This week, two major discoveries were made centred on things that have been hiding in plain sight all along.
“The Young Ones” was on the telly most likely before many reading this were born – 1982 and 1983. It was an outrageous, violent, funny, shocking, and bewildering sitcom centred on four wildly different housemates – Rick, Mike, Neil and Vyvyan – living in an increasingly battered house.
Giant sandwiches dropped by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse would crash through the roof:
Demons would materialise in stinking clouds and try to drag the housemates back to Hell so they could torture them with endless loops of Barry Manilow:
There was a lot of swearing, dismemberment and what would now be called “mature content”.
I was allowed to watch it as a 10-year-old – it came through to Australia a year or two after the UK, think about that – and it changed every standard I had for what I considered entertainment, forever.
I know every catchphrase, every moment of extreme violence, and every answer to all the University Challenge questions. But in 33 years of rarely missing a late-night replay, I have never seen this person before:
In case you missed it, here he/she is again at the bottom of the stairs in “Boring”:
And lurking behind Rick in “Demolition”, the first episode:
It’s clearly someone living in the house, although the housemates aren’t aware of it. We know that because in the episode above, Neil tells the housemates he’s off to kill himself and Rick’s only consideration is “that’s put the rent up by a third”.
It’s also very creepy, with more than a touch of “The Ring” about it.
There’s a minimal amount of references online to it, with some saying the extra housemate appears in at least five episodes in the first series.
The only way to find out for sure was to contact the writers – Ben Elton, Rik Mayall, Lise Mayer or Alexei Sayle. Mayall, sadly, died last year, but Elton, as far as I knew, was living in Fremantle, Western Australia.
So, via his agent in Australia, I sent Elton an email, just on a whim. And to my shock – mainly because Elton has been a creative hero of mine since I first saw “The Young Ones” – I got this reply just over an hour later:
As it turned out, I’d asked way too flippantly if he could tell us who the fifth housemate was. I really should have sent him a picture and felt like I’d blown my one chance to chat meaningfully with Ben Elton.
I’d sent a couple more feelers out that day, to various cast members and crew, but after several days of silence, I began to think it might be a hoax. A very elaborate hoax targeting a very small handful of pre-digital couch potatoes.
Until a couple of days later, when I received this email from Geoff Posner, one of three directors of “The Young Ones”:
The fifth housemate was real. And Ben Elton wasn’t aware of it.
(I still prefer to think Elton was totally aware of the fifth housemate, and is sticking to an official line.)
But then I thought it’s not surprising Elton doesn’t remember what was probably just a running gag shared by Posner, Jackson and the production crew.
So maybe the fifth housemate idea wasn’t such a big deal to the cast and crew back then.
Often what artists think of their own work is only half of the story. The other is what impact it has on the audience and its legacy and in this regard, “The Young Ones” still stands up incredibly well 34 years after it first aired. The appearance of the running “fifth housemate” gag is a great example, which we’ll get to in a minute.
A stellar cast of great comedians, including Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, Robbie Coltrane and Alexei Sayle virtually began their careers with cameos on “The Young Ones”.
When Scumbag College took on Footlights in University Challenge, the opposition consisted of Elton, Emma Thompson, Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie:
And creators Elton, Mayall and Lisa Mayer threw a live music performance into each episode, so the show could technically be classified “light entertainment” and thus gain them better funding from the BBC. That produced memorable performances from the likes of Madness, The Damned, Dexy’s Midnight Runners and most famously, Motorhead, who performed “The Ace of Spades” in the housemates’ lounge.
But Christopher Ryan – Mike The Cool Person – says he’s never watched it, and in fact, doesn’t even own a telly or computer.
And in 2010, Adrian Edmondson, who played violent skinhead Vyvyan, told The Scotsman: “You watch The Young Ones now and really, it’s not very funny.”
Edmondson is wrong because it still is, very. The big laughs, at the time, came for the slapstick violence and ridiculous fantasy elements, both of which were ramped up in the second series and are probably the cheap devices Edmondson and critics of the show concentrate on when dismissing any genius “The Young Ones” might claim.
Yes, it’s easy to overanalyse these things. So let’s do that, starting with the fifth housemate. Here’s another appearance, this time in “Bomb”:
As a replicant which appeared in slightly different situations in at least five episodes in the first series, it could arguably be described as one of the first popular culture memes. (The term “meme” had only been coined six years earlier, by Richard Dawkins.)
It’s groundbreaking, but it’s not accidental genius. Looking back on “The Young Ones” and you soon realise it’s jammed full of devices – tropes – at every turn. (In fact, the TV Tropes Wiki has picked out no less than 172, and they’re excellent fun to check off.)
Of course, there’s never been a shortage of experimental comedians, particularly out of the UK. But 34 years ago, “The Young Ones” simply tried everything to see what worked.
They broke the fourth wall, in “Sick”, when Neil’s parents talk about him starring in a sitcom:
At the end of the show, the house is shown getting pulled apart so the BBC can reuse it for a light entertainment show.
And most notably in “Nasty”, where a cutaway shows Rik Mayall, Adrian Edmondson, Nigel Planer and Chris Ryan IRL insulting Alexei Sayle:
Vyvyan is also pointing out things that don’t exist, aka:
Vyvyan: Look, here comes the postman.
Mike: Vyvyan, why do you keep telling us what’s just about to happen next?
Vyvyan: Because it’s a studio set, Michael, and they can’t afford any long shots.
It tackled social issues that nobody else was brave enough to take on, especially in a light entertainment format.
Policemen came in for particularly harsh treatment. “Flood” pushed the boundaries with Rick fantasising about confronting two cops hassling “gay black bastards”. It also featured Elton’s scorn for The Black and White Minstrel Show – which had only ended on the BBC five years previously – by dressing up as a cat to entertain a working men’s club.
The stabs at authority and racist attitudes were too hot to handle in later years. One scene in “Boring”, where a policeman tells a man at the front door “That’s white man’s electricity you’re burning” before taking off his sunglasses to say “Oh sorry John, I thought you was a n…..” was cut from DVD re-releases.
In a cutaway scene in “Bomb”, three old ladies can be seen vandalising a phonebox, spraypainting “Wogs Out” and saying the hope young people get the blame which might “stop them raping old ladies”.
Mike the Cool Person wishes education was abolished. (“That’s the only reason I voted Tory.”)
Another meme featured all the ways Neil tried to kill himself, to nobody’s dismay, apart from the fact he always failed at it. Heavy, as he would say, and not something that would easily pass a censorship board 34 years later.
And the second series featured flashes of random single frames. Viewers quick on the pause button caught glimpses of a seagull, a tree frog, a gurning man, a dripping tap and the end credits of the film “Carry On Cowboy”, none of which seemed to make any sense in the spots they were inserted.
That was seen to be the show’s way of making fun of concerns at the time about “dangerous” subliminal messaging.
Nothing was sacred and, from an outsider’s perspective, creativity wasn’t checked by concerns over how it would go down with a target audience.
That’s probably why we haven’t seen anything like “The Young Ones” on our small screens since. A handful of complaints on Twitter can have executives running for the kill button before the first episode is finished.
These days, pretty much everyone involved in the show has gone on to “serious” careers. Edmondson and Mayall recreated the magic for three series of “Bottom” in the early 90s, but it was straight up and down violent slapstick – hilarious, but nowhere near the wild creativity of “The Young Ones”.
Edmondson actually won a version of Celebrity Masterchef recently, is now lead singer of The Idiot Bastard Band and is reportedly joining the cast of “Star Wars: Episode VIII”.
Nigel Planer – Neil – became a popular theatre performer in numerous West End productions and still gets regular film and TV roles. Chris Ryan – Mike – is also treading the boards.
And Elton, who as noted, now lives in Fremantle with his Australian wife, has written 15 bestselling novels to increasing acclaim, and the hit musical “We Will Rock You”.
He bombed with the sitcom “The Wright Way” in 2013, but there’s signs he’s back on form – his Shakespearean sitcom experiment with David Mitchell, “Upstart Crow”, was recently green-lit for series two.
But he hasn’t taken a standup comedy gig on the road for 10 years.
Mayer continued as a writer for around a decade after the series aired.
The only actor who was determined to be a comedic tour de force to the end, Mayall, went on to steal scenes in various series of “Blackadder” as Mad Gerald, Lord Flashheart and Robin Hood, and wreck childhoods in “Drop Dead Fred”, “Grim Tales” and “George’s Marvellous Medicine”.
But in 1998, he fractured his skull in a quad bike accident and was on life support for five days. Edmondson says Mayall never fully recovered and was left “strangely more emotional; still very funny”.
Even so, Mayall brought vile MP Alan B’Stard for a triumphant two-year stage run of “The New Statesman” in 2006. He continually badgered Edmondson for a return to “Bottom” and in 2013, got “Hooligan’s Island” to the stage where it was announced by the BBC before Edmondson pulled out.
Like a broken beer bottle over the back of the head from Vyvyan, no one saw that coming either.
EXTRA REVEAL: For those who made it this far, Posner also sent me a heads-up about something else fans may have missed:
“Do you notice the tiny fart in Boring at 1815. Mike delivered this comic gem in rehearsals in the studio, and cracked everybody up so much that they couldn’t face recording the scenes, putting us further behind schedule than we always were (because of the over-ambition of the scenes. But then I say again, we were young then…)”
I had noticed, but always figured Mike voiced the sound himself to relieve the boredom:
But while thoroughly checking that episode, I think I found a real one, when Mike sits down at The Kebab and Calculator: