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.            


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