Worst To Best
The Young Ones

The Young Ones was a sitcom following the often surreal adventures of Rick (Rik Mayall), Neil (Nigel Planer), Vyvyan (Adrian Edmondson) and Mike (Christopher Ryan). Playing their landlord and other associated characters was Alexei Sayle. The series is available to buy via Amazon.


by
THE ANORAK
OCTOBER
2019


The Young Ones was one of the very first programmes covered in these articles, way back in April 2012, as a celebration of its thirtieth anniversary. This updated version contains not only all-new entries and all-new images, but, for anyone that should care, lists how the entries have risen and fallen since last time. Please join me at ranking The Young Ones, from worst to best...

12 Time (1984)

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While this is a "worst to best" feature, no episode of The Young Ones falls below average, not even Time, the weakest entry in the series. Episodes of The Young Ones were written separately in groups, with Rik Mayall and Lise Mayer often working together, while Ben Elton wrote alone. These various ideas would be pieced together and end up as scripts that Mayer estimated lasted 90 minutes each, before being cut down just days before rehearsals.
      With such an unusual writing system, it's surprising that more episodes don't feel disjointed and possessing ideas "bolted together", yet Time is perhaps the only one that really does feel like several different ideas pulling against each other. There's some weak stuff in there - the opening Dallas spoof, with its gags about "tits" is beneath the series, and Alexei Sayle probably delivers his worst material. The scenes with Vyvyan and Mike being predatory to Jennifer Saunders are also a little uncomfortable, and go against a lot of what the series was supposedly against. In a 2017 interview with The Telegraph, Edmondson claimed that "It's very funny the way political correctness has become an insult. When I was growing up it meant being polite, not saying, 'ooh, how many of them do you get to the pound?' when you see a girl in a tight top. We were all feminists, we weren't taking the piss out of that."
     But there's also some decent stuff in there, like some of the surreal cutaways, "Trevor" the bin-dwelling housemate, or Rick trying to convince everyone he's slept with a woman. A spectacular stunt where a bed genuinely drops around 20-30 feet with Edmondson and Mayall on it is a testament to the series' lose association with Health and Safety, and a lightbulb packing its bags and leaving the house is one of the best "silly" jokes they ever did.
      The Young Ones was a series where anything could happen, but with series one the four students would be relatively "real" despite having surreal things happen to them. By series two, they had become virtual cartoon characters, where they could survive decapitations, explosions and being squashed by a giant eclair. While series one also had the odd moment of unreal reactions, such as Vyvyan recovering from losing a finger or a pickaxe to his head, they were fewer and far between, and continuity was more observed. While the more naturalistic (for want of a better term) and political series one is more favoured here at The Anorak Zone, it's really down to personal taste.
      However, Time is an episode where the "anything goes" plotting is taken perhaps too far, with the foursome transported back in time for no real reason, and the opening plot - Jennifer Saunders as a serial killer - going nowhere. While the series had originally played with left-field non-endings in the name of anti-comedy, to greater and lesser effects, this episode's "who cares?" ending fails to satisfy. On a last note, then this is also the episode featuring Neil being thrown off a horse into a puddle... when Nigel Planer asked for direction, famously short-tempered director/producer Paul Jackson stormed onto the location and threw himself into the puddle to show how it was done.

11 Summer Holiday (1984)

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The final episode of The Young Ones, where everything that can go wrong, does, and ends with their deaths. It's more cartoonish than ever before, with the four housemates now unrealistically stupid, even for them, and there's a slightly hollow feeling as there's no love between the regulars. Not that the series ever really featured something approaching "affection", but the camarderie shown by Rick to the others in the final moments is a direct contrast to the others being completely unconcerned that his parents have died, or the complete disdain shown towards the fact that it's Neil's birthday. It's not that the four of them ever particularly loved one another, but they used to have conversations... here all that's left is hate.
      It's perhaps appropriate that for such a nihilistic episode, we get some of the more macabre "cut away" sequences, such as an arguing family with a screeching Mynah bird. The programme makers never denied the inspiration that Monty Python provided, and this is one of the more obvious examples, bringing to mind The Most Awful Family in Britain. The nod to the Pythons was made explicit in the episode Nasty, where Terry Jones had a guest role as a drunken vicar.
      Finally, the second series featured "flash frames" as a spoof of subliminal messaging. It's unclear how long these originally lasted, a question that only those who own off-air copies of the original broadcasts can answer. It's said that they originally were subliminal, but appear in longer form in the versions on VHS and DVD. It's speculated that they were extended for mid-90s repeats, yet the earliest VHS releases date back to 1988. Each of the first five series two episodes had them, sometimes more than one (as with Sick), though an image of a gurning man in Time was removed from the DVD releases, possibly due to being too short. It apparently still exists on the VHS release of the episode, so I'll have to go into my attic for full confirmation.
      The reason for its mention here is that the people involved admitted that the images were completely irrelevant, and that a flash frame explaining its purposelessness was supposed to feature in Summer Holiday around the point where Vyvyan crashes his car. However, it was removed after the BBC got cautious about the legality of it, and was never transmitted. Yet director-producer Paul Jackson insists on the DVD making of featurette that it was placed back in for VHS and DVD releases... yet even a frame-by-frame scan through the episode can't locate it.

10 Bambi (1984)

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University Challenge, with every question answered with the names of revolutionaries, including Trotsky, Marx and Che Guevara. Not, perhaps sadly, the plot of this episode of The Young Ones, but an actual event that took place 9 years before it aired, with future journalist David Aaronovitch's Manchester team reputedly protesting against the elitism on the programme.
      Revolutionaries do make the cut, as contestant Kendall Mintcake (Ben Elton, in the worst of his five appearances in the series) mistakenly thinks an answer is "Lenin", and Alexei Sayle gets an amusing skit on the concept of revolutionary-based biscuits, all of which may or may not have been a coincidence. (Though Mayall, Edmondson, Mayer and Elton all attended Manchester University, and as Mayall and Edmondson started studying there in 1975, the same year as the incident, it would have been extremely unlikely that they would be unaware of it).
      Bambi is arguably the fastest and slickest episode of the series, where every other line is a joke and there's no let up. There's decent stuff in there, as well as bits that try too hard (a scene where the regulars impersonate each other is particularly cringe inducing) but fundamentally it's the series as mainstream product, everyone involved playing to the gallery and knowing they've got a hit on their hands.
      Series two of The Young Ones was, in the eyes of many of the people behind and in front of the camera, a huge step up from the first. But instead of jokes that were deceptively clever and games with "anti-humour", it became broader and coarser, with the character of Rick, in particular, far more screechy and self-conscious. Before it was about ideas and concepts, but with Bambi it's just about joke-joke-joke. And with some of the set ups wilfully contrived, it can be something of a shock to take in, the thoughtful and often innovative series replaced, if only for a week, by something more hollow and crowdpleasing.
      Bambi's a decent episode and contains some laughs, but its reputation as the Young Ones episode detracts, when it becomes clear the makers didn't realise the true value of everything they threw away to make it.

9 Flood (1982)

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Where series two had "flash frames", series one had a mysterious fifth housemate that even the students don't seem to be aware is there. A man with hair over his face sits, sometimes in full view, and wasn't noticed, it seems, before the age of the internet. Although this character is perhaps most prominent in Demolition (sitting just behind the chair before "Nozin' Aroun'" comes on), he's even centre frame during the opening of Boring.
      Here it seems as if this character gets a resolution, as a body briefly floats past the window as Rick and Vyvyan argue about a submarine in the wake of London flooding. Whether it is the same character remains to be seen, but it gives a nice macabre ending to the tale. With the series recorded almost entirely on videotape, incidentally, then the quality of the picture hasn't been particularly well preserved. Look out here for a distortion on the video tape in the scene where Rick is pinned to a door before Neil opens it.
      Although it was regarded as an innovation that even (most of) the location footage was also shot on tape, it does mean the series, while watchable, hasn't stood up that well as an artefact, and scenes placed on pause for screen captures do have a distinct "fuzzy" look, which explains why a lot of the images in this article look like they were taken from fourth generation, off-air video copies, despite the fact that they were all taken from the DVD release.
      Overall, Flood is a decent episode, though ranks last out of the first series as it doesn't perhaps have the pace and energy of the other shows. This slightly "flat" feeling isn't helped by it being the only episode not to feature a music act, but instead a lion tamer. This was reputedly so the budget could be increased as a "light entertainment" budget, and so they could have two days in studio instead of one, but Lise Mayer remembers it as being a desire from the writing side.

8 Cash (1984)

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In a 1984 interview on Wogan, Rik Mayall spoke of the second series as being "better made and better performed, didn't have the same shock impact". That attempt to generate "shock value" is met here, with an episode where Vyvyan thinks he's pregnant, only for it to be wind. It's pretty artless stuff for the show, even though there are some of the more memorable moments in the series, such as the "letter to a bank manager" scene.
      It's hard to know where the programme would have gone from here. Rik spoke of Bachelor Boys, a 1984 spin-off book, as being "in a sense" the third series, as it contained all-new material. Hysterical as a teenager, it probably doesn't stand up that well today, but then that's symptomatic of many things that amused at a young age.
      While the series ended with their deaths, this wouldn't be an obstacle to them being resurrected, as series two dropped the express continuity - Cash ends with the characters and house blown up, only to return the following week unscathed. A resurrection of sorts happened with a No.1 single, a cover of Livin' Doll with Cliff Richard. Although for charity, it's hard to watch today, the characters reduced even further into sweary, playground-pleasing caricature.
      One way in Cash really excels is in the cutaways. Largely attributed to Lise Mayer as a whole, while the puppet elements can seem quite childlike for an adult comedy series, there's one of the better ones with the two dogs (pictured), and also a string of memorable interruptions to the narrative, including a parody of the "Think once. Think twice..." advert, and the insane man who ate his neighbour's fishtank.

7 Interesting (1982)

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Interesting seems an oddly quaint, restrained episode of The Young Ones when watched today. It was Alexei Sayle who pointed out that the writers didn't realise they could jump time when they were writing series one, which is why most of the first series episodes are set almost in real time, and why Oil makes such a big deal of the jumps in time it features.
      Into this real time party episode (complete with the lulls and awkward moments that parties bring) comes The Young Ones doing a comedy of manners. The four students invite some of their university classmates - and a cool tutor - to a party, where their efforts to appear "cool" are met with disdain. Note here that the main characters, while still combative, have actual conversations with one another, and interact (badly) with fellow students as their peers. Just two episodes (and 17 months) later, they're chosen to represent their university on a quiz show, which is revealed as the cartoonish "Scumbag College".
      The various cutaways, involving things like singing tomatoes and Santa Claus, are particularly child-orientated in this instalment, and while the thugs that eventually smash the house up are menacing, they're also harmlessly cartoonish, more The Beano than Scum. Only with Mike dating Cinderella do we see a darker side to this, as he unwittingly carves a pumpkin after midnight. It's not a Young Ones episode that's aged particularly well, with even the much-vaunted tampon scene coming over as almost sweet. But while it make seem to lack the chaotic, free-falling laughs of the best of the series, it has a lot of charm, and contains many elements which perhaps should have been retained.

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