The Young Ones: Anarchic BBC Comedy Stuff of Legends

The Young Ones with Rik, Vyvyan, Neil, and Mike
The Young Ones. From left to right: Vyvyan, Neil (the hippy), Mike, and Rick.

Airing in November of 1982 on the BBC, this landmark comedy series kickstarted the post-Monty Python era of British humour. And it was bloody anarchic!

The Young Ones

It’s a simple premise—four skint undergraduate students live in London. They attend Scumbag College and misbehave atrociously.

In one way or another, they’re either utterly vile or hopeless. We have:

  • Rick: An obnoxious spoiled brat with lofty pretensions of his intellectual superiority. Is thoroughly insufferable, hyperbolic, awkward, and hypocritical. Is apparently studying sociology and/or domestic sciences. Is portrayed by the one and only Rik Mayall.
  • Vyvyan “Vyv” Basterd: An anarchic and misanthropic punk. Is apparently studying a medical degree, but appears to rarely attend as he’s too drunk. Vyv is psychotic and unruly, often taking out his violence on his arch-nemesis Rick. Portrayed by the one and only Ade Edmondson.
  • Neil Pye: A lanky hippy who’s maudlin and often irritates his housemates. However, is the sanest of the group and is compassionate and well-meaning, but also naive and blockheaded. He’s often the butt of jokes and/or violence from the other housemates. Portrayed by Nigel Planer.
  • Mike “The Cool Person”: An immoral shyster eager to get rich and make it with women, he views himself as the smartest and most capable member of the foursome. Although he’s totally self-centered, he does have the ability to keep everyone calm during the many bizarre happenings across episodes. Portrayed by Christopher Ryan.

Alexei Sayle also has a regular spot in episodes. He portrays members of the Balowski family, who are the landlords of the Young Ones’ property.

Episodic Episodes

Series two began with Bambi, where the students have a disastrous appearance on University Challenge.

This episode really takes the piss out of the overprivileged Tory elite in the country at the time (little has changed since).

It’s very much in keeping with the other 11 episodes—anarchic, surreal, and with some memorable special effects and cartoon violence.

Episodes focus around the political issues of the day, so there’s a lot of Thatcherite UK rhetoric.

Plus more global issues, such as concerns over the Cold War and potential nuclear fallout.

The series was heavily surreal and inventive. The effects are very clever and work well even now, often breaking the fourth wall and the realms of reality.

But the show still offers a wide variety of silly wit, with the dimwit students bumbling their way through simple situations.

The point of the show is these four are losers—but due to various circumstances (it’s implied, for example, Rick is an overprivileged brat from a wealthy family) they have to put up with each other.

Vyvyan seems content to annihilate himself and those around him, simply as the current situation in England means there’s little better for him to do.

Whilst Neil is trying to cling to hippy ideals, even though they’re hopelessly anachronistic in the situation he faces—potential nuclear war and pro-capitalist society.

The Young Ones may now be almost 40 years old, but it’s still fresh and engaging.

There’s a youthful sense of purpose behind it. Young guns going for it in the early ’80s, the emerging stars making a name for themselves thanks to the opportunities presented to them.

And boy did they grab onto it! The show remains a classic. And it created a new generation of British comedy legends.

Production

The Young Ones helped launch the careers of many of its cast, particularly Ade Edmondson and Rik Mayall—a decade later they had big success with Bottom.

Mayall and Edmondson went to Manchester University in 1975. Studying drama, they also met the likes of Ben Elton and Lise Mayer.

Mayall and Edmondson’s act was clearly inspired by the anarchic themes of punk music. The Dangerous Brothers act they created got them banned from many clubs in Manchester.

After graduating, they moved down to London to tour the comedy scene of the early 1980s.

Mayall also did solo skits with characters such as the plodding bore Kevin Turvey and pompous pseudo-intellectual Rick. The latter became his character in The Young Ones.

The fledgling Channel 4 then offered the young upcoming stars a six-episode run with The Comic Strip Presents.

But at the same time the BBC had picked them up and The Young Ones ran at exactly the same time in November of 1982.

The show was written by Ben Elton, Rik Mayall, and Lise Mayer—only Mayall chose to act in the series.

The Young Ones was a surprise hit, catapulting much of the cast to stardom. Mayall was 24 at the time and later acknowledged he’d been very lucky with his “charmed” life.

The series was set in north London, but filming took place in Bristol. The second series ran from May 1984 and concluded with the famous Summer Holiday.

There were 12 episodes in total across two seasons. As it was so unique at the time, it became an international hit. The final episode aired on 19th June 1984 on the BBC.

It first aired in America from June 1985 and in New Zealand from August 1985. Many more countries followed.

Legacy

After The Young Ones, Edmondson and Mayall tried out various opportunities. The first was to write a new series, the failed Filthy Rich & Catflap (1987).

Mayall later acknowledged the show was a mistake and it was difficult dealing with the aftermath. It’s just not very funny. It only ran for one season of six episodes.

Mayall turned that around after he was cast in the critical hit The New Statesman—it ran for four series from 1987-1994.

He played callous elitist Tory MP Alan B’Stard. The show takes the piss out of the vile Thatcher era Tory government.

And, of course, during that busy run he teamed up with Edmondson again to land the smash hit Bottom.

It was adapted from their experiences of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot on the West End.

For the other writers and cast members, Ben Elton went on to write Blackadder series II onwards—arguably the greatest comedy show in history.

Nigel Planer and Christopher Ryan have enjoyed various smaller parts across TV shows. The latter in Absolutely Fabulous and Bottom.

Lise Mayer went on to write for a whole bunch of shows, including popular BBC show The Borrowers with Sir Ian Holm.

Proper belting, as we say in England. Reet proper!

4 comments

  1. The Young Ones is one of my favourite comedies of all time, along with Blackadder and ‘Allo ‘Allo. All totally different and all from the 80s (for some reason)… I remember watching one episode while actually in a student ‘grovel pit’ flat at the time and thinking it wasn’t a comedy, it was a documentary…

    As an aside, I invoked one of Mayall’s characters to an NZ politician, many years back. A new party was being set up (it’s part of the coalition government here now) and I got invited to the pub to meet one of the organisers and maybe join their party. He was a sitting MP who’d defected from his original party and knew people I’d known at varsity, which was how they contacted me. He was also known for being, shall we say, controversial. Now, I don’t do politics – I have totally no interest in being involved. But there was beer involved, so I went along. And the first thing I said to this guy – a sitting MP and all – was ‘Oh hello, I understand you’re known as the Alan B’Stard of New Zealand politics’. I said it straight to his face. For some reason they weren’t so keen on recruiting me after that.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Did you get round to watching Bottom as well? It was more my generation in the early ’90s, so I prefer it to The Young Ones. I got to see Rik and Ade’s live show twice as well, in 2001 and 2003. Fond memories!

      And burn on the NZ politician. I’ve never met a politician. And don’t want to. As with you, I’d likely just lay into them. A perilous job.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I never really caught up with Bottom – I gather it was brilliant. Very envious you got to see them live on stage!

        It’s hard to avoid running into politicians in NZ, especially Wellington – not a large place and most people know each other, one way or another. Not long ago I was in a queue in a downtown sushi bar around lunchtime, turned around and saw the Deputy PM standing in the queue right behind me. Nobody paid him any attention. Actually it’s hard to avoid them anywhere in the country – a few years back I was in Napier, whipped out of a supermarket pushing a trolley, and almost mowed down the Minister of Finance of the day who, it turned out, used to spend a lot of time there visiting family, and was off to do some grocery shopping. (They don’t stand on ceremony here, and don’t get me started about a former Governor of the Reserve Bank who used to wash his own socks in hotel rooms, while on official business, as a money-saving effort.)

        Liked by 1 person

        • I highly recommend Bottom, it’s basically an advance of The Young Ones based on Rik and Ade’s performance in Waiting for Godot. The show holds up really well, partiicularly series 2 and 3. Most of it should be on YouTube. The first two live shows from ’93 and ’95 are terrific as well. Both on YouTube, I believe, I know the second live show verbatim I watched it so many times when I was younger.

          I was surprised by the NZ population, it’s abot 4.7 million I believe. In Manchester we have 8 million descending on the city each working day, it’s nuts. Certainly no deputy PMs lining up at the local Co-Op with me, though.

          Like

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