TV GEMS: The Young Ones (1982-1984)

With the passing of legendary comedian Rik Mayall, Dylan returns to the squalor of student life with those young c*nts. 

Argh!

This week, we discovered that Rik Mayall has died. I was genuinely gutted by this news. It wasn’t just because I was a huge fan of his work, and it was indeed tragic to lose him at such an early age, even if it does feel like he’s been around forever. It was because watching The Young Ones is one of my earliest memories of television. I would get them from my local indie video shop (which is still open, can you believe it?), or watch them on repeats. This was 1990, by the way. This fascination was only exacerbated by the fact that it was made nearby. I grew up in Bristol in a house not too dissimilar to the exteriors in the programme (this isn’t just my opinion, it’s about twenty minutes up the road).  Most of the movie reviews I have done for SquabbleBox have been after viewing them in a cinema across the road from The Kebab & Calculator. The show is hotwired into my memories.

For those unaware of the premise, The Young Ones follows six students living in a house together. You never saw them at university, though. Instead, it was focused on the day-to-day trappings of their normal life. A normal life that would descend into the whole house flooding, one of them picking up a nuclear bomb, or another being chased by a vampire.

I actually don’t want to focus too much on the student element of The Young Ones. Weird I know, but what I loved about it was the sheer surrealism of some of the stuff they put out. It’s hard to define what is so iconic about it. It hasn’t aged that well, really. The production values of each episode are both fantastic and hilariously bad, but I cannot think of anything else like it. I think it is the sheer anarchic silliness of every minute of every episode. You never know what is coming next, whether it be the light bulb talking, the washing machine rejecting clothes, or the three bears stealing the gang’s lentils. What’s so brilliant is they treat it as if all of this is normal. It’s so easy to say, “You don’t know what’s coming next” when watching something, but honestly, there are no rules here. Decapitating someone doesn’t kill them; it means the body can kick the head all the way to London. It manages to deconstruct the sitcom genre without resorting to Mighty Boosh-esque whimsy. This is alongside an amazing cast and writing crew, most of whom are still very much active. Next to the main cast, we have Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, Lenny Henry, Robbie Coltrane, Emma Thompson, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Mel Smith, Griff Rhys-Jones, and more. It raises every side character from a mere plot element to another classic moment.

You cannot deny Ben Elton’s impact as a writer here, too. He was still such a young man, and yet there isn’t really much deadwood in the whole two series. Everything seems to work so perfectly together. Even if the programme is anarchic, there is an underlying confidence throughout that stops it from ever going too far. Perhaps this is The Young Ones secret; an older scriptwriter would never have taken the risks Elton did, especially with episode endings that basically make no sense.  Seriously, look at this clip here – I have seen this dozens of times and I still don’t have a clue what it means. Elton succeeds where so many sitcoms (including his own) fail; it is genuinely funny, and very, very deep. Even now there are jokes I am only just getting. If you think that is my own lack of knowledge, tell that to Roger Bannister. Elton remains the George Lucas of television comedy-writing. Although he may have fallen in recent times, it’s only because he started on such a peak. And at least Elton has never remade The Young Ones with digital effects.

Regardless of the oddball humour, it sums up elements of what it is like to live in a student house. Paying bills, cleaning, cooking, watching television; all of it was true then, and all of it is true now. This is next to genuine social satire. Thatcher, the Cold War, recession, and even the Iranian Embassy siege get a look in. Yet, although clearly leaning to the left, it lampoons the “right-on” aspect they are clearly involved with. It remains a genuine social document of Britain in the 80s and the UK in general. All this in a programme where a carrot ice skates and witches live next door. Without ever being kooky or facile. Ben Elton, where did you go? How did we go from this to The Wright Way?

And so we come to the main cast. Again, what a main cast this is! Rik Mayall, Adrian Edmondson, Nigel Planer, Christopher Ryan, and Alexei Sayle. You expect a lot of hamming it up and playing to the audience, and there is to some extent. This is still extremely disciplined comedy, though, and you can tell they originate from a theatre background. Every episode could so easily turn into shouting and screaming matches, but the timing is always, always spot-on. All play their respective comedic strengths off each other, too; Planer’s morose musings, Ryan’s deadpan humour, Sayle’s working class ludicrousness, and Edmondson and Mayall’s over-the-top slapstick violence. At the same time, they use the space that television gives them, and turn what is clearly a set into a believable environment.

Much has been written about all of their performances, so I am going to focus purely on Mayall due to his passing. He remains a truly unique talent. I know it sounds weird, but he is the best actor I have seen play a dick. Just look at this “poetry” reading.  I could watch it a thousand times.

Here he is at his absolute best. Rik, that is to say the character Rik, is a perfect mix of childish idiot and faux right-on wannabe. You should hate him, and he is so annoying, but he is also such a pathetic wuss that he cannot help but be adorable at the same time. Because, let’s face it, this is what it is like to be a teenager. Who hasn’t had moments of rebellion in their youth that you look back on and realise how ridiculous it all was? Rik represents this, and Mayall is self-aware enough to play it beautifully.

For me, the absolute zenith of his character comes in the party scene. His attempts to get involved with a woman’s handbag destroy everything that has been building up throughout. I am not a huge fan of toilet humour, but here it is injected with pathos, which is an incredible achievement. Is “I think I had better go to the lavatory” the best line ever? On a side note, see how well Elton plays with a TV convention at the end, without making it heavy-handed.

They even manage to fit a musical number into every episode. Famously, this was because they got more money as a light entertainment show rather than as a sitcom, but the bands they managed to get are astonishing. Motörhead! Dexys Midnight Runners! Madness! Jools Holland covering Bob Dylan! Bar a few exceptions (what on Earth is that “I can hear my body talking” song about?), it adds a whole new layer of cool to the craziness.

Remember that the clip below is irrelevant to the show and thrown-in purely for financial reasons. And yet it is a better music video than an actual Motörhead-produced effort. Also, that’s my local station; I quite literally travelled through it today to come home and write this article. I hope you can see why I love this show, despite being born several years after its original release.

I don’t know how much sense it would make to those approaching it now, and I don’t doubt there was some good luck along the way, but The Young Ones remains a slice of perfection. Its still so important to me in terms of how I have viewed comedy for the rest of my life, and though Fishing With John or The Day Today remain my favourite programme, this is one of the most iconic. I don’t think you can underestimate just what an impact this programme has had on comedy, and for what it was trying to achieve, it remains unmatched.

I genuinely love it. I have never grown bored of it. For me, it radiates humour and never loses any. I cannot imagine a time when I don’t want to watch it. The Young Ones demonstrates a time that has gone, but one I can never forget. Goodbye, Rik, but thanks so much for all the memories…

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • Rik Mayall once remarked in an interview that The Young Ones were designed to be a nuclear family, with Neil as the mother, Mike as the father figure, Vyvyan as the rebellious young son and Rick as the daughter (complete with pigtails).
  • According to Ed Bye, the show was surprisingly popular with policemen, a fact which upset Mayall greatly.
  • Colin Baker taped a sketch portraying the evil Count Dustbug, which was deleted from the finished edition.
  • None of the writers had ever done anything for television before and simply wrote what they thought would be funny, not giving any thought to how it would actually be filmed. When they arrived on set the first day they realized how much work the crew had gone to for what were, in a lot of cases, throwaway jokes with no real connection to the plot. They apologized and promised to write things that would be easier to film, but the crew told them they had enjoyed the challenge and to keep writing as they had and they would find a way to film it.

Dylan Spicer

Dylan graduated from Brighton Film School and and went on to complete an MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University. He has worked on award-winning short and feature films. He is currently experimenting with Narradu Memories, and his online audio drama giantcannibals.co.uk.

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