It was on 2 November 1982 that the United Kingdom gained a fourth terrestrial TV channel in Channel 4, but it also saw the birth of The Comic Strip Presents series with the first showing of the Famous Five parody, Five go Mad in Dorset, which was one of the highlights of the Channel Launch Evening.
The Comic Strip was a Soho comedy club opened by writer Peter Richardson just two years before and gave an opportunity for a new breed of 'alternative' comedians to perform in front of a live audience. Its compere was Alexi Sayle and among its more prominent performers were the likes of Rik Mayall, Adrian Edmondson, Nigel Planer and the female comedy duo French and Saunders.
Unlike the nightclub format the television version dispensed with stand-up comedy routines and focused on parody, the first of which was written by Peter Richardson together with Pete Richen, who would go on to write much of the long running series together. Peter Richardson also starred in the series as Julian, Adrian Edmondson played Dick, and Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders played George and Anne respectively. Timmy the dog was played by veteran canine actor Bimbo. It was the first time most of them had appeared on television and all went on to have very successful TV careers, in comedy and in more serious dramas.
Another member of the cast who was making his first screen appearance was Robbie Coltrane who appeared as a gypsy/shopkeeper. Five go Mad in Dorset was a brilliant parody of the Enid Blyton Famous Five stories, where Julian, Dick, George, Anne and Timmy the dog would go in search of fun and adventure, but always end up foiling the plot of some dastardly uncouth villains.
The Comic Strip's interpretation of the stories saw the five holidaying down in Dorset with Uncle Quentin and Aunt Fanny, where they set out to discover the truth about the disappearance of their uncle. Along the way, the group encounter a number of shady characters including Coltrane's Gypsy and female shopkeeper. They meet the local spoilt rich brat Toby Thurlow, played by Daniel Peacock, who tries to join the Famous Five. The gang as would often happen in the books, would overhear the local criminals planning their next big caper "secret plan blah blah blah". They had to solve the mystery of the disappearance of Uncle Quentin the famous scientist, who was played by Crossroads stalwart Ronald Allen. But, it was just a dastardly plot so Uncle Quentin the "screaming homosexual" could leave Aunt Fanny the "unrelenting nymphomaniac" and run away with his young boyfriend Toby Thurlow. Of course the Famous Five rumble the plan and the pair are arrested and the five get to celebrate with "lashings of ginger beer", a saying that was never actually said in the Famous Five books.
As well as being a great spoof of the books, they also highlighted some of the more sinister elements in what was classed as harmless children's books, like the undertones of racism and elitism. This was a spoof just crying out to be made and The Comic Strip team did a great job. They went on to do two more Famous Five episodes.
In the second Comic Strip Presents series they did Five go Mad on Mescaline and on the thirtieth anniversary of the release of the original episode, the team reformed and made Five go to Rehab. In total there were five series of Comic Strip productions which included parodies of Hollywood movies with such titles as A Fistful of Travellers Cheques and turning that idea on its head were Hollywood style productions of British current affairs such as The Strike which explored the miner's dispute and had Peter Richardson as Al Pacino portraying Arthur Scargill with Jennifer Saunders as Meryl Streep playing Scargill's wife! The series moved to BBC2 in 1990 before returning to C4 in 1998.
Published on December 5th, 2018. Review: Glyn Howells (2014).