‘How The Young Ones Changed Comedy’ (GOLD) reviewed

Iain MacLeod reviews a weekend of essential entertainment looking at the most revolutionary sitcom ever made.

“These two programmes serve as a great reminder of how they ripped apart the conventions and rules of the British sitcom and changed the face of the British comedy scene and as an overdue tribute to not only Rik Mayall but the rest of the cast as well. As Bank Holiday entertainment goes, you couldn’t do better than this”.

Say what you will about The Last Jedi, but whatever your views on it a large portion of the British audience got an undeniable thrill from seeing Ade Edmondson as an Imperial lackey walking round a big spaceship. The tension of him lashing out, reverting to type calling Stormtroopers virgins and smashing himself through the walls was palpable. If only it was so then we could have had the greatest Star Wars film ever. This fondness and recognition for the actor undoubtedly stems from Vyvyan Basterd, the heavy metalhead/ punk rocker/medical student who was only one part of the most revolutionary sitcom ever made; The Young Ones. This fondness also extends to the rest of the gang; Neil the Hippy, Mike the cool person and last and definitely least Rick, the People’s Poet.

Gold TV have put together what is pretty much a weekend’s worth of essential entertainment looking at how Vyvyan, (P)Rick, Neil and Mike came to be with the documentary How The Young Ones Changed Comedy and the companion clip show The Young Ones 20 Greatest Moments. The two programmes serve as a great reminder of how much the useless, bickering students, and Alexei Sayle as all members of the Bolovski Family, ripped apart the conventions and rules of the British sitcom and changed the face of the British comedy scene for the better.

The documentary takes a detailed approach at how the show came to be, from Edmondson’s Manchester Uni days where he formed a double act with the much-missed Rik Mayall, to performing in Soho at what was pretty much the only alternative stand-up comedy club around. This section alone includes an impressive amount of rare archive footage, from Edmondson and Mayall messing around in uni, and to provide some context and contrast some disturbingly offensive, racist and deeply unfunny stand up which could be easily found then on British television at the time, showing us exactly why The Young Ones was needed then to blow this shit up.

The archive footage from the Soho club is fascinating. Ade and Rik, as well as Sayle and others who would feature as guest stars on the show including the great Arnold Brown, shine out providing a much-needed contrast to the likes of Bernard Manning who still dominated the comedy scene. Be warned however as there is some real cringe-inducing stuff from the likes of a young Sandi Toksvig included here that really do show that you have to start somewhere.

The documentary traces these days through to Mayall’s prototype of Rik, Kevin Turvey, quickly. A great amount of the talent that coalesced around Mayall and Edmondson helping bring The Young Ones onto BBC2 are all interviewed here apart from the notable exception of Ben Elton. From here on it’s off to the races as the cast, crew and fans of the show, including Charlie Higson and Richard Herring trace the shows impact from its first broadcast on the 9th November, 1982.

To a fan all of this is gravy. While it may not be a ‘warts and all’ examination there is still a lot of fun and interesting stuff that comes to light, including how Sayle pretty much intimidated everyone on set, how to drop a giant sandwich on Dawn French, (solution; just drop a giant sandwich right on top of Dawn French) and the impressive roster of musical guests that the show acquired. From the mighty Motorhead, who showed nothing but professionalism and respect, to The Damned, who reformed just for the show as they were such big fans only to break up immediately after the show stopped filming due to a massive fight.

A bittersweet quality runs throughout the two programmes due to the untimely death of Mayall. The People’s Poet is paid tribute to repeatedly here, not only for his performance and his physical and mental dedication to the show but for his life offscreen. One amusing story included here of his ill behaviour at the BBC Christmas party showing just how close to his onscreen persona he was stands in direct contrast to a clip of him being honoured at Exeter University in 2008 with a doctorate. He delivers a passionate, rousing and slightly sweary speech to the graduating students that demonstrates his energy and vigour that he brought to all his performances whether it was Rik, Alan B’stard or Richie in Bottom. There was no one like him before and we have not had anyone like him since.

Age catches up with us all in the end and it is frankly crazy seeing The Young Ones old nowadays. And in proper clothes with neat haircuts. Edmondson, Nigel Planer and Christopher Ryan, whose Mike it is revealed here was nearly played by someone else although I won’t spoil it for you just now, are pretty much at pension age now. Who knows how they would look now if The Young Ones didn’t run into/off (a) Cliff at the end of series 2, considering the stunts and accidental fires and explosions they had subjected themselves to already.

Like all good film and television documentaries it just makes you want to dig out the DVD’s, or VHS tapes, a format that the show took advantage of back in the day as also revealed here, to watch again. The 20 Greatest Moments is over too quickly and although you will be in agreement with pretty much everything included here you will also be reminded of your own favourite moments of physical and verbal violence and slapstick. (Random personal favourite of mine; while Rik is watching reggae popsters Amazulu playing away in the house he remarks to Vyvyan’s hamster “Amazulu!” To which Vyv’s hamster replies: “Really? Ah’m a Glaswegian!”)

I saw The Young Ones when I was eight years old, in 1985. It was pretty much the single greatest thing I had ever seen, as it was for anyone of a similar age at the time. The violence, the surreal interludes and the shouty swearing all combined together to create some truly mind-expanding stuff. As well as vocabulary expanding; at eight years old I thought virgin was a swear word the way it was shouted with such venom, usually by Rik, that it became my own favourite swear word and offense to shout at my pals. It is only looking back now that I realise exactly why I was getting such funny and concerned looks from everyone in the village where I grew up when I did so. What do they know! Thatcherite squares the lot of ‘em!

These two programmes serve as a great reminder of the good times and as an overdue tribute to not only Rik Mayall but the rest of the cast as well. As Bank Holiday entertainment goes, you couldn’t do better than this. Here is hoping that Ade Edmondson returns in the next Star Wars film, hopefully smashing through the walls of an Imperial Cruiser in his Morris Minor and calling a bunch of porgs “Bastards!” It’s a good start for my fanfic feature length script at least.

How The Young Ones Changed Comedy will be broadcast on Saturday 26th May on Gold at 9:20pm, with a repeat airing Thursday 31st May at 10:40pm. The companion clip show The Young Ones 20 Greatest Moments will be broadcast on Sunday 27th May on Gold at 9:20pm

Gold airs on Sky 110, Virgin 124, BT and TalkTalk 310 On demand on Sky, Virgin and Now TV

Become a patron at Patreon!