Alexander Armstrong's Real Ripping Yarns, TV review: This look back at Boy's Own Britain isn't so spiffing


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In their post-Python years, Michael Palin and Terry Jones made two series of a comedy called Ripping Yarns for the BBC. The episodes featured devil-may-care spies, public school bullies, swarthy foreigners and "a whole host of mad colonial characters from a long-lost era".

If you don't remember that, you definitely won't remember the pre-Second World War Boy's Own-type literature that inspired Ripping Yarns, but both show and books were source material for last night's BBC4 documentary, Alexander Armstrong's Real Ripping Yarns. It was two nostalgia trips for the price of one.

This could easily have been just a rehash of jingoistic values, without the mitigating Python silliness – and sometimes it was – but Real Ripping Yarns also provided a novel lens though which to view a major change in British culture.

In interview, Palin and Jones reflected on their own childhoods in a pre-"stranger danger", pre-health-and-safety Britain where risk-taking was celebrated and fresh air was every child's right. On the other hand, there was brutal corporal punishment, sexual repression and rampant xenophobia.

It's entirely understandable that presenter Alexander Armstrong would be more inclined to focus on the Britain lost than the Britain gained. He often seems to have stepped directly off the pages of one of Captain W E Johns' Biggles books, himself. But Real Ripping Yarns might have transcended amiable nostalgia and become an insightful cultural history, if only it had also included some acknowledgement of the people this sentiment excludes. It was as if women and the state-educated never even existed at all.