This year sees the thirtieth anniversary of cult TV sitcom The Young Ones. A series that perhaps doesn't get the respect it deserves today, it's an ideal time to reassess the show here on The Anorak Zone. The series is available in the site's Online Store
Back in 1982 The Young Ones was the most anarchic thing on television. Join me as I look back through the twelve episodes, from worst to best...
While this is a ''worst to best'' feature, no episode of The Young Ones falls below average, not even the first two examples here, the most mediocre instalments of their respective seasons. The Young Ones had initially been tried without a studio audience, yet the stand up background of the performers meant that the timing was off as a result. With a studio audience then instated for good, some of the more metatextual episodes even sought to include them as part of the narrative themselves. Which brings us to Oil. Not actually a bad episode, there are lots of memorable and strong scenes in it, such as the genie or the exploding cooker. However, what almost kills the episode stone dead is the unusually hyped studio audience, whooping, yelping and shrieking, a presence so overbearing that any amusing dialogue exchange is rendered almost unwatchable.
Although some jokes in the series can seem obscure when derived of their context (such as references to the TV Times ad campaign in the opening episode, or "Yellow Pages" in Bambi), this is a series that is not afraid to reference the past with fear of alienating the audience as so many programmes of the new millennium are. With Demolition going as far back as 410 BC for some of its references, then Oil gives us something nearer to home, but still from the past, even then - Buddy Holly playing a catchy new song in the attic, 23 years after he'd died. By comparison, a reference to The Godfather only a decade later seems small change.
Perhaps the most contentious part of the episode is the 2'20m of two men in the house cellar hallucinating that they're shipwrecked. While perhaps not the most successful cutaway the series ever did, and certainly the longest, it maybe didn't deserve to be singled out by Adrian Edmondson in recent interviews as to why the series has dated so badly. Sadly, the stars of the show often aren't that enamoured of The Young Ones these days, but it was a different time, and one full of worthwhile experimentation. Overall Oil isn't that great an episode and doesn’t quite work, but what would be regarded as just "okay" is rendered almost unpalatable by the audience's overbearing input.
Episodes of The Young Ones were usually written in two groups, with Rik Mayall/Lise Mayer contributing one section, and Ben Elton another. Then both elements would be joined, and redrafted to make the finished cut. It’s somewhat surprising that this isn’t more obvious with most episodes, but then in an ''anything goes'' universe where we can see the damnation of Hell one minute and cyclops DJs from the past in another, the randomness seems apt. Yet Time really stands out as an episode that’s clearly two ideas bolted together, and isn’t anywhere near as good as it could have been. Any series that has Margaret Thatcher as a major subtext is going to date, but opening with spoofs of Dallas and E.T. sets this one firmly in the time it was made. Yet beyond that, the opening of the episode is incredibly strong, with some nice dialogue exchanges and, unknown to the regulars, a girl in the house who is a psychotic murderer on the run. Sadly this entire plot runs into a narrative dead end for the second half, with the house travelling in time for no explained reason. The Young Ones was a show where anything could happen... but having it happen without due set up or consequence can feel like a cheat, even in a comedy show like this. The final line for the episode and its cliffhanger ending is "ah, who cares?" It’s apt for an episode that feels like left over ideas placed together to fill a runtime.
Here we are, with almost inarguably the most famous and popular episode of The Young Ones. Sadly, on reflection, it doesn’t hold up, a crowd-pleasing effort that discards most of what made the series great in the first place, with the ante upped so that the whole thing is now almost completely a cartoon. While I don't see season one as the work of Ken Loach, suddenly what were once really poor university students who had normal peers (Interesting) are now representatives of "Scumbag College". Suddenly they don't exist in the real world twisted to the left, they exist in a Tom and Jerry pocket universe. Bamber Gasgoine is here realised as "Bambi", the man who played a Disney deer, and a porno spin-off. It might be pretty funny, but it's hard to watch it as a show with any depth. Even Vyvyan blowing people up or getting his head severed seems a touch too far if you're not in the mood. It's quite some way removed from the political sitcom that was season one, with a sense that the cast know they’re in a hit, Planer at times almost visibly laughing on screen at some lines.
Still, that's not to say it's not a decent episode. There's plenty of memorable highlights - "There's a dead rat in there! Great!" "Technofear!" "The pig ferret" "Bambi goes crazy ape bonkers with his drill and set" - and the idea that the entire series is being watched through the microscope of other lifeforms is also interesting. But overall it’s an episode that, at the risk of taking The Young Ones too seriously, sacrifices integrity for relentless commercial appeal.
Arguably the most metatextual episode of The Young Ones, the centrepiece of Sick is a sequence where Neil (last name revealed as Pye, for fans of trivia) has his parents drop in to visit. Except his parents are fully aware that he's part of a sitcom and disapprove that he's not in a nicer sitcom like The Good Life. Many references abound to the artificial nature of the set and the situation, while the conclusion sees the ultimate extension of the "Young Ones as cartoon characters" fixation of season two with Neil coming back to life three times over. The whole thing ends with the house being pulled apart to make way for a light entertainment chat show. The final episode of The Young Ones has Vyvyan acknowledging that they're in a studio set and they can't do long shots, but it fails to compete with this episode in terms of self-reflexivity. Once The Young Ones was about deconstructing the nature of sitcom... by the time of season two it was about deconstructing itself.
There's a lot of strong dialogue sequences in Sick, including Alexei Sayle giving probably his best performance in the show and Vyvyan's infamous rant against The Good Life. However, it probably tops the list of "it was funny at the time" as the full on, gross-out content does rely far too heavily on shouting and crass humour, content which swamps the promising script. There was a time when this was one of my, if not THE, favourite episodes. These days it all just seem a bit OTT and hollow...
Flood was the series when it still existed to challenge norms, both in society and in television. A dream sequence sees Rik as the leftist reactionary - a persona sadly all but discarded in 1984 - stand up to two policemen who are hassling "gay black bastards". Referenced derisively is The Black and White Minstrel Show, followed by Ben Elton as a working men's club stand up puppet cat. Events are then pushed along by Vyvyan placing a potion to become a axe-wielding, homidical maniac in a can of Coke, something which Neil notes will possibly be drank later, to Rik's agreement: "that's just the sort of crazy, imaginative thing that happens around here." It's self-reflexive without being destructive, the show analysing its own contrived, extreme foundations in comparison to the rest of the sitcom landscape in 1982.
The most fantasy-orientated episode of the first season - an area they would repeatedly go down for season two - this sees Sayle's axe-wielding.... landlord chase the group through Narnia while the whole of London is under a second storey flood. It's more charming than it sounds, and as a nine year old, Sayle's "Mr. Poo Poo goes to the lavatory" was the funniest thing I'd ever heard. In other episodes I'd referenced that the relationships between the regulars is more naturalistic in season one. It's notable that here not only do Vyvyan and Rik have semi-normal conversations, but when the group decide who to eat first, there's no contest, everyone automatically assumes it's Neil. In terms of cutaways then the episode is lacking... Edmondson and Mayall spending a minute of screentime as two alien hunters is the sort of thing that maintains the surreal world of The Young Ones (and could, arguably, be a reference to Boring) but isn't particularly amusing. The entire thing is wrapped up with a lion, the episode's lion tamer taking up the variety budget instead of a band.
The final episode of the series, a downbeat affair where everything that can go wrong, does, and the demise of the regulars is on the cards from the off. And whereas there was once affection between the leads, here none of them like or care for one another, a coldness that sees Mike almost gleeful that Rik's parents have died. Remember back in season one, where, in amongst the bickering, there was kinship between these unlikely housemates? Almost unbearably set based (a reference to this by Vyvyan doesn't help) there are still some nice lines in this one, including political barbs like Mike wishing education was abolished ("That's the only reason I voted Tory"). There's also more dialogue-based sequences in this episode than in most of the other 1984 episodes, with the group playing Bottichelli or Neil's exam stories. It's actually surprising how many minor classic moments feature in Summer Holiday, such as Neil dancing to the closedown signal... a clear sign that ideas had far from run out. In fact, for all detractions about The Young Ones being just crude and cartoony, they bowed out with one of their most talky and witty episodes.
Summer Holiday continues where Sick left off, with postmodern revelations that Neil wears a wig, Neil changing into the Hulk and, as referenced earlier, the notion that Vyvyan needs to point out events off screen as there's no long shots. And while season one had satirical names for public places like "The Kebab and Calculator", it was still rooted in some form of reality. Season two ends with the group robbing "The Fascist Pig Bank". It gives the episode an off-kilter feel compared to some of the others, and this episode isn't about creation, but destruction... the characters all find a reason to lose the will to live, with Rik's bereavement, then all four evicted and the failure of their exams. Homeless and hopeless, only a bank robbery can save them. It's probably unintentional that, in their dying moments, the series comes full circle by making a pun on Cliff Richard/a cliff.... something that happened in the very first scene of Demolition.