The Young Ones Never Got Old

PAT PILCHER gets misty-eyed and nostalgic for a sitcom that revolutionised television in the 1980s. And it still rocks.

The Young Ones was a huge shock to Thatcher’s England

It’s 1982. Television is carefully curated by broadcasting monoliths that do their utmost to uphold what they imagine to be traditional family values. Naughty words are not allowed. Subversive thoughts are quickly shuttled out the door.

Then along comes a new kind of sitcom called The Young Ones. It’s from ‘mother’ England but it speaks to Kiwi youth so pointedly that we go crazy for it. At last, something for us. A show that’s like a big fat raspberry to The Generation Game and The Donny & Marie Show and all those safe sitcoms that the olds watch as if hypnotized after a hard day in suburbia.

For two delirious seasons on Thursday nights, NZ streets emptied of pimply teens and tumbleweeds replaced the usual carnage as The Young Ones went to air.

The show almost never made it to air

From a comedic perspective, The Young Ones was not just a breath of fresh air but felt like a revolution in the making. Before then, TV comedy was dire. Canned laughter and lame Dad jokes on sitcoms (“Mrs Slocomb’s pussy,” anyone?) was the flavour of the day. It was either that or stand-up comics delivering routines that consisted of horribly misogynistic mother-in-law jokes (most of which were just not funny).

Thank goodness for The Young Ones, which – like Monty Python a decade earlier – gave old-school TV comedy a much-needed if short-lived, kick up the arse.

The Young Ones didn’t so much as re-write the comedy sitcom script but torch it, blow it up and hit each other over the head with it. The show pulled together witty and seemingly anarchic elements, all of which played a massive role in making it such totally compelling viewing.

Alexei Sayle was one of the regular guests

With each episode, you never quite knew what was going to happen from one moment to the next. About the only thing you could count on was that it’d be completely unexpected, bonkers and would give you big belly laughs. Another big drawcard at the time was the fact that there would always be a good band playing, too. (My personal favourites, The Damned, reformed to perform ‘Video Nasty’ on the show and broke up straight afterwards as a fight broke out between band members at dinner after recording the show).

The Young Ones arose out of a comedy duo, Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson. They’d performed at university, eventually ending up at the Comedy Store club in London. There they met a bunch of other rising comedians including Jennifer Saunders, Alexei Sayles, Robbie Coltrane, Dawn French and Stephen Fry. Many of these would also go on to put in guest appearances on the show.

The late Rik Mayall was one of the show’s highlights

The show is about four scumbag college students living together in a grotty flat. The most vocal was the self-titled ‘People’s Poet’, Rik (who like our own Gary Steel, was a rabid Cliff Richard fan who protested that he wasn’t a virgin more often than was healthy*). Then there was Neil, a chronically depressed hippy prone to failed suicides and cooking with lentils. Vyvyan was a punk rocker medical student hellbent on destruction who drove much of the show’s mayhem. Lastly was the smoothie Mike (who wasn’t a comedian but was the only one of the group who was a trained actor). A little-known piece of trivia that there were actually five students in the flat. The fifth student was hidden in plain sight in most episodes. If you have a dusty VHS, go through it frame by frame – you’ll be surprised.

The show was a great riposte (and reality check) to the toxic Thatcher government that rules in 1980s England. Each episode was liberally peppered with bizarre cutaway scenes starring fellow Comedy Store club comedians, wacky puppetry and off-the-wall single frame blipverts. There was also a bunch of great UK bands, simply because the shows production budget came out of the BBCs variety division, which required a band played in each episode.

The Young Ones still seems fresh and relevant in 2020

Amazingly, The Young Ones nearly never happened. BBC Producer, Paul Jackson was a Comedy Store fan. He wanted to get their acts into a TV show but lacked a suitable script. At least that was until Ben Elton and Lise Mayer teamed up to craft the pilot script.

Given the general stodginess of the BBC at the time, it wasn’t a big surprise that the script wasn’t well received. BBC bosses asked Ben Elton to “write an essay” and explain why it was funny.

Unsurprisingly, The Young Ones concept never got off the ground as the pilot script sat and gathered dust. At least that was until competing TV network, Channel 4, launched the Comic Strip Presents. It catapulted Rik Mayall, Adrian Edmondson and Nigel Planer to stardom and magically rekindled the BBC’s interest in the show.

Even back then in the days of standard definition non-CGI TV, The Young Ones looked incredibly lo-fi. The grungy string and sellotape look belied some real sophistication. Each episode was recorded before an unforgiving live audience. This meant that the explosions, destruction and general mayhem that took place in each show had to be meticulously coordinated, and that timing was critical.

Slapstick violence was also part and parcel of The Young Ones experience. From pickaxes through Vyvyan’s skull to a cast iron pan hitting Neil’s head (complete with a cartoony “dooonggggg” sound effect which never failed to get a laugh), the frantic comedic violence gave the show a distinct slapstick quality and much of its zany energy.

Bad language was also another device that was exploited to good effect on the show. At the time, the BBC forbade any swearing. This led to a lot of creatively crafted insults such as Rik’s, “You utter, utter UTTER poohead!” About the only swear word that was able to be used on the air at the time was “bastard”. Because of this, the term was liberally sprayed about.

The Young Ones ran for two seasons, clocking up a mere 12 episodes. Re-watching episodes today I’m amazed at how well the humour is still current and holds up. Unlike a lot of other TV shows of the time, the cast and crew wisely decided to end on a high. While a lot of shows are being badly resurrected with crapulent sequels, prequels, reboots or remakes, sanity has so far prevailed when it comes to The Young Ones. Besides, doing so would be challenging given that Rik Mayall died in 2014.

  • The Young Ones is available to view on TVNZ On Demand.
  • Gary Steel was never a Cliff Richard fan, but Pat Pilcher did once boogie to Gary Glitter records in his teenage bedroom.

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