Part One: From The Comic Strip to The Cosby Show
By TJ Worthington
First published November 2002
It was a matter pure coincidence that Channel 4 was launched at roughly the same time as a new wave of “alternative” comedians were emerging from the live circuit and finding their way to wider acclaim.
The start of the 1980s had seen a string of new dedicated comedy venues opening in London, most notably The Comic Strip in Soho and The Comedy Store in Leicester Square, and these were playing host to a younger group of performers who specialised in fast-moving, politically aware, taboo-challenging and expletive-strewn comedy. This style rapidly found favour with audiences who felt alienated by the unadventurous and often bigoted humour of the previous decade’s big-name standups and their relentless mother-in-law jokes. Following a tradition of alternative comedy that had arguably started with Tony Hancock and The Goons, continued through Beyond The Fringe and the satire movement, Monty Python/The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band/The Goodies, the folk club-based performances of Jasper Carrott and Billy Connolly, the punk poetry of John Cooper Clarke, and most recently and most significantly the wilful obscenity of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s “Derek And Clive” routines, the new standups had offended and excited in equal measure, and their influence was beginning to be felt beyond scattered newspaper reviews and occasional radio appearances.
There had been a couple of previous attempts to bring this new brand of humour to television, notably the BBC’s pivotal set of standalone specials transmitted under the title Boom Boom … Out Go the Lights, but there was still some trepidation and uncertainty about how best to translate the uncompromising style of the genre. Indeed, the BBC were already looking into the idea of a sitcom written by and starring some of the scene’s leading lights, but their nervousness resulted in The Young Ones taking almost a year to make it from script to screen. Channel 4’s remit, however, called for them to provide challenging and inventive programming that constituted a tangible alternative to the output of the other channels, and as such it was almost inevitable that alternative comedy would feature heavily among the new station’s programming.
Significantly, Channel 4’s opening night schedules included a programme that spelt out this agenda in no uncertain terms with “Five Go Mad In Dorset”, the first edition of The Comic Strip Presents … The idea for the special, and indeed the many that would follow, came from writer, producer and all-round creative driving force Peter Richardson. One of the key figures behind The Comic Strip club, and originally considered for the part of Mike in The Young Ones before differences with the producer drove him to quit the project, Richardson had taken the idea for a series of one-off playlets featuring a regular team of alternative comedians to Channel 4 head Jeremy Iasaacs, who was sufficiently impressed by his pitch to commission an initial set of six.
In addition to Richardson, the main team (which would expand wildly with subsequent projects) also featured Rik Mayall, Adrian Edmondson, Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, Nigel Planer and Robbie Coltrane. A demented pastiche of Enid Blyton’s wholesome “Famous Five” stories, gently adopting their twee and genteel nature at the same time as flattening it with an inspired sense of the manic and ridiculous and making substantial digs at the more politicaly dubious aspects of the originals, “Five Go Mad In Dorset” was well recieved by critics and viewers alike, and its combination of atypical humour, superb writing and high production values played an invaluable part in establishing Channel 4’s markedly different approach to comedy – and indeed to television in general – with the viewing public.
The first full series of The Comic Strip Presents … followed in January 1983, and maintained the high standard that had been set by “Five Got Mad In Dorset”. The Famous Five returned in “Five Go Mad On Mescaline”, and the series also introduced Bad News, a spoof heavy metal band made up of Rik Mayall, Adrian Edmondson, Nigel Planer and Peter Richardson. Although often lazily derided as derivative of the feature film This Is Spinal Tap, which by sheer coincidence shared the same basic premise, “Bad News Tour” was in fact made and broadcast before This Is Spinal Tap made it to cinema screens, and its thoroughly individual take on the concept deserves recognition as a fantastic piece of comedy in its own right. The “band” wrote and performed all of the music heard in the show themselves, and indeed went on to play live and release records (most famously a bombastically inept cover of Bohemian Rhapsody).
The series also included “War”, “Summer School” and the somewhat artier beatnik pastiche “The Beat Generation”, and was originally intended to conclude with “An Evening with Eddie Monsoon”. However, Channel 4 felt that the obscenity-littered spoof chat show hosted by a violent, abusive drunkard (to have been played by Edmondson, with French, Saunders and Richardson as his long-suffering production team) was too strong for broadcast, and the show was promptly pulled. It’s unclear as to whether any material was actually ever shot for the show, and although the script was later published as part of a Comic Strip compilation volume, it appears that Channel 4’s nervousness was such that they deemed it unsuitable from the outset. Less than six months into Channel 4’s existence, the challenging comedy that it sought to champion had threatened to spiral out of control, and this was far from the last occasion on which they would come up against this problem.
Following the success of The Comic Strip Presents …, a considerable proportion of the station’s early output was given over to alternative comedy. The Entertainers (the title possibly intended as a sarcastic rejoinder to ITV’s long-running traditional standup show The Comedians, notorious for its high quotient of sexist jokes) was a mixture of sketch and standup material that ran late in 1983, and gave significant early television exposure to, among others, Ben Elton, Paul Merton, Chris Barrie, Andy De La Tour, Mark Arden and Stephen Frost, Jim Barclay and Arnold Brown. The series went out in an early evening slot, athough the graphic language used in the edition featuring Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders caused Channel 4 to reschedule that individual show to a late night slot, meaning that few viewers got to see what was reportedly a fantastic restaging of their acclaimed early live show.
The Entertainers was closely followed by Interference, a series that featured Barclay and Brown as regular performers, framing their standup material with linking segments that suggested they were being transmitted by a pirate broadcaster who had temporarily seized control of the airwaves (indeed, each show began with a short pastiche of Channel 4’s more serious programming style, creating the illusion for the casual viewer that the station’s output really had been hijacked).
A year later, Little Armadillos took this idea a stage further by casting Jim Sweeney and Steve Steen as Wayne and Donny Armadillo, shady gangland impresarios who ran the dilapidated Seal Club in London’s Dockland area, and linked in to sketch material through the medium of a television set installed behind the club’s bar.
Meanwhile, some performers who had emerged from the alternative scene were developing their talents beyond merely replicating their stage act in front of a camera. Ruby Wax scripted For 4 Tonight, a deliberately plausible spoof chat show broadcast late in 1983 that predated a rash of similar programming by more than a decade, while Adrian Edmondson appeared in a little remembered single-episode comedy play entitled “The Magnificent One”.
A number of alternative standups, among them Jim Barclay, Arnold Brown, Mark Arden and Stephen Frost (and, oddly, mime artist Adrian Hedley, better known for his appearances in the BBC children’s show Jigsaw) featured in the one-off special Book ‘Em An’ Risk It in August 1983, and this led to a string of similar standalone shows, including An Evening for Nicaragua (September 1983), Stomping on the Cat (January 1984), Bless My Soul (April 1984), Comedians Do It On Stage (December 1986) and Come Dancing with Jools Holland (New Year’s Eve 1986). Meanwhile Jasper Carrott, a recent convert to the cause of alternative comedy, combined footage of one of his American gigs with his predictably acerbic observations on the nation’s more eccentric residents in the January 1985 special American Carrott
However, Channel 4’s early comedy output was not entirely taken up by graduates of The Comic Strip and Comedy Store, and many early ventures involved more traditional forms of humour. Broadcast less than 24 hours after “Five Go Mad In Dorset” (and indeed previewed by a live performance from the team during the opening night’s schedules), the station’s first sketch show The Cut Price Comedy Show was about as far removed from notions of alternative comedy as it was possible to get. Featuring Lenny Windsor and former Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band member Roger Ruskin Spear among the regular team of writer/performers, the show deliberately utilised ancient and hackneyed gags of the sort that might normally be found inside Christmas crackers, making fun of the limited budget and the performers’ own awareness that they were generally out of step with the alternative scene. Predictably, many critics missed the point and labelled it “the worst comedy show ever”, but many viewers still have fond memories of this early offering from what was, at the time, an exciting and new television service.
Max Wall made a long overdue return to television for a live show in November 1982, and veteran stage perfomer Bobby Thompson, then aged 72, was given his own special (his first headlining appearance on television) the following month. The Barron Knights recorded several specials for the station between 1983 and 1984, which saw them eschew their more familiar tactic of singing current pop hits with different lyrics (seemingly always about them eating Christmas pudding or something) in favour of self-penned compositions, most of which were surprisingly amusing and far closer in spirit to Neil Innes than to novelty songs.
In May 1985, Paula Wilcox appeared in The Bright Side, a sitcom that was essentially a more sophisticated take on the style that she had made her name with in the 1970s, as indeed did John Alderton in two series of Father’s Day between 1983 and 1984 (written by Peter Spence, formerly the creative force behind the BBC’s long running and massively successful sitcom To the Manor Born), and Peggy Mount, Pat Coombs and Hugh Lloyd in the one-off special It’s Never Too Late in December 1984. Veteran sitcom writer Johnny Speight turned in The Lady is a Tramp, a likeable effort featuring Patricia Hayes and Pat Coombs as a pair of devious vagrants which ran for two series in 1983 and 1984. Also broadcast in 1983 was a fascinating curio; the three-part series The Green Tie on the Little Yellow Dog, which concentrated on the by then quaint and long outmoded comic monologue, and included the final television performance by Arthur Askey.
Aside from the easily identifiable extremes of alternative and traditional comedy, Channel 4 was also keen to support abstract and arty projects that could not be slotted easily into either bracket, and would not have fitted comfortably or found much favour elsewhere on television. The station’s first Christmas schedules brought with them a sadly-overlooked gem, Bob Larbey’s The Curious Case of Santa Claus, in which the jolly man in the red and white robes gave in to concern over his mental welfare and was grilled by a New York psychiatrist played by Jon Pertwee. The genuinely bizarre The Optimist, which ran for two series between 1983 and 1985, starred Enn Reitel in a series of silent excursions into surreal fantasy set in both Hollywood and London. Let’s Parlez Franglais, Miles Kington’s legendary language twisting column from Punch, became an unlikely but successful television transfer in the latter half of 1984, calling on the srvices of more than 60 performers from all areas of the media to personify its cross-channel witticisms. And then there was Night Beat News, an early example of the media-based sitcom format that would later be adopted by such shows as Drop the Dead Donkey and KYTV, was written and performed by Welsh language speakers, and recorded and broadcast in both English and Welsh.
Yet experimental and alternative comedy aside, the most significant byproduct of Channel 4’s early comedy output came about as a direct result of their commitment to producing programmes that recognised and reflected cultural diversity in Britain. The first sitcom to be transmitted on the station, commencing in January 1983, was No Problem!. This pivotal series developed out of workshops held by London’s Black Theatre Co-Operative, and was (barring The Fosters, an ITV sitcom from the late 1970s that featured a young Lenny Henry among the main cast) the first comedy series on British television to actively address the varied lifestyles of the Black community in Britain. Set in a Willesden Green council house, the series depicted the exploits of the grown up Powell children after their parents had returned to Jamaica. The children and their associates (including I-And-I Patel, a crosscultural creation who predated Ali G by almost two decades are immersed in “British” culture and ethnic subcultures to varying degress, their chosen careers ranging from modelling to running a pirate radio station, and while No Problem! could hardly be described as radical, it was a groundbreaking show on many levels, and most importantly capable at times of being very amusing indeed.
After a year’s worth of ambitious comedy output, the first anniversary of Channel 4’s launch in November 1983 brought with it a pilot for a new comedy sketch show, which led to a series that would become the only homegrown offering to rival The Comic Strip Presents … for originality, acclaim and general popularity during the station’s early years – Who Dares, Wins …. The title (which boasted a different suffix every week, ranging from “… A Week In Benidorm” to “… Frank Bough’s Cardigan”) was an irreverent corruption of the motto of the SAS, and the series itself was equally short on respect and “common courtesy”, incurring the wrath of “Clean Up TV” campaigners and even religious leaders on a regular basis. Structurally the series was something of a mixed bag, veering between excellent musical parodies (in particular one that targetted Morrissey and The Smiths for their earnest miserablism), material that straddled a fine line between shock tactics and whimsy (most notoriously a parody of the Hamlet cigar adverts reworked to feature Jesus on the cross, which provoked a huge volley of complaints even by Channel 4’s standards) and a running sketch about two pandas who hated humans and were forever dreaming up wild plans for escaping from the zoo. The series was unified, however, by a genuine sense of irreverence and anarchy, its provocative and taboo-challenging nature exciting more viewers than it ever outraged.
The original pilot was followed by four full series, running in 1984, 1985, 1986 and 1988. Sadly, scant attention has been paid to Who Dares, Wins … since its original broadcast, and Channel 4 have never seen fit to repeat the series. However, a quick scan through the list of regular contributors who have gone on to far greater success – including performers Jimmy Mulville, Rory McGrath and Tony Robinson, musician Phillip Pope, and writers Guy Jenkin and Andy Hamilton – will confirm how much impact and influence the series had at the time.
As their experiences with Who Dares, Wins … might suggest, Channel 4 at this point were not afraid to take on programmes and performers that other broadcasters had deemed to be too extreme for a television audience. Broadcast on Channel 4 in June 1983, At Last … It’s Mike Elliott had originally been made for ITV, but was rejected by the IBA as being unsuitable even for a late-night slot, while Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s film Derek and Clive Get the Hornwas given an airing despite having previously seized under the obscene publications act when released on home video.
Many other “banned” comics and shows would find their way onto Channel 4 over the years, but oddly Hardwicke House – a 1987 school-based ITV sitcom that was pulled off the air after two episodes following tabloid outrage – was never picked up by the station even though many automatically assumed that it would be. If anyone from Channel 4 is reading this, maybe it’s time for the series to finally be given a second chance?
Despite the surprising and commendable diversity of Channel 4’s initial comedy output, it was clear which series had proved to be the greatest success, and a second set of six editions of The Comic Strip Presents … was unveiled in January 1984. Highlights this time included a cinema manager’s perpetually thwarted attempts to show the pornographic film “The Sound of Muzak” in “Dirty Movie”, the lavish Spaghetti Western pastiche “A Fistful of Traveller’s Cheques”, and the collision of small town conservatism and rock star decadence in “Susie”. But most significant was the return of the troublesome Eddie Monsoon. “Eddie Monsoon – A Life” related the turbulent life and career of the South African presenter, and contained tongue-in-cheek references to his eariler “pilot” having been banned by Channel 4.
Later in 1984, Channel 4 broadcast the Comic Strip side project The Bullshitters, a wonderful parody of the macho detective series The Professionals starring Keith Allen and Peter Richardson as Bonehead and Foyle, and Robbie Coltrane as their domineering boss. An edition of The Comic Strip Presents … in all but name, The Bullshitters was only transmitted independently because Allen was wary of being associated with a group of performers rather than known as an individual performer. In time he would chance his position and join up with The Comic Strip, going on to provide some of the most memorable performances ever seen in the series.
As popular as it may have proved to be, homegrown comedy was only really part of the story at Channel 4. Possibly initially inspired by the need to fill up its allocated airtime as much as by any artistic decision, Channel 4 has boasted a substantial amount of imported comedy shows since its inception, and the vast majority of these have originated from America. Early schedules were dominated by repeats of vintage American sitcoms, such as I Love Lucy and Car 54 Where Are You?, that had previously been seen on ITV or BBC (a practice that continues, albeit on a far smaller scale, to this day). However, Channel 4 were quick to realise that there was a huge and largely untapped market in recent and new Stateside sitcoms, many of which would probably not really have fitted comfortably into ITV or BBC’s schedules, and could be bought in relatively cheaply and turned into modest successes with strong and consistent scheduling.
One of their first “new” imports was Cheers, an ensemble sitcom set in a Boston bar of the same name. It benefitted enormously from its simple but effective (and at times, almost exclusive) use of the central setting – although all of the mismatched main characters had lives outside the bar, which were referred to constantly and occasionally became the main focus of episodes, they always invariably gravitated back to the bar to bemoan their woes, seek advice that was rarely if ever forthcoming, drown their sorrows, and mostly just bicker with each other.
Such was the strength and power of Cheers, and the care and attention lavished on it by creator/producer/writer team Glen Charles, Les Burrows and Les Charles (who had previously been responsible for Taxi, an equally brilliant sitcom with a similar setup that had run over here to great success on BBC1), the series was able to survive the normally insurmountable obstacle of a central character leaving (Diane, replaced to great effect by Kirstie Alley as over-efficent business minded Rebecca Howe) with ease. The main characters in Cheers were an odd assortment in many ways, none of them dislikeable by any stretch of the imagination but then again hardly sympathetic figures either. But this detachment from the usual need to have a single character that audiences can identify with was, ironically, exactly what allowed viewers to engage so readily with the series. Indeed, it can hardly be coincidence that the most fondly-remembered episode out of the entire run (numbering almost 300) was one in which the staff and regulars finally got one over on their longtime rivals at Gary’s Old Time Tavern, scoring victory in a passionately fought and hotly contested yet ultimately trivial and inconsequential feud.
Running between for just over a decade, Cheers was that rarest of television creations – a long-running American sitcom that crackled with wit and never flagged or dipped in quality.
None were ever quite of the same stature as Cheers, but a great many notable American sitcoms were aired during Channel 4’s first couple of years. Although later given greater exposure by ITV, the fantastic WKRP in Cincinatti (depicting the bizarre happenings as the eccentric staff of a tranquil MOR radio station have to adjust to playing rock music when a new manager arrives) was a regular feature in the early schedules. Other imports – including, surprisingly, the massive stateside hit Alice – were tucked away in weekday afternoon slots, and others such as Alan Alda’s wildly misjudged The Four Seasons really ought to have been. Some imports came from further afield, and gave interested viewers a fascinating glimpse of styles of television and humour that lay beyond the output of the major global television exporters. Compilation editions of The Paul Hogan Show, which had been running in Australia since the early 1970s, were shown to an almost overwhelmingly enthusiastic reception and were instrumental in establishing Hogan as a star in Britain. And the sitcom The Orchestra, starring acclaimed mime artist Julian-Joy Chagrin as a bumbling classical musician, remains the only Israeli comedy show to appear on British television.
Perhaps partly encouraged by the success of Cheers, there was a drive within early Channel 4 to create “quality” homegrown sitcoms of the sort that, while still far removed from any notions of alternative comedy, operated on a higher and more sophisticated level than the average populist sitcom to be found on ITV or BBC1. Struggle, which ran from late 1983 into early 1984, was written by newspaper columnist Peter Jenkins and depicted the clash between a relatively young left-winger (Tim Piggot-Smith) and a right-winger from the pre-war generation (Ray Smith) who both served on a borough council, managing to be thought-provoking as well as amusing with a sympathetic and impartial approach to each man’s beliefs and background.
The following year saw the arrival of The Kit Curran Radio Show, a superb series about a local radio DJ with a sense of self-importance that was dramatically disproportionate to his actual status. The conclusion to the series saw the radio station’s management finally lose their patience with the scheming star and show him the door, but this did nothing to dent his ego. Returning in 1986 as Kit Curran, the second run saw him working as a decorator but still making wild plans to set up his own radio station.
David Nobbs, creator of The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, turned in another fine sitcom in the form of Fairly Secret Army, which ran for two series in 1984 and 1986 and starred the great Geoffrey Palmer as a somewhat less than sane former military man who rounded up an urban army of rabid right-wingers to battle the advances of the “loony left”. In addition, between 1984 and 1986, Simon Callow and Brenda Blethynn appeared in three series of the bizarre Chance in a Million, which saw the hapless lovers Tom and Alison perpetually caught up in escalating chains of bizarre coincidences (taking in everything from extremely public loss of clothing to parachutists accidentally falling through the ceiling) which in some ways prefigured the BBC’s later highly successful One Foot in the Grave. One of the key comedy successes of early Channel 4, Chance in a Million concluded in fittingly absurd style with the wedding of Tom and Alison, which somehow managed to take place in between spells in prison and the guests all becoming trapped in a sewer.
1984 also brought Dream Stuffing, an enjoyable series that, in what was something of a bold move for the time, centred around two idle unemployed girls living in a run-down tower block. Dream Stuffing was the first television series to be made by Humphrey Barclay Productions, a company that would go on to enjoy a particularly productive association with Channel 4. Another notable series from the same production company was Never Say Die, a November 1987 sitcom set in a far from luxiurious block of flats used as sheltered accomodation for elderly residents (a deliberate counterpoint to the plush surroundings of You’re Only Young Twice, a late 1970s ITV sitcom with a similar premise), which contained what were among the final performances of a number of comedy greats, including Irene Handl, Charlie Chester and Arthur English. Most successful of the early Humphrey Barclay Productions sitcoms, however, was Relative Strangers. Essentially a continuation of an earlier ITV sitcom, Holding the Fort, the series saw Matthew Kelly reprise his role as the freewheeling, womanising lorry driver Fitz. In the first episode, Fitz’s lifestyle underwent a sudden change when he met his teenage son John. This meeting came as something of a surprise to Fitz, who had previously been unaware of John’s existence, and the series explored the awkward relationship between father and son, with Fitz treading a fine line between parental responsibility and his preferred tactic of treating John as he would any of his friends. Although hardly an all-time classic of the genre, Relative Strangers was consistently entertaining and sometimes very amusing indeed, benefitting strongly from taut scripting and excellent support from David Battley as Fitz’s boss.
Two series of Relative Strangers were made in 1985 and 1987, and a repeat run in the early 1990s also drew deservedly healthy viewing figures.
With early excursions into the world of alternative comedy having proved so successful, and with the example of The Comic Strip Presents … very much in mind, Channel 4 looked to theatre groups who were experimenting with alternative humour to develop more ambitious shows. The Cliff Hanger comedy troupe – Robin Driscoll, Tony Haase, Pete McCarthy and Rebecca Stevens – wrote and performed in They Came From Somewhere Else, a July 1984 sitcom set in the fictitious psychic phenomena-prone town of Middleford. Based on a stage production that the team had developed, the series (which parodied everything from sci-fi and horror to soap opera) worked well but did not lead to a second run, although Cliff Hanger would resurface with a similar venture, Mornin’ Sarge, on BBC2 in the late 1980s.
The densely layered The National Theatre of Brent Presents … was created by Patrick Barlow in the guise of his character Desmond “Oliver” Dingle, leader of the arts council grant-funded threatre troupe with a love of retelling epic historical and religious stories in ludicrously abbreviated form. Although decidedly offbeat, The National Theatre of Brent Presents … employed a thoroughly refreshing and rewarding brand of humour, and the five specials broadcast on Channel 4 between 1984 and 1985 have since been followed by dozens of other National Theatre of Brent presentations on radio, stage and the printed page.
Starting in 1985, Arthur and Phil Go Off … was a sporadic series of highly enjoyable one-off playlets created and performed by Arthur Smith and Phil Nice, and special mention should be made of the full title of the second one: Arthur and Phil Go Off Around Channel 4 and Look at the Good Bits From the Channel 4 Archives, Fail to Find a Short Title, But Try to Redeem Themselves by Getting Into The Guinness Book of Records for the World’s Longest Title for a Television Programme.
January 1985 brought another notable American import that, while never as popular as Cheers, would remain a near-permanent fixture on Channel 4 until the early 1990s. The Cosby Show was, on face value, seemingly little more than a straightforward sitcom vehicle for Bill Cosby. Having come to prominence in the mid-1960s, firstly as a standup performer and then starring in the tongue-in-cheek secret agent series I Spy, Bill Cosby had been one of America’s biggest comedians for nearly two decades by the time that The Cosby Show went into production. However, the series was devised in a more deliberate and considered fashion than most star vehicles. Cosby was heavily involved in the creation and production of the programme, applying theories and concepts that he had encountered while studying for a Doctorate in Education, to shape a sitcom that explored traditional family values and the world view of children rather than just aiming for easy laughs. This approach paid off, and the series – which featured Cosby as Cliff Huxtable, a middle-class doctor and father of five – leapt straight to the top of the ratings in America, where it remained until Cosby took the decision to end the series in 1992.
However, The Cosby Show did not catch on in quite the same way in the UK. While the series was not bad by any stretch of the imagination, and Cosby’s physically manic performance and odd turns of phrase are always worth watching, the setup itself was too bland and “nice” for viewers more used to sitcom characters with obvious flaws to stomach, and the relentless and unsubtle moralising (not to mention the fact that the adults were invariably presented as knowing best) could be very offputting indeed. Nonetheless, The Cosby Show was popular enough to enjoy regular and sensible scheduling on Channel 4, and it remains one of the few long-running Stateside sitcoms to have every single episode transmitted on terrestrial television in the UK.
Unusually, two of Channel 4’s most fondly remembered homegrown comedy shows from this time shared roots not only in literature, but also in earlier BBC adaptations. Alan Bleasdale’s Scully was originally written in the mid-1970s, and had been aimed specifically at “bored, illiterate teenagers”. The adventures of the football obsessed teenage Liverpudlian hardcase Franny Scully were subsequently adapted for BBC Radio Merseyside and for a BBC Play for Today in 1978, and given a fresh outing on Channel 4 in 1984. This series retained the prefectly suited Andrew Schofield in the title role, and introduced a superbly eccentric cast that included Mark McGann, Cathy Tyson, Jean Boht, Gary Bleasdale, Tony Haygarth, Elvis Costello (who also provided the theme song, Turning The Town Red) and the entire 1983-84 Liverpool Football Club line-up. Scully was a wonderful evocation of the world that Bleasdale had created in his books, moving seamlessly between gritty if occasionally eccentric realism, and wild fantasy sequences.
Meanwhile Tales From a Long Room, a set of superb monologues written by Peter Tinniswood and performed by his longtime associate Robin Bailey in the guise of cricketing eccentic “The Brigadier” that ran for most of the spring and summer of 1985, also began as a series of books before being adapted for both BBC television and radio.
No Problem! had been running to great success since 1983, and shortly after the third series early in 1985, writer Farrukh Dhondy was asked to create a new sitcom vehicle aimed at the Asian community. Shortly after that, he was appointed Commissioner Of Multicultural Productions at Channel 4, and in a remarkable feat of artistic integrity he cancelled No Problem! and pressed ahead with the new series. Tandoori Nights, which debuted in July 1985 and would enjoy a second run in 1987, gently mocked the then-current cultural vogue for big budget dramas that presented a homogenised view from a white perspective of India in the days of the Raj, detailing the mild rivalry between the owners of the Far Pavillions and Jewel In The Crown restaurants (situated directly across the street from each other) as they sought to attract local custom on the back of the wave of cultural tourism, while also trying to adhere to tradition and custom as much as possible.
Although some criticised it for being essentially little different to any other mainstream sitcom despite the ethnic premise, and the series was certainly nowhere near as funny as No Problem! had been, Tandoori Nights was watchable fare and unarguably represented a key and timely step forward in the representation of the Asian community on British television.
One of the strengths of Channel 4 at this time was that it gave established performers and writers the opportunity to try something new and different, where the prospect of failure did not seem quite as daunting as it would have done on any of the major channels. Many took full advantage of this possibility, and the results often made for refreshing and diverting television. Roy Clarke, better known for writing gentle BBC sitcoms like Last of the Summer Wine and Keeping Up Appearances, showed his less well-represented artistic leanings (also clearly visible around the same time in his unfairly overlooked BBC detective series Pulaski) in the peculiar 1985 sitcom Mann’s Best Friends. Fulton Mackay appeared as Hamish James Ordway, a recently retired busybody who chanced upon a boarding house peopled by oddballs and eccentrics (and animals), where he was offered free board on the condition that he can sort out the many and varied problems that existed within its walls.
Another comedy to be penned by “moonlighting” writers was the late-night ensemble show Assaulted Nuts, written by David Renwick and Andrew Marshall and broadcast early in 1985. It featured an unlikely cast of performers that included Tim Brooke-Taylor, Cleo Rocos, Barry Cryer and American performer Wayne Knight, later to find huge success as a regular in both Seinfeld and 3rd Rock from she Sun. 1985 was seen out in fine style by The Last Laugh Before TV-am, a one-off special broadcast in December, that saw Spike Milligan appear in sketches with some of the practitioners of alternative comedy whose work owed so much to his inspiration.
Although Channel 4 had been a strong supporter of the alternative comedy scene since its launch, most of this support had taken the form of pre-recorded material, which while certainly highly entertaining also lacked some of the edge and sense of spontaneity and anarchy of live performance. In 1985, however, the pilot was broadcast for a new show named Saturday Live, which led to two rapturously recieved full series in 1986 and 1987. Produced for Channel 4 by LWT, the series was the brainchild of producer Paul Jackson, who had previously been responsible for bringing alternative comedy to the BBC with shows like The Young Ones and Three of a Kind. Performed and broadcast live, the series mixed standup comedy with music, and ran to an impressively taut schedule that only served to heighten the fast-moving feel and overall excitement of the programme.
Initially brought into the project as a writer, Ben Elton was soon promoted to series host and proved to be ideal for the role, linking acts with seemingly unstoppable bursts of rapid-fire wit and often remonstrating with the individual performers about their material. And those performers varied from week to week but notable contributors included Chris Barrie, the Cliff Hanger team, Craig Charles, Patrick Marber, French And Saunders, Nick Hancock and Neil Mullarkey (whose physical impersonations of popular TV programmes to a medley of theme tunes seemed to incapacitate the audience with laughter), Jeremy Hardy, Andy De La Tour, Rowan Atkinson, Angus Deayton, Julian Clary, Morwenna Banks, Robbie Coltrane, Josie Lawrence, Norman Lovett, Paul Merton, Nigel Planer, Punt And Dennis, Emo Phillips, Stephen Wright, Will Durst, Lenny Henry, Pamela Stephenson, Hale And Pace, Peter Cook, John Wells, John Bird, Jasper Carrott, Frankie Howerd, Spike Milligan, Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson (whose regular double act The Dangerous Brothers more than lived up to their name when Edmondson’s clothing caught fire during a stunt), Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Harry Enfield (initially in the guise of his kebab shop owner character Stavros) and just about anyone else worth seeing on the comedy circuit at the time.
Although the show sparked off some notoriety among more conservative viewers, especially with its relentless railing against authority and Ben Elton’s vitriolic rants against “Thatch”, it is something of an irony that the show only fell foul of the broadcasting authorities when The Pogues performed their politically sensitive protest song Birmingham Six live on air. Nonetheless, Saturday Live was exactly what viewers were looking for at the time, and there is no snapshot more potent of the sheer excitement of 1980s alternative comedy.
Meanwhile, following a gap of two years, The Comic Strip Presents … returned in January 1986 for a much shorter run than usual. Much of the previous year had been taken up by work on the team’s first full-length feature film, The Supergrass, and as a result there was only room to complete two new television shows. Both “Private Enterprise” and “Consuela” maintained the established high standard, and the former in particular was an extremely strong offering. The reduced run and the increased visibility of the key players in other high profile projects led to a feeling at the time that The Comic Strip setup was gradually disintegrating, but in fact this could not have been further from the truth, and their strongest collection of work was still to come.