Steve Clarke hails the cult show that radically redefined the sitcom with an avalanche of surreal, satirical slapstick.
Few TV shows are held responsible for blowing apart the genre they belong to, but that was the legacy of The Young Ones. The incendiary BBC Two sitcom redefined the parameters of comedy by making an embarrassment out of elements of the genteel English suburban sitcom, exemplified by The Good Life and Ever Decreasing Circles.
From now on, thanks to The Young Ones, sitcom could sit squarely at the heart of youth culture, while those tuxedoed comics who had built their routines on jokes about mothers-in-law found themselves beyond the pale.
If BBC Three had been around in 1982, when series 1 of The Young Ones landed, its brilliance would have defined the channel overnight. As it was, its arrival was, to paraphrase one critic, not unlike an atomic bomb going off in conventional mainstream TV comedy and entertainment.
Indeed, an early episode saw the four housemates who are the show’s anti-heroes wake up to discover an atom bomb in their kitchen. Inevitably, Vyvyan (Ade Edmondson) – the flame-haired, cricket bat-wielding punk addicted to smashing anything and everything – wants to let it off. Rick (Rik Mayall), the slightly camp, arty one and self-declared Cliff Richard fan, wants to use the bomb to blackmail the detested Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher.
In a neat satirical sequence, there are references to Protect and Survive, a recently published government pamphlet with its bizarre tips on how to cope with nuclear Armageddon. This was the age of protests against US missile bases amid fears that the Iron Lady and US President Ronald Reagan might trigger a nuclear war with the Soviet Union.
The programme’s insane slapstick and inspired surrealism were the proverbial blast of fresh air, as the attitudes and styles that characterised the booming stand-up circuit were imported into peak-time TV comedy.
The comedy was peppered with performances by some of the era’s most popular bands – perhaps most memorably, British metal band Motörhead belting out their best-known number, Ace of Spades, while our four heroes rush for a train so they can appear on, of all things, University Challenge.
Cue more satire as Scumbag College takes on the toffs of Footlights College, Oxbridge.
Subtle or sophisticated it wasn’t, but the show generated a lot of laughs as the under-35s finally had a sitcom they could call their own.
There were puppets, too, and star guests aplenty in this two-series blitzkrieg. Rising stars Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie and, yes, even Robbie Coltrane and Emma Thompson, all climbed aboard a sitcom that quickly defined and encapsulated “alternative comedy” on TV.
And let us not forget the fearsome Liverpudlian hardman and famed compère of Soho’s Comedy Store, Alexei Sayle. He plays the sadistic landlord, Jerzei Balowski, as well as other members of the Balowski family.
At the heart of all great sitcoms are well-honed characters. The quartet was completed by Mike (Christopher Ryan), who wouldn’t have looked out of place drinking with Del Boy in Only Fools and Horses, and the wondrous, dim-witted hippie, Neil (Nigel Planer). Here was a character decades ahead of his time, a put-upon pacifist, vegetarian and environmentalist suffering from what we’d today call mental health issues.
The episode in which he inhales some especially potent pot and ends up travelling in space to land on a distant planet remains hilarious. Quite what Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk would make of it is anyone’s guess.
The Young Ones was written by Mayall, Ben Elton and Lise Mayer, an American-born writer who met Mayall when he was a drama student at Manchester University.
The role of the peerless producer Paul Jackson should not be underestimated. He once said: “I was lucky enough to be the conduit through which a lot of alternative comedy came to a broader audience. In the 1980s, I remember thinking the business was changing and there was a movement that hadn’t yet been tapped into. I wouldn’t say I had an influence, but I put on shows such as The Young Ones and Saturday Live that did.”
This self-effacement belies both his contribution and the impact of The Young Ones and its pivotal role in changing British sitcom for good.
The Young Ones is available on Amazon Prime Video.