1 9 7 9 – 1 9 8 2 (UK)
28 x episodes
This satire series launched many successful TV careers and bridged the gap between the surrealist comedy of the Monty Python generation and the anarchic new wave comic revolution of the 1980s.
A pilot show was produced in March 1979 with the team consisting of Rowan Atkinson, Chris Emmet, Christopher Godwin, John Gorman, Chris Langham, Willoughby Goddard and Jonathan Hyde.
The pilot was never transmitted. A general election was imminent, and on viewing the programme the BBC was concerned about its overtly political nature.
A new team was formed, with only Atkinson and Langham surviving from the pilot. Seeking a woman to join the ensemble, they approached comedienne Victoria Wood who felt (rightly) that her future lay as a solo artiste.
They also approached actresses Alison Steadman and Susan George, but to no avail. Finally, writer John Lloyd met Australian actress Pamela Stephenson at a party and was convinced they had found their woman.
Mel Smith was brought in to complete the new team and once they were all together the shape of the show became clearer.
The first series aired late in 1979 and attracted just enough of an audience overall to convince the BBC to go ahead with a second series the following year. At the end of the first series, it was agreed that Chris Langham didn’t quite fit in with the rest of the team and he was replaced by Griff Rhys-Jones who had played some of the extra parts in the first series.
Pamela Stephenson had discovered an unexpected talent for mimicry and her impressions of the female newsreaders of the day proved to be a highlight of the show. Atkinson excelled at visual comedy as well as verbal gymnastics and Mel Smith and Griff Rhys-Jones brought a naturalistic acting technique to the sketches.
The second series firmly established the show, with one episode winning the Silver Rose for innovation at the Montreux Festival. The third and fourth series’ consolidated their success.
The show was contemporary rather than topical, although its recording schedule (it was taped on Sunday evenings for transmission the following day) meant that some last-minute material could be added to give an extra edge. Short sketches were preferred. (In its entire run only a handful are over a minute and a half).
Memorable skits included the parody of the emerging pop video industry (Nice Video, Shame About the Song); the ‘Hospital Bed Auction’, where patients bid for beds based on how serious their illnesses were; a beauty contest sketch featuring an unusually candid contestant (Host: “And why do you want to be Miss World?” Contestant: “I want to screw famous people”); the talk show discussing the subliminal inclusion of naughty language into everyday conversation. (“and how long has this huge melons phenomenon been going on?”); and the interview with an intelligent talking gorilla called Gerald . . .
Trainer: “When I caught Gerald in ’68, he was completely wild.”
Gerald: “Wild? I was absolutely livid!”
In 1982 the team amicably decided to call it a day, feeling that they had gone as far as they could with the format. Although it only ran for twenty-eight episodes, the intensity and density of each show (some containing as many as thirty sketches) meant they had used a lot of material and covered a lot of ground.
The careers of many of the creative personnel from the show continued to flourish afterwards: Pamela Stephenson worked in Hollywood; Mel Smith and Griff Rhys-Jones combined for a number of series of Alas Smith and Jones, while Rowan Atkinson became a household name on both sides of the Atlantic with Blackadder, Mr Bean, and in feature films.
An American version of the series called Not Necessarily the News (Not the Network Co Inc.) was syndicated in the 1980s.