Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Boob Tube'n :: Crude Britannia Rules! :: The Young Ones (1982-1984)

I clearly remember as a kid spending my late Sunday nights watching reruns of Monty Python's Flying Circus on PBS with my older brothers back in the mid-1970s. At the time, I was little too young to truly appreciate everything that was going on but there was enough general silliness and fish-slapping there to keep me entertained. Yeah, this infamous sketch comedy showcase was a Sunday night staple until our dear sweet mother walked in on us one fateful evening, just in time to see Terry Jones playing the piano in the buff. Whoops. Thus and so, the TV was immediately turned off, the hammer came down, and my education on the finer points of Monty Python would have to wait nearly a decade before it resumed on home video.

And it wasn't until even later, when Comedy Central started airing another British import in the mid-1990s, that I was introduced to The Young Ones: a nasty, raunchy, and downright hilarious two-fingered flip at Margaret Thatcher-era conservatism. (Apparently, it had a run on MTV in the 1980s, but, alas, we had no cable in the sticks.) The series originally ran from 1982 through 1984, with only a dozen precious episodes and one fairly hilarious music video tie-in to leave its mark, but, oh, what a (skid)mark it left. And with the recent depressing news on the passing of series co-creator, RIk Mayall, had me itching to revisit the series again.

The Young One's origin begins at Manchester College, where Mayall attended with co-star, and life-long friend, Adrian Edmondsun, and series writer, Ben Elton. Mayall and Edmondsun developed a comedy act, The Dangerous Brothers, and found work at the Comedy Store, where they shared the stage with Alexi Sayle and Nigel Planer, who was part of The Outer Limits with Peter Richardson. As their popularity grew, this motley collection of yuksters, along with fellow comedians Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French, went into business for themselves, opening their own venue, The Comic Strip, which quickly became the hottest spot in London, prompting two rival TV networks into negotiations for their services. And while the BBC lost out on The Comic Strip Presents, their consolation prize was the aburdist anarchy of The Young Ones.

Set in north London, the show focused on four disparate and desperate Scumbag College students, who all lived under the same roof: Vyvian (Edmundson), a pre-med, metal-studded, hyper-violent punk; Rick (Mayall), a self-proclaimed anarchist, who would lack the courage of his convictions if he could ever settle on any; Neal (Planer), a peace-nik hippie, who hates all machines (-- he feels they're all conspiring against him), and has a thing for lentils; and Mike (Ryan, the only non-stand-up comedian in the group) a clueless hipster and designated leader.

This quartet was ably supported by plenty of reoccurring characters; most notably the Balowski family, led by Jerzei Balowski (Sayle), their landlord, and other assorted brain-damaged brothers and clueless cousins (all played by Sayle). And honestly, the house itself should also be considered a character, too -- if it was lucky enough to still be standing at the end of each episode. Pictures and furniture came to life quite regularly; and, when no one's looking, the food usually put on a song and dance number in the fridge or sink; sentient appliances hassle them constantly, especially Neal, who has a running feud with the toilet, and are given lines to advance the plot; not to mention the giant wardrobe in the hall that leads Vyvian into Narnia in one episode and another where he finds the three witches from Hamlet sequestered inside.

The series was also littered with many soon to be famous faces be it actor or comedian in throwaway bits: Robbie Coltraine, Mel Smith, Griff Rhys Jones, Emma Thompson, Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry, Jennifer Saunders, and nearly every (non-American) comedian you can remember from the original Whose Line Is It Anyway? all show up in the darndest of places. The series also served as a ersatz musical showcase, running the range from Madness to Dexy's Midnight Runners to Amazulu to Motörhead.

Speaking of music, when those reruns on MTV proved so popular in 1985, the fledgling Fox network commissioned an American version, which imported Planer from England and nothing else. Tentatively titled Oh No! Not Them!, produced by David Mirkin (The Simpsons), and co-starring Jackie Earle Haley, the pilot, by all accounts, was pretty dreadful and the series was not picked up. According to legend, Planer hated everything about the experience and happily went back to England when it didn't sell.

Anyways, as I type up this retrospective, several scenarios and situations easily come to mind. Like in Sick, where everyone has the plague and Neal's nose erupts like a volcano full of snot. *ewww* Encased in a garbage sack that *double ewww* is slowly filling up, Vyvian tries to cure him with an acupuncture treatment. (And since he doesn't have any needles, he uses 8-penny nails -- just this side of a railroad spike, folks, instead.) All the while, a vicious riot rages outside the flat and, worst of all, Neal's parents drop by for a visit.

Time opens with a brilliant parody of Dallas, a dream sequence, with Neal as J.R. Ewing. Elsewhere, Rick wakes up and finds a female mass-murderer (Saunders) sleeping next to him and claims they had sex. When it comes to light that he actually didn't, Vyvian chases him around the house with his trusty howitzer until Rick admits he's still a virgin. Nasty finds the boys trying out a new fangled VCR they’ve rented to watch a 'video nasty' (-- a notorious list of films banned by Great Britain over violent or erotic content). Flood finds the house underwater. And in Interesting, they throw a party, mixing the punks, hippies, and anarchists all in one-place, where the expected volatile reaction of these elements has Neal winding up on the moon.

And then there's Bambi, which begins with Neal desperately trying to get back to the house. Inside, gathered around the kitchen table, Rick is trying and failing to relate a joke to Mike and Vyvian until Neal barges in with some breaking news. News the others won't let him reveal until he makes them dinner, which he does by emptying a trashcan onto the table and declaring it 'leftovers.' And while Vyv happily gnaws away at a dead rat, the pathologically insecure Rick calls for an immediate vote on whether the others really like him or not. When a show of hands answers nay, they don't, Rick decides to martyr himself with a suicidal overdose of pills -- pills he doesn't realize are laxatives.

Unsure if some can actually die from crapping themselves to death, Vyvian is delighted for the opportunity to watch and find out. This all, indirectly, leads to a discussion on personal hygiene, which reveals none of them have been to a laundromat in nearly four years. And just as those laxatives kick in, things take a surreal turn as we suddenly find ourselves looking at the guys through a microscopic lens. Turns out that instrument is in a Victorian era study, where a scientist (Coltraine) comments on the disgusting events playing out amongst the amoeba-sized people living in his petri dish. This interlude ends when the maid brings in a tray of snack and he places a sticky bun precariously over the equipment containing our known universe.

Back amongst the amoeba-people, terror grips the flat as one of Vyvian’s dirty socks has escaped and gone on the warpath. Cornering the smoking abomination, Vyv beats it into submission with a frying pan. With that, it's decided to hit the laundromat first thing in the morning before heading upstairs to bed. Two seconds later, the cock crows and they all come back down again. 

Assembling in the living room, a brilliant bit commences with each actor taking on a different character. Then, it's off to the laundrette, where the antagonistically temperamental machines refuse to cooperate and regurgitate their loads until Vyvian convinces one of the contraptions that he has some of Felicity Kendall’s underwear. 

For those playing at home, Felicity Kendal was the adorably perky co-star of a contemporary comedy of a more agrarian nature, The Good Life, that was the antithesis of what The Young One's was all about. She also serves as one of Rick's psychotic crushes.
When the washer lustily opens wide, they force all their clothes in and hold the lid shut while Mike reads the instructions on how to operate the duped machine -- until he gets to part about inserting coins to make it work, so they quickly call the whole thing off and head back to the flat, where they vow never to wash their clothes again. Expressing that won't be much of a challenge, Mike's observation triggers a patented Neal freak-out. Seems he finally remembers the news he had to share from the beginning of the episode: this fearsome foursome is to represent Scumbag College on the quiz show, University Challenge, and they only have two minutes left to reach the train station!

One Motörhead feuled montage later, they make the station on time. But once the train starts moving, the group panics because collectively knowing nothing, at all, is extremely counter-productive when appearing on a quiz bowl. They do know some worthless trivia, like who owns the record for the most marshmallows stuffed up one’s own nose, and who made the stickiest booger. (The answer to both is obviously the same man; Toxeth O’Grady.) Meanwhile, Vyvian ignores a posted warning and sticks his head out a window, and gets it lopped off by another passing train. And when his body finally finds its head, in true stomper fashion, he merrily kicks it down the tracks.

Eventually, they do actually make it the TV station but are denied entrance due to Vyvian's pet pig, Bacon Sandwich, until the guard (Smith) is convinced it's really a ferret. A brief greeting with Bambi (Jones), the quiz-master, follows, where Neal breaks down, sobbing, thinking he's the orphan from the Disney movie. Asked if they have any chance of winning, Bambi scoffs, saying, no, Footlights will win because the posh kids always do. With that, the show starts, and Bambi introduces the challengers: a quartet of inbred and drunken sots, played by some of those familiar faces I was talking about:

And then comes Scumbag's introductions. And please note someone scribbled in a 'P' on Rick's placard, making him a...

The studio audience clearly favors Footlights, with Scumbag’s only supporter being Vyvian’s psychotic pet gopher, SPG (Special Patrol Group). When Bambi asks the first question, Neal buzzes in -- but he doesn’t have the answer, he just needs to go to the bathroom. Alas, Bambi won’t let him and the question goes to Footlights. They don’t have an answer either, but with a quick bribe to the judges it isn’t long before Scumbag is getting buried on the scoreboard.

Huddling up to strategize, seems Neal really, really, REALLY has to go to the bathroom now. Finally losing his temper, Vyvian uses a grenade to take out Footlights, and then demands some easier questions from Bambi, whose next query rings familiar: it deals with marshmallows, noses, and sticky boogers, which Mike answers, starting Scumbag’s rally. His next question, Who let the world’s worst fart, causes Neal to chime in and answer that it was Rick (under the influence of that laxative overdose), which proves correct. And finally, the last question comes: Who has been tampering with Bambi's cards? Caught up in the moment, for the win, Rick triumphantly answers that he switched out the cards. This disqualifying deception triggers a salvo of refuse from the audience, which increases in intensity until a giant sticky-bun falls from on high and crushes all of them.

We switch back to the Victorian scientist, who peels the glass slide off the sticky bun, and then feeds it to a handy elephant as the credits roll.

Now, with all of that evidence, an argument could be made that The Young Ones and its players were the originators of modern toilet humor. And we've barely scratched the surface here because about 60% of the jokes are visual. Therefore, it's really hard to do the series justice with the written word. It was total anarchy, had slapstick violence coming out of every pore, and was decadently, almost repulsively gross. But leavened into all of that noise and chaos, like the best Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies of yore, was a deft hand at farce and satire mixed in with all the farting, head trauma, and poop jokes. It works. Just don't ask me how.

The Young Ones (1982-1984) British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) / P: Paul Jackson / AP: Geoff Posner / D: Paul Jackson, Geoff Posner / W: Ben Elton, Rik Mayall, Lise Mayer, Alexei Sayle / E: Ed Wooden, Graham Hutchings / M: Roy C. Bennett, Sid Tepper / S: Rik Mayall, Adrian Edmondson, Nigel Planer, Christopher Ryan, Alexei Sayle


Anonymous said...

"SPG = Special Patrol Group"

Aha! I've been wondering about that every since I first heard the Exploited's debut album lo these many years ago! It wasn't just the Exploited, either; Britpunk in general was practically obsessed with the SPG in the early 80's. Now, at last, I have some idea what that might have been about...

El Santo

W.B. Kelso said...

I had honestly forgot about SPG in the show, and how he and Vyvian were always trying to beat hell out of each other.

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