May 11 1969: Monty Python is formed

Monty Python opening

“And now for something completely different.” If you grew up in the 70s and 80s, you almost certainly know that statement, and that it was made famous by (cue acid-trip animation) Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

John Cleese, Michael Palin, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, and Graham Chapman met while students at Oxford and Cambridge. There, they cut their comedic teeth, drawing in large part from the priviledged, raised-pinky social circles in which they’d grown up — and could parody so perfectly. From the process-for-the-sake-of-process Ministry of Silly Walks, to the bland monotones of “Yes, it was the middle one” (in How Not to be Seen), the Pythons could absolutely nail Britishisms like no one had before. (Little Britain does a very good job of it today, IMHO, albeit in quite a different way.)

I actually was not a die-hard Python fan (as much as some people I knew), and in fact wasn’t aware until now that several of the guys wrote and produced a children’s program from 1967 to ’69 called Do Not Adjust Your Set. (Forgive me for telling any hardcore Python fans something they no doubt already know.) It was the success of that show that prompted ITV to give them a crack at late-night comedy.

I have very fond memories of staying up late to watch Monty Python (the opening theme — including the giant farting foot — is playing in my mind as I type this). Terry Gilliam’s animation gave it a wonderful childish quality, and even though I didn’t quite appreciate the full extent of the humour at the time, much of it was simply so ridiculous (“Tis but a scratch.” “Your arm’s off!” “No it’s not.”) that it was just fun to watch.

To get into the Python sketches in any detail would be too much to take on in one blog post. I will, however, say that my own personal favourite is the Philosophers’ Football Match. My God — what a brilliant sketch. (When the gun goes off, and they all simply start strolling and pondering… It cracks me up every single time.)

According to Wikipedia, “The Pythons’ influence on comedy has been compared to the Beatles’  influence on music… three of the six Pythons members were voted by fellow comedians and comedy insiders to be among the top 50 greatest comedians ever: Cleese at No. 2, Idle at No. 21, and Palin at No. 30.”

Nudge, nudge, wink, wink — say no more, say no more.

The black knight scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail  Does this need an introduction? (Digging up this clip, I realized I’d forgotten about the coconuts… still can’t stop laughing.) (4 min, 26 sec)

How Not to be Seen  The PSA intro. The nothing shot of trees. And John Cleese’s BBCesque monotone: “This is Mr. E. R. Bradshaw, from Napier Court, Black Lion Road, London, SE14.” Too perfect. (2 min, 35 sec)

The Philosophers’ Football MatchHegel is arguing that the reality is merely an a priori adjunct of non-naturalistic ethics; Kant via the categorical imperative is holding that ontologically it exists only in the imagination; and Marx is claiming it was offside.” (3 min, 47 seconds)

I’m a Lumberjack  As a Canadian, I had to include this one. I get a mild kick out of the reference to dressing in drag: the Brits always seem to love that. (2 min, 40 sec)

Camelot: it’s only a model  This little snippet is another Python fave of mine. (12 sec)

May 6 1994: the day the Chunnel opened


While riding the Chunnel train is on my bucket list, I have certain misgivings about being in a train roughly 150 feet below the bottom of the English Channel. Yes, the idea of it is incredible, and it’s not surprising that the Chunnel — a.k.a. Eurotunnel — is considered one of the man-made wonders of the world. At the same time, seeing those black holes boring into the earth at Folkstone, and knowing you don’t see sky again until France… well, I find it a bit daunting. (And I’m not the only one.)

Though it sure beats the idea Albert Mathieu, Napolean’s engineer, had in 1802: he wanted to build a tunnel for horse-and-carriage travel, with huge ventilation chimneys stretching up above the water. Thankfully, the plan went nowhere.

In 1880, a Colonel Beaumont actually dug a mile-long tunnel into the Channel, but eventually gave up.

Around this same time, London was starting to build tunnels under the Thames. The first one — it was the world’s first underwater tunnel — opened in the city’s east end in 1843. Others were built later in the century and into the next. Some were for foot travel, others for cars, and many were for trains, especially the tube. It was only a matter of time before that engineering knowledge and technology would be applied to the English Channel.  

While the Chunnel is probably the world’s best known ‘super tunnel’, in fact, the longer and deeper Seikan Tunnel in Japan could be considered more of an engineering feat: it is 330 feet below the seabed and 790 feet below the surface of Tsugaru Strait. To be clear, however, more of the Chunnel’s track is technically under water, making it truly ‘the world’s longest underwater tunnel’.

History Channel documentary  This well-done documentary (back when the History Channel made good documentaries) takes you through the history and construction of the Chunnel, even touching on the politics between England and France. (44 min, 59 sec)

London’s first Thames tunnel  This is a video of a walking tour through the tunnel completed in 1843. It’s especially interesting when the guide goes into detail on working conditions for builders, at 1:42. (6 min, 18 sec)

The world’s top 10 underwater tunnels  I love short top-10 lists, and this fits the bill. It even comes with jaunty, kind of mismatched but still interesting music (there’s no voice-over). (2 min, 1 sec)

When England and France meet in the Chunnel construction  This includes live footage of the moment on Dec 1 1990 when English and French construction workers come together below the English Channel. (6 min, 53 sec — fast-forward to 1:30)

The tire-changing scene in 28 Days Later  I had to include it — an absolute nail-biter. Lesson: Never go into a tunnel during a zombie apocalypse. (2 min, 42 sec)

Apr 30 1945: The day Hitler committed suicide

Hitler 3

On one of the first really nice spring days here in Toronto, it feels a bit dark to be writing about suicide. On the other hand, the world instantly became a better place without Hitler in it, so, at the risk of sounding callous, maybe this post isn’t quite so dark after all.

If you ever want to get a sense of how the German army must have felt in the final days of World War II — the Allies closing in, Berlin in ruins, and utter despair at every turn — watch the movie Downfall. It’s as dark as dark gets, but it’s brilliantly acted and realistically produced. There is no Hollywood here. German actor Bruno Ganz plays the paranoid, delusional Hitler to a T, right down to his jangled nerves and twitchy hands. 

A good, full-length version of Downfall has become trickier to find on YouTube. I managed to locate a playlist of all the parts together in the first link below. Note: Some parts were ‘not playable in your country’ (Canada), while others were. You might have better luck. For a sampling of the movie, the two clips farther down under “We’re leaving” (both playable) give you a real sense of the futility faced by the Germans, and how, in the end, Hitler basically threw them under a bus — and took the easy way out.

Downfall (Der Untergang) — in German with English subtitles: (approx 150 min)

“We’re leaving.”  These two riveting clips from Downfall show us the incredible mass exodus (i.e. files being thrown out of windows) of Nazi headquarters in Berlin; the second shows us the quiet desperation inside Hitler’s bunker. (8 min, 19 sec)  (5 min, 53 sec)

An interview with Hitler’s maid (subtitled)  This sweet little 92-year-old woman has a menorah in her kitchen and a framed Christmas card from Hitler in the living room.  (14 min, 57 sec)

The Nazi Officer’s Wife  This documentary is based on the book; it’s narrated by Susan Sarandon. Austrian Jew Edith Hahn-Beer describes growing up in Vienna, then being forced into hard labor during WWII. She later manages to obtain fake German identity papers, and eventually meets and marries a high-ranking German officer.  (1 hr, 37 min)

The man who refused to salute Hitler   This is an odd little story about a man who refused to salute Hitler, and what happened to him. (You could probably watch the first 15 seconds, then skip ahead to 1:30 — while interesting, it’s a bit long-winded and probably could have been told in half the time.)  (4 min, 12 sec)

Apr 18, 1956: the day a movie star became a princess

Grace Kelly
Grace Kelly in ‘the dress’ she wore in Rear Window

She was the quintessential movie star and the coolest-ever cool blonde — and on this day in 1956, Grace Patricia Kelly of Philadelphia became Princess Grace of Monaco in a ceremony that was dubbed (pre-Charles and Di) the ‘wedding of the century’.

Kelly had met Prince Rainier III just a year earlier, when she was at Cannes promoting her Hitchcock-directed To Catch a Thief. As part of the promotion, a photo shoot was staged with the Prince. After the shoot, true to form, the cool Kelly said simply, “He is a very charming man.” The Prince’s Catholic priest played matchmaker and sent a thank-you note to Kelly mentioning “the deep impression this has left on him”.

And they were off. By January 1956, they were engaged, and on April 18th — just a week after Kelly finished shooting her final movie, High Society — they were married.

They had three children, Caroline (1957), Albert (1958) and Stephanie (1965). 

On Monday morning, September 13th, 1982, Grace and Stephanie were driving back to Monaco from their country home near the French border. Suddenly the Rover started to swerve erratically. Kelly was having a stroke. Stephanie tried desperately to take control of the wheel, but her efforts were in vain: Approaching a hairpin turn, the car sped up, crashed through a barrier and careened down a 120 foot slope. Rushed to hospital, Kelly died the following evening. Stephanie managed to escape with relatively minor injuries.

Grace Kelly was 52.

Her son Albert, now 60, remains Monaco’s reigning monarch today.

Grace Kelly marries Prince Rainier (3 min, 39 sec)

The hairpin turn at ‘Devil’s Curse’ (14 min, 27 sec) (Skip to 14:00; the turn is at 14:25. Kelly went straight.)

Grace Kelly’s funeral, with Princess Diana in attendance (4 min, 47 sec) (Diana is at :27, 2:45 and 4:02)

The best Grace Kelly scene ever (in ‘the dress’) (1 min, 2 sec)

Apr 13 1931: the Chicago tunnel fire

Chicago tunnel fire Apr 13 1931
Photo from Chicago Tribune archives

When I was a kid, maybe 7 or 8 years old, I crawled into a sleeping bag head first, and one of my brothers, as a joke, sat on my legs — essentially closing the open end of the bag and sending me into a squirming fit of screams and tears.

While I might have had some claustrophobic tendencies before, I think this little incident probably sealed the deal.

It also might have contributed to my lifelong (arm’s length) fascination for tunnels, holes, caves, and other dark, damp, confining spaces into which humans often are not meant to go — and from which they sometimes don’t return.

Such is the case with the Chicago tunnel fire of 1931. On April 13th — as luck would have it —  that tunnel was a very unlucky place to be. It was a sewer tunnel being built on 22nd Street, a major east-west artery in the southwest part of the city. Some workers lit a candle to try to find the source of a leak, and some sawdust ignited. The workmen became trapped, and city officials responded by sending team after rescue team down into the blaze. Many of them, in turn, became trapped and died.

The mere thought of being 35 feet below street level in a dark, smoke-filled tunnel makes me queasy. According to the Chicago Tribune, many of the firefighters went down without oxygen tanks or even masks. Ah, the good ole days.

Here is some archival pix of the fire from the Chicago Tribune, and below are a few videos of other claustrophobic-inducing places, especially on Friday the 13th.

Tunnelling under the Thames in 1958  If you like historic video, you must subscribe to the British Pathé channel, where this clip comes from. I so admire the men who did this very hard, very dangerous work. It is not for the faint of heart. ttps://  (1 min, 58 sec)

Kids in a train tunnel (and guess what comes through)  Who would DO this? I mean, I was a kid too, once (on a planet far, far away) and I like to think I was somewhat adventurous too. But I would never have walked into a dark, in-use train tunnel. (Though I did jump onto the subway tracks once — and it’s not what you think — but that’s a blog for another day.) I suggest watching the first 30 sec or so, then skipping ahead to about 7:00, when the kids are starting to scurry and get jittery — and then off in the dark, a whistle goes… (12 min, 28 sec)

Man trapped in a tuna cooker  I will say right off that while this involves a death, it’s a CGI re-enactment, and you can see what’s coming before it happens. Amazing (or not) how a seemingly simple human error could have such devastating impact.  (1 min, 22 sec)

Tight cave squeeze  This video comes with a warning (that is not mine): Do NOT watch if claustrophobic. Next to drowning, I think this is my own personal “worst way to go”. And in the words of one of the commenters: “What gets you thinking is the fact that somebody crawled through that the first time, not knowing if there was an exit they could climb out of…” (3 min, 55 sec)

Apr 8 2013: the day the Iron Lady died

Thatcher in Parl

When I think of Margaret Thatcher, I think of coal miners. I think of the movie Billy Elliot, and the scene where the son sees his dad in the bus driving through the picket line. I think of the 1981 song Ghost Town, by the Specials, which talks about riots and urban decay and “too much fighting on the dance floor” and “all the clubs have been closed down”. I think of the IRA, and hunger striker Bobby Sands. I think of the Falkland Islands, and the apparent Dave-and-Goliath conflict that erupted for a few weeks in 1982.

The Thatcher era was, to put it mildly, one of unrest and upheaval. The quintessential conservative, Maggie took no shit from anyone, be they miners in the Midlands or residents in some far-flung colony in South America.

While I never agreed with her politics, I admired her guts. And from a personal standpoint, she is part of my youth. I remember news clips of her with Reagan; I remember scenes of rioting; I remember IRA bombings.

The anniversary of her death today makes me think of all these things. Here are a few memory-joggers.   

“No, no, no.”   This is Thatcher at her best, asking rhetorical questions — and answering them. (1 min, 11 sec)

The poll tax riot   The poll tax was a flat, per-person ‘head tax’ first introduced in Scotland in 1989. On Sat Mar 31, 1990, shortly before it was to come into force in England and Wales, people from across Britain came to London’s Trafalgar Square to protest. Along the way, things turned ugly. (9 min, 28 sec)

Thatcher’s resignation   This vintage BBC coverage looks back at her reign, offering interview clips and live coverage the day of her resignation. In the presenter’s words, “the Thatcher era is over”. (13 min, 45 sec)

Billy Elliot — the strike / bus scene   If you haven’t seen Billy Elliot, you MUST!!! Superb acting, excellent soundtrack and one of THE BEST movie endings ever. This particular scene is of the strike at the local mine, where father and son both work. Both start the strike committed — then one caves. (2 min, 39 sec)

“Sink it!”   This scene from the movie The Iron Lady has Meryl Streep as Thatcher in the war room being advised on naval strategy in the Falklands — one ship in particular.  (1 min, 40 sec)

Mar 30 1981: the day Reagan was shot

Reagan.jpgThirty-seven years ago today, outside the Washington Hilton, U.S. President Ronald Reagan was climbing into his limousine, smiling and waving to bystanders, when he suddenly doubled over. What happened next was a blur, as a swarm of secret service men dove into action. Reagan took a bullet to the ribs, and three others — the White House press secretary, a secret service agent, and a police officer — were injured. All survived, though press secretary James Brady was left disabled.

The shooter, John Hinckley Jr., had done it to impress his obsession: actress Jodie Foster. He was found not guilty by reason of insanity.

(As an aside, I remember the day it happened: grade 11, at a girlfriend’s house, after school, sitting in our kilts drinking tea, watching the breaking news reports on TV.)

Seeing the footage now, there’s a certain amount of nail-biting and lip-gnawing: I know what’s coming, and I squirm as I wait for it.

It’s made me think of some other famous assassinations here’s my ‘top 5’ list.

Ronald Reagan — Mar 30, 1981   This video takes us back to ‘the spot’ out front of the Hilton, then takes us through an analysis and computer-generated reenactment.  (5:05)

John Fitzgerald Kennedy — Nov 22, 1963   This CG recreation includes input from Helter Skelter author Vincent Bugliosi.  (4:17)


Abraham Lincoln — Apr 14, 1865   The last surviving witness to Lincoln’s assassination (he was 5 years old at the time) appears on a game show, and contestants have to guess who he is.  (7:17)

Martin Luther King — Apr 4, 1968   The news of Dr. King’s assassination is delivered in Indianapolis from the back of a flatbed truck by then-New York senator Bobby Kennedy — who would himself be shot a month and a day later, on June 5, 1968.  (5:01)

John Lennon — Dec 8, 1980   This nostalgic footage is from the morning of Dec 9 on NBC’s Today Show. Just seeing Tom Brokaw and Jane Pauley takes me back. Today was on our 13” kitchen b&w religiously every morning before school. I remember girls at school crying that day over Lennon’s death.  (3:35)

Lennon Today Show.jpg

Escape from Alcatraz

Welcome to my new blog. My goal here is to share with you videos I trip across while doing my favorite thing: surfing YouTube. There’s no rhyme or reason to the blog — just neat videos and stories to go with them. Hope you like it. 

Prisons have always fascinated me — in a queasy kind of way. The high walls, the barbed wire, the watchtowers… It’s not quite like peering down into deep, deep water, but it’s close.

This week in 1963, the most famous — and arguably most formidable — prison in the world closed its doors. Just looking at pictures of Alcatraz gives me shivers. Twelve acres of daunting rock set oh-so-close and yet so far (1.5 miles) from the comfortable civilization of San Francisco.


On June 11, 1962, 3 inmates made what is now believed to be the only successful escape from Alcatraz. At the time, authorities were certain the men had drowned in the cold, choppy water of San Francisco Bay — like other escapees before them.

But in 2018, a letter surfaced suggesting that at least one of the men is still alive.

The ’62 escape is thought to be one of the catalysts behind the closing of Alcatraz less than a year later.

YouTube has all kinds of stuff on the Alcatraz escape, and on other prison ‘incidents’. Have a look, and enjoy.

The 3 Alcatraz escapees
Frank Morris, John Anglin and Clarence Anglin

The 1962 escape from Alcatraz   The plotting and planning behind the escape of Frank Morris and John and Clarence Anglin is borderline genius (Morris had an IQ of 133). The short doc below shows how they escaped, and includes an interview with the daughter of then-prison warden — she was 15 at the time and living on The Rock (as wardens’ families did). She has since written several books on Alcatraz.  (45 min)

The 2018 letter   This CBS news story tells of the letter that surfaced in January 2018, indicating that the 3 inmates survived.  (4.5 min)

Paul Taylor
Inmate Paul Taylor on the roof of Strangeways

The 1990 riot at Strangeways   (Love the name.) On April 1st, 1990, an inmate at Strangeways (now officially H.M.P. Manchester) interrupted the prison chaplain in the middle of a service when he took the microphone and said: “I would like to say, right, that this man [Reverend Noel Proctor] has just talked about blessing of the heart and a hardened heart can be delivered. No it cannot, not with resentment, anger and bitterness and hatred being instilled in people.” Other inmates began to chime in with comments like “Fuck your system, fuck your rules.” And that was it… they were off.

Here is live 1990 news footage of inmates on the roof of Strangeways:  (3 min)

And here’s the 2015 BBC documentary Strangeways: Britain’s Toughest Prison Riot:  (1 hr, 30 min)

The 1971 riot at Attica   On August 21st, 1971, activist George Jackson was shot while serving an armed robbery sentence at California’s San Quentin State Prison. Jackson was a voice for the marginalized and incarcerated alike, and his death had a particularly strong impact on the inmates of Attica State Prison in upper New York State. On September 9th, tensions between Attica’s inmates and guards boiled over, and the rest is a sad bit of history. One of the comments for this video is “This has to be the worst way to handle a riot I’ve ever heard of.” I would agree. Be warned: it’s violent, but as another comment noted, “Please someone tell me why I’m only hearing about this as an adult. Why don’t they teach kids about this in school?”  (15 min)