Steve Clarke alternately giggles and squirms at a biting satire on media mendacity.
Sitcoms as perfectly realised and executed as Channel 4’s Drop the Dead Donkey are exceedingly rare. That this newsroom caper, set mostly in the offices of Globelink News, was a topical satire, filmed partly the day before transmission to keep the material as up to date as possible, speaks volumes of the skills of creators Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin, the brilliant ensemble cast and its director, the energetic Liddy Oldroyd. Unusually, Oldroyd directed all six series, some 65 episodes. Tragically, she died in 2002, aged 47, four years after Drop the Dead Donkey ended.
Hamilton and Jenkin, who met at Cambridge, were writing partners for around a decade, predominantly at BBC radio and television, before Hamilton had the idea for what became Drop the Dead Donkey.
Having written for Not the Nine O’Clock News and Spitting Image, their satirical chops were well honed before they decided to transplant their humour from sketch shows to a workplace sitcom.
Unsurprisingly, they assumed the natural home for such an endeavour was the BBC, but, when the Beeb sat on the show, they decided to try Channel 4 instead. Drop the Dead Donkey was soon a defining show for a network that needed to push the envelope.
Whether the gags would have been so edgy on the BBC is a moot point. Few targets seemed to be off limits as leading politicians, royals and other people in public life were routinely skewered by Globelink’s disreputable and wholly dysfunctional staff.
That both Neil Kinnock and Ken Livingstone agreed to appear in the show suggests the high regard with which it was held – even by those who could be the butt of its jokes.
The character at the heart of Drop the Dead Donkey is editor George Dent (Jeff Rawle), a hypochondriac who dreams of better things. He is eternally harassed and put upon by his wife, his boss – the jargon-loving Gus – and the mostly amoral hacks he is unable to control.
With exquisite irony, he falls in love with new recruit Helen, who turns out to be gay.
The macho elements in the mix are provided by the utterly unscrupulous reporter Damien (a young Stephen Tompkinson), who would sell his granny for a scoop, lecherous newsroom assistant Dave (the then largely unknown Neil Pearson) and grizzled news anchor Henry (David Swift), hopelessly vain, hard-drinking and overly fond of a flutter and young, female company.
If Henry reminds viewers of a certain age of the late, great ITN newscaster Reggie Bosanquet, so much the better. But Henry’s liking for red braces and crumpled white suits might hint at other veteran British newsmen. His foil and co-anchor is the irredeemably posh and intellectually challenged Sally (Victoria Wicks). When she is told to read an item about a crisis in Kashmir, Sally initially assumes the news is referring to, you guessed it, cashmere.
Drop the Dead Donkey was first broadcast in 1990, a time when it seemed as if most of the UK’s media would soon be owned by either Rupert Murdoch or Robert Maxwell. Globelink forms part of the empire of the Dickensian-sounding Sir Roysten Merchant. Note his initials. He is determined to take the station downmarket. The only time we ever see Sir Roysten is when he sacks Gus in the final episode – and, of course, he has no idea who Gus is.
When Maxwell disappeared overboard in 1991, Hamilton and Jenkin took his unexpected exit in their stride and used the death as an opportunity for some especially mordant newsroom jokes.
As time has gone by, there have been several other great British workplace sitcoms, notably The Office and W1A. Hilarious they undoubtedly are, but what sets Drop the Dead Donkey apart is its humanity, the tragic vulnerabilities of its characters – and the sheer scope and incisiveness of Hamilton and Jenkin’s writing. And let’s not forget the show’s visual elan, forged partly by clever use of handheld cameras.
In our wildly unpredictable times, viewers look in vain for a 21st-century satirical equivalent of Drop the Dead Donkey.
Drop the Dead Donkey is available on BritBox and All4.