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.
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.
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 anarchic sitcom 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.
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.