Cult Caravan: The Young Ones
Back in the early 1980s, the BBC took a look at the burgeoning alternative comedy scene and thought, in so far as a faceless corporation can think , ‘Stodgy instrument of the establishment we may be, but we can get in on that’. And so they recruited the biggest, brightest, bonkers-est stars on the circuit, inexplicably gave them free rein and a budget workaround, and, much to the chagrin of anyone appreciative of linearity and realism, The Young Ones was born.
We can’t but think of it as a happy accident, because even now, The Young Ones looks like a concept that wouldn’t even get greenlighted at a traffic junction. Centred around a student house and the whacky adventures survived within, it’s jammed with non-sequiturs, bad puppetry, extreme violence and indiscriminate breaking of the fourth wall. It remains bizarre and brilliant, a result of the unprecedented freedom given to its harebrained writers and cast, none of whom had any idea of the limitations of TV comedy. Hey, we can’t even say with confidence that they had any idea what they were doing at all.
The titular young ones were four students of Scumbag College in London. Hapless, feckless, shiftless and gormless, they spent much more time worrying about lentils and attempting to kill one another than they ever did in university, which is why the last episode revealed that they had come ‘bottom in the whole world’ in their exams.
Not surprising, when you consider who exactly we’re dealing with…
Mike Thecoolperson (Christopher Ryan)
Mike is the leader, though whether that’s a self-styled title or one naturally lumped on the shoulders of the least insane candidate is a matter of opinion. He’s the most likely of the four to address the camera, the most likely to make terrible puns, and the most likely to try and seduce crazed murderers. He believes that he’s a bras-off ladykiller. In reality, he’s an exasperated, diminutive virgin who thoroughly deserves the company he keeps.
Vyvyan Basterd (Adrian Edmondson)
Vyv is pretty much what Bart Simpson would have been, if Homer had spent any more time irradiating his junk in the nuclear power plant before conception. He’s violent, vicious, and easily bored, but at the same time he’s irrepressibly energetic, inexplicably popular, and displays a twisted but endearing devotion to Mike. He has a hamster called SPG (Special Patrol Group) whom he’s stamped on and stuffed in a toaster, but whose untimely passing in a getaway car rouses floods of tears. He also has a begonia, though it turns out the only reason he waters it is because he couldn’t be bothered climbing the stairs to the toilet. Alarmingly, he is studying medicine.
Neil Pye (Nigel Planer)
Neil is a suicidal vegetarian whose self-pitying pompousness makes him the house’s punching bag. He’s a disappointment to his upper-class, conservative parents for appearing on such a terrible show (they prefer The Good Life, to the vexation of Vyv), but nonetheless remains the most academically successful of the four (making him fourth from bottom of the whole world). He does the housework and always makes the tea, and has on occasion fantasised about turning into the Hulk and brutally pummelling his bullying housemates. He has one friend, also called Neil.
Rick (Rik Mayall)
Rick is a complete bastard. Everyone says so, including Vyvyan’s mum. He’s a social conservative who thinks he’s an anarchist, a hysterical egotist who’s ‘too pretty to go to prison’, and a middle-class mummy’s boy who fancies himself a working class hero. He also writes some truly unique poetry, which he likes to recite to camera. He once tried to kill himself with laxatives after his housemates confirmed they didn’t like him. Also, he’s a Cliff Richard fan. You hate him too, don’t you?
The Balowski Family (Alexei Sayle)
The Balowskis are various members of landlord Jerzei’s family, all of whom are played by Alexei Sayle in a series of high-octane segues that serve as vehicles for Sayle’s brand of anarcho-comedy. They still come across as unhinged performances even now, in a world where Sayle’s influence and legacy have given him licence to turn into this…
… so fuck knows how unnerving they were back in the ‘80s.
On that note, Vyvyan looks like this now:
Which only makes us love him more. Besides, who are we to judge when Christopher Ryan went on to look like this?
- Vyv strikes oil in the cellar, so Mike reinvents himself as a capitalist baron, forces Rick and Neil to work for him, and hires Vyv as his militia. In a moment of unprecedented ballsiness, Rick rebels and stages a workers’ benefit concert in the sitting room.
- The TV inspector comes a knocking, and Neil manages to stall him just in time for Vyv to eat the television. Undeterred, the TV inspector goes to wait for the TV’s eventual reappearance in the bathroom, where Dexys Midnight Runners are performing.
- The boys are chosen to represent Scumbag College in University Challenge, and have to take on a Footlights College panel made up of Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry, Emma Thompson and (series co-writer) Ben Elton.
- Neil joins the police in a desperate effort to raise money after Vyv falls pregnant.
- And in the glorious finale, after Rick’s parents die and Jerzei kicks them out of the house, the guys are forced to rob a bank… but Cliff Richard spells disaster.
The Young Ones might have been nonsensical rubbish at its most influential, but it featured, through cast or cameo, the very best of the British alternative comedy scene, some of whom are now household names. There was Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson, of course, and the Footlights College panel named above, but also Tony Robinson, Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, Griff Rhys-Jones, Robbie Coltrane and Lenny Henry. Even Terry Jones popped up ever so quickly as a drunken vicar. Which is one of the things that makes revisiting this chaotic series so conversely comforting: massive stars in small roles, and the likelihood of seeing a stalwart of British comedy getting upstaged by a dancing carrot, a matchbox that reminds us of his own irrelevance, a tomato singing the Blues, or a fly on the wall being filmed by a fly on the wall documentary crew.
Some Young Ones Facts
- Ben Elton, Rik Mayall, and Rik’s then girlfriend Lise Mayer wrote the show. Rik then unexpectedly eloped with Barbara Robbin, which must have made script meetings rather fucking awkward. He’s been with her ever since, by the way.
- As the writing team had no concept of what was and wasn’t possible in a TV show, the production crew often had a hard time bringing the scripts to life. When the writers discovered this, they were slightly morto, but the crew reassured them that the challenge in itself was a fruitful learning curve.
- In 1986, Ryan, Edmondson, Mayall and Planer recorded a cover of ‘Living Doll’ with Cliff Richard for Comic Relief. Alexei Sayle refused, as he felt a collaboration with Cliff Richard was against the show’s alternative roots and ethos. He was probably right, too.
- 1986 also saw the release of a Young Ones video game for the Spectrum. It was bugged to fuck and therefore impossible to complete. The publisher went bust before anyone realised.
- The second series of the show featured the inclusion of flash frames, as a pisstake of the hysteria around subliminal messaging. This writer thought her video was just borked.
- A pilot was made for an American version of the show, entitled Oh, no! Not THEM! Nigel Planer was the only one who signed up, and belatedly realised his horrible mistake when it occurred to him that he hated the new direction and the people he was working with. The pilot wasn’t picked up, to his immense relief.
- Technically, The Young Ones wasn’t a sitcom. Because it featured musical interludes from happenin’ yoof bands like Madness and Motorhead, it was classed as a variety show, and therefore given a bigger budget.
Bloody good stuff, even if it was crazier than a Vegas-bound busload of shithouse rats. And very much worth a watch again, especially if you were one of those children that reportedly (and unexpectedly) made up The Young Ones’ core audience. If the alternative comedy of the 1980s was influential, it’s down in no small part to the devotion of underagers whose minds were willingly twisted by this cartoonish, anarchic, glorious mess.
Go on. Watch Vyv lose his head.