Tuesday, 31 May 2016
404 Not The Nine O Clock News
First viewed : 16 October 1979
Now we come to my favourite comedy show of all time ; I can't recall any other show giving rise to so much playground discussion although it started off fairly quietly.
There was a pilot show made for broadcast in April 1979 but it only featured Rowan Atkinson and Chris Langham alongside more seasoned performers headed by Scaffold's John Gorman. Despite being flat broke at the time, Mel Smith pulled out because he thought the script was appalling and it's generally agreed that if it hadn't been pulled off the air because the general election campaign had started , the subsequent series would never have been commissioned.
As it was producer John Lloyd had the breathing space to jettison the old hands, bring Mel back on board and add Antipodean actress Pamela Stephenson ( who'd recently been in Target and The Professionals ) to the team after meeting her at a party. Chris had the most substantial TV c.v. having appeared on Spike Milligan's Q series and written for The Muppet Show; Mel had hardly done any TV at all.
I changed channels for the first episode and instantly loved it from the Watership Down joke - "You've read the book, seen the film....now try the pie" - onwards .With its colourful language, bad taste jokes and even-handed political swipes - the unions getting as much stick as the Tories - it seemed like the most daring, exciting thing on TV and it probably was.
I found some friends who were watching it but not that many and the first series did have its problems. The producers were over-conscious of the fact that they were making the first satirical sketch show since Monty Python's Flying Circus and the plentiful references back to Python, however justified by the then-raging controversy over Life of Brian didn't help its cause. Repeats of the show have always been compilations to take out the too obviously dated political stuff but they've also made little use of content from the first series. Some more material has recently emerged on You Tube and it does justify that editorial decision to some extent with many of the sketches going on for far too long. Still there was plenty to savour in the union negotiation sketch, the punk song "Gob On You" ( the school punk band The Stiffs quickly put it in their repertoire ), Pamela's over-sexed beauty contestant and Rowan's first "nutter in the audience" rant about Nationwide. I remember rushing home from a dress rehearsal for the school play to see the last episode and watching the ballad lamenting the recent sacking of ITV's Reginald Bosanquet , beautifully delivered by Pamela-as-Anna Ford, with the smell of witch hazel still in my nostrils.
A second season was commissioned despite low viewing figures but there was a casualty in the form of Chris who found out he wasn't going to be in it from overhearing a conversation between two make-up ladies. The story behind his sacking remains murky. It was nothing to do with his co-stars who appreciated his greater experience. He admits he was over-doing the booze and drugs at the time and does look a bit wild-eyed in some of the sketches. He also got into an argument with the producers about the Life of Brian sketch because he was actually in the film and that appears to have convinced the bosses they were better off without him. He was replaced by Griff Rhys-Jones , brother of Lloyd's current squeeze , who'd been one of the minor players in the first series. I never had anything against Griff who played his part in some classic sketches but I always felt it would have been better if they'd kept Chris.
Still it can't be denied that the second series , broadcast in the spring of 1980 was when the show took off like a bomb. The political stuff was not quite as prominent and all round the writing was sharper and snappier .One particular episode grabbed the attention, first with the classic Gerald the gorilla sketch and then the most talked-about sketch of all, the American Express skit when Pamela's air hostess opened her blouse and said "And would you like to rub my tits too ?" the tag line being "Stick your head in between them and go blubble blubble blubble with American Express !" One over-excited lad claimed she hadn't been wearing a bra which suggests a visit to the optician may have been in order. She was actually topless in a bath tub sketch some time later - oh the joys of the Pause button !
Oh yes Pamela, what a goddess she was ! She may have been an inch or two short of the ideal but boy did she make up for it in other ways. And then you had the "England My Leotard" sketch, one of the two most desirable women of the time with a well-crafted impersonation of the other one .
Another eight part season followed at the tail end of the year and brought us further delights including Constable Savage ( Griff's finest moment ) "I Like Trucking" and a coruscating attack on That's Life . The series was now incredibly popular and an album release featuring material from the first two series nearly made the top of the charts. I remember our Sixth Form Review that year featured good egg John Weetman doing a Rowan-style rant amidst the audience which as you'd expect was much funnier than a Cannon and Ball routine earlier in the show.
Despite Pamela's mammoth sex appeal and Mel's skills as an actor - he was often the straight man in the sketches and brilliant at it - there was no doubting who the star of the series was. Rowan Atkinson , a quiet guy who liked to tinker with machinery off stage, just had that something extra which you could probably call genius. As he did a solo comedy tour with material co-written with Richard Curtis, there was speculation about whether there would actually be another series and 1981 came and went without one.
A fourth season did materialise at the beginning of 1982 but it was an open secret that it was going to be the last one. Even at its peak, the material was always a bit variable - with well over 100 credited writers across the four series that was inevitable - but the gaps between the good stuff were a bit wider in this finale. God knows who thought Roland Davies ( a strike breaking train driver just in case you'd forgotten ) was worth a commemorative song ( in an episode which inexplicably featured child actor John Alford ). They also came a bit unstuck when satirising the pop scene ; the sketch about Marc Almond was well wide of the mark despite Pamela's turn as Annie Nightingale and the much-trailed "Nice Video Shame About The Song" had nothing to say in the end. There was some good stuff, a nice spoof of Game For A Laugh and the infamous evisceration of The Two Ronnies but Rowan's instincts telling him to move on were probably correct.
Apart from poor Mel and Chris whose unsavoury indiscretion ( I don't think it was any worse than that ) has cost him dear , they're all still going strong , testament to the once in a lifetime power of the series.