1 9 8 5 – 1 9 8 6 (UK)
13 x 30 minute episodes
Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders first met Ruby Wax at their literary agent’s Christmas party, and the basic outline of Girls On Top resulted from a discussion between the three of them. The fourth member of the cast, Tracey Ullman, was suggested by French’s then-husband, Lenny Henry, who had worked with her in Three Of A Kind.
Although Girls On Top was akin to a female version of The Young Ones, it went in for none of the extreme slapstick or camera trickery that marked the earlier male model.
Here, the sheer strength of the characters and the skill of the players carried the comedy, depicting the hellish flat-share scenario of four wildly different personalities crammed into a couple of rooms in Kensington, London – all ruthlessly furthering themselves at the expense of each other.
Amanda Ripley (French) was the archetypal feminist (she worked as a sub-assistant editor at Spare Cheeks magazine), Greenham Common campaigner, cause-supporter and environmentalist who took life so seriously and claimed to hate men but would quickly have given it all up if one of them had shown any interest in her.
Jennifer Marsh (Saunders) was an old Brownies friend of Amanda’s who tagged along, not only to Amanda but in life generally, being a dopey dolt incapable of decision or developing the speed of her thought processes beyond that of a sloth.
She needed Amanda to help her through life; Amanda clearly needed Jennifer in order to be able to boss about and lord it over someone.
Shelley Dupont (Wax) was the epitome of an avaricious, loud-mouthed, vulgar, catty, parent-sponsored rich American opportunist, going to any lengths to fulfil her desperate attempts at becoming a famous actress (an impossible dream since she was talentless).
Candice Valentine (Ullman) was a bitchy, pathological liar and thief who used a succession of feigned illnesses and every other ploy under the sun to get her way, and dressed in lurid clothes in the hope of attracting new between-the-sheets acquaintances.
The quartet were supplemented in their zany lives by the landlady of the building, Lady Carlton (Joan Greenwood), who lived downstairs. She was a gin-swilling crazy who adored her stuffed dachshund and somehow – despite being completely and utterly batty – managed to write romantic novels.
The parts worked because they were comfortable. Dawn French’s insultingly bossy domination of Jennifer Saunders’ easily trampled upon witless soul would be exercised again and again in their French And Saunders TV sketches and stage material.
Ruby Wax’s portrayal of Shelley as the bitchy brash American was entirely in keeping with the persona she has used in pretty much all of her TV work, and veteran actress Joan Greenwood was superb as the landlady.
Others seen in cameo roles in Girls On Top included Helen Lederer, Pauline Melville, Helen Atkinson Wood, Mark Arden, Stephen Frost, Robbie Coltrane, Harry Enfield, Hugh Laurie, Pauline Quirke, John Sessions and Arthur Smith plus the Beverley Sisters and visiting American soap star Katherine Helmond who appeared once as Shelley’s mother.
The theme song for the series was written by Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook of Squeeze.
By the time the first series hit the screen Tracey Ullman was already making serious inroads into a career in America, beginning with her role in the Meryl Streep movie Plenty.
Her husband, WitzEnd Productions’ Allan McKeown, executive producer of Girls On Top, skilfully managed his wife’s transatlantic move, and so successful was he in establishing her in The Tracey Ullman Show on screen in the USA from April 1987, that she was unable to appear in the second series of Girls On Top.
She was written out of the storyline via one of her many hypochondriacal complaints – a dodgy oesophagus – which was borne out to have been true, and she had died, although there remained every possibility that she had been accidentally murdered by Shelley or Amanda.
The ‘killing off’ of one of the lead characters was typical of the confidence that marked all the chief players in the so-called ‘alternative comedy’ boom.
Like The Young Ones before it, the writers of Girls On Top had no intention of capitalising upon the success of their creation or characters by stretching them to umpteen series. They had explored the formula and wrought the best ideas from it, now they would move on.
Hence, in the final episode, all the characters were killed off when Lady Carlton accidentally ignited a quantity of petrol she had accumulated (she was that type of person) and blew everything and everybody to pieces.
The strength of the comedy in Girls On Top – indeed, the series’ sexually dominant title – emphasised the inescapable presence of women in British comedy at the time, proving once and for all that they were in no way inferior to men when it came to creating laughter.
How ironic, then, that the second series had to skip a week mid-run in order for ITV to screen Miss World 1986. The old ways were enjoying one last gasp.
WitzEnd Productions attempted to adapt Girls On Top for American TV, selling the idea to CBS. A pilot was produced but no series developed.
Peter Le Holocaust
The Beverly Sisters
Harry “‘Aitch” Fielder
Four-Play | Staying Alive | C.O.D. | Cancel Toast | Ident Candytime | Skankin’ | Hark | Mr Fluffy Knows Too Much | Big Snogs | Who’s Ya Uncle, Shelley? | Bring Me More Flamingoes | Mr Yummy Brownie | Lower The Donkey