Looking Back At THE YOUNG ONES - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Looking Back At THE YOUNG ONES

Tony was a young one once… surely?
“Once in every lifetime,
Comes a love like this…”
The opening lines of the theme to The Young Ones (and yes nostalgia-fans, we know it’s actually much older than that – has anyone checked on rock and roll vampire Cliff Richard lately?) is surprisingly pretty accurate when it comes to thinking about the show.

Once in every generation or so in the post-war world of British entertainment has come a group of comedians working together that have blown up most of what has come before.

For nine years, from 1951-60, the Goon Show blew up all the conventions of narrative radio sit-com, with madcap invention, paper-over-the-mayhem plotting, and not one but two musical interludes per half-hour episode (usually by jazz harmonica-player Max Geldray and singer Ray Ellington).

In 1969-73, more or less stealing a march on Goon Spike Milligan’s Q TV show, Monty Python’s Flying Circus brought a more university-educated, philosophically-grounded brand of unconnected, relatively stream of consciousness sketches to TV, some of which are still being quoted today.

The early Eighties saw the rise of alternative comedy – a move away from the likes of the comedians popular in working men’s clubs around the country. Not The Nine O’Clock News, from 1979-82 was much more structured, comedically, than Python ever was, which is why for instance, one of its initial core members, Chris Langham, could be and was phased out fairly swiftly in favour of Griff Rhys Jones, who had more vocal variety in his repertoire.

But if Not The Nine O’Clock News was more structured than Python, while still sticking the satirical boot in to all-comers, the spirit of comedic anarchy was to come roaring back on BBC Two from 1982-84, with The Young Ones.
Trying to explain why The Young Ones was a success is a vaguely mystifying process.

It was born of staggeringly unpopular alternative revue shows, with Alexie Sayle delivering shouty comedy that may not have been actively funny to anyone, and Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson doing different shouty things where the laughs often came from discomfort.

Rik Mayall and Lise Mayer originally drew the first Young Ones script together, based on studenty types they’d known (and as Mayall was to acknowledge, parts of his own character, too). Ben Elton at the time was a man obsessed with writing plays, turning them out with staggering regularity. His knowledge of structure helped turn the embryonic Young Ones into at least a workable script for episode 1 of what might just be the most absurdist, disconnected sitcom in TV history.

But there’s much more to the Young Ones than that.

The notion, yes, is that there are four main characters living together, and that none of them are particularly likeable. Rick the anarchist poet (Rik Mayall) actually comes from money and is overplaying his outrage at the Thatcher government hugely, to try to suck up to the genuinely poor and revolutionary. Vyvyan the punk (Ade Edmondson) is a psychotic medical student who has an obsession with impressive and random violence. Neil (Nigel Planer) is a hippie taking Peace Studies, brought mostly down by everything about his life – though when mixing with other hippies, quite capable of being relatively “normal,” and Mike never seems to have a discipline as such, but is the house leader, always open to a dodgy deal to bring in cash, and seemingly able to force the chaos of the others into some sort of order.

The only conceivable way four such disparate characters would be likely to come together is in a flat-sharing situation – and as far as that goes, The Young One fulfills the brief of standard sit-com.

Standard goes out of the window pretty rapidly though, and not only because Alexei Sayle regularly appears as one or other member of the Balowski family (one of whom, Jerzei, is the supposed landlord for the gang). There is almost no logic to his being in the show, and rarely any logic in what he does while he’s on it.
Sayle’s stand-up at the time was challenging for audiences, and in some respects, he translates that into the amount of time and space he has in the show – it rarely has anything to do with the main ‘plot’ (inasmuch as any episode of The Young Ones could be said to have such a thing).

But the point of any episode of The Young Ones is more or less to start off with a scenario, and then deliver half an hour where absolutely anything is possible, and very little is bound by the normal narrative confines of sit-com.

Beds crashing through the ceiling as Rick and Vyvyan fight over whether Rick is a virgin? No problem. Neil turning into a kind of Hippie-Hulk as his rage and frustration goes unheard for one time too many? Fine. Dawn French turning up out of the blue as the actual Easter Bunny, only to wander away disconsolate when it turns out it’s June the 12th and she has the date wrong? Sure, why not?

Taking that principle of “Anything goes” to the next level, the main cast would often kick through walls, explode front doors, and generally trash the place (and each other) at a moment’s notice.

And then there’s the puppetry.
The puppetry is frequently bizarre – the contents of the Young Ones’ fridge become the focus of a doomed love affair, for instance, while two flies on the wall show how un-fascinating the life of a fly on the wall really is.

The puppetry in The Young Ones is highly unusual, and follows no particularly strict principle beyond the cut-away to something distracting, to eat up a couple of minutes of screen time, so a cut-back to the actors could advance the scene without having gone the direct route. That said, it does add to the degree in which anything could happen once you tune into the show.

While the Mayall/Edmondson/Planer dynamic was established at comedy nights, if it feels like Mike “the cool person” is an unlikely member of the team, there might well be reasons for that. He was written with Peter Richardson in mind.

Richardson, like the other three, was starting to make a name for himself on Channel 4 as a core member of the now famous Comic Strip team, and was set to fill the fourth space in the Young Ones house.

It was a role partially inspired by, and perfectly fitted to Richardson’s on-stage persona, and it would have made The Young Ones into a kind of outgrowth of the Comic Strip’s energy.

But a row between Richardson and Paul Jackson, the producer who wanted to take The Young Ones forward, meant Richardson was replaced in the cast by actor Christopher Ryan.
While the role in and of itself was that of the straight man to all the antics of the others, Ryan’s acting background, rather than a comedy background, gave Mike a kind of deadpan energy that helped anchor the whole show in at least some sense of reality.

That helps a lot when the bands appear.

Oh yes. There are bands in The Young Ones – sometimes introduced by name as if by “accident” – “I’m depressed. It’s Nine Below Zero!” and sometimes with a simple “Music!”

In case that feels too weird, the explanation is simple: it’s a money thing. By including musical numbers in the show, it qualifies the show as variety entertainment, rather than strictly a sit-com.

And while it’s true that more straightforward Seventies sit-coms like Terry & June would have significantly broken their fourth wall and their sense of realism if, for instance, Showaddywaddy turned up in the couple’s living room just as Terry’s boss was due to arrive for dinner, the point of The Young Ones is that you can never necessarily tell what’s going to happen next.

If you can accept sandwich dialogue and Vyvyan’s Glaswegian talking hamster, Special Patrol Group, there is after all no particular reason why Motorhead or Amazulu SHOULDN’T turn up in the Young Ones’ living room to provide cut-away time to advance the plot. If anything, the musical numbers add to the overall ambience of what-the-heck-next?, and set The Young Ones apart from any traditional sit-coms of the Eighties.

While the Goons had their two regular musical collaborators, the Young Ones runs the gamut of recent chart-toppers – you probably guessed that when we mentioned Motorhead and Amazulu in one sentence. But again, not knowing which kind of musical act will suddenly interrupt an episode of The Young Ones adds to the air of potential anarchy that’s fundamental to the show.
The show only ran for two series, entirely on purpose – Rik Mayall wanted The Young Ones to end while it was on a high. And it did – in just 12 episodes, it hooked a nation, went completely tonto, and made stars of at least three of its players.

Even four decades on, The Young Ones is always worth a re-watch, for the sheer demented vigour of its multi-stranded comedy, the fact that none of the characters are remotely likeable, and yet weirdly, together they’re vaguely lovable, and the impact on the KINDS of comedy that could be made after it. The Young Ones makes absolutely no sense on paper, and initially, it made even less sense in the Audience Appreciation indices.

But after just 12 episodes, it had made fans for life, both for the show itself and for the sort of madcap, slapstick and violent comedy that would define the careers of at least Mayall and Edmondson for decades to come.

The Young Ones will always stand as a show of absurdist genius, with jusssst enough structure to govern the mayhem. Any day when too much sense just won’t make you smile, get your Young Ones on and embrace the madness.

Watch The Young Ones 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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