TV sketch shows come and go. Most are excruitiatingly bad. Some - if they appear on ITV - are even worse. But every now and then, one goes against the grain and actually turns outto be funny. Monty Python’s Flying Circus was one such show, Not the Nine O’Clock News was another. A series of sketches, some off the cuff, others overtly political linked together by fake news reports. This would seem incredibly passe these days, but in 1979, the fact that it worked showed the energy of the burgeoning alternative comedy network, and the need for satire in an age of end-of-the-pier bow-tie comedians.
Unlike Python, in which it was the ensemble which provided the driving force, it was producers John Lloyd and Sean Hardie who provided the impetus for the programme, assembling a cast at a later date. It was not until the show became established that the familiar line-up of Mel Smith, Griff Rhys Jones, Rowan Atkinson and Pamela Stephenson arrived. Chris Langham became the fifth Beatle of the group, leaving just as the show became huge. Funny then, that one of their best-known sketches - a satire on the furore surrounding Life of Brian, should namecheck John Cleese as “Our Lord of Comedy” - “Jesus Christ! J.C! Even the initials are the same!”
Between 1979 and 1982, they made twenty-eight episodes with sketches attacking all colours of the political establishment, the church and attitudes in contemporary Britain. Strange though, that they are best remembered for a gratuitous knocker gag based on a TV advert:
Stephenson: “American Express? That’ll do nicely sir. (Opens blouse) And would you like to rub my tits too?”
They did songs too. Now, come back from under the sofa. Good songs. Funny songs. Mel Smith’s ranting “All-Out Nuclear Confrontation Song” was political punk at its best, while “Nice Video Shame About the Song” would have been a chart contender had it ever got a serious single release. And if people still insist that NtNO’CN was political, I point you firmly to a song that goes “I like bouncing / Boing boing boing / Up and down until I get a pain in the groin”. They don’t write them like that any more, nor the Ayatollah Song, a pained ballad to Iran’s spiritual leader that probably has Pamela Stephenson on a death list in much of the Middle East.
After calling it a day in 1982, Smith and Jones continued a successful television partnership, while Atkinson went on to international fame with Mr Bean and Blackadder. Stephenson is now Dr Pamela Connolly, married some Scottish chap, and is doing rather well as a phychologist and author. Lloyd and Hardie continued to push the bounds of humour and good taste, and continue to be immensely successfull in television and cinema.
A springboard, then, for many careers in comedy which still influences the genre to this day with its bastard lovechild “Have I got News for You” being the news links and picture gags without the sketches, while Spitting Image was more-or-less the same thing with foam puppets. With so many comedic gems in the canon, I leave you with my personal favourite - a scathing insight into institutionalised racism in the Police force.
“The Constable Savage Sketch"
Rowan Atkinson: Police Commander
Griff Rhys Jones: Constable Savage
Commander: "Come in, shut the door."
Savage: "Yes, sir."
"Now then, Savage, I want to talk to you about some charges that you've been bringing lately. I think that perhaps you're being a little over-zealous."
"Which charges did you mean then, sir?"
"Well, for instance this one: 'Loitering with intent to use a pedestrian crossing.' Savage, maybe you're not aware of this, but it is not illegal to use a pedestrian crossing, neither is 'smelling of foreign food' an offence."
"Are you sure, sir?"
"Also, there's no law against 'Urinating in a public convenience or 'Coughing without due care and attention."'
"If you say so, sir..."
"Yes, I do say so, Savage! Didn't they teach you anything at 15 training school?"
"Erm, I'm sorry, sir..."
"Some of these cases are just plain stupid: 'Looking at me in a funny way' - Is this some kind of joke, Savage?"
"And we have some more here: 'Walking on the cracks in the pavement,' 'Walking in a loud shirt in a built-up area during the hours of darkness,' and 'Walking around with an offensive wife.' In short, Savage, in the space of one month you have brought one hundred and seventeen ridiculous, trumped-up and ludicrous charges."
"Against the same man, Savage."
"A Mr Winston Kodogo, of 55, Mercer Road."
"Sit down, Savage."
"Savage, why do you keep arresting this man?"
"He's a villain, sir."
"And a jail-bird, sir."
"I know he's a jail-bird, Savage, he's down in the cells now! We're holding him on a charge of 'Possession of curly black hair and thick lips."'
"Well - well, there you are, sir."
"You arrested him, Savage!"
"Thank you, sir."
"Savage, would I be correct in assuming that Mr Kodogo is a coloured gentleman?"
"Well, I can't say I've ever noticed, sir."
"Stand up, Savage! - Savage, you're a bigot. It's officers like you that give the police a bad name. The press love to jump on an instance like this, and the reputation of the force can be permanently tarnished. Your whole time on duty is dominated by racial hatred and petty personal vendettas. Do you get some kind of perverted gratification from going around stirring up trouble?"
"There's no room for men like you in my force, Savage. I'm transferring you to the Special Patrol Group."
"Thank you very much, sir."
"Now get out!"