Part Two: From Ruby Wax to Roger Mellie

By TJ Worthington

First published December 2002

With Cheers firmly established as one of the Channel 4′s most popular programmes by the mid ’80s, a large number of imports quickly joined it.

Some of them, including Kate and Allie and E/R (unrelated to the later drama series of the same name, although oddly both did feature George Clooney as a medic), were above average fare, but many were bland, uninteresting, and not really worthy of the peak viewing slots that they occupied. Yet even so, none were quite enough to prepare viewers with an aversion to such programming for the sheer unremitting awfulness of The Golden Girls.

To be fair, the series had an individual enough premise – four ageing widows sharing a Malibu beach house and refusing to grow old gracefully – and a genuinely impressive central performer in Bea Arthur. On the other hand, though, it had clichéd humour, twee stylistic devices, jarring washes of laughter and catchphrases created through sheer repetition rather than comedic value. Bought in by Channel 4 soon after its Stateside premiere, The Golden Girls was installed in a Friday night slot in August 1986, and refused to move from there until the series finally ground to a halt in 1993.

Initial press and critical hostility to Channel 4 had, by 1987, given way to a dawning recognition and appreciation of the station’s ability to provide challenging, high quality programming. A key factor in this change was the transmission of the rightly acclaimed Porterhouse Blue in June 1987. Adapted directly from Tom Sharpe’s comic novel, the series was presented entirely “straight” but captured the essence of Sharpe’s verbal humour so well that it was sheer joy from start to finish. Awash with expertly judged performances, most notably David Jason as the devious and fiercely traditionalist Porterhouse porter Skullion, the ribald tale of attempts to modernise a shambolic Cambridge college and the ferocious hostility that they provoked was roundly hailed as a minor masterpiece of television – and tellingly, while the series was infused with the same sort of bawdy and occasionally explicit humour that had led to howls of protest against many other Channel 4 shows, Porterhouse Blue drew virtually no complaints whatsoever.

1987 was, in fact, something of a pivotal year for Channel 4 in terms of comedy output. Porterhouse Blue aside, there were no new programmes that quite matched the impact of The Comic Strip Presents …, but it was clear that a real sense of confidence and stability had set in, and there was a sense of stylistic unity and determined purpose to their new output that had not really been evident prior to that point. With the prospect of yet another election victory for Margaret Thatcher in the offing, Channel 4 commissioned a series of one-off hour-long sitcoms charting the parlous state of British society in the 1980s, which were broadcast in 1987 under the umbrella title Tickets for the Titanic. Produced by William G Stewart, the individual shows took subtle but pertinent swipes at contemporary attitudes to politics, money and morality (one edition featured Tony Robinson as a vicar who finds himself the unlikely target of secret service surveillance after innocently attending a CND rally), with Alistair Beaton’s The Way, The Truth, The Video being particularly notable for its polite but unsympathetic depiction of self-appointed “moral crusaders”.

Ruby Wax had been involved with Channel 4 as a writer since the outset, but by 1987 she had made her name as a performer in the ITV sitcom Girls On Top, and Channel 4 were quick to recognise the potential of her “loud American” persona. The chat show Don’t Miss Wax, which extended into 1988, was lively and certainly individual, but it was with a series of one-off travelogue specials made between 1988 and 1989 that Wax really hit her stride; Miami Memoirs followed Wax as she retraced her childhood, East Meets Wax saw her visit Russia at the height of Glasnost, and Class of ’69 followed her to Chicago for a high school reunion. In 1989, the two approaches were combined in the chat show Wax on Wheels, which literally took the programme around Britain each week. Following this, Wax accepted an offer from the BBC, and has continued to produce similar work for them.

Another two above average “quality” sitcoms debuted on Channel 4 in 1987, and both were strong enough to enjoy a second outing the following year. Sue Townsend, writer of the hugely popular diaries of teenage misfit Adrian Mole, contributed The Refuge, a sitcom set inside a womens’ refuge that managed to wring humour out of the residents’ predicament at the same time as addressing serious points. Meanwhile, Rude Health provided a rare starring role for veteran satirist John Wells, cast here as a doctor whose financial ambition was at odds with his desire to exploit the system and enjoy an easy life.

Other notable shows seen on Channel 4 during 1987 included Superfrank!, a starring vehicle for veteran performer Frankie Howerd who was on the verge of a remarkable comeback, and on New Year’s Eve, a by-then rare television outing for Roy Hudd in It’s a Hudd Hudd World, while comedy troupe The Joeys, featuring Robert Llewellyn, created the memorable café-based sitcom The Corner House from an idea that they had formed collectively while feeling bored with the repetitive drudgery of touring. Humphrey Barclay productions weighed in with Jack Rosenthal’s memorable standalone comedy play Day to Remember, a bittersweet story starring George Cole, which went on to win many international television awards. Day to Remember was followed in 1988 by the hilarious and spirited farce The Giftie, Wally K Daly’s adaptation of his own radio play about a pair of scientists who produce a confusing array of clones of themselves, leaving their bewildered wives to figure out which are the originals.

Gerry Anderson, the creator of hugely popular 1960s “Supermarionation” shows such as Thunderbirds and Stingray, was undergoing something of a creative renaissance in the 1980s, and in 1987 Channel 4 bought his new series Dick Spanner: Private Investigator. This new series was quite unlike any of his previous work, not only because it employed stop motion animation rather than the style for which he is best known, but also because it was conceived and created as an outright comedy series. Taking its cues in equal measure from the American series Police Squad and the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band track Big Shot, Dick Spanner: Private Investigator parodied Raymond Chandler-inspired detective shows by overloading the offbeat adventures of the futuristic robot detective with ludicrous puns and relentless visual gags – to tremendous effect. Two 50 minute Dick Spanner: Private Investigator stories, ‘The Case of The Maltese Parrot’ and ‘The Case of Harry The Human Cannonball’ were made for Channel 4, originally shown in five minute segments as part of the Sunday afternoon youth TV show Network 7, and later repeated as half hour instalments in their own right. While there has been an enormous upsurge of interest in Anderson’s productions in recent years, Dick Spanner: Private Investigator has yet to recapture the public imagination in the same way that even his lesser 1960s shows have done, and for the moment it remains a sadly overlooked gem of both small screen animation and comedy.

1987 also saw Channel 4 tackle yet another previously undervalued source of comedy, anticipating the rush to channel big money into coverage of international comedy festivals by a decade. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, Channel 4 featured regular and structured coverage of comedy at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, but even at that point they were looking further afield. The Melbourne International Comedy Festival was covered in 1988 by a series of twice-weekly half hour reports from Craig Charles, but the real breakthrough began with the first series of Just For Laughs in 1987. Recorded at the annual Montreal International Comedy Festival, the shows gave viewers an opportunity to experience live performances by up and coming home-grown acts and other from further afield. Just For Laughs continued for 10 years, before coverage of the event shifted to cable channel Paramount Comedy in association with Channel 5.

Early in 1988, Saturday Live became Friday Night Live with the obvious change of timeslot. While the format remained the same, and indeed the programme remained as vital and essential as it had been in its previous incarnation, there were some minor but welcome changes as new performers made their debut on the show (including Jack Docherty, Moray Hunter, Nick Revell and Jo Brand), and some established contributors were suddenly elevated to stardom. Julian Clary, then still performing as The Joan Collins Fan Club, benefited enormously from the exposure this time round (and would enjoy a hit single before the year was out), but the undisputed star of the show was Harry Enfield. In addition to Stavros and his wonderful lack of mastery of the English language (most memorably his insistence on referring to Margaret Thatcher as “the Ironing Lady”), Enfield also introduced the phenomenally successful Loadsamoney – a loudmouthed and money-obsessed plasterer who embodied all of the worst tendencies of Thatcher’s Britain – who caught the public imagination to an extent that was almost unheard of for a performer on a Channel 4 programme. There was only one series of Friday Night Live, but many of the key performers made a very welcome return in a one-off reunion show staged as part of the BBC’s Comic Relief night in 1993. Some years later, ITV attempted to revive Saturday Live in a primetime slot with a completely new cast of performers, but this was considered to have been a wild misjudgement by viewers and critics alike.

Following completion of a second feature film, Eat the Rich, The Comic Strip Presents … returned to Channel 4 in 1988 for a stunning set of new shows (indeed, many of them were given a low-key theatrical release in the run-up to transmission). The run began in fine style with The Strike, a gloriously absurd but worryingly plausible depiction of the story of the 1984 Miners’ Strike as retold by Hollywood with Al Pacino and Meryl Streep (Richardson and Saunders) as Arthur and Mrs Scargill. Following this the series just seemed to go from strength to strength. More Bad News, featuring the return of everyone’s least favourite rock band, and the Brits-on-holiday saga Funseekers were both extremely good, but the other three episodes reached a high watermark of comedy that has rarely been equalled on Channel 4 or indeed television in general since – Alexei Sayle’s avant-garde and experimental Didn’t You Kill My Brother?, The Yob, a parody of the recently remade horror film classic The Fly in which Keith Allen was left powerless as his body metamorphosed into that of a football hooligan, and most memorably of all Mr Jolly Lives Next Door, a lunatic tale involving Rik Mayall, Adrian Edmondson, Peter Cook and some misinterpreted instructions to “take out Nicholas Parsons”. With the startling sight of Mayall trashing Parsons’ flat while singing the theme from Parkinson fresh in viewers’ minds, The Comic Strip jumped ship to BBC2, and continued to produce shows (including GLC, an equally impressive sequel to The Strike) on a sporadic basis into the early 1990s.

Shortly before the final series of Who Dares, Wins … began in April 1988, two of the series team appeared in a sitcom vehicle that they also wrote. Very much in the same mould as the BBC’s hugely successful historical comedy Blackadder, Chelmsford 123 was set in Britain at the time of the Roman occupation, and pitted ineffectual Roman governor Aulus Paulinus (Jimmy Mulville) against rebellious Celt leader Badvoc (Rory McGrath). Packed with inventive sight gags (including the TARDIS materialising in the background of one episode), Chelmsford 123 may not have scaled quite the same heights as Blackadder but was a deserved success with viewers and critics alike and returned for a second run in 1990. Incidentally, Chelmsford 123 was the first comedy series to be produced by the prolific independent production company Hat Trick, founded by Mulville and McGrath, who would go on to create some of the most popular comedy shows of the 1990s.

Meanwhile, in 1988 Gareth Hale and Norman Pace were still far more closely aligned to the world of alternative comedy than they were to the mainstream audience with which they would eventually find favour. At this time, their most popular characters were The Two Rons, a pair of hard-of-thinking East End gangsters who dressed in uncomfortable-looking evening wear and liked to refer to themselves as “The Management”. In January, some months before the start of the primetime ITV Sunday night series for which they are best known, Channel 4 transmitted a sitcom vehicle based around The Management. Opening with a fitting rewrite of Da Do Ron Ron, the series traced the attempts of Ron and Ron to run a nightclub that had been left to them by a relative, and unsurprisingly failing miserably. Along the way, there were some unexpected cameo appearances from the likes of Barbara Windsor (who appeared as a high society madame), Paul Raymond (who appeared as himself), and in her last screen role, Irene Handl as a judge who sentenced the Rons for various motoring offences committed in their pink bubble car. Far removed from the tame predictability of their later shows, The Management was Hale and Pace’s best comedy work by a long chalk (it would certainly come as something of a shock to those who lazily deride their entire output as “worthless”), and given their later popularity it is perhaps surprising that the series has never been dusted down for a repeat showing.

In the late 1980s, an incredible run of poor judgement saw many of the BBC’s most popular radio comedies, among them After Henry and Up the Garden Path, being adapted to great success for commercial television. Starring Stephen Fry in the guise of investigative journalist David Lander – who broke with spoof journalist tradition by being highly competent and effective while his interviewees were uniformly unhinged – the award-winning Delve Special ran to great popularity on Radio 4 in the mid-1980s. Adapted for television as This is David Lander, the series once more eluded the BBC and arrived on Channel 4 in 1988. For once, This is David Lander was a largely successful attempt at recapturing the strength of the original radio version, judiciously taking the opportunity to subtly alter the original scripts to employ the same sort of techniques that might have been used in the production of a genuine television current affairs show. When Fry proved unavailable for a second series in 1990, the show was renamed This is David Harper (Lander’s absence was attributed to him having been hospitalised after getting “too close” to events) with Tony Slattery in the title role.

Late in 1988, the first edition was transmitted of what would become Channel 4′s most durable comedy programme. The Comedy Store venue had been running highly popular improvisation nights since it opened at the start of the decade, and in the mid-1980s this led to the Radio 4 game show Whose Line is it Anyway? Amazingly, the BBC failed to see the potential of their own creation to work on television, and it was left to Channel 4 to adapt it to unexpectedly successful effect. Hosted by Clive Anderson, the series utilised a rotating team of performers from the live circuit – among them John Sessions, Paul Merton, Josie Lawrence, Tony Slattery, Mike McShane, Sandi Toksvig and the American standup Greg Proops – to take part in a series of free-form improvisational games, basing comic sketches on topics shouted out by the studio audience. Memorable rounds in the show included the props round (in which the contestants were handed nondescript objects and asked to devise uses for them), improvised gospel songs and Hollywood musicals, new voiceovers dubbed on archive film footage, “The World’s Worst …” (in which they were called on to play the part of the least suitable person imaginable to undertake a suggested task), and a final round in which a nominated host had to correctly identify the eccentric guests at their party.

Whose Line is it Anyway? has never been anything less than entertaining viewing, but its longevity (the show was running until the late 1990s, and may in fact still be – it’s difficult to tell with the amount of repeats that have been shown over the years) was to have a detrimental effect. Constant repeats and lengthy series – not to mention Channel 4′s broadcasts of Whose Line is it Anyway in America – caused audience fatigue to set in, and there was a time when it seemed that every single edition featured Tony Slattery, Greg Proops, Colin Mochrie and Ryan Stiles. Sadly, what started out as a must-see show turned into an example of how overexposure can limit and lessen effect, and although Whose Line is it Anyway? is still as enjoyable as it ever was, the problem it faces is that the audience lacks the inclination to tune in that was so evident in 1988.

Overall, 1988 was a highly successful and productive year for Channel 4 comedy, delivering on the promise of the previous year’s output and giving exposure to an emerging new wave of talent. The year was seen out in suitably fine style by John Wells and the Three Wise Men, a Christmas Day special in which the veteran satirist presented his own take on the story of the nativity.

With The Golden Girls firmly established as a regular Friday night fixture on Channel 4 whether the audience liked it or not, it was inevitable that the channel would also pick up the spin-off series Empty Nest, which made its debut appearance in 1989. While the majority of American sitcom spinoffs tend to be hopelessly weak fare that cheapens what doubtful impact the original had, Empty Nest was in many respects superior to The Golden Girls – more subdued in its presentation, and higher on genuine attempts at jokes rather than character and catchphrase-driven laughs. Harry Weston (played by former Soap star Richard Mulligan) was a widower whose doting daughters fussed over him at every turn, but the novel twist here was that, while he loved them in true sitcom father style, he wished they would just leave him alone and let him get on with his own life.

Unfortunately, Empty Nest never quite managed to catch on in the UK, and while it ran to great success in the USA for seven years, it quickly slipped from its Friday night slot over here and was last seen languishing in Channel 4′s late night schedules in 1992. Meanwhile, Lisa Bonet, the actress who played second eldest daughter Denise in The Cosby Show, was rapidly outgrowing the confines of the series by the late 1980s, taking part in glamorous photoshoots and appearing in serious cinema films. Astutely, Bill Cosby recognised this problem, and came up with a solution by sending Denise off to college and creating A Different World as a starring sitcom vehicle for Bonet. Although still afflicted by the same overbearing “niceness” as its parent series, A Different World was clearly aimed at a younger audience than The Cosby Show, and endeavoured to tackle the negative as well as the positive aspects of student life. A Different World ran for six years in America, continuing long after Bonet had decided to leave the show, and while it had considerably less impact over here than The Cosby Show, it was afforded a similarly consistent slot on Channel 4 and broadcast between 1989 and 1994.

April 1989 saw the launch of Club X, an experimental Friday night arts series that was broadcast live from a nightclub and suffered from the inevtiable technical shortcomings. Although many will attest that they enjoyed it at the time, the general view of Club X from a present day perspective varies between it having been a “failed experiment” and a “mess”. However, hidden away inside the programme was some of the most startling and original comedy that had been witnessed on Channel 4 so far. A rising star of radio comedy, Victor Lewis-Smith was at that point best known for his high speed, densely layered contributions to Ned Sherrin’s Loose Ends on Radio 4. Invited to produce something similar for Club X, Lewis-Smith stuck to deliberately low production values for what turned out to be a highly successful visual translation of his radio style, remaining off camera most of the time and using minimal props, crude animation and ludicrous archive footage to create his weekly mockeries of outmoded consumer items and the media in all its many and varied forms. So popular were Lewis-Smith’s inserts, in fact, that they were later edited together and broadcast as standalone specials under the titles Buygones and Up Your Arts. A clear influence on many other later notable shows to appear on the station, in particular Brass Eye and The Adam & Joe Show, Lewis-Smith’s early ventures into television have not been seen on television since the late 1980s but are still well regarded by comedy fans with long memories and a loathing of stylophones and Ceefax.

Although American comedy had tended to dominate, Channel 4 was continuing to import shows from further afield, and occasionally this practice would uncover some absolutely fantastic television. One of the few Swedish language programmes ever to be seen on British television, the superb Xerxes was shown – in Swedish, with English subtitles – by Channel 4 over the summer of 1989. Somewhere between sitcom and teen comedy, the series was an odd tale of three school leavers who stage a bizarre and utterly meaningless competition to see who can collect the most female underwear labels, although the humour was vastly more sophisticated and realistic than might normally be expected of such a storyline. The acting (particularly from Benny Haag in the title role) was flawless, and the absence of a laugh track was a welcome move that heightened its believability. Xerxes won many international awards, and every single one of them was thoroughly deserved. Although many viewers may well have overlooked the series due to its early evening timeslot and subtitled nature, Xerxes is fondly remembered by those who saw it, and long overdue for a repeat showing.

Another worthy import seen at this time was Four on the Floor, a Canadian sketch show featuring a performing troupe known collectively as The Frantics. Although rarely seen before the midnight hour, Four on the Floor was high on laughs and would have benefited enormously from a better slot in the schedules.

Unmistakably American, and with the opening guitar jangles of The Byrds’ Turn! Turn! Turn! very much in evidence, The Wonder Years arrived in its regular Sunday evening slot in August 1989. Somewhere between sitcom and light-hearted drama, the series charted the childhood and adolescence of teenager Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage), who narrated the on-screen events from the perspective of his adult self. Although such an outline might be enough to send most sensible viewers running for cover, The Wonder Years was vastly superior to most of the “retro” shows that have followed in the wake of its phenomenal success. For a start the period references were kept to an absolute bare minimum, usually limited to glimpses of black and white TV shows and snatches of 1960s pop records that actually bore relation to the on-screen action (for example, the use of The Doors’ Light My Fire to signify Kevin’s attraction to girls that he met), and there was nothing particularly schlocky or sentimental about the storylines. Over the course of the series’ five year run Kevin discovered the opposite sex, experimented with the world of work, formed a wondrously awful psychedelic rock band called The Electric Shoes, and endured weekly beatings from his childish elder brother Wayne. The producers claimed that they were “not in the business of providing America with a happy half hour”, and this ironically was what gave The Wonder Years such strength – while never grim or depressing, it nonetheless reflected real life more honestly than traditional Stateside sitcoms. Continuing until 1994 without taking a downturn in quality, The Wonder Years enjoyed great popularity on Channel 4, not least because of the fact that it was judiciously inserted in a slot in the schedules where the other channels had little to offer.

Capitalising on the success of Chelmsford 123, This is David Lander and The Management the previous year, 1989 saw the arrival of another set of strong and vaguely experimental sitcom vehicles, representing a clear step forward into more sophisticated areas. Having been ousted from his position as presenter of the live music show The Tube after making an unscripted reference to “groovy fuckers”, pianist-turned-presenter Jools Holland teamed up with comedian Rowland Rivron for the delicately-titled The Groovy Fellers in January 1989. The basic setup of the series involved Holland, in the guise of an out of work television presenter, meeting an alien played by Rivron in a pub and deciding to take him on a tour of Britain. This gave rise to some sublime observational comedy (the episode in which the alien learned about the media was particularly inspiring) with an offbeat slant, and Holland more than proved his abilities as a performer. Sadly, there was never a second series of The Groovy Fellers, although Holland and Rivron did later reprise their characters for a similar series on Radio 1.

Written by Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran, Snakes and Ladders was set in 1999, depicting a post-Thatcherism Britain which has taken the excesses of the 1980s and made them worse, with a genuine vigorously enforced North-South divide and the entire media owned by Rupert Murdoch. Scotsman Gavin (John Gordon Sinclair) gets a job – the first person in his hometown to do so in seven years -as a trainee at a factory owned by International Entirety Plc. In an unusual approach to passing on the secrets of the family business, International Entirety’s owner arranges for his pampered son Giles (Adrian Edmondson) to swap places with Gavin and work his way through the company from the bottom up. The series follows each man’s attempts to adjust to their new surroundings, peppered with biting satire at the expense of the then-ruling party’s policies.

Like the earlier No Problem!, Desmond’s was a sitcom with a predominantly black cast that strove to reflect the experiences of the black community in Britain through exploration of the cultural differences between generations. Barber Desmond Ambrose and his wife Shirley had emigrated to Britain from the Caribbean in 1959, and raised three children while simultaneously running their business. Although they tried their hardest, the parents (and in particular the permanently grumpy Desmond) had a difficult time understanding their fully Westernised children, and this gave rise to some genuinely amusing, not to mention unswervingly upbeat and positive, humour (courtesy of the underrated scriptwriter Trix Worrell, who had got the idea for a series after looking through the window of a Barber shop on his way to a script meeting). In addition to its rather untypical “situation”, what marked the series out was its main setting; like in Cheers, the barbershop was used as the focal point for the local community, taking in friends of the children and parents (including the show-stealing Porkpie, an longtime associate from the old country). Popular at home and abroad (one of the series’ biggest fans was Bill Cosby, who invited star Norman Beaton to appear in The Cosby Show in 1992), Desmond’s ran for six series, and only came to an abrupt end with the sad death of Norman Beaton.

Also worthy of particular attention was a one-off special transmitted late in the year. Despite having found mass popularity with his characters Stavros and Loadsamoney in Friday Night Live, Harry Enfield was wary of becoming reliant on his early creations, and rather than develop a series based around the characters he chose to base his first solo Channel 4 show around and entirely new creation. Transmitted in November 1989, Norbert Smith – A Life charted the career of a fictitious veteran British actor, Sir Norbert Smith, from his heyday right up to the declining years of social realism (“if I find out who’s taken my belt, I’ll take my bloody belt to them”) and appearances in Carry On films. The brilliantly-realised “excerpts” from his work were linked by Enfield as Smith being interviewed by Melvyn Bragg, as if it was a genuine edition of the ITV arts programme The South Bank Show. The programme was a minor triumph on practically every level, and despite its popularity, Enfield once again strove to avoid the trap that too many performers fall into, deciding that Norbert Smith would have no further outings after this, and instead creating a whole new cast of characters for his debut BBC show the following year.

Enfield’s former Friday Night Live cohort Julian Clary also produced a new show for Channel 4 in 1989, although his talents were applied to the game show rather than sketch show format. Clary had briefly appeared as co-host of the mainstream ITV game show Trick or Treat with Mike Smith, but he was somewhat out of his depth and in all honesty the series wasn’t much good to begin with. Back at Channel 4, Clary and Paul Merton devised the game show Sticky Moments, a perfect vehicle for Clary’s acerbic delivery that allowed him to pose innuendo-laden questions (“True or false – Patrick Fitzwilliam”), insult contestants as well as excluding them from the remainder of the game purely on the basis of not liking them, and bend the rules to suit himself (for example, refusing to award a point to a contestant who answered “yes” to the question “true or false, a dog is for life, not just for Christmas”, arguing that you could get a dog on Christmas Day only for it to go away of its own volition on Boxing Day). The show was well received and a second series in 1990, Sticky Moments on Tour, took Clary around Britain.

From a broad perspective, Channel 4′s comedy output was of a remarkably high standard throughout 1989, and this even extended to imported comedy with the arrival of Roseanne, a genuinely distinctive American sitcom starring the voluble standup comedienne Roseanne Barr. Roseanne and Dan Connor are an ordinary blue-collar couple who live in Illinois with their teenage children Becky, Darlene and DJ, near to Roseanne’s resolutely single sister Jackie. Far removed from the cosiness and predictability of The Cosby Show, Roseanne strode boldly into areas that were considered off-limits and genuinely shocking for American sitcoms. Even the basic setup, featuring overweight underachieving parents and disobedient children, was a step away from the traditions of Stateside television, but Roseanne went much further than that. Underage sex, drug taking (most effectively portrayed in a fantastic episode where Roseanne and Dan discovered their childrens’ stash of marijuana, and instead of telling them off, shared it with Jackie in the bathroom) and homosexuality (Roseanne’s boss was a gay man, and one of her close friends a lesbian who once took her to a gay bar where she stunned American audiences by kissing another woman), were all touched on regularly, and even the friendly family dialogue between the main characters was a lot more “edgy” than other series would ever have dared allow. Roseanne ran for nine years and over 400 episodes in America. So popular was the series on Channel 4 that every episode bar the last few were initially shown in the peak comedy viewing Friday night slot. In later years the series would take a noticeable dip in quality – many viewers regard a silly episode in which Roseanne re-enacted Die Hard on a train as the absolute low point – but right up to the genuinely surprising twist in the bittersweet final episode, it was always worth watching and for the most part very good indeed.

However, even the impressive shows listed above paled next to a stunning burst of creativity and invention that gave rise to three of the best comedy shows ever to appear on Channel 4, starting with the arrival of a low-key sketch show.

The team responsible for this programme – Jack Docherty, Moray Hunter, Pete Baikie, Morwenna Banks, John Sparkes and Gordon Kennedy – had come together through two mid-1980s Radio 4 shows, In Other Words … The Bodgers and Bodgers, Banks and Sparkes. Absolutely was a natural extension of the humour that they had showcased in these ventures. However, while the radio shows had been largely performed in “person” rather than in character, Absolutely was a riot of lunatic character creations; deceptively ordinary people given manic behavioural quirks and seemingly sent to confuse and infuriate everyone they came into contact with through behaviour that veered between unreasonable and mad. Regular characters included the hideously straight-laced Nice Family and their “zenzible vather”, a screeching little girl who explained her own take on how the world operated in spiralling streams of consciousness, crushing bore Callum Gilhooly, over-earnest Scots nationalist McGlashan, the self-important and out-of-touch Stoneybridge Town Council, welsh DIY enthusiast Denzil and his wife Gwynedd, eccentric flatmates Don and George, and the astounding Laughing Man, a heavily built operatic figure who literally laughed himself to the point of unconsciousness at unfunny car stickers and shop notices. However, seemingly every single character creation on Absolutely was a work of brilliance, from the regulars all the way down to Docherty and Baikie as a pair of unnamed men whose heads virtually explode with rage at the thought of people who go around without a decent parting in their hair (indeed, the essence of much of the humour of Absolutely is rooted in a contempt for the “comb your hair and stand up straight” attitude, providing a central obsession that just about any viewer can identify with).

The series also had scant regard for conventions of structure and form, blurring sketches into each other with linking material that could simply see a character walk off set, run down a street changing their clothes along the way, and walk straight into an entirely different sketch. It’s difficult to convey just how fantastic Absolutely which ran for four series between 1989 and 1993 – was, not least because it hasn’t been seen on terrestrial television for nearly 10 years now, but there are many who believe it to have been the single greatest comedy show ever transmitted on Channel 4. And that is why Absolutely was great. It is, it’s true!

This incredible run of high quality new shows continued with the launch in May 1990 of Vic Reeves’ Big Night Out. Vic Reeves and his co-performer Bob Mortimer had been running what was essentially a stage version of the show in live venues for several years, and after building up a strong reputation they attracted the attention of Jonathan Ross, who in turn persuaded Channel 4 chief executive Michael Grade to come and see one of their performance. It resulted in a commission. Although the title gave little indication of the content and nature of the show, Vic Reeves’ Big Night Out was a refreshingly different and thoroughly original combination of surrealism and an obsession with the ridiculousness of outdated television variety shows, with the dapper host presiding over a procession of acts who could best be described as incompetently eccentric. Between the opening renditions of unlikely pop songs (including, memorably, The Smiths’ Panic) and the weekly closing ballad Oh! Mr Songwriter, Reeves and Mortimer and the audience would have to sit through the absurd performances of absurd performers (most of them played by Reeves and Mortimer themselves), including such memorable turns as Man With the Wobbly Hand, Talc and Turnips (a pair of silent comedians who spent their entire act falling over), The Living Carpets (whose talent was, apparently, exaggeration), strict newsagent Mr Dennis (who didn’t really have an act as such, he just used to like to come on to brag about knowing the names of indie bands), Hats Off to Harry Nillson, Donald and Davy Stott (a pair of high-pitched misfits who presented their own versions of popular television programmes) and Reeves’ arch-nemesis Graham Lister, whose act always came to a turbulent end when the inherent factual inaccuracies were pointed out to him.

Coming after a decade when almost all “alternative” humour had been provocative and taboo-breaking, Reeves and Mortimer’s humour may have been eclectic and an acquired taste, but it was also utterly “clean” and entirely suitable for a family audience and all the more welcome and refreshing as a result – something that was proved by the success of repeats of the series in an earlier timeslot. Such was the extent of their phenomenal popularity that Reeves and Mortimer were given their own New Year’s Eve night out later in 1990 (which saw special guests in the form of Kim Wilde and Brookside star Michael Starke as “Male Pop Star” competing in a special pop quiz, and The Living Carpets exploding on the stroke of midnight). A second run in 1991 only served to intensify their popularity. Following this, Reeves and Mortimer opted to abandon the Big Night Out format as they didn’t want it to become stale, and began work on a new project for Channel 4.

Finally, in August 1990, the arrival of Drop the Dead Donkey completed this amazing burst of creativity and originality. Created by former Who Dares, Wins … writers Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin, the series took place in the newsroom of media concern Globelink NewsTV, recently taken over by controversial media tycoon Sir Royston Marchant, and showed the staff struggling to adjust to the regime changes that his takeover had brought whilst also trying to balance his demands with the drive to provide an efficient news service (the title of the show, incidentally, derives from media newsroom speak for a relatively unimportant story that can be bumped from the main bulletin if something more important arises). Each episode was written and recorded as close to transmission as was possible, allowing the resultant humour to be as genuinely “up to the minute” as possible. However, this has proved no bar to repeating the series, and all that has ever been required for this is a short continuity announcement at the beginning outlining the topical events referenced in the programme. As the show progressed over the course of six series, the topical humour lessened in favour of material about the characters themselves, which some felt was to the detriment of the series as a whole.

As in the previous two years, 1990 also played host to the debuts of a number of particularly strong new shows, which while not quite of the same dizzying standard as Vic Reeves’ Big Night Out, Drop the Dead Donkey or Absolutely, they were certainly more than worthy of audience attention.

Dr Martin Scrote, the surgically inept creation of Rowland Rivron, had originally appeared in a regular slot on the Jonathan Ross-fronted late-night chat show The Last Resort. In 1990, Rivron developed Set of Six, a series of individual mock-documentary sitcoms based around Scrote and his five brothers (namely a boxer, a photographer, a gangster, a farmer and an MP). Shot on film and directed by veteran satirical cartoonist Gerald Scarfe, the high production values of Set of Six were more than matched by the quality of the scriptwriting, which employed a laid-back and naturalistic approach to comedy that was quite distinctive at the time and a clear influence on later successes like Peter Kay’s Phoenix Nights. Sadly, Set of Six was shoved away in a late-night timeslot – surprising, given Scrote’s popularity on The Last Resort – and the brothers unfortunately failed to return for a second outing.

Paul Makin’s strange creation Nightingales also made its debut in 1990, and proved to be one of the weirdest as well as one of the funniest sitcoms ever seen on television. The storyline revolves around trio of security guards (played by Robert Lindsay, David Threlfall and James Ellis – an unusually heavyweight cast that reflected the strength of the writing) looking after a deserted building at night, devising increasingly unhinged ways to while away the hours and keep their dead former colleague propped up in his chair so that they can claim his pay, enduring visits from werewolves, gorillas, and a Christmas allegory that they get drawn into against their wishes. The three lead players seemed to be really enjoying themselves in the series, and despite its sophistication, Nightingales was a sizeable hit with audiences and returned for a second series in 1992 – 93.

Equally sophisticated, Malcolm Bradbury’s wonderful satire on petty corruption in the EEC The Gravy Train met with similar success in 1990, leading to a timely sequel the following year (The Gravy Train Goes East) in which the cast reunited to mull over the problems posed by a fictitious former Soviet state’s attempts to join the economic community.

1990 also brought a welcome debut for a couple of more thoughtful and less brash American comedy shows, which came as something of a relief after so many years of wall to wall The Cosby Show and The Golden Girls. Frank’s Place, a sitcom with a predominantly black cast about a history professor who inherits a restaurant from a relative and finds that despite his initial prejudice he is unable to drag himself away from the place, and the fantastic Fresno, which lampooned the glitzy overblown style of big budget American mini-series like Dynasty and The Thorn Birds to tremendous effect by emulating their traditional structure, two hour pilot episode and all. Needless to say, neither show managed to survive for long in the American television industry (neither did the slapstick-based Marblehead Manor, which was also given an airing on Channel 4 during 1990), but as has been the case with many “failed” imports bought in by Channel 4 over the years, they found a much more appreciative audience in the UK.

Launched in the early 1980s as a strictly underground venture, the adult comic Viz had slowly built a reputation and a huge readership during the decade, and by 1990 its blend of parody, scatology and surrealism had turned it into one of the biggest publishing success stories of recent years. One of the most popular strips was Billy the Fish, a riotous parade of tedious footballing clichés built around Fulchester, the only team in the world to have a half man, half fish hybrid as a goalkeeper (not to mention boasting an invisible striker, a blind defender, and the varying talents of Cardinal Basil Hume, Shakin’ Stevens and Mick Hucknall). Voiced by Harry Enfield, an animated version of Billy the Fish was broadcast on Channel 4 over the summer of 1990. This adaptation not only managed to successfully recapture the flavour of the original comic strips, but also added to them considerably, embellishing the original stories with an overload of background jokes and Enfield’s superb character voices. Billy the Fish was followed later in the year by The Further Adventures of Billy the Fish, and then by the television debut of another popular Viz character – voiced by Peter Cook (with Enfield handling the other characters), It’s Roger Mellie – The Man on the Telly ran for two series in 1991 and 1992, following the uncouth presenter as he played golf with Brucie and Tarby and punched John Sessions. However, some later Viz animations, including The Fat Slags, were considered too outrageous even for broadcast on Channel 4, and would only ever appear on sell-through video.

<Part One