The world of British comedy is a rabbit hole you can lose yourself in for life. Just following a list of long-gone essentials would keep you busy with viewing for some time. That doesn’t even mention the constant stream of new arrivals who, though watered down, keep us restocked year after year. There’s an even bigger wellspring of obscurity beyond the surface too, where the fourth wall is of no consequence. Editspotters, as they call themselves, have made it their solemn duty to explore this abundant vein of intrigue.
Considered an important part in the fight against bullshit and political correctness, editspotting keeps a keen eye on the divine hand behind our much beloved national comedies. Their claim is that many of our favourite shows have seen ruin at the hands of cynical editing techniques. Such a wide statement is clearly true to anyone who’s seen enough UK Gold re-runs. It’s not hard to imagine how things would get chopped and changed en route to general syndication. Websites like Some of the Corpses are Amusing show just how enthralling of a subject that can actually be. It turns out that there are many reasons why a cut, or edit, may occur. The conclusions these editspotters draw can say a lot about the craft of British television. To widen the scope, it’s possible that they speak to our society and underlying drives too.
The first question, when learning about editspotting, is: where do these investigators get their evidence from? There must be some basis on which to make the assumptions they do. To the editspotter, outtakes and rushes are mana from heaven. Rushes, for those who don’t know, are the reams of unedited footage you get at the end of a long day filming. When it comes to comedy, these merit a closer look. Due to the medium having its fair share of improvisation, and often a live studio audience, rushes (or dailies as they’re also known) can be a goldmine for the obsessive compulsive. Unfortunately, the archivists and creatives who so often end up in possession of such gems tend to see them as junk and clutter.
As always with British comedy, a good jumping off point for talking about all this is Monty Python’s Flying Circus. I’ll use them as a rolling example through the next few paragraphs. Rushes for the recordings of Flying Circus were so elusive as to be believed non-existent by hobbyists. After years of following meagre breadcrumb trails toward ambivalent gatekeepers, researchers at the aforementioned Some of the Corpses are Amusing were finally able to track down some proof. It didn’t amount to much, but confirmation of such treasures led the investigators to get speculative:
Even if one is unmoved by clapperboards, cueings-in, and Cleese coming out of character, the mere fact that these fragments survive raises the possibility that further, more substantial footage may well exist elsewhere.
That little quote does a lot for explaining their motives too. It can be a pure and simple need for more from comedic heroes. Behind a lot of it is a giddy fascination. They state themselves, and I have to agree, how exciting it would be to see footage of John Cleese and Michael Palin in bed together, nonchalantly awaiting a cue to look shocked. There are other reasons for picking things apart so meticulously. There’s a hint of political rebellion about it at times. The editspotters take a pleasure in undermining the fears of studios.
It seems that implying drug use wasn’t cricket in 1969. A hilarious sequence in an early Flying Circus episode would feature a policeman planting drugs on a citizen. When said citizen opens the package and finds only sandwiches, Graham Chapman‘s policeman is heard to exclaim, ‘Blimey! Whatever did I give the wife?’. Those more dedicated than I would eventually unearth a fresh punchline, in retrospect clearly abruptly cut for being a bit too close to the knuckle. An original version of the sketch showed a shot of the policeman’s inebriated wife and her response, ‘I don’t know, but it was better than sandwiches…’.
On its own, it’s merely a snippet of something that never made it to air. Put next to its brethren, they shine as some of the best kept secrets of British comedy. Take this deleted animation from Terry Gilliam as another example:
It’s clear that showing the Devil as a kind of electrician to a telegraph-pole crucifix was probably going to avoid airtime. The only reason it didn’t fall to the sands of time is an accident. Included as part of the show’s run in the US, it wouldn’t take the editspotters long to pick it out and talk about it. Rushes and studio mistakes aren’t the only way someone can distinguish an edit either. Sometimes someone’s raw prowess can reveal some stunning tricks of the trade. As with many things behind the curtain, they’re often more like compromises than tricks.
Throughout season three, Monty Python had begun to incorporate some excellent non-sequitur cutaways. The content of these would usually feature nothing more than costumed Pythons yelling a word at the screen. Placed seemingly at random in various sketches, fans may best remember the classic, ‘Lemon curry?’:
(it comes at around 3:02 but, my lord, it’s worth watching in its entirety.)
Editspotters come up with a great theory as to why these cutaways were used. Quite contrary to the idea that it was mere “Python anarchy”, there was probably a practical reason for it. It turns out that they’re remarkably good at covering up mistakes in continuity. Just look at the video above for yourself. It does seem like an awfully jarring transition when we return. If so, the work of these detectives has uncovered more than a free punchline. With their discoveries, you can glimpse some of the cogs of genius. Such technical jostling is everywhere in Flying Circus too. A subtle transition from day to night in this sketch:
was long seen as just another aspect of the joke. Thanks to some insider knowledge, the dull truth of the matter is known. A few technical delays simply pushed the day’s filming back. Similarly, a dramatic scene of Eric Idle bleeding, directly after that sketch, was only so dramatic thanks to the limitations of video at the time. For the editspotters, things like this are pecking at a long-dead carcass. Instead, they prefer to take a greater aim at the meat. While the minutia of this obsession will keep them fuelled, it’s the big stories that attract them. As we get closer to the new millennium in our research, records get stronger too. With a network of contacts, the advent of DVD extras and personal attendance in studio audiences, modern comedies can’t afford to be as slippery as Monty Python got away with.
There’s a lot that i’m sure Chris Morris wishes he could get away with. Creator of some of Britain’s most controversial shows, he was always bound to have to make concessions. This would be most true of his legendary magnum-opus, Brass Eye. Doomed to offend someone, how did his confrontational approach bend to the will of editing? First off, those above Morris came to every step on high alert. Brass Eye may be remembered as an uncompromising anthology of potentially offensive sketches, but there’s a truth of studio shackles behind it.
Thanks to On the Hour, Jam and The Day Today, Morris had a reputation as a parodic whistleblower. This pricked the ears of editing suites. They decided to make it their personal duty to dull his edge in strange ways. Despite some of the inflammatory material that would see broadcast regardless, the most innocuous mutterings would see themselves gutted. One of the first examples of this in the series is also one of the most outrageous. In the fourth episode, Morris is seen to perform a satirical version of Robert Kilroy-Silk. His character becomes infatuated, and even aroused, during an interview with a young audience member about sexual abuse. Under his breath, he whispers amusing and apparently inappropriate words. One of these, “twelve”, would later be re-recorded to the less evocative, “twirly”.
This edit turns something inspired and subtle into a worthless and forgettable aside. Its original form is far more in step with Morris’ intentions too. This kind of careless censorship began to take over the project. Fortunately, Brass Eye is good enough to rise above it. The “twelve” example is far from the worst. In one interview segment, the word “Portillo” caused such trouble for the editors that even covering it with ambient sound effects wasn’t sufficient. Just to placate the insecurities of a powerful closeted-homosexual, Morris’ mouth was blurred when speaking the word; presumably for the scant lip-readers among us. It didn’t stop there, as this mouth-blurring technique would pop up a few times in the series.
Meddling to that degree was so invasive that Morris was able to turn it into a fresh joke. Unfortunately, edits weren’t always so harmless or creatively interesting. Too often, political paranoia left entire sequences on the cutting room floor. For Brass Eye, this would effect two major scenes. Considered an apparent height of bad taste, a sketch about a Peter Sutcliffe musical would see itself banned. It was legendary for a while. Many editspotters thought it a hoax. Even a couple of screenshots of its existence had them reserving judgement. Then:
I’m not entirely sure where this footage has come from. The editspotters’ website is deeply outdated, still stating the sketch to be a “hoax”. This YouTube clip doesn’t seem to have any information on its origin either. I can only assume that it was some DVD extra. It shows, however, how sensitive editors can be. The material within really isn’t that offensive. In fact, it’s actually quite derivative. A musical based around a serial killer was first posited as comedy in This Is Spinal Tap (Saucy Jack anyone?). Things like this came too thick and fast for Morris to feel at ease with his project. It was probably the cutting of the “Sutcliffe” sequence that led to a clear exasperation on his part. Morris would express this in a flash frame, reading subliminally: “Grade is a Cunt”.
“Grade” is, of course, television executive Michael Grade. Morris blamed him directly for many of the cuts, leading him to feel a general distaste towards his own show. This is obvious in many below-par overdubs he had to make, by then probably deeply fatigued by the whole process. The work of Morris and his cohorts has always had teeth. It must be irritating for a beast of such intellectual weight to be weakened in these ways. Possibly infringing on his expression the most, the final scene of the show became distorted beyond recognition. The trouble with this example is how understandable the edits are.
For some time, Brass Eye insiders claimed its finale would “give people heart attacks”. In truth, it probably would have done if it remained uncensored. Instead, a disgustingly brilliant comedic idea becomes empty in the wake of editing. We see only the smallest implications in the finished product. A weak feeling of the thought comes across, but without the power of its purity. Just consider it. Brass Eye could have ended on a leering, pedophilic Christ chasing a child. In its place, we see only a dog lick at a statue’s cock. The latter image is amusing. The former is a grandly filthy coda to a show that gives it a context. Elements of it are, admittedly, still visible. The trouble is when editors are given the freedom to chop off the sizeable bollocks of such material.
The above represents the episode at broadcast. Aspects of the Pedo-Jesus were reinstated for DVD releases.
Of course, suits don’t have the same love affair with integrity as creatives like Morris. That’s probably why they see no merit in portraying Jesus as a nonce. Their intentions are understandable. They only wish to save people like my grandmother from generational discomfort. I can appreciate that. What should be remembered is the likelihood of my grandmother tuning in to Brass Eye in the first place. It opens up an interesting dialogue. Should there be a ceiling to our comedic expression? Should constraints be welcomed rather than feared? You could make a compelling case for those concepts. It’s just a simple shame to see talents like Morris constrained at all. Grade probably isn’t a cunt but he could never claim ignorance of Morris’ style. After all, he was already somewhat of a household name for his abrasive brand of comedy.
Edits like the ones Morris suffered have followed him his whole career. His first significant television appearances came on The Day Today. A spoof of news programmes, it has much in common with Brass Eye. It didn’t quite end up as edited, though. It definitely had a couple of intriguing moments. A sequence known as Kiddystare would evoke many later debacles in Morris’ filmography. Sure, the title alone is provocative enough. Its content, of which you can surely guess, even caused rifts in the cast. Steve Coogan, who developed his Alan Partridge persona on the show, threatened to quit if Kiddystare was used. It never was, in full at least, but there are some interesting rumours surrounding this issue. Many editspotters claim that Morris responded with this:
Slipping in such a surreal image of a young child was almost surely to put the willies up Coogan further. In the scene, his character is performing a satirical PSA about drunk driving. It’s fun to speculate that the otherwise inappropriate image of a girl was an insider jibe at Coogan’s squeamishness. Beyond that, The Day Today always held a little less intrigue than Brass Eye. That said, it may just have been the show that made it okay to say “fuck” on the BBC. After sneaking two iterations of it past censors, the BBC conspicuously altered their permissions for the word just six months later.
The intentions behind my examples so far have been either creative or in the interests of taste. Sometimes edits can represent the petty disputes of those behind the scenes. They can be malicious indicators of discontent. To find a good model for that, it’s best to keep following Morris. This time we go back to On the Hour, a BBC radio show that would act as the skeleton for The Day Today. In its first broadcast it was barely edited at all. The only thing editspotters seem to have discovered is an instance of Morris saying “God’s trousers!“, as opposed to his preferred “God’s shiny bollocks!”. What really points to vitriol here is how the shows were chopped up for commercial release. When first made available on cassette, and all the way up to today’s digital releases, On the Hour omitted large chunks of its best material.
The reason for this all came down to a silly civil war between the writers. Incredibly popular and critically acclaimed, it was a perfect springboard for the careers of Morris, Coogan, Armando Iannucci, Patrick Marber and many more of that familiar clique. Now largely skated over, it also served as a launching point for the fledgling duo of Stewart Lee and Richard Herring. Neither of them would move on to ride On the Hour‘s coattails to its television equivalent, however. They’d have to carve out their own legacy, and carve they did with both This Morning with Richard Not Judy and Fist of Fun. Lee has made a well-respected niche for himself with his uniquely dour stand-up and Comedy Vehicle. Herring has his fingers in so many successful pies that he must have an extra couple of arms. So where did it all go wrong with On the Hour?
Essentially, it came down to a monetary dispute between the two camps. When it came time for On the Hour to transition onto television, audiences made the natural assumption that Lee & Herring would be along for the ride. In an interview for a 1994 one-off fanzine, Christ’s Fat Cock, the pair would explain why they weren’t; along with how this effected edits of their radio material:
LEE: See, for the TV series, they wanted to give us a 13-minute commission I think, which would have been a lot of money, short term, 13 minutes a week TV money, six weeks, great, but that would be it. What we wanted was a deal whereby we retained ownership of characters we’d helped to create so that when Patrick Marber and Steve Coogan toured them around we don’t just get ripped off. But they wouldn’t have that, and this was while that tape was being put together. Most comedy writers just think ‘fuck it’, y’know…
HERRING: Our agent thought they shouldn’t do the‘On The Hour tape, they should wait until it got to telly and then put it out through a major record company.
LEE: Instead of through BBC Enterprises who are notoriously bad at promoting their own material.
HERRING: And I don’t think many real fans have got that tape, apart from very many members of the public, so he was right. And it all hinged on £50 or something they wouldn’t let us have. [Armando Iannucci] said, alright, fine, and had to stay up all night cutting… So it was all a bit messy and unpleasant.
On the whole, the separate groups have made their peace now. There remains a bitter rivalry between Lee & Herring and Marber, but that seems more personal. The real crime is that true fans of On the Hour still don’t have access to a commercial release of the episodes in full. This, unlike previously mentioned edits, is more insidious in tone. It has a flavour of rewriting history to it. Even names that Lee & Herring had penned found themselves obliterated, meaning that literally any trace of their contributions was struck from the record.
This shows the destructive potential of edits. In large part, we have the research of the editspotters to thank for bringing us up to speed. We may never see a full official release of On the Hour, and it may just be the most painful example of many more. The true extent of studio editing’s effect on British comedy will probably stay unknown. There’s one thing I can talk about with personal assurance, however. When it comes to Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer, I need the work of the editspotters only to confirm what I’ve directly experienced.
I’ve long held that The Smell of Reeves and Mortimer represents a grand peak of quality in its medium. I’ve recommended it to everyone, and written about it here (back when Secret Cave was a bit messy). It’s only recently that I’ve come to the realisation that the show I know and love simply wasn’t the same presentation most other people saw. I grew up with a VHS collection of the two seasons which, in a gracious opposite to On the Hour‘s approach, provided an entire ten minutes of extra material in each episode. The added stuff wasn’t jarring either. In fact, it was incorporated so seamlessly into the broadcast material that I never even registered it as “extra”. I actually came to believe that the VHS case’s claim of deleted scenes was merely a joke.
Broadcast in a thirty-minute timeslot, the theory is that it was originally a forty-minute production. The beautifully crafted episodes I knew in my formative years did indeed come in at that length. When you watch the thirty-minute editions that made it to air, it’s far from the tapestry of genius its purer form is. In fact, the level of editing is painfully obvious and difficult to watch. Why is that such a problem if the extra ten minutes found its way onto the commercial VHS release? Go and buy yourself a DVD of The Smell of Reeves and Mortimer to see for yourself. That’s right, we’re back to the cut-down dross versions without even a sniff of a reinstated scene. In total that’s an entire two hours of prime Reeves & Mortimer material missing.
The chances are that those hours will stay consigned to quickly fading VHS tapes in dusty attics. The BBC have never cared about releasing Reeves & Mortimer’s oeuvre properly, so future generations will likely see The Smell of Reeves and Mortimer as nothing more than a messy footnote. The editspotters, and those blessed by birth-date like myself, will always know what was hiding behind the cuts. It happened to them again with Shooting Stars, when channels like Challenge got their grubby hands on it. Personally, I don’t think such edits are as harmless as they may seem. They really can undermine the material at hand and, in the case of Shooting Stars at least, it was all to shoehorn in more time to sell insurance and cereal.
Editing of British comedy is truly at its worst when it changes the tone of something holistically. Take Father Ted for example; crown jewel of Graham Linehan‘s career and still one of our best sitcoms. It was sad enough that it came to an early cancellation after the tragic death of Dermot Morgan, the show’s principle star. I’ll let the guys at Some of the Corpses are Amusing describe this one, since I probably can’t improve on their concise explanation:
The [series] originally ended with Ted about to commit suicide by jumping off a window-ledge. This scene mirrored the opening scenes of the episode where he had successfully talked a manic-depressive priest down from the same ledge and successfully raised his spirits. This ending was deemed insensitive following Morgan’s death and an alternative was hastily pasted in: following Ted’s decision not to go to America after all (and Father Dougal’s cries of ‘We’ll stay in Craggy Island forever and ever and ever...’), the scene mixes through into a montage of old clips accompanied by the theme music. When the music ends, the Hat Trick logo appears and the episode comes to an abrupt, credit-less, end. It under-runs by a minute.
This is a rubbish ending for something as strong as Father Ted. It’s self-evident that these edits were made out of concern for taste, and probably Morgan’s family. As Some of the Corpses are Amusing go on to say, wouldn’t the most respectful choice have been to keep Morgan’s final performance intact, and as creatively intended? That’s not a question I can definitely answer, but it seems to me that this chopping in-particular is an insult to fans and Morgan himself alike. If only there wasn’t a thin thread of understanding behind these manipulations. Then we could get truly angry.
What did rile a lot of people in the late 90s, and early 00s, was the treatment of an entirely un-British comedy; The Simpsons. What happened here was a bit of a complicated one, leading entire sites to pop up and track it. Its first couple of seasons were marketed and written worldwide as a family show. Quickly, the viewing demographic changed, becoming more adult oriented. This effected the writing of the show, which moved with its audience to include a greater onus on profanity, violence and other such anathema to family entertainment. Late to the game, distributors of the show in the UK (primarily our old friend the BBC, along with Sky) had just started putting out the show as “children’s” entertainment, with a matching timeslot, as this transition evolved.
Stubbornly, neither broadcasters ran with the ball and each set their sights on heavily editing the more adult scripts to fit their theme. This wasn’t fair on the creatives behind The Simpsons or its fans, who found themselves consistently fobbed off by censorship. In one case, an entire episode (The Cartridge Family) was pulled from rotation for its decidedly American depiction of gun-laws. These careless cuts became all the more embarrassing as adult-toned segments began to tackle the issue of censorship itself. Gutting Itchy & Scratchy sequences must have been particularly shameful, considering that the entire point of them was to poke fun at such meddling.
British broadcasters would eventually pick up and follow the rest of us into the 21st century by lessening their vice grip on The Simpsons. Unfortunately, a lot of damage had already been done. It didn’t help that they only applied their new attitude to fresh episodes, keeping the trimmed wank of preceding seasons on a constant loop. These are the worst portraits that editspotters can paint, however. They’re also the most juicy. That’s the aforementioned rebellion that comes along with the hobby; the visceral pleasure that we associate with untangling undue red-tape. There’s a more endearing side too. To find it, let’s go back to the rushes I mentioned.
Rushes can sometimes be impossible to pin down. A lot of archivists just don’t want to give them up or, even worse, don’t care. Therefore, a lot of known outtake material comes purely from stupid, old blooper shows like Auntie’s Bloomers and It’ll Be Alright on the Night. The most dedicated editspotters love to log and analyse these to ridiculous lengths. They can put together some fascinating things too, usually revealing something of a joke’s construction or the level of improvisation at hand. They can also furnish up some hidden punchlines or, most excitingly, show acclaimed performers at their most vulnerable. Finding such outtakes is what it’s all about for the childish side of an editspotter. Here’s an old favourite from Fawlty Towers that many thought was the only one available, until an entire reel was discovered:
(the rest of the reel will play on after the snippet of course)
Some rushes do make their way through, though they’re usually kept tight to the chest of industry types. After some scratching around, transcripts seem to be the only thing available to the public. Sometimes this might be because an editspotter was lucky enough to attend a live recording, bringing back with them extended knowledge of their comings and goings. This can make for great reading, like when an attendee of Lee & Herring’s Fist of Fun sessions provides great exchanges like this:
PETER BAYNHAM: And this morning I invented a game based on I-Spy, called “I Cry”. (to Herring) I cry with my little eye about something beginning with E.
HERRING: Is it an elbow in the testicles, Pete?
[a floor manager then stops recording for a re-take]
HERRING: Can I not say “testicles”?
FLOOR MANAGER: No.
HERRING: What do you mean “no”?! We’ve got a bloody thing made out of condoms over there! Ten o’clock at night and I’m not allowed to say “testicles”!
BAYNHAM:(still in character) It’s not made out of condoms. It’s balloons!
[Herring then agrees not to say “testicles” at the behest of Lee, whose mother and grandmother are reported as being in attendance]
BAYNHAM: I cry with my little eye about something beginning with E.
HERRING: Is it an elbow in the bollocks, Pete?
These are the kind of behind-the-scenes wrestling matches that keep an editspotter going. They’re certainly more fun to read than tales of political censorship or bickering. Thanks to Some of the Corpses are Amusing, and websites like them, us nerds are able to enjoy these oddities. As suggested at the beginning, I still believe a lot of it’s very telling of our silly little British zeitgeist. Even the fact that a sector of our population seeks out these things is kind of odd and revealing. Still, despite nearing the end of a five-thousand word article, there’s much more to read and digest on the subject. Consider this a lengthy introduction to a detailed abyss. After all, if you’ve read this far you surely have some interest in the potential journey ahead. If so, this piece has done its job.
As an addendum of sorts, it’s worth mentioning some of the other comedy treasures brought to the table by the fanatics at Some of the Corpses are Amusing. Blackadder, a series of unchallenged legend status, is another victim of history being re-written. It turns out that the old story of Ben Elton saving it from a dismal first season with his witty writing is a complete facsimile. If it weren’t for the editspotters i’d have no idea that its initial pilot was worryingly similar to Elton’s later “re-imagining”. They also host wonderful gems like this pilot script to Peep Show. The biggest shame for Some of the Corpses are Amusing is that they went bust and missed out on reporting this marvellous obscurity from Monty Python’s Chapman, Douglas Adams (creator of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) and Bernard McKenna:
Broadcast only once in 1976, Out of the Trees featured some of the finest minds and performers in British comedy at the time. Somewhat of a doomed production, even its solitary airing received a pathetic viewership thanks to little promotion and a timeslot opposing Match of the Day. Editspotters at their now-defunct website speak with great mourning over the apparent loss of Out of the Trees. Even its master tape was wiped, seemingly putting an end to any hope. When it came to light that Chapman had given the National Film Television and Videotape Archive a copy of it in full, it was finally restored and released in 2006.
The juvenile in us will always relish and celebrate such stories. We love to see behind the magic; it’s an instinct within us all. In the case of British comedy, learning the craft of the tricks does much to enhance the finished product. It’s never easy to peek through keyholes, but editspotters have worked tirelessly to prove its worth. The more thoughtful sides to our personality see justice in the fights against censorship that crop up time and time again when calling out cynical edits. It’s something we worry about less in a world of instant gratification. Independent content creators, sailing the ebbs of the internet, needn’t put themselves through the same filters. With our comedy now more direct in its delivery, perhaps our editspotting is now better focused on more dangerously disingenuous outlets…