Looking Back At DROP THE DEAD DONKEY - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Tony’s cooking with napalm, news-bombers!
Drop The Dead Donkey was one of the best examples ever made of multi-layered situation comedy. It starred some highly established actors, and made at least a few of its character-players into household names

It ran for six series, including a dramatic change of a leading cast member after the first two series. It was both highly satirical of a general state of affairs, deeply involving in character arcs and dynamics, and, thanks to a writing process that was potentially fraught with mishap, it could be more topical than many sit-coms, delivering fresh jokes based on what was happening in the world in real time, more like a sketch show than anything usually attempted in the format.

It's also slightly weird, not to say mournful or even morbid to say that it might not make sense to anyone under the age of about 25 or 30.


OK, walk with us.
Drop The Dead Donkey was a satire set in a TV newsroom. But not any kind of newsroom recognisable today. Set and broadcast between 1990 and 1998, it showed a changing world, especially in how news was gathered, verified, made, disseminate and watched.

There was, at least by the end of the show’s run, such a thing as the internet. There was email. But there was no Google – the search engine came into existence the same year Drop The Dead Donkey ended. So in a sense, Drop The Dead Donkey showed a world where information, fact-checking, contacts and corroboration were much harder, slower things to get than anyone born in the last three decades will understand. Drop The Dead Donkey had been dead itself for seven years before the first Youtube video was posted, let alone Instagram or TikTok.

What there WAS, however, was a vicious fight for the nature of news, both in our real world and the world of Drop The Dead Donkey. With the likes of Robert Maxwell (Remember him? Dodgy deals, emptied his employees’ pension fund, fell off a boat, turned into a Bond villain in Tomorrow Never Dies?) and Rupert Murdoch (the force behind Fox News, Sky News and currently, Jerry Hall, probably refuses ever to go ON a boat, has sons to organ-harvest as and when it’s necessary) emerging as global information superpowers, there was a battle for what we used to call journalistic integrity and ethics (and with a straight face, too – it was a simpler age in so many ways).

In newsrooms around the country and around the world, committed journalists and editors who had felt a responsibility to report the truth as far as they could discover it were coming under increasing pressure to report only the truth that benefited their new media mogul owners, or the stances they supported. Owners could either make their presence felt in person, or through the appointment of lackeys in high positions, to ‘steer’ the direction of newspapers and TV news stations the way the owners wanted – and so, change the mood and voting intentions of the nation.

We know – in the age of social media, this all sounds so terribly quaint, but it’s the world in which Drop The Dead Donkey was set. GlobeLink News, previously at least as good as any other news network, starts the show by being bought by Sir Royston Merchant, a barely-disguised Maxwell-Murdoch pastiche, and one of the ongoing threads of both comedy and comment throughout the six series involves the attempts of Sir Royston, through his blonde-haired, gibberish-spouting lackey, Chief Executive Gus Hedges (Robert Duncan), to turn GlobeLink from a truth engine into a spin-engine.
Against these moves are set most of the characters in the newsroom. Led by the dyspeptic, grey-faced and hypochondriac station editor, George Dent (any cousin of Arthur’s, we’re forced to wonder), played with a combination of anxiety and principle by Jeff Rawle, the team is fairly typical of a journalistic hothouse in the era before #MeToo.

Lead news anchor, Henry Davenport (David Swift) is a curmudgeon comprised almost entirely of vices, sleaze, war stories and margarine charm. His on-screen partner, the younger, angular Sally Smedley is a combination of posh poise and very little brain, though quite enough to occasionally get the better of Henry in their off-screen war of words.

Second in command to George is initially Alex Pates (Haydn Gwynne), who can see through much of the nonsense going on and isn’t afraid to call people on it. She is however completely at the mercy of her mother (or “Mummy”), who has the capacity to reduce her to the schoolgirl who’s always a disappointment.

Alex left before the start of Series 3, and from then until the end of the show, she was replaced by Helen Cooper (Ingrid Lacey), who as far as plot and mood were concerned, filled more or less the same role. An added wrinkle though was that George, disrespected as a weak man at home by both his wife and his daughter, entertained feelings for Helen. That was more tricky even than most workplace crushes, because Helen was a lesbian. There’s never especially a conclusion to their dynamic, it more or less remains awkward throughout the rest of the show’s run, made additionally tricky by the fact that Helen’s a lesbian who fell drunkenly off the Sapphic wagon one night with Dave.
Dave? Neil Pearson in an early TV role, as Dave Charnley, deputy sub-editor. If the bickering of the on-screen talent is a predictable inversion of screwball comedy banter, and the notion of a nervous man in charge and a much more inherently capable woman in a deputy position is appallingly poignant, then Dave Charnley (along with two other characters, Damien Day (played by Stephen Tompkinson) and Joy Merryweather) is the voice of REAL newsrooms from the period.

The blackest jokes come from Dave, who is never able to stop himself going straight to the most cynical conclusion on any issue. He is a womaniser in his prime, a cheeky chappie with a degree of charm and an understanding of some modern issues. Nevertheless, he will run a gambling pool on absolutely anything, even deeply dark issues – and the nature of a newsroom is such that no-one will really want to be left out of the chance of making a quick buck by taking his odds.

Damien Day, Tompkinson’s character, is the entirely amoral reporter, never above faking footage or inventing issues so long as he can have the scoop, and especially get ahead of his rival, Lynne Yeats (Elizabeth Downes), who drives Damien to distraction, usually by getting to scoops, stories, and warzones just ahead of him and nabbing the better footage.

And Joy Merryweather (Susannah Doyle) is half personal assistant, half Nemesis, Goddess of Retribution. By day and unless someone does something to cross her, Joy is extremely efficient, more or less holding GlobeLink together. But given any excuse to wage war, she will become a vindictive force of nature, with which it is foolish to tangle.
These character relationships and interplay were crucial throughout the whole of Drop The Dead Donkey. While the overall arc was making satirical comment on the battle for objective journalistic truth in the face of the agenda of the man who pays the wages, the vast majority of the comedy – and, along the way, a little drama to balance the laughs – was rooted in the interplay of these all too real and recognisable newsroom archetypes. Davenport the old lecher, Dave Charnley the young. Damien the unstable adrenaline-junkie and sensation-hound, George the weak man in authority, propped up by efficient, much more capable women. At the time, you could find these people in any newsroom, anywhere, and their inter-relationships formed the backbone of the week-by-week comical arc of the show.

The sketch show element was added in as late as possible each week, and it took the form of lines of dialogue and jokes riffing on things that had actually happened that week in the news, so Drop The Dead Donkey never relied wholly on its characters for all its gags. It was also some of the most biting topical satire available on British TV in its time, because it was free of ownership by a single stand-up comedian, and was put into the mouths of people whose job it was to report the news, to be close to those who made it, so the commentary always felt fresh and somehow more believable than it would have had, for instance, co-writer Andy Hamilton got up on Have I Got News For You? and just delivered it.

Ultimately, it’s for the freshness of the approach to sit-com that Drop The Dead Donkey deserves to be best and most regularly remembered. By cataloguing the shift of a news organisation over time under the whims of its politically biased owner, it was relevant to its age – and remains relevant to students of media history today. As character comedy, it was a strong ensemble piece, that gave the likes of Pearson and Tompkinson a springboard into future roles. And by sprinkling each 24-minute episode with real news of the week, and comedy that anchored the episode TO that week, it delivered probably the most topical sitcom ever devised.

If you were alive in Britain during the 1990s, you can still get topical laughs out of Drop The Dead Donkey as well as workplace sit-com laughs. If you weren’t, the workplace might well seem ludicrously dated, hopefully (optimistically?) as much by the toleration of horrible men (almost all the men in Drop The Dead Donkey are horrible to some degree – some more intentionally in the writing than others) as by the lack of all the technological paraphernalia of the modern age. But if you like or study comedy, Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin’s Drop The Dead Donkey is still worth your time because of its structure, and the way it so successfully blended the layers of its comedy. By blending an overall satirical arc, realistic character comedy and drama across a fairly large ensemble cast of main roles, AND bringing in that-week-current real-world news satire, Drop The Dead Donkey created a format which, in all honesty, would be ripe for a revamp in the 21st century, with all the technology, rolling news, social media, fake news and trollbots that have added to our culture in the decades since the dead donkey was first dropped.

Watch Drop The Dead Donkey today with a seven day free trial of BritBox.

Tony  lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk

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