Once in every lifetime, comes a love like this...

Michael Monkhouse hails The Young Ones

What’s struck me across on internet comedy forums lately is a distinct lack of enthusiasm for The Young Ones: ‘Criminally over-rated’… ‘Hopelessly dated’… Ah, who cares any more?’ Even Ade Edmondson once said: ‘I’m sick of it. ‘Bottom’s better.’

I can understand how an actor of his repute tires of getting typecast some 25 years on. And I admit the show’s very much a product of its period (Rik: ‘The bathroom’s free!... Unlike the country under the Thatcherite regime.’) Plus I’m a tad biased, having loved The Young Ones from the first episode, hell from the first trailer…

But before writing them off, let’s remember that period itself. When stand-up was Ronnie Corbett in a chair reciting someone else’s lines. When satire was the joyous, but soon defunct Not The Nine O’Clock News. When even the passionate Pythons were dubbed an ‘Oxbridge Mafia’ (too many sly Kierkegaard references for the guys, too many nude girls and crabby housewives for the gals)… It was time for change. And we got it.

People forget, but The Young Ones wasn’t just Vyvyan battering Neil over the head with a cricket bat. It was also marvellously, uniquely creative: wedged-in skits that seem irrelevant till you watch again; piss-taking puppets that pop up out of nowhere; even live bands that spice up the proceedings… Yet at the same time, it was a sitcom. For all its freshness, it had all the elements of the genre: recognisable characters (courtesy of Lise Mayer and her memories of university morons), gags galore (many from Mayall, a self-confessed Python addict), even a plot (thanks to Ben Elton, an alternative legend but also a Dad’s Army devotee).

Take an episode like Bomb, following standard sitcom structure: an outside threat, the characters react as you know they must, finally everything’s resolved in an unexpected, laughter-garnering fashion… Only difference is, the threat’s an atomic bomb, the characters are Rik et al, and the resolution is - ah, go check it out. You could argue - as BBC commissioners did – that it’s different in that none of the guys are likeable. I would respond - as Lise did - Fawlty Towers.

And this for me is their true genius. Just as the Beatles reinvented rock’n’roll, The Young Ones reinvented sitcom. And just as the Sex Pistols told us you don’t have to be Eric Clapton to pick up a guitar, they told us you don’t have to be Bob Monkhouse to pick up a mike... It’s no coincidence that the cast reads like a veritable Who’s Who of humour, from established performers like Terry Jones and Mel Smith through the entire gamut of the circuit right up to up-and-comers like David Baddiel. (Bottom, meanwhile, is more like watching sixth-form revue.)

Of course, the momentum couldn’t last forever. French and Saunders used to parody formulaic sitcoms, now they write them. Ben Elton used lead the attack against the Old Guard, now he writes bleedin musicals with them. Even the rip-roaringly successful Bottom is little more than two middle-aged millionaires’ carbon copies of their former glorious selves: consider their Guesthouse Paradiso fiasco, starting off with a Kevin Turvey line (‘It’s the early bird that catches worms’) and lurching into a wet-dream sequence almost identical to the one in The Young Ones Sick episode - funny yeah, but hardly chafing at the bit of comic creativity.

And yet alternative comedy left a legacy, apparent in two ways.

The first is an explosion of opportunities. As control was snatched from Oxbridge drama students and cliquey telly producers, there was a real opening-up of venues: countless venues where fans have an alternative to another night of beer and Indian food, venues where - more importantly - a whole new generation of acts get to hone their craft. Some fall by the wayside, others become circuit cults, others still become household names. But surely it’s here - on the circuit - that they all start.

And the second was summed up by Tony Allen in Wilmut and Rosengard’s book Didn’t You Kill My Mother-in-law? back in 1989: ‘To move the mainstream just a little bit you have to get out there and go HEAVE! And I think that’s what we did.’

Of course they did. Jasper Carrott ditched his bitching about women drivers and enlisted a great set of writers for Carrott Confidential, still the sharpest series of his career. Warren Mitchell was inspired by their attack on the bigotry he’d been ironising (‘They have fun, and also make comments on very real problems… It’s not dirty or smutty, it’s honest’). Even Bob Monkhouse, oft considered their polar opposite, expressed his admiration and was soon including Eltonesque jibes such as, ‘We Brits are the healthiest nation on Earth… Of course we are, why else would they be closing down all the hospitals?’

It was shows like The Young Ones that unlocked all this. And thank God for that.

Published: 14 Jul 2008

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