com and Gaston Gazette. Comments and questions can be sent to <asthediscspins@earthlink.net>.


 

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