25 years on, Not the Nine O'Clock News - and its spin-offs - was a benchmark in intelligent TV, says Paul Stump
If the Blairite junta declare martial law tomorrow and Ms Jowell's Inclusivity Police come for me, among the things on the shortlist for my last night in the condemned cell will be something to do with Not the Nine O'Clock News, whose last series aired a quarter-century back. It isn't this writer's favourite programme; not even a favourite comedy. But it was a stunning achievement, and while it's in any thinking person's TV pantheon it has not, I fear, ever quite been given the recognition it deserves. It can even be forgiven for handing a gag-writer called Ruby Wax a break.
It's time to put this dismaying situation right, and I don't mean just deporting Ms Wax.
The conceit of a contemporary sketch show had been absent from British TV schedules since The Frost Report and hot-property BBC radio comedy producer John Lloyd and current affairs sidekick Sean Hardie must have been pleasantly surprised when John Howard Davies (BBC head of comedy) and Jimmy Gilbert (head of light entertainment) green-lighted a pilot in early 1979. What this may have led to is unclear; Chris 'Huddlines' Emmett and John 'Scaffold' Gorman were among the cast of the first, as yet unseen Not The Nine O'Clock News, scheduled for broadcast on April 2 1979. Putatively replacing Fawlty Towers in the schedules (Cleese was filmed introducing the show in character as Basil), it fell foul of a General Election, declared days earlier. Lloyd and Hardie's political gags were judged potentially inflammable material, and the whole project was shelved. Which was probably a good thing; six months later, a new cast came up with a new show. New TV full stop, in fact.
By the time this initially culty series kicked off its third series a year later in autumn 1980 it was trailed like little else before it on BBC2; the first of several tie-in books (of which more later) hit the shelves and gave Nigel Rees and Gyles Brandreth a deserved kick in the nadgers. An LP raced up the charts. Smith, Jones, Atkinson and Stephenson had become four of the unlikeliest TV stars of the era (maybe not so unlikely for Stephenson, whose 'would you like to rub my tits' moment in a superb American Express ad spoof probably accounted for half of Kleenex's profits in the 1980 financial year, if reaction at my school was anything to go by). That series hauled in some of BBC2's highest-ever ratings, easily breaking eight figures. But stardom meant that Solo Album Syndrome kicked in, individual projects were nurtured - Atkinson probably didn't get a day off for months on end at this time - and by series four (spring 1982) the momentum and identity of the show had dissipated and its teeth seemed to have been blunted. This was a shame, because this - as with the final and cruelly underrated Cleese-less '74 Python series - contained some of the greatest material of all, including remorseless attacks on New Romantics, the 'Made/Laid/Failed in Wales' classic and a mercilessly, rip-roaringly brutal demolition of The Two Ronnies. No argument here - this was the finest British comedy sketch ever broadcast. There were imitators around by now, notably the intermittently-amusing Kick Up The Eighties.
In between times, an increasingly small Not writing team (Lawrie Rowley, Phil Differ, Douglas Adams, Colin Gilbert, Andy Hamilton among others), coalescing around co-producers John Lloyd and Sean Hardie had produced July 1981's slender treasure, Not The Royal Wedding, a 'souvenir' of Charlie/Di's nuptial schmaltzfest. It remains one of this writer's most precious possessions, a sublime monument to the difficult art of pastiche; and Not 1982, a doorstopping pretend desk diary, dreadfully erratic in content but still very funny (among 'Useful German Phrases' are translations of 'I have lost my totem pole' and 'what is your kinkajou's name?' And guess what? They're accurate, too). What was being satirised was not so much the message as the medium, probably inspired by the workaholic Hardie's background in news; Wedding's precise treatment of newspaper and colour-supplement discourse, content, layout and even use of fonts took meticulousness to the point of monomania. What was, and is, so maddening about the later Not product is how elusive it is to description. The 'Answers to Last Year's Men Only Prize Crossword' is impossible to reproduce here; it is, nonetheless, an absolute masterpiece, smutty and snarky, crude and cruel, in equal measure. There aren't really any jokes in the books, just fabulously expert subversions of language and media devices by people who were obviously so clever they needed their heads flushed down the nearest toilet for having the temerity to demand that their readers be as clued-up as them. The plebs had a few t'icko-Oirish gags lobbed to them, but that was all.
Supercilious? Horrid? No. These books are sheer, unbridled joy, better even than National Lampoon. The next desk diary (September '82) Not 1983, has an almost inconceivably good 60%-odd hit-rate for a 730-pager ('Are You A Racist? Why not try our fun quiz and find out?'). Not the General Election (April 1983) was a rush-release, somewhat ad hoc but still caused me to be chucked out of a bookshop for laughing too much when I first picked it up.
The British are notoriously suspicious of cleverness; it is why Rory Bremner's C4 shows are often reflexively sneered at whether good or bad. Since Not, only hehas provided 'topical' shows that consistently assume an audience with a supra-simian IQ (although, to be honest, is there anything more tedious and unfunny in current British TV comedy than Bird and Fortune's interminable bleeding-obvious dialogues?).
It's perhaps no surprise that formidably brainiac Douglas Adams found a kindred spirit in Lloyd, who produced the radio adaptation of Hitch-Hiker's Guide in 1978. I can't confess to enjoying these books, but admire their literary panache and knowingness, a kind of telepathic conjunction of Philip K. Dick and P.G. Wodehouse. This was the cultural world out of which Not emerged; smug, Oxbridgean, maybe, even showoffy; but by God, could these guys (usually guys, sadly) do the biz. Not was more prog-rock than punk (as it was, and still is, lazily compared with). It wasn't Plato's Symposium or Eco's Serendipities, but these people knew they were brainy. If a rock comparison applies, it is probably to Steely Dan; collegiate, urbane, crafted, indecently literate. By a sweet coincidence the Dan's most polished, ironic and thoroughly modern album, Gaucho, appeared in November 1980, when Not was at its public acme.
By '83 the Not franchise had quit at the top, just about. Atkinson became The Black Adder. Interestingly, its scripts, before the disastrous, populist depradations of Ben Elton, were clearly Not-derived. Quite a few of the laughs depended on at least a vague knowledge of medieval history, not least the brilliant sequence in episode 4 about faked religious artefacts (Baldrick's reaction to Percy's prized 'holy' relic, 'a finger of our Lord'... "Amazing! I thought they only came in boxes of ten"). Then there are, in episode 6, the unseen characters Mad Bully Boy Jack, the Graverobbing Assassin of Aldwych; Crazed Animal Jack, The Cattle-Rustling Cannibal of Sutton Coldfield; Sane Jack O'Hooligan, the Man-hating Goat Murderer of Dingle Bay; Canon Jack Smollett (senior arch-deacon of the Diocese of St Bothar), the Entrail-eating Heretic of Bath and Wells; and Unspeakably Violent Jack, the Bull-Buggering Priest-Killer of No-fixed-abode. This rhapsodic litany merely indulges in a rapturously unbuttoned and very, very funny use of vocabulary. Almost enough to make one forgive Richard Curtis for Love Actually. Almost.
Smith and Jones, meanwhile, were working - God help us - on Morons from Outer Space, their 1985 feature debut and one watched mostly by very few morons from the planet Earth, although their early TV shows did produce some comedic gold, notably a tour de force of a satire in 1986 on lager-lads-together, Kwik-fit-style period ads. Stephenson had Billy Connolly on her hands, John Lloyd Spitting Image. Sean Hardie took his family to the west of Ireland and busied himself writing comic thrillers. There was also irrelevant fluff to earn bill-paying old-rope cash; Fundamental Frolics, anyone? And, of course, Mr frigging goddam smellarse tittyface tittyface Bean.
Some of Not's TV material has dated now, as it has to; Lloyd and Hardie developed the show's tone, look and feel around contemporary technology (no doubt prompted by the technophile dazzle of The Kenny Everett Video Show ) and immediacy of content (it was taped on a Sunday night for Monday transmission, directly opposite the Nine O'Clock News). This was necessarily problematic, and nobody under 30 can remember headline names like Bokassa, Hercules the Bear, Bill Sirs, Menachem Begin, Keith Joseph. And hark!; 'Dad, what are British Leyland shop stewards? What's Brut?' Visually, kit like Quantel and Chromakey look as antediluvian as the cave art of Lascaux. Mirroring the painstaking, loving dissection of media discourse in the books, the show's obsession with cutting-edge contemporary visual details (notably Space Invaders) suggests a built-in obsolescence.
But what commends Not is how remarkably well most of it's stood up (infinitely better, after a quarter-century, than most Python). There are splendidly-written sketches, timeless anthology pieces by anyone's standards; Gerald the Gorilla ('wild? I was absolutely livid'), The Life of Christ ('well, I certainly didn't expect the Spanish Inquisition'), Stout Pride ('but fat people are funnay!'), Griff's pull-back-and-reveal copper ('I 'ate mods cos they make me puke') and many more; and above all a unique blend of aggression and slightly superior adultness, which was surely its clincher. There are few things that adolescents with half a brain enjoy more than being treated as grown-ups and not just grown-up kids (a fact that seems to have escaped programme-makers for nearly two decades).
We had it good while it lasted - we had it brilliant. Four magnificent series (yes, even the first one), five books (plus a few spun-off spin-offs, including Andy Hamilton and Alistair Beaton's bog-budget little rough diamond of a booklet The Thatcher Papers (NEL, 1980), the delightfully whimsical Adams-Lloyd Liff series (Faber/Pan, 1983-4) and the now-all-but-impossible-to-find Prince Harry's First Quiz Book (Sphere, 1985), a classic of Hardie's genius for parody and oddly genial cynicism). After that it was all-too-rare repeats, money, money and money. And more money. Oh, did I mention money?
It's hard to be too grudging. For a generation, Not's greatest legacy was that, for a brief period, a decade that otherwise defined imbecility, a bunch of people made it at least slightly hip to be smart.