Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Linda SpashettNovember 9th, 1982. I am nine years old, English, and have tuned the family’s only television set to BBC2. A new sitcom called The Young Ones is beginning and as a keen comedy fan, I’m curious about what this show has to offer, as it stars several cast members of The Comic Strip Presents, the highlight of the opening day’s broadcast of Channel Four, the new TV station which began transmissions the previous week. Half an hour later, a nine-year-old’s world had changed; a young one had seen something in The Young Ones he’d never seen on television before.
A comedy show about four male students living in grotty accommodation in London, to call The Young Ones either adult or juvenile is to do the show a disservice. Certainly, the show addressed topics or used language rarely heard before on television, let alone a sitcom, but The Young Ones featured no ‘mature’ Thirtysomething-style comfort moralizing, nor any of the giggling smut of The Benny Hill Show. The characters used explicit language, but only to insult each other, when they weren’t physically assaulting one another. The exaggerated violence lent an air of old-fashioned slapstick to a show which also addressed political issues such as police racism and youth unemployment, while the outlandish events of the series’ 12 episodes matched anything seen in Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Puppet characters made cameo appearances (such as animated banisters, trees, vegetables and cleaning equipment) and cutaway scenes were common, usually with only the most peripheral relevance to the week’s plot. And television had rarely seen such a cast of characters who lived so closely together and yet often loathed each other.
The default head of the four is Mike (Christopher Ryan), a short man with a big idea of himself as a successful lothario. Dressed as if Fonzie from Happy Days wanted in with the golf club crowd, Mike holds some degree of respect over his three housemates, in that he doesn’t get hit with bricks or called a b*****d every few minutes. It’s usually Mike who comes up with a plan to get out, or at least survive, whatever bizarre situation the gang have gotten into, such as avoiding the attentions of a South African vampire who’s arrived through the post, or what to do about Buddy Holly, stuck halfway out of an upstairs ceiling ever since he fell out of a certain airplane in 1959. This doesn’t make Mike the cleverest of the four, given once accidentally nailed his legs to the kitchen table, but his ego can’t tolerate anyone else taking charge.
If all sitcoms form around the traditional nuclear family, then Neil the hippie (Nigel Planer) is the show’s put upon mother. Barely tolerated by the others who either ignore Neil or insult him, Neil does the group’s housework in return for no thanks whatsoever. Neil doesn’t do himself any favors, droning on about rights for vegetables and how sleep gives you cancer, only cooking lentils for dinner, and bringing everyone down with his constant wishes for death, preferably by suicide. Neil’s appearance is as dreary as his outlook on life, wearing drab, grubby clothes, although in one episode, he is shocked to learn his trademark long straight hair is in fact a wig.
As unpopular as Neil is, the most disliked of the group is Rick (co-writer Rik Mayall, who sadly died in 2014 aged just 56), a supposed anarchist and poet, who claims to follow the teachings of Marx and Trotsky. This is only to try to fit in with the cool crowd at Scumbag College, where all four study, though we never see them attend classes or indeed do any sort of academic work. An immature brat, Rick whines and cries to get his way or when the slightest thing goes wrong. Rick is also bad-tempered, though his character is more given to tantrums than argument. This makes him the subject of most of the insults and violence inflicted during The Young Ones, though in the comic book world the characters inhabit, any injuries sustained, even fatal ones, are soon forgotten.
Dispensing most of the violence is Vyvyan (Adrian Edmondson), a deranged punk dressed in Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Aloxechains and denim, with a Mohican haircut and metal studs piercing his forehead. Vyvyan is capable of any abhorrence, sometimes to help the group, though more often than not to amuse himself at Rick’s expense. Despite bordering on the psychotic, the lager-loving Vyvyan is also the most logical character, using the lateral thinking displayed by the show’s structure to his advantage, moving walls to bring an electric socket closer to the TV or enticing some sentient washing machines in a laundrette to wash clothes for nothing by pretending he owns a famous actress’s underwear. A medical student, Vyvyan's introduction in the first episode, 'Destruction,' sees him smash through a kitchen wall clutching a dismembered leg he has obtained from the local morgue.
The other regular performer is Alexei Sayle, usually portraying members of the Bolowski family, Russian immigrants to the UK. Jertzy Balowski is the landlord of the dwelling (‘house’ is too grand a term) the boys move into in the second episode after a crashing passenger jet destroys their first home. As landlords go, Jertzy isn’t the most considerate, smashing their TV and then charging them an extra fee for the TV somebody has just broken.
Aside from Ryan, an established actor, the cast were stand-up comedians and cabaret performers, at the forefront of a new wave of politicized comedy that rose in Britain during the early years of Margaret Thatcher’s divisive government. Mayall and Edmondson performed together as The Dangerous Brothers, a violent double act from where the character of Vyvyan originated, with Rick owing more to Mayall’s ‘student poet’ character, also named Rick. Planer toured the new London comedy clubs of the early 1980s as Neil, whose character was unchanged for The Young Ones. As one of the leading names of this new wave of comedy, labelled ‘alternative comedy’ to the dislike of pretty much everyone involved with it, Sayle was one of the first associated with the movement, introducing shows and performing routines with a vitriol and aggression previously unseen in British comedy. Guest performers also sprung from this new comedy circuit, most notably the double act of Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, who would soon appear in their own show, and a sitcom, Girls on Top, for Independent Television, a kind of all-female version of The Young Ones.
Adding to the contemporary atmosphere of the show, each episode bar one featured a band such as ska group Madness, heavy metal’s Motorhead or Dexys Midnight Runners, who scored a no.1 hit in the USA in 1983 with ‘Come On Eileen.’ Further serving the onscreen anarchy, characters often broke the ‘fourth wall,’ by addressing the viewer or pointing out they were taking part in a fictional TV show.
The Young Ones marked a radical departure for the BBC and producer Paul Jackson later claimed the show was only green-lit for fear of losing potential comedic talent to the new Channel Four station, Britain’s first new TV station for 18 years. Swearing and violence on the scale (doubtless modest by today’s standards) seen in The Young Ones were unheard of, and in the weeks of playground discussion that followed at my school, being allowed by one’s parents to watch The Young Ones became almost a badge of honor. For Jackson, as well as the show’s fans, this formed part of the appeal of the show; rougher, less polished and with an agenda unappealing to conservatives, the show felt as important to young Brits in the early 1980s as rock and roll had given young Americans in the late 1950s. “Kids became aware of this kind of comedy for the first time,” said Jackson in 1989, though as writer and comedy historian Roger Wilmut puts it, the show “rather surprised everyone by becoming a cult with younger schoolchildren.”
The BBC produced only 12 episodes of The Young Ones, with a second series of six appearing on BBC2 in May 1984. Mayall, along with co-writers Lise Mayer and Ben Elton, emphatically killed off the characters in the show’s finale ‘Summer Holiday,’ where Neil, Mike, Vyvyan and Rick come bottom out of the entire world (and in that order) in their exams and are thrown out of their derelict lodgings by Mr Balowski, on finding a dead elephant-headed man under the living room carpet. Robbing a bank, the boys celebrate their new freedom only to crash their stolen double-decker bus over the edge of a cliff, killing them all in the resulting explosion. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Courtesy Ronald Reagan LibraryThey survived for a time outside TV, appearing in occasional live charity performances, and the spin-off book, Bachelor Boys, became the must-have present for kids my age in Christmas 1984. Outside the UK, the show enjoyed great popularity with the young surfing crowd in Australia, and enjoyed a run on MTV in 1985 as one of the first comedy shows of any sort show on that channel.
A long time has passed since The Young Ones first aired, and those kids who watched the students first time around may now have young students of their own. Since then, Britain has changed (many say for the worse), and so has British TV comedy (just as many will say for the better). Those who implemented those changes are still around, one way or another, in politics and television, and Rick would still today call for revolution and anarchy, even while clinging to the comforts of the past. The Young Ones still manages to appeal to nostalgia freaks and those looking for something to challenge the establishment, while always delivering the laughs. And, if there’s something which the establishment fears, it is laughter.