The Birth of Alternative Comedy

The 80s is mainly remembered for big hair, big money and big politics but it was also the decade in which television comedy changed.
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In April 1979 the Radio Times listed the first appearance of a new satirical comedy show on BBC2 entitled Not the Nine O’Clock News, starring seven virtually unknown performers. Anyone tuning in, however, would have been disappointed, for the previous week the House of Commons had recorded a vote of no confidence in the government, a general election had been called, and the BBC had pulled the programme in the interests of avoiding political controversy. It was to take another seven months before the show finally made it to the screen. When it did, the cast had been slimmed down and now featured Rowan Atkinson, Pamela Stephenson, Mel Smith and Chris Langham (for the second and subsequent series, Langham was replaced by Griff Rhys Jones). The result was the most celebrated and popular cult comedy show since Monty Python’s Flying Circus, indeed considerably more popular than that, for a compilation screened on BBC1 at Christmas 1980 attracted eighteen million viewers, while three records of highlights from the series spent a year between them in the album charts.

"We’ll have no more Jewish stories tonight, I’ve just discovered that I lost my grandfather at Auschwitz,’ ran one Bernard Manning gag. ‘He fell out of the machine gun tower."

It had been five years since the last series of Monty Python and, with the exception of the solo projects by the members of the team, the show had left little trace on the television schedules. Furthermore the wave of Oxbridge graduates who had made that programme – in addition to the slapstick of The Goodies and the satire of That Was The Week That Was, creating a distinctive strand of comedy in the 1960s and early 1970s – seemed to have come to an end with the emergence from Cambridge of Graeme Garden in 1964. The next generation of students chose more orthodox career paths and didn’t follow them into comedy, and it began to look as though the supply of new talent from the universities had dried up.

In the absence of such graduates, the comedy on television towards the end of the 1970s had reverted to type and looked little changed from a decade earlier. The few sketch shows that existed, such as The Two Ronnies, which ran for fifteen years right up to 1986, were – like the variety shows of Tommy Cooper and Morecambe and Wise – essentially part of the light entertainment tradition, with song-and-dance routines, musical guests and nothing more offensive than saucy postcard innuendo. The other comedy staple was the family-flavoured sitcom, including most typically Happy Ever After (1974), with Terry Scott and June Whitfield as suburban couple Terry and June Fletcher. This was perfectly agreeable fare but so limited that its chief writer John Chapman eventually walked out, complaining that there were no new permutations to be wrung out of the format; the BBC, reluctant to lose such a fine property, rebranded the show as Terry and June (1979), gave the couple a new surname – Medford – and ran it for another nine series, maintaining a consistent audience of over ten million viewers.

There was, however, a clear public appetite for an alternative, demonstrated by the enthusiasm with which a small group of new comedians were received in certain quarters. Jasper Carrott, Mike Harding,Max Boyce and Billy Connolly all came from the unlikely background of folk-clubs, broke through to a national audience through hit records rather than television – though all but Connolly were rewarded with their own television series in the late 1970s – and were of a similar age (Harding, Carrott and Boyce were born within twelve months of each other). More importantly, they departed from the traditional stand-up format of simply telling jokes. Instead, drawing on their working-class origins outside London, there was a new emphasis on story-telling, on observational humour, on a much more individualist style of delivery that prefigured some of what was to come. Popular though these comedians were, however, there was little sense of their emergence being anything more than a one-off event; and there was no indication of future stars to come from the same source.

"'In the space of one month you have brought 117 ridiculous, trumped-up and ludicrous charges. Against the same man.’ It then transpires that the victim of Savage’s attentions is black, and what had seemed like an absurd joke turns out to be an attack on racism in the police force."

If the arrival of the folk comedians was one hint of the future, another came in the form of the Radio 4 series The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, first broadcast in 1978. It was written by Cambridge graduate, Douglas Adams, who had contributed a sketch to the last-ever episode of Monty Python, despite being ten or more years younger than the regular cast. Characteristically that had been a piece satirizing bureaucracy, which became one of the central themes of Hitchhiker’s, in which a human, Arthur Dent (Simon Jones), is saved just before the Earth is destroyed to make way for a hyperspace bypass; he spends the remainder of the series wandering the universe, including a visit in the second series to a planet, Brontitall, where he is monumentalised in a vast statue, commemorating the moment when he staged a quiet rebellion against the tyranny of machines (especially those that failed to understand how to make a cup of tea). Here was a clear return to the Oxbridge tradition, using the Python blueprint to construct a rambling but coherent narrative that would become a long-running cult, spreading into novels, records, television and ultimately the cinema. And the following year came Not the Nine O’Clock News to relaunch the Oxbridge sketch show (Mel Smith and Rowan Atkinson had studied at Oxford, Griff Rhys Jones at Cambridge).

The series did not seek to copy Monty Python – it opted for a slick professionalism, making no attempt to emulate the earlier show’s surreal juxtapositions, its excursions into history and cross-dressing, its refusal to end sketches with a punchline – but there was a discernible influence, particularly in the fascination with other television formats. Indeed the parody of the highbrow talk-show, a standard Python target, reached new heights with the sketch about a professor who has made a breakthrough in communicating with a gorilla; the primate in question, Gerald, turns out to be highly articulate, capable of quoting Aristotle in the original Greek and a fan of the music of Johnny Mathis.

The debt was made explicit in a sketch mocking the reaction accorded to the film Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979). In a debate hosted by Tim Rice on the BBC2 chat show Friday Night, Saturday Morning, the Python stars John Cleese and Michael Palin had tried patiently, but with growing exasperation, to explain to the journalist Malcolm Muggeridge that the movie wasn’t actually blasphemous at all, while the always preposterous Mervyn Stockwood, Bishop of Southwark, smugly fingered the ostentatiously large cross around his neck and made the occasional snide comment. Not the Nine O’Clock News countered with a studio discussion of a film by the General Synod of the Church of England, Life of Christ, described as ‘a thinly disguised and blasphemous attack on the life of Monty Python’. Rowan Atkinson appeared as the bishop who had directed the film, toying with a camera lens on a chain around his neck and simpering his way through a mock apologia: ‘The Christ figure is not Cleese, he’s just an ordinary person who happens to have been born in Weston-super-Mare at the same time as Mr Cleese . . .’

The series also featured songs which were, as ever with such things, of a hit or miss nature, but did include at least one bullseye in ‘Nice Video – Shame About the Song’, ridiculing the pop industry’s obsession with promotional films. Again the influence of an earlier generation could be seen: Bill Oddie, first in the radio series I’m Sorry I’ll Read that Again and then with the Goodies, had been working for years on songs that sounded like perfect recreations of current pop styles, while being undermined by the lyrics.

John Lloyd, the co-creator of Not the Nine O’Clock News, saw the show as following in the Oxbridge tradition, though he argued that where That Was the Week That Was had been characterized by its optimism about the power of satire to change society, and Monty Python had mostly opted out in favour of whimsy, now there was a ‘sad and cynical conclusion that the world cannot be changed so we might as well go down laughing’. There was, however, a strong vein of protest in the show,with a relentless line of attack on the government, on nuclear weapons and on the monarchy, and an edge that hadn’t been seen on television for many years.

In particular the 1980 sketch ‘Constable Savage’ was deliberately contentious with its depiction of Rhys Jones as the eponymous police officer being given a dressing down by his superior (Atkinson) for bringing a string of ridiculous charges: ‘loitering with intent to use a pedestrian crossing’, ‘looking at me in a funny way’, ‘coughing without due care and attention’. The list of nonsense culminates in the incredulous comment: ‘In the space of one month you have brought 117 ridiculous, trumped-up and ludicrous charges. Against the same man.’ It then transpires that the victim of Savage’s attentions is black, and what had seemed like an absurd joke turns out to be an attack on racism in the police force.

"Not the Nine O’Clock News countered with a studio discussion of a film by the General Synod of the Church of England, Life of Christ, described as ‘a thinly disguised and blasphemous attack on the life of Monty Python’."

This was very definitely a return to the humour that had made That Was the Week That Was such a controversial programme. A brief sketch in that series, written by a young John Cleese, had seen a man saying ‘Good evening’ to a policeman and promptly getting beaten up, with the officer remarking, ‘Just a routine enquiry, sir’. But that had been in 1962, and in the years since, British comedy had mostly returned to a more traditional image of the police on the suburban beat (Deryck Guyler’s portrayal of Corky in the Sykes series being the most memorable). In the wake of Not the Nine O’ClockNews, others followed the lead. The following year, for example, the Radio 4 comedy series Injury Time included RoryMcGrath in a parody of Shaw Taylor’s Police 5 programme, appealing to the public for help in solving a crime: ‘Otherwise, they say, they’ll go out and arrest the first black person they see – it’s never let them down in the past.’

Like the folk comedians, the success of Not the Nine O’Clock News helped prepare the way for what was to become known as alternative comedy (‘It was the first show at that time which was capable of being watched by a seventeen-year-old,’ as Rhys Jones later pointed out), but there was no immediate sign that it was anythingmore than an isolated exception to the norm. A couple of months earlier The Comedians, the show that had made household names of Charlie Williams, Frank Carson and Jim Bowen in the early 1970s, had enjoyed a return to ITV, with producer Johnny Hamp predicting big things for his new stars Charlie Daze, Ivor Davies, Mick Miller, Harry Scott, Roy Walker and Lee Wilson. To celebrate the occasion, the Daily Mirror ran a full-page spread on these comedians, inviting them each to contribute a joke; of the six gags, three were standard Irish stories: ‘Heard about the Irish fellow who had his arm amputated so he could sail around the world single-handed?’ Even here, however, the concern over racist humour that had become an issue over the last couple of years was making its presence felt, and Hamp insisted that Irish jokes would be banned fromthe show unless they were told by Irish comedians.

But the old tradition of comedy was still very much in evidence. It was in 1979 that Benny Hill,who had been named TV Personality of the Year as far back as 1955, began his conquest of America, with syndicated highlights of his Thames TV sketch show proving so popular, according to one report, ‘that a 1988 survey of Florida schoolchildren revealed that although many of them did not know London was our capital, they all associated one person with Britain: Benny Hill. A riot broke out in a California gaol when prisoners were prevented from watching his show.’ In his own country Hill was to become a controversial figure as the Thatcher years wore on. Never much liked by critics (‘what a strange survivor his humour is,’ marvelled Joan Bakewell), he was to be reviled by many of the new comedians for what was perceived of as a reactionary style of humour, though at this stage he was under attack from another quarter altogether: in 1981 the moral campaigner Mary Whitehouse wrote to the heads of all the companies that advertised during his show, asking if they knew that they were supporting the broadcasting of pornography during family viewing time.

A riot broke out in a California gaol when prisoners were prevented from watching Benny Hill's show. The same alliance of liberal critics, right-wing moralists and right-on comedians was also to be found ranged against Bernard Manning, the Manchester-based stand-up whose humour, wrote Michael Ginley, had ‘its roots in the savage conditions endured by the working-class poor in the nineteenth century’. Technically Manning was the most accomplished of the comics to break out from the northern club circuit in the 1970s, and he was also the most transgressive, capable of subverting expectations like few others. ‘We’ll have no more Jewish stories tonight, I’ve just discovered that I lost my grandfather at Auschwitz,’ ran one gag. ‘He fell out of the machine gun tower.’ Only Barry Humphries’ character Dame Edna Everage could rival him for cruelty and obscenity, though that wasn’t what made him the most notorious figure in 1980s comedy.

‘I don’t want to sound like a preacher,’ said Ben Elton, the man who came to personify alternative comedy for the public, ‘but we can make people laugh without being racist or sexist. Bernard Manning’s mother-in-law jokes and jokes implying that all Irish are stupid are out.’ So personalized had this dislike become that at the opening of the Jongleurs comedy club in Camden Lock, north London, a burning effigy of Manning was thrown into the adjacent canal. His humour wasn’t much better received when he appeared in 1982 at the opening night of Factory Records’ Hacienda club in Manchester.

The way that comedy became such a contentious issue was indicative of the polarization of culture in the period. The alternative comedy that followed in the wake of Not the Nine O’Clock News saw a rebirth of the crusading spirit of That Was the Week That Was, mixed with the absurdism of Monty Python and the bellicose personal commitment of Lenny Bruce (whose work was revived in the West End in 1979) and of Richard Pryor (whose groundbreaking Live in Concert film was released in Britain in 1980), but there was also, and perhaps most importantly, a large dose of post-punk anger. And, just as punk had directed much of its fury against other strands of rock and roll, so did alternative comedy come with an ad hoc agenda that challenged the established order in television humour, hence the attacks on Benny Hill and Bernard Manning.

This is an extract from ‘Rejoice, Rejoice!: Britain in the 1980s' by Alwyn Turner (Aurum). To buy this book click here

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