Fourth wall? What fourth wall?: ‘Filthy Rich & Catflap’ at 30

❉  A revolutionary piece of television written by and for comedy obsessives first appeared on TV thirty years ago this month.

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Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson were somewhat unique in British comedy for having ‘grown up’ (if that’s the correct phrase) through their comedy. They started as The Dangerous Brothers, using the persona of two violent teenagers, although the violence was only directed against each other, went through a fictional studenthood as Rik and Vyvyan Bastard, and ended up as middle-aged Richie Rich and Eddie Hitler, their longest-running characters.

But there is a little-known phase that has dropped from many people’s memories, and often dismissed as a lower-rent ‘Young Ones’: ‘Filthy Rich & Catflap’, in which Richie Rich and Eddie Catflap try and earn a living as an actor and bodyguard respectively. Richie is twenty-something, a virgin, and an embarrassment to anyone working with him. Eddie is his permanently drunk bodyguard, who has little regard for Richie’s safety, and even less for his own.

They are not at all helped by Richie’s agent, Ralph Filthy, perhaps the finest comic performance Nigel Planer has ever given. Ralph is Richie’s agent, a manipulating, lying, hypochondriac drunk. When Eddie challenges him on this, he replies: “Eddie, my leisure establishments are totally allowable. And anyway, I get the kids off Youth Training Schemes. The Iron Lady looks after small businessman like me.”

This sets the tone for the whole series, which is full of jibes at the contemporary government, often addressed to the audience. There is no fourth wall, continuing the trend from The Young Ones, which often featured the characters addressing the audience.

‘Filthy Rich & Catflap’ is unusual in that the ‘fourth wall’ between the cast and the audience doesn’t exist. The cast often make fun of the script to the audience, whilst still in character, something that was tentatively explored in ‘The Young Ones’, but which is an integral part of ’Filthy Rich & Catflap’.

Much is made of Filthy’s dodgy business interests and his exploitative nature, all of which is justified, but conversely, Richie admits in the third episode that he doesn’t pay him, and Filthy not only manages to get Richie an appearance in ‘Oo-er, Sounds a Bit Rude’, but also gets him a spot on TV-am.

Although there’s lots of comedy violence, especially in the first episode, this isn’t quite slapstick. Characters get hurt, and even killed, with the body count in the first episode reaching five. But then, they were mostly only milkmen. The violence in the series never reaches the heady heights of episode one again, but you can’t really top a plot line which concludes with the police dumping the bodies of convicts in a river. Naturally this is excused by Rik and Ade, out of character, as lazy, and Rik ends by saying “…next time you get beaten up, try calling an alternative comedian!”

For me, the peak of the series is in episode two, where Richie is booked to appear on Oo-er, Sounds a Bit Rude, an obvious parody of Blankety Blank (this may have been an inspiration for the far darker Blankety Blank parody in the 2003 Comic Relief). There are some fantastic performances here, especially from Chris Barrie, who plays the apoplectic director, constantly shouting at Harry Enfield’s floor manager and his cameramen.

Gareth Hale gives perhaps the finest performance of his career as ‘Ivor Whopper’, the host, saying to his audience: “Thank you, thank you, for giving me ‘the clap'”. Richie’s answer to the question “I never impress the girls because I’ve only got a small….”, “PENIS!” is a nice subversion of the humour, and this is carried on to its extreme, culminating in a fight between the guests for the camera. Molly Slocombe, who saved the show from Richie by making pussy jokes, tells the audience: “When I say me pussy, I really mean me…!”, before getting shoved out of view, and the comedy gay states: “I’m homosexual! Isn’t it hilarious?!”

But this isn’t the end of the fun. Yet another of the reasons why episode two is so good is a rather impressive turn by none other than The Nolans, all of whom Richie fancies like mad. They find him in their dressing room after the recording, dressed in one of their costumes, and blackmail him by taking a picture and telling him they will give it back if they get a thousand pounds from him.

At first, Richie and Eddie try and get the proceeds of Filthy’s sale of one of his cleaner’s paintings by killing him, but this simply results in a Benny Hill-esque chase around the flat, and the money being flushed down the toilet by mistake. The way Richie finally gets this money is the final reason why this is my favourite episode: Fry and Laurie play an art dealer and his associate, who buy all of Eddie’s pathetic attempts at art, and display it, winning plaudits from art critics. They pay off the Nolans with the result of the dealer’s experiment in just how sheep-like art buyers are, and the Nolans perform I’m in the Mood for Dancing in the flat at the end of the episode.

The third episode demonstrates the closeness of Richie and Eddie’s relationship. They hate each other, yet depend on each other to bring some order to their lives. Their taunting of each other is very sibling-like, echoing the Dangerous Brothers and Rik & Vyvyan. Richie’s dinner party, to which top celebs like Jimmy Tarbuck are invited, is a perfect opportunity for them to slag off the ‘old school’ comics, who were regularly presenting game shows at the time.

However, the real innovation comes with Richie and Eddie paying their local newsagent a visit. They walk through a door to the next set, with the camera following them from the side. Eddie comments that the newsagent has got a lot closer ever since they moved studios, and Richie tells him off, telling him that he’s ‘spoiling the magic’ for the audience.

As part two of their desired magazine is free with part one, they simply steal part two and leave. When the woman behind the counter (Damaris Hayman – Doctor Who: The Daemons, The Young Ones: Nasty) threatens to phone the police, Richie reminds her that it’s the end of her scene and taunts her. Richie and Eddie’s bizarre lifestyle is revealed in an exchange where Richie taunts Eddie for not going out with girls. Eddie retorts that he went out with one last week, and Richie replies “Eddie, that was your mother!” Eddie exclaims, “I still got a snog! Well, it was more of a fight, really.”

‘Filthy Rich & Catflap’ is firmly entrenched in the tacky end of British showbusiness, something which perhaps made it more of a cult than its predecessor. While almost anyone could find jokes about students amusing (although The Young Ones was always much more than that), it takes a particular type of person to appreciate jokes about Jimmy Tarbuck, Bruce ForsythKenny Lynch and Freddie Starr.

Their immersion in light entertainment hell is reinforced in the fifth episode, when Eddie is driven mad by Richie’s burbling about Tom O’Connor, leading to Eddie’s smashing of the television after Richie suggests watching Name That Tune on the video.

The prospect of getting up at 4.30am forces Richie and Eddie to try and spend a quiet night in. As the TV is broken, they attempt a game of Trivial Pursuit (“Hey! All the kids love Triv!”), at which Eddie catches Richie cheating in the mirror. This prompts a melancholic comment from Eddie: “The pathetic sight of the man who once did the continuity links on TVS reduced to grubby cheating to get the better of his half-drunk minder. This, if you don’t mind me saying so, is the state of Thatcher’s Britain.”

Richie’s ranting that Eddie’s questions are too easy also provokes Eddie to turn to the audience and explain that the producer assures him that this is what it’s like playing Trivial Pursuit, and therefore this is a brilliantly observed gag. Naturally, they end up in “Lager Frenzy!”, and turn up to the studios late, having gone on a club crawl via Liverpool and Southampton. Filthy is annoyed at their appearance, having hoped that his instructions would produce the opposite effect, as he is trying to get on air to plug his smutty book. As Anne Diamond tells him, his plan has failed. Filthy says: “You really are as sweet and innocent as you appear on the television, aren’t you?” She replies: “Yes, I am. I’m lovely”, playing it perfectly.

This is another highlight of the series, with a fantastic performance from Anne Diamond.

Richie is incapable of reviewing the newspapers, and ends up reading out gossip about himself. As the police arrive, Richie and Eddie both point their bottoms at the camera, and the caption ‘continued next week’ appears.

The series concludes with Richie and Eddie in court, where, despite Richie protesting that he’s pregnant and perhaps because of Eddie’s constant grinning to camera, they are sentenced to be shot. Fortunately, Filthy intervenes, meaning the sentences are commuted to conditional discharges, but manages to get himself sentenced to hang under the Criminal Evidence Anti-Terrorist the Police can do What they Bloody Well Like Bill. Little bit of politics there, ladies and gentlemen!

Eventually, they decide to visit Filthy, who offers the advice that they should become journalists, as they are talentless and revolting enough, in return for them bringing him a short piece of 1 inch steel piping. This is a nice excuse for a Murdoch parody; ‘Dingo Wucker’, played by John Bird. Although he’s a little jumpy at the mention of unions, he is impressed by Richie and Eddie’s forged references, and instructs them to smear Sir Bob Geldof, lest Sir Bob should reveal that Third World debt is actually caused by the West. This was a full 13 years before Jubilee 2000, politics fans.

Midge Ure is the pop star Richie and Eddie are told to investigate, and he, like all the guests in the show, puts on a commendable performance. Richie and Eddie’s threat of blackmail with sleazy photos of him in ‘The Daily Bastard’ falls flat when he gives his blessing, favouring the publicity. The absence of a fourth wall is apparent when Richie shouts at the audience to stop cheering Midge, and at Filthy’s execution, Eddie turns to the audience and says: “The Government would like us to warn children that hanging is extremely dangerous, even though more than half of them want to bring it back.”

His warning is superfluous, however, as Filthy has put the pipe they brought him in his windpipe, because he’s “got to be in the next series.” When Eddie points out that the pipe is still in his cell, Filthy explains that his safety harness must have saved him, putting it clearly in shot. One of the most refreshing things about the series is the writers assumed that the audience had the same level of intelligence as themselves, and although this was a clear foundation of ‘alternative humour’, it is rarely shown in sitcom to this extent.

Back in the flat, it is decided that they must smear everyone else in showbusiness in order for Richie to be famous, and take the opportunity to recreate the famous Benny Hill chase around the flat, because, as they say, he is ‘the guv’nor’, with 150 years in show biz, and still telling the same joke.

They take their smears to Dingo Wucker, and before we know it, we see Richie sitting in front of the television, watching an evening of him on BBC 1. Richie shows off to the audience, while Eddie decides to destroy the set and any remnants of a possible division between the cast and the audience. Filthy, on the other hand, buggers off to Rio. Before the TV is destroyed, Richie turns to the camera and says with a beaming smile: “Made it!”

Although a second series would probably have been made if the programme had been successful, is it possible that those involved knew that was all they were going to get? After all, where could they go from there? It was a series written by and for comedy obsessives, self-reverential, insular, and bloody marvellous for the lucky souls that understood where those involved were coming from.

Although the series could be accused of self-indulgence, this is almost missing the point. It was written for the enjoyment of the writers, the cast, and whoever was willing to go along with them, giving the show a rather intimate and informal feel.

In this, it could be said that the existence of this series represented the culmination of what many in the ‘alternative comedy’ movement wanted to achieve: the killing off of the domination of ‘old school’ entertainment, as it opened up the hypocrisy and falseness of it for all those who wanted to see it. As this was such a revolutionary piece of television, it is remarkable that for many people this is a chapter of ‘alternative comedy’ that doesn’t exist.


❉  ‘Filthy Rich & Catflap’ was released on DVD by Universal Playback in 2004, and reissued by Acorn DVD in 2012, although both releases features music edits due to copyright. We’ve included the edited scenes in this article.

❉  A version of this article originally appeared on Noise to Signal.

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