Written by Ben Elton, Rick Mayall and Lise Mayer, The Young Ones hit our TV screens in 1982 and was probably the first alternative comedy sitcom - long before the phrase was attributed to any comedy that was new or different.
The series centred around the unbelievable exploits of four drop-out students who shared a rented house. There was Mike the Cool Person (played by Michael Ryan), Rick (played by Rick Mayall), Neil Pye (played by Nigel Planer), and Vyvyen Basterd (played by Adrian Edmondson). The show also featured the Belowski family (fronted by the boys' landlord Jerzei Belowski), all members of which were played by Alexi Sayle. This was the first big television appearance for these five comedy actors, most of whom went on to form the mainstream of British TV's "alternative comedy" shows.
Despite his diminutive size, Mike was (as his title suggests), the "cool person", and was always trying to get girls' clothes off. Never losing his head in a crisis, even when that crisis involved one of Vyvyen's dirty socks escaping from the laundry basket, or discovering Buddy Holly hanging upside-down by his parachute in his bedroom.
Neil was the "vegetable rights and peace" hippy of the group. Without a bad bone in his body he was the butt of most of Rick's venom and Vyvyen's violent tendencies, always having bad days and crying out "Oh no, I'll die if I miss Scooby Doo!" when the television wasn't working. Rick was the self-styled "People's Poet", and constantly had delusions of grandeur about his left wing, anti-police, "for the kids" poems. He was also the classic only child who treated his parents like scum despite them doting on him. Despite his bravado, Rick never "did it" with a girl, a fact that Vyvyen exploited at every opportunity, even to the point of demanding money from Rick and making him wear a cardboard sign round his neck with the word "virgin" crayoned onto it.
Vyvyen was a punk, with ridiculous hair and five metal stars embedded into his forehead. He was the most violent and disgusting individual that had so far ever been seen on UK television. Exploding sticks of dynamite tied to his head to cure a hangover and clubbing Neil and Rick around the head with a cricket bat were all in a days work for Vyvyen, though Mike was never the butt of any of his violent outbursts. Alexi Sayle's many characters in the series included mainly the Russian born Belowski family. As the landlord, Jerzei, he would regularly burst into the house unannounced and trash various pieces of furniture, only to add its cost to the boys' rent. Another of the Belowski family was young Billy, who would run errands for his father Jerzei, and constantly refer to the army of clocks that he carried around in his raincoat for advice. Alexi also played various other characters throughout the series, including a train driver, a South African vampire who claimed to be a driving instructor, Brian Damage (a local armed robber), and Benito Mussolini who was the head of the local police force.
The series broke away from BBC2's usual half hour sitcom slots and each episode lasted 35 minutes. Each week the foursome found themselves in more and more surreal situations. Neil's bedroom was turned into a roller-disco, oil was discovered in the basement of the house, Vyvyen would chase Rick around the house with a Howitzer cannon, and inanimate objects such brushes, chips, vegetables and light bulbs would regularly talk to the camera. Even Vyvyen's pet hamster SPG played a key role in some scenes before his untimely death in the last episode when Vyvyen crashed his car head on into a lamppost only to realise that SPG had been asleep on the radiator. Each episode featured countless guest stars, from first time appearances from such comedians as Paul Merton, Hale & Pace, French & Saunders, Robbie Coltrane, Tony Robinson, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Rowland Rivron, Ben Elton and Chris Barrie; to established stars including David ('Time Bandits') Rapperport, Mel Smith, Griff Rhys Jones, Nicholas (Hazel) Ball, Emma Thompson and Terry (Monty Python) Jones.
Also, each episode featured a musical number, usually performed live in the boys' living room. Such acts included Amazulu, The Damned, Dexy's Midnight Runners, Madness and Motorhead. Band's were not invited onto the show to pad out each episode, far from it. Their appearance classed the episodes as Light Entertainment, and by BBC's own rules and regulations entitled the series to a larger budget than a comedy show would normally receive. The series spawned a few spin-offs, most notably a number one single with Cliff Richard. Cliff and the Young Ones re-make of 'Living Doll' reached number one in 1986 and provided a huge boost of cash and awareness for that year's Comic Relief fundraising. Nigel Planer (as Neil) also had a 1984 top ten hit with a cover version of Traffic's 1967 song 'Hole In My Shoe'.
A superb blend of anarchy and violence, the twelve episodes of The Young Ones were the epitome of 80's culture. Like Fawlty Towers some years earlier, it was brilliant in its day and remains a stable nostalgia trip for all those who watched it first time around.
Published on February 13th, 2019. Written by Paul Webb "Even mindless violence is boring today" (October 2001) for Television Heaven.