Comedy is often viewed as entertainment. The suspension of disbelief from an audience allows us to take part in a farcical make-believe world that exists outside of our own. Every so often, the laughter is brought upon by observations of social class and prejudice. The moment Mel Brooks sang “Don’t be stupid, be a smarty, come and join the Nazi party” in The Producers (1967), a regime built upon hatred and intolerance was soundly defeated by the words of a Jewish comic from New York City. Margaret Thatcher’s tenure as England’s Prime Minister was a catalyst for a pop culture backlash that illuminated discontent for the establishment. From Iron Maiden depicting the politician as a slain victim on their Sanctuary (1980) single to The Exploited’s aptly titled Let’s Start a War…Said Maggie One Day (1983), the futile existence in a country ravaged by high unemployment was continuously dramatized by purveyors of various art forms.
With the whole of the United Kingdom in the clutches of the so-called ‘iron lady’, it would be a short-lived comedy series that would not only depict the fascial side of English life but offer a subversive take on the ever-widening generation gap. The Young Ones, while only lasting for two seasons, left an indelible mark on popular culture that gave many who were navigating the troubled times a voice. In a sense, the show can best be described as the perfect party guest—arriving precisely when they need to, providing life and entertainment to those in attendance, and knowing when the time was right to grab their coat from the rack and say goodbye.
The premise of the show is almost perfect in its simplicity. Long before reality television took the concept of placing a mismatched group together in a living situation, The Young Ones took four outlandish and wildly different characters and placed them in a somewhat dilapidated flat, and allowed the ship to plot its own course as it were. The comical genius behind the camera played out for millions as Rik Mayall, Ade Edmondson and Nigel Planer bring their stand-up material to life. The cast of characters were themselves a cross-section of student life, not to mention wildly exaggerated stereotypes that were all too relatable at the same time.
Rik Mayall’s character of the same name seemed to represent every student activist blinded by devotion to far left-wing politics and a failure at grasping the ideals set forth from Marx and Lenin. (Not to mention his own pretensions.) Rik was the quintessential poseur, often referring to himself as ‘the people’s poet’, yet more fanatical about Brit-Pop legend Cliff Richard than implementing social change. Despite not having a grasp of any substantial political manifesto, he insists that the lyrics to “Devil Woman” have something to say.
As Rik attempted to conceal his spoiled and most likely posh upbringing, he had his comic opposite in Vyvyan Bastard, portrayed by real-life best friend and costar of The Comic Strip Presents and later on, Bottom, Ade Edmondson. While Rik would have liked everyone to believe that he was a revolutionary, Vyvyan was the personification of the discontented subculture—favoring abrasive music and violence as a means to an end. An amalgamation of both punk and metal, his introduction to the show established everything one needed to know about him in just a few scenes. After literally smashing through a wall, destroying a kitchen sink, and discussing a homework assignment about a severed leg, he instigates violence against Rik after referring to both him and ideas like peace and love being boring. This same scene also introduces one of the supporting characters who will be very important in establishing the subversive side of the show in terms of its anti-Thatcher stance,–SPG the hamster.
Anyone familiar with The Exploited’s Punks Not Dead (1981) album would certainly catch the significance of the furry rodent. The SPG, (or special patrol group as they were known), were a tactical response unit of the London police. Originally formed as a counter-terrorism unit, they became known as the armed wing of the Thatcher regime. The Exploited song of the same name didn’t hold back the anger at the organization, and SPG the hamster bears a striking resemblance to the bands’ frontman Wattie Buchan, right down to a red mohawk and almost unintelligible Glaswegian accent.
“SPG jumping bones. SPG harassing me. Looking for punks in the night. If all goes well It was to be. SPG fathers destruction. SPG mothers corruption”
While Rick and Vyvyan were normally the instigators of the hijinks that would occur during the series, the comedic quartet was rounded out by a perennial victim and quite possibly one of the best straight men to appear in a comic series. Nigel Planer, who had previously worked alongside Mayall and Edmondson in the Spinal Tap-esque metal parody group, Bad News, played the underdog of the series, Neil Pye. More often than not, Neil was on the receiving end of abuse or the butt of a cruel joke at his own expense. A running gag in the show which was introduced in the series pilot was Neil’s depressive state and a perpetual desire to commit suicide. Planer had first developed this in an early stand-up routine, but by the time The Young Ones made its televised debut, Neil Pye had become fully realized.
With Rik, Vyvyan, and Neil all being wild exaggerations of typical student life, a straight-faced relatively normal character was needed to provide great comedic timing and be the polar opposite of the farcical trio. Enter Mike, “the cool person”, portrayed by Christopher Ryan. If anyone ever thought that Ryan was born to play this character, their assumptions couldn’t be more accurate. Aside from being the straight man of the group, Mike possessed a self-awareness that consisted of constantly breaking the fourth wall to make the audience part of the joke. Ryan also seemed to have a never-ending supply of one-liners that provided observational humor regarding the antics that were constantly happening within the household.
“Vyvyan, that vacuum cleaner is a real sucker, and I don’t mean it’s easily fooled.”
How is it possible for a comedy series based around four students sharing a house to be subversive against the Thatcher regime? The answer is simple—how could it not be? One of the hardships faced by many in England at the time was high unemployment, with millions on government assistance. As with any age group that harbor feelings of discontent with the status quo—the four have very little in terms of direction. Despite being students of the fictitious ‘scumbag college’, the closest the four get to any sort of educational setting is when they take part in a parody of University Challenge. The ongoing monotony of their lives is even touched upon in an episode ironically called ‘boring’, when Neil suggests that they go to class if they don’t have anything to do the next day…a suggestion met with hostility from the other three housemates.
While many might not have picked up on the subversive side of the shows’ humor, there was one unique asset The Young Ones featured that was noticeable to anyone who tuned in. This was the wide scope of musical talent that was featured in each episode. In a glowing example of subversion as an art form, The Young Ones was technically classed as a variety show, which allowed for a much larger budget and more audacious effects that the slapstick benefitted from.
If the youth in Britain were going in new directions, then the music featured on the show was a perfect reflection of this. Motorhead, The Damned, Madness, Nine Below Zero, and even Dexy’s Midnight Runners (still in their Celtic folk phase) all made apparencies. While the music didn’t necessarily coincide with the events occurring within the show, (aside from them being introduced by the characters from time to time) one instance showed a spotlight on a wave of censorship involving the recent advent of home video.
In a horror-themed episode aptly entitled Nasty, which even features a guest appearance from Terry Jones as a drunken vicar, the plot involves the rental of a VCR and several videocassettes that Mike and Vyvyan plan on indulging in. This ties in with the infamous ‘video nasties’ ban that occurred early in the 1980s. Several films were banned for being ‘obscene, and this naturally led to an enormous rise in the bootlegging of media. The running gag throughout the episode involves Vyvyan being asked “Have you got a video?” This episode in particular features a performance from The Damned, no strangers to embracing the horror aesthetic in their lyrical content and image. Their song, Nasty, is a satirical look at how the establishment views the horror film as a precursor to violent acts.
“Catch, Catch, the horror taxi. I fell in love with a video nasty. Catch, catch, the horror train. A freeze-frame gonna’ drive you insane.”
By using living caricatures to address sensitive topics The Young Ones provided a voice for the youth in Britain. Not just in the counterculture, but everywhere. In the final episode, all the loose ends are tied up in a conclusion that’s as sad as it is comical. After losing their home and flunking out of school, the four rob a bank and make it off in a large double-decker bus. As their vehicle plows through a billboard promoting an appearance by Cliff Rickard, Rick shouts “Lookout, Cliff!” and the vehicle teeters off the edge into a ravine. The group collectively breathes a sigh of relief before the bus disintegrates into a ball of flames. The Young Ones go out with a literal bang.
There is one final note regarding the legacy of the show. In 2014, Rik Mayall tragically passed away. The world mourned the loss of such an uncompromising talent and looked back at all of his contributions to comedy. Ade Edmondson lamented about his friend’s death in a way that seemed all too fitting. “When Rik and I were writing The Young Ones, we always thought we would die of laughter…now he’s gone and died without me…selfish bastard.” An appropriate and fitting way to say goodbye, and the most memorable since John Cleese’s eulogy of Monty Python costar Graham Chapman. In troubled times, we need laughter and that’s the legacy of The Young Ones.