Looking Back At WHOOPS APOCALYPSE - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Tony wonders what this big red button does…
Imagine worldwide geo-politics as played by staggering cretins of unthinkable ineptitude.

To tweak an immortal line from John Lennon, it’s appallingly easy if you try. Some might say you don’t even need an imagination to get you there.

But imagine worldwide geo-politics, as played by staggering cretins of unthinkable ineptitude, was a TV show with a gag-a-minute script, some biting satire on current political figures, and arguably very little taste. In fact, imagine Yes, Prime Minister meets The West Wing, played like The Young Ones, and you more or less have the basis of Whoops Apocalypse.

Before we go on, it’s worth noting that the show comes with some fairly strong content warnings for racist language – and indeed, racist portrayals – that would never pass muster today, and leave a flavour of “How did they not see that in 1982?!” in the mouth. White guys (specifically Bruce Montague, best known as Leonard, the man who tempts Ria to adultery in the Carla Lane comedy Butterflies) starring as the new Shah of Iran, for instance, caused no comment in Whoops Apocalypse. What’s more, racial stereotyping – particularly of Arab nations and their “mentalities” as viewed from a Western perspective – is here too.

So, whether you watch Whoops Apocalypse or not depends in the first instance on your ability to swallow this kind of content as “a product of its time” – that time being the early eighties, when alternative comedy was just beginning to shift attitudes away from the laziness of the Seventies, but clearly had a heck of a long way yet to go.

Assuming you can stomach these elements though, there’s an enormous amount in Whoops Apocalypse to enjoy.

There’s a blending of the traditional sit-com style (and stars) of the Seventies (including John Cleese, Geoffrey Palmer, and John Barron), with the newly emerging alternative comedians of the early Eighties (including Rik Mayall and Alexei Sayle).

There’s some severely sharp satire on the political figures around the world in the early Eighties, from Republican US President, Johnny Cyclops (a barely disguised Ronald Reagan parody played by Barry Morse), and British Prime Minister Kevin Pork (a crucial, optimistic mis-step on the part of the writers, being a parody of Michael Foot, then Leader of the Labour Party (think of a scruffier, louder, more effective Jeremy Corbyn and you’re pretty much there), who Whoops Apocalypse predicted would win the election, which in real life went to Thatcher. Getting legendary “voice of the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide,” Peter Jones, to play that role was a stroke of joyous absurdist genius.

The high gag-rate of the show involved some cheaper shots, too, with Soviet Premier Dubienkin (played by Richard Griffiths, of Withnail and I, Pie In The Sky, and Harry Potter fame) being a series of instantly replaceable clones – a reference to the regularly rumoured idea that leaders of authoritarian regimes are simply replaced by clones (a conspiracy theory that has refused to die, and an idea that has been mentioned in regard to both the leaders of China and North Korea within the last decade).

What Whoops Apocalypse borrows from the alternative school of comedy, rather than more sedate political satire like Yes, Minister/Prime Minister though is its exhausting pace and punch.

Writers David “One Foot In The Grave” Renwick and Andrew “2.4 Children” Marshall fire Whoops Apocalypse at the world like a bullet from a gun, allowing barely a second ever to lapse before something moves on the plot, the apocalypse clock, the scene or the action.

One of the devices they use to deliver such positively breakneck speed is a news anchor, almost constantly updating us of the deteriorating political situation around the globe.

Ed Bishop, who played American news anchor Jay Garrick, had a face, and specifically a voice, that was familiar from many things, including being the voice of Captain Blue in Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons. He would, slightly later in the Eighties, get a pay bump as the American President in another apocalypse – this time the shockingly grim Threads.

But in Whoops Apocalypse, he fires scattergun news stories at us in seemingly real time to show the impact of decisions made by the various political actors who are - as is made clear from Episode 1 – moving us ever closer, through their ineptitude and unfitness for the task of governing, to a mutually assured nuclear destruction.

That’s where the astonishing bravery of Whoops Apocalypse lies – and also, arguably, the source of much of its dubious taste. The real world was as tense then as it is now, and actually even moreso. The US and the USSR were locked in a stalemate of cold war, while running an arms race the like of which had not been seen since the Dreadnought race from 1906-1912, when the UK and Germany kept building bigger and better warships. That race eventually exploded into World War I, and in 1982, there seemed little likelihood that the US-USSR arms race could end any other way – except this time the war would be short, and nuclear, and to coin a phrase, apocalyptic.

Yet there on LWT, the London branch of ITV at the time, were comedians and actors sending up the tension of the real world situation for all it was worth, pointing out that the people in power were either entirely unfit for the offices they held or were in several cases actually, certifiably insane.

It was dangerous and brave to rip the serious note of worldwide tension out of the show and replace it with the biggest of neon flashing signs to the audience that the people on whom the fate of the world depended were in no sense qualified to do the job.

That’s a thing that probably on balance goes over the top in Whoops Apocalypse – the number of world leaders who go totally tonto and start dressing up as cartoon superheroes pushes the show away from any serious satire of the real world, and into the realm of geo-politics played as high farce, if not outright pantomime.

But that actually fits in with the frenzied pace of the show. While there is plenty of clever satire in there, the satire is never allowed to get in the way of an effective three-second gag. That means that Whoops Apocalypse overall feels like a wild, unbroken pony, kicking up its back legs at sit-com convention and running wherever it wants to go, rather than necessarily building in stages along a viable series arc.

It’s going to get there, it’s going to drive us all to the moment of universal extinction, but it cares very little for the rational building up of the geo-political tensions to that point. It will, it says, quite happily throw us a curved ball to advance the rush to Armageddon if it needs to, but in the meantime, look! A gag about the undue influence of right-wing evangelicals on the President!

Laugh now, we’ll destroy you later, is the deal Whoops Apocalypse makes with its audience, and that’s still a brave thing to do, because there were plenty of people who thought that treating things like nuclear oblivion, political posturing, and the terrifying refusal of politicians to learn from the mistakes of their predecessors as the basis for anarchic, almost slapstick comedy was offensive, or in poor taste.

Renwick and Marshall did it anyway, and the cast was full of stars who had always been unafraid to be funny at the expense of stuffed shirts or strict orthodoxies. Both John Barron and Geoffrey Palmer has starred in the absurdity-of-accepted-British-normality comedy, The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin. John Cleese had made a career out of lampooning the British fear of embarrassment.

Peter Jones had been the voice of a show that had blown up the expectations of po-faced science-fiction fans and radio comedy fans alike, in The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. And neither Rik Mayall not Alexei Sayle were prepared to take a single prisoner in either their stand-up routines or their TV work.

Joyously though, Whoops Apocalypse is the thing the last major TV the two did together before properly exploding into the world of TV later the same year, bringing The Young Ones to the masses and changing the face of TV comedy for a decade at least.

Whoops Apocalypse is never, in any sense, what you could call subtle. It’s not, for instance, either the gently mocking, slightly knowing comedy of power that Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister mastered. And it’s also not the evolved, realistic, well-observed look at the corridors of power that the Armando Iannucci shows, The Thick Of It and Veep would achieve decades later.

What Whoops Apocalypse delivers is a political satire-cum-pantomime with all the qualities for which the Eighties has become either famous or infamous, depending on your point of view. It’s loud, it’s fast, it’s not a little shouty, and it’s more or less a loosely-held-together bunch of ideas, peppered with more gags per minute than should really fit into an episode.

Watched with (are you ready for this?) 40 years of hindsight, what Whoops Apocalypse gives you is a sense of its try-anything bravery, a shudder at its fairly accurate portrayal of a racist Western world and the stereotypes that made it tick, and a punchy, pantomime alternative to the later, more serious political satires of a different age.

Whoops Apocalypse never attempts to teach you anything real about international geo-politics, it simply invites you in for a breathless series of bedlam episodes, where the finger-pointing and the notion that “They’re all barking mad, you know!” was still original enough to need pointing out through comedy, rather than being made patently manifest by every news report you read.

As a kind of refresher, Whoops Apocalypse, which ends with… well, as you can probably guess, with the flying of nuclear missiles in both directions and only those who got to their bunkers in time surviving, was brought back from the dead four years later for a movie version. The plot of the 1986 film is more or less entirely different to that of the 1982 TV version, but interestingly, it takes the opportunity to correct one of the biggest prediction errors of the series, and installs Peter Cook as Sir Mortimer Chris, the Conservative Prime Minister, who nevertheless goes trademark mad and leads us to the brink of the abyss.

The Eighties were in no sense “a simpler and more innocent time.” But there’s a sense in which Whoops Apocalypse might convince you that perhaps they were, because its regular depictions of politicians on all sides of the ideological divide, and in all of the major power blocs, as being woefully inept and unfit for their roles was still surprising, edgy, and even shocking to some among its audience back in the early Eighties.

We’ve come a long way since then.

Watch Whoops Apocalypse today with a seven day free trial of BritBox.

Tony Fyler lives in a concrete cave, somewhere on the edge of the sea, with his wife, who exists, and the Fictional People In His Head, who don't as yet. A journalist and editor by day, he has written Some Books, and is more or less always writing another. One day, he may even get around to showing them to people. In the meantime, he's Script Editor and occasional Executive Producer at Third Time Lucky Productions, and a proud watcher of things no-one remembers they remember until they remember.

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