Friday 17 June 2022

Watching The Young Ones as a Young One

A guest post by Tim Cook

By the time the first episode of The Young Ones aired on BBC2, I was only 10 years old but already a devotee of TV comedy. I watched every sitcom possible, be they good or bad; I doubt if I could tell the difference. So, I expected nothing more of this new programme than any other back then. I’d seen the rather unpromising trailer a couple of times (“This is a trailer for The Young Ones” intoned a grubby young man with long hair, pointing at a Matchbox toy), but nothing in my short life prepared me for that evening half-hour of November 9th, 1982.

As the final credits rolled, it felt as if things had changed somehow, that the world rotated at a different angle and along a faster orbit, an experience only the premiere episodes of Vic Reeves Big Night Out or The Day Today subsequently came close to matching. That first episode moment when Vyvyan smashes through the wall of the students’ grotty communal kitchen, raucously declaring “I’ve been down the morgue!” marked the moment alternative comedy exploded into my life and those of my friends, perhaps British television itself, and we still feel its shockwaves to this day.

Up until then, TV sitcoms were safe, chummy affairs, like avuncular aunts and uncles, whereas The Young Ones was more the cool eldest sibling who stayed out half the night and sometimes hung around by the school gates when they should have been somewhere else. Over the course of those six weeks of series one, The Young Ones took over the playground conversations among us boys (the girls seemed uninterested in the show) until the question “Did you see The Young Ones last night?” became almost a cliché.

As far as television of the time went, perhaps only The Kenny Everett Show could approach it for popularity, and The Day of The Triffids as a phenomenon. Rik, Mike, Vyvyan, and Neil became our John, Paul, George, and Ringo. Any news or guest role (blessed were those who caught Rik Mayall’s surprise appearance in ITV’s The Cannon and Ball Show) were keenly discussed. And, as with The Beatles, there were rumours: for example, a couple of years after the series ended, word of Adrian Edmondson’s supposed death swept through my high school, the news supposedly being covered up by the BBC.

Part of the show’s appeal to children lay in its anarchic (one of Rik’s favourite words, of course), cartoonish quality, combined with a freewheeling imagination of the kind that led to The Goodies and Monty Python’s Flying Circus having sizeable schoolkid followings in the 1970s, and the type of slapstick reminiscent of the films of Laurel & Hardy (whose short comedies were frequently shown on BBC2 in the early 1980s). These were adults who behaved in a relatable way to children: they brawled and shouted, called each other rude names, were often broke, and subjected each other to the kind of petty violence so often the child’s lot in life.

Indeed, The Young Ones provided children with a look at what young adulthood might be like, beyond the adolescent concerns of Grange Hill. We would, it seemed, have a strong taste for lager, eat nothing but lentils (even if they had to be scraped off the floor), lie about our success with girls, contend with dodgy landlords (in this case Jertzy Balowski, played by Alexei Sayle), and attend university while not really doing anything aside from watching Bastard Squad on TV and breaking shoddy furniture over each other’s heads.

The main difficulty as child watching a comedy aimed at young adults was many of the jokes sailed clean over our heads. Gags about period pains and wet dreams became the stuff of huddled “do you know what x is?” conversations, always commenced by the one boy who knew what x was and wanted to show off. And not just sex, but politics too; the meaning of Rik’s accusation to Neil that “you’re so blinking bor-joicey!” evaded me for years afterwards, until I realised it was the writers’ brilliant way of showing Rik’s political ‘right-on’ fakery (if you’re still in the dark, Rik is mispronouncing ‘bourgeoise’).

With many households owning just one television set in the early 1980s, there was many an awkward living room silence with parents glaring over their blushing child’s head at, for example, the scene in ‘Interesting’ in which an unknowing Rik and Vyvyan play with a female friend’s tampon applicator (“It’s a telescope – with a little mouse inside it!”). This relative frankness about previously taboo topics in TV comedy resulted in some unfortunate children being banned from watching the show by their parents.

As for myself, although my father described one episode as “filth”, I was allowed to watch whatever shows weren’t past my bedtime. And the day after each new episode, my schoolfriends and I would recite what parts of the show we could remember, one of the very few ways of keeping scenes alive beyond their original screening - few of us had access to VCRs in 1982, though that would change over the next few years. In my case, a 1985 repeat screening of the season two episode ‘Time’ became the first TV show I taped and kept, on a Scotch E-120 tape that, 37 years later, I donated to the editor of this very blog.

While keeping the memory of the previous Young Ones episode alive, any details of the next would be gobbled up ravenously, which made it even more annoying that such details were almost non-existent. For those of us who weren’t ‘Radio Times families’, the only option was that day’s ‘Pages from Ceefax’ and to wait patiently for the TV guide section to flip round, only to read a nonsensical billing along the lines of “the vicar makes a surprise visit and Mark and Samantha buy a new chainsaw”. Little did we know the Ceefax billing was identical to that published in the Radio Times; the Young Ones production team knew the Radio Times would print anything they were sent without checking, and so it proved. One episode’s listing gave the useful information that “Pauline Melville [playing Vyv’s mum] makes a splendid quiche”.

Just as patchy was catching the show’s incursions into other media: when in July 1984, Nigel Planer as ‘Neil’ reached no. 2 in the charts with ‘Hole in My Shoe’ (I doubt if any of us kids were aware this was a cover version), fingers were crossed for Top of The Pops featuring the hippy’s song that week, while Alexei Sayle’s single ‘Ullo John! Got a New Motor?’ (no. 15 in March 1984), seemed almost the stuff of legend, so rarely did the video appear on TV.

Around the time of the latter’s release, a shoe shop in my home city ran a promotion whereby if you bought a pair of shoes from a particular range, you could claim a free top twenty single if you sent off the receipt with a newspaper clipping of the charts, indicating which single you wanted. Alas, by the time it took me to annoy my mother into buying my new school shoes from said shop, Alexei had dropped out of the charts, and so I selected the only song I’d heard of among that week’s hit parade: ‘Club Tropicana’ by Wham.

Ironically, I’d no patience with the pop acts who appeared in The Young Ones; as far as I was concerned, the likes of Motorhead and Amazulu (“Oh really? I’m a Glaswegian”) got in the way of the fun, just as Elaine Page and Barbera Dixon got in the way – albeit more elegantly - during The Two Ronnies.

Later that year, a book tie-in, Bachelor Boys: The Young Ones Book, became one of the must-have gifts of Christmas 1984, and I recall one copy being passed around the classroom and giggled over as we waited for Miss Funnell to give our science lesson. By now, I was at high school, and computer games had become a central topic of conversation. The computer game version of The Young Ones, produced in 1986 by Orpheus Software, suffered from what felt then like an endless build-up of hype generated by the gamer magazines of the time, only to receive mediocre reviews on its eventual release. By then however, interest in the show was waning, and pocket money was best kept for better games. 

Watching that first episode recently on the BBC iPlayer, what strikes me is its lack of explanation. There’s no ‘origin story’ as to how Rik, Vyvyan, Neil and Mike got together, in contrast to the opening episode of ITV’s answer to The Young Ones, Girls On Top, which first aired in October 1985. Instead, the viewer is launched straight into the show’s insane universe, like it or not – and boy, did we like it. The Young Ones changed how my generation viewed TV comedy, and we would follow the careers of those involved for years to come, with many laughs had, and fond memories made, along the way. 

Tim can be found on Twitter over at @EarlhamThe

No comments:

Post a Comment