Funny Games

Film still for Funny Games

Alternative Comedy may now be a meaningless term, but in dark and dismal 80s Britain, radical humourists in spangly jackets became a TV necessity encouraged by the then new Channel 4. Andy Medhurst recalls the moment when a new generation set light to light entertainment and made off with loadsamoney

According to the late social historian Raphael Samuel, "comedy is ideology in motley," an evocative phrase which I take to mean that the styles and trends of humour popular at any given moment reveal a considerable amount about society's predilections and preconceptions. Comedies are, among other things, manifestos in microcosm, ways of seeing the world that depend for their success on wooing and securing like-mindedness in large numbers of people. Laughing together is a surefire short-cut to a feeling of belonging together, and since belonging is an inevitably political concept saturated with deeply ideological questions (belonging where? to what? for what reasons? with whom? against whom? who decides?), comedy is never innocent of politics. Each era of British cultural and political history finds its distinctive comic voice - think of the succouring myths of solidarity in George Formby's wartime comedies, the audible sound of loosening shackles in the 60s radio classic Round the Horne or the post-colonial mischief wrought so deftly recently by Goodness Gracious Me. As a key test case, consider the 80s.

Ah, the 80s - a decade enshrined in George Michael's hair on Wham!'s 'Last Christmas' video, the Gonch years of Grange Hill with their graph-paper credit sequence and touching attempt to grapple with rap, and the thin ties and born-again boxer shorts of Wicksy on EastEnders. The 80s ate French-bread pizzas while watching The A-Team and Miami Vice. They wore leg warmers to their aerobics classes and piled Anita Dobson curls above Joan Collins shoulder pads. They danced to Black Lace and they played snooker on the radio with Dave Lee Travis. All duvet covers were grey, red and black and every hit record had a saxophone solo, just like that ad for L'Oreal Studio line where the models came bursting through the paper wall. Brookside was fixated on trades unions and swearing, Max and Maria were the best things on Neighbours, Molly Ringwald looked definitive and Rick Astley sounded great. Shopping at Next was new and exciting, Dusty Bin and Roland Rat were in full flow and defenceless babies were christened Krystle. The robotic heartbeat of the decade pounded through Blancmange's 'Living on the Ceiling', 'Word Up' by Cameo and anything at all by Dead Or Alive. Greed was good, black-ash shelving was even better, Robert Elms was a sought-after cultural commentator and every other sentence uttered by Britain's chattering mafia included the word Thatcherism.

Given that last point, no wonder people needed something to laugh at. Beyond the surfaces of style (though in some circles it was treasonably un-80s to suggest that such a 'beyond' might even exist) and the booming, braying precincts of yuppiedom, the 80s were as grim as it gets. Their awfulness was chronicled by Alan Bleasdale and Hanif Kureishi. They meant the miners' strike, Greenham Common, the Falklands War, the onset of Aids, the Labour Party in freefall and the Tories in excelsis. In such a context, a socially aware humour was hardly likely to be mild and polite. Enter, very much stage Left, alternative comedy. That's a tired label now, largely because it was indiscriminately applied to anyone under 40 who told jokes while not wearing a bow tie. Yet in the early and mid 80s, Alternative Comedy deserved its capital initials. Much of it may now feel as dated as a Living In A Box 12-inch remix, but that only testifies to how fully and purposefully it inhabited its cultural moment. The principal players in that new comic wave may have become predictably mainstream - with millionaire quasi-socialist Ben Elton's West End musical collaboration with millionaire Tory Andrew Lloyd Webber marking a new low in the process the Clash once identified as "turning rebellion into money" - but once upon a time, in a land far away called the early years of Channel 4, things were different.

The label of Alternative Comedy begs one obvious question: alternative to what? The much-repeated answer is well known. Mainstream British comedy, so the story goes, was clapped out and reactionary. Corpulent middle-aged men hogged television screens with jokes about mothers-in-law and Pakistanis. There may be a grain of truth in that (though not much more than a grain), but what's more significant is that in the mid 80s the great comic talents of older generations were, in various ways, shutting up shop. By the middle of 1984 Eric Morecambe and Tommy Cooper were dead. Les Dawson had allowed himself to be tamed and constrained by hosting Blankety-Blank (with its agonisingly 80s pink and grey set). Ken Dodd was as incomparably magnificent as ever, but mostly shunned television work for his natural home on stage. Elsewhere, the second and third divisions of that tradition - Jimmy Tarbuck, Tom O'Connor, Bobby Davro, Cannon and Ball, Ted Rogers - busied themselves wearing pastel jumpers on golf courses, endorsing Mrs Thatcher, or (most criminally) both.

In a different comic zone, the Python team had subsided into various kinds of self-indulgent film projects, while Peter Cook (the great god of over-educated comedy fans ever since the early 60s) emerged only for sporadic bursts of self-parody. The Two Ronnies and Benny Hill continued to hold sway, blithely indifferent to the concept of a sell-by date, and the biggest hit sitcoms were Duty Free and Just Good Friends, series which only the most besotted slave of UK Gold could watch today without retching. There were isolated mavericks such as Billy Connolly chafing against the prevailing grain, Mike Leigh presided over his tiny but crucial domain, and Victoria Wood was beginning to hone the vocabulary of her idiosyncratic genius, but these were exceptions. The fact that the best the early 80s could offer as challenging television comedy was the insufferably smug Not the Nine O'Clock News, wherein a clutch of privileged Oxbridge graduates sought laughs by putting on working-class accents, speaks volumes.

There was, to put it mildly, space for something new. The London stand-up club the Comedy Store had opened (with enviable serendipity) in the month Margaret Thatcher was first elected, May 1979, and its impact began to send out wider reverberations. The Comedy Store welcomed untested and daring acts, most of whom died the death, but some of whom seized their chance to bypass the usual long-winded routes to showbiz success. Hosted by an angry, hungry Alexei Sayle, the Store's early roster of risk-takers included Ben Elton, Rik Mayall, Ade Edmondson and Nigel Planer (it also welcomed a couple of highly successful performances by Les Dawson, a fact that nicely complicates this article's simplistic account of comic insurrection by a new generation). Those five, along with Peter Richardson, Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, went on to form the core of the Comedy Store's more ambitious successor, the Comic Strip (Roger Wilmut and Peter Rosengard's book Didn't You Kill My Mother-in-Law? usefully traces the convoluted narratives of those early days), and their key breakthrough into television came in November 1982. Within a week of each other, the first Comic Strip film Five Go Mad in Dorset formed part of Channel 4's opening night, and the first episode of The Young Ones was broadcast on BBC2.

According to Roger Wilmut, The Young Ones was rushed into production by the BBC once it learned that the Comic Strip clique were negotiating deals with Channel 4. The new channel's remit to offer diversity and innovation meant it could hardly fill its comedy slots with Little and Large (though in fairness, Eddie Large's Deputy Dawg impression always struck me as a comic masterstroke), and the Comic Strip's increasing reputation as comedy's cutting edge was ideally suited to the ambitions of Britain's fourth network. It's ironic, then, that The Young Ones, conceived almost as a spoiler, turned out to be a far richer and more influential text than Five Go Mad in Dorset. That laboured parody of Enid Blyton's gung-ho children's adventure stories revealed little of lasting interest other than as a symptom of its creators' navel-gazing determination to wreak revenge on the pieties of their middle-class upbringings. The Young Ones, on the other hand, still crackles with kinetic energy and invigorating spite. It pulled off a remarkable double-edged success. First, it extended the reach of the traditional sitcom into a social scenario rich in comic potential yet hitherto unexplored, namely the nightmare landscapes of jealousy, hierarchy, anxiety and petty vengeance that make up the average shared student household. Second, it detonated the representational protocols of the genre by introducing surrealism, animation, live music and excessive violence. Such genre-busting was perhaps merely nouveau-Pythonesque, but the flights of fancy worked so well because of their enforced proximity to more conventional sitcom tropes. However much its occupants and activities spiralled into absurdity, the house shared by Rik, Vivian, Neil and Mike was recognisable to any current student or recent graduate. The Pythons, cosseted as they were in servant-tended Oxbridge colleges, had no such grimy everyday reality on which to draw.

Either ignored or panned by the vast majority of critics, The Young Ones stealthily built its audience and eventually assumed the dubious mantle of cult classic. Despite such an albatross label, it still packs a considerable punch if viewed today. The C4 Comic Strip films, however, have worn less well, hamstrung by their performers' increasing tendency to concentrate on making each other laugh rather than extending such generosity to audiences and by their tiresome aspirations towards 'cinematic' status. The films also offer ample proof that the ability to perform comedy, even in character, is no guarantee of acting talent. Die-hard fans of the troupe will no doubt protest that the likes of The Strike and Mr. Jolly Lives Next Door are maligned by such a criticism, but I would trade in the whole batch of them for any of the better The Young Ones episodes. (I particularly treasure the scene where Rik writes to his bank manager: "Dear fascist bully-boy...") The Bullshitters, the Comic Strip parody of The Professionals, is emblematic in its underachievement. Its central gag, that macho male-bonding cop shows are fuelled by displaced homosexual desire, would have made for a sharp three-minute sketch, but as the only gag in the entire film it's overstretched through indiscipline until even the fetching sight of Keith Allen in skimpy black underpants becomes tedious.

There is, perhaps, a more forgiving perspective. What Channel 4 did with the Comic Strip, as it did across the whole range of television genres, was to allow innovation to flourish, warts and all. In this respect C4's 80s comedy output filled a space previously occupied primarily by BBC radio - giving time, space and money to relatively untried new talent. If they made mistakes, that was part of the learning process. This licence to fail wasn't confined to Comic Strip alumni. Channel 4 searched long and hard for a genuinely innovative sitcom, resulting in such minor successes as the two series of Tandoori Nights, which prefigured Goodness Gracious Me in its attempt to speak comically from within British Asian cultures, and such intriguing misfires as 1984's Dream Stuffing, a feminist and gay-friendly reworking of The Liver Birds. The only irredeemable dud was 1987's The Corner House, a scandalously patronising exercise in which a terribly nice gay man led a terribly stupid straight lad through the etiquette of post-feminist gender correctness. Displaying all the verve and brio of a men-against-sexism consciousness-raising weekend at a vegan retreat near Truro, it was utterly witless in both senses of the word. Happily, the quest for a sitcom hit that both suited C4's outlook and avoided the dangers of tokenism and preachiness was satisfied in 1989 with the arrival of Desmond's.

None of those sitcoms, however, was C4's most important comedy series of the decade. That honour belongs to Saturday Live, which ran for three series from 1985 to 1987 before shifting days to become Friday Night Live for a final run in 1988. The four series represent the culmination of Alternative Comedy in several ways. Saturday Live consolidated the Comic Strip gang's position as the standard-bearers of the new comedy generation. It took overtly political stand-up comedy, most (in)famously Ben Elton's Thatcher-bashing routines, out of the clubs and into brief broadcast prominence. It led to the subsequent explosion of comedy clubs across Britain, and it nurtured an entire seedbed of nascent talent, unleashing Harry Enfield, Jo Brand, Julian Clary, Josie Lawrence and Paul Merton on to an unsuspecting public.

Saturday Live modelled itself on the long-running US hit Saturday Night Live, borrowing the broad shape of the format wholesale. A compere comic would do his or her own routines and introduce other stand-ups and sketches as well as performances by currently successful pop acts. In keeping with the show's sense of itself as summarising an era, the musical interludes offered a piquantly 80s catalogue of sounds - Eurythmics, Curiosity Killed the Cat, the Pogues, Jimmy Somerville. The use of music and the well-orchestrated informality of the live studio atmosphere directed the show squarely at a young and youngish audience. The feel and ambience were, in effect, The Tube with jokes. Yet in its early days Saturday Live was also unembarrassed at placing itself in the tradition of television variety shows, albeit with the more retrograde elements excised in favour of a strenuous pursuit of hipness. Fairground rides whizzed round in the studio, candy floss was handed out to the audience and one edition was even hosted by Michael Barrymore. Yet as the series progressed, the gulf between old and new styles widened. The range of different hosts - Lenny Henry, Barrymore, Tracey Ullman, Pamela Stephenson among them - gave way to an increasing reliance on Ben Elton. It was Saturday Live, more than any other show, that ensured Elton's fame, and it was Elton's persona - a pugnacious anti-privatisation orator in a regrettably spangly jacket - that encapsulated the show in the public imagination.

Elton's style was pure aggression, a high-speed delivery of punchy gags, both observational and topical. "The ranty Cockney bit" is how he himself later described it, though he remained silent on how and why the Guildford-raised son of bourgeois academics felt able to appropriate a voice so palpably not his own. Appearing at the height of Thatcherism, Elton's articulate and pointed attacks on Tory excesses represented an undeniably important intervention. What marred his impact, however, was a tendency towards self-righteousness, and this became unavoidably problematic whenever he strayed into the territory of sexual politics. As with the paralysingly right-on authors of The Corner House, Elton's insistence on showing both how well he understood feminism and how awful other men were for not doing so led to some cringe-making moments. He even concluded one monologue by raising his arms into the air, preacher-style, and shouting "Sexism in comedy and everywhere else - let's try to get together and get rid of it." This was, after all, the era of Live Aid and Red Wedge, when callow sloganeering passed for proper politics.

If Elton is the chief iconic figure in the public memory of Saturday Live, imbuing the series with a leftist aura of establishment-baiting radicalism, the other key player in the show undermined that image pretty comprehensively. Mocking an ethnic minority and ridiculing the working classes were not, one might think, exactly consonant with the ethos of either Channel 4 or the series, yet Harry Enfield's Stavros and Loadsamoney characters proved unstoppably popular. I've never quite managed to work out what differentiated Enfield's impersonation of the Greek kebab-shop owner from ultra-Tory comic Jim Davidson's approximations of West Indian speech. Both depended on exactly the same trick - serving up fractured English as spoken by "funny foreigners" for the delight of white audiences. Enfield seems to have escaped the censure rightly heaped on Davidson for two reasons. First, the placing of the Stavros figure in the otherwise left-liberal atmosphere of Saturday Live gave it a flavour of fashionability unavailable to the solidly mainstream and virulently anti-Alternative Davidson. Second, working-class racism (whether from Davidson or football hooligans) is always a more comfortable target than its middle-class counterpart.

With the character of Loadsamoney, class issues took centre stage. 80s comedy was full of onslaughts on yuppies, but Loadsamoney was something else, a working-class yob suddenly enriched by the economic climate of the Thatcher years. This made him doubly disgusting, at least to Enfield and his adulatory audience, for here was a jumped-up oik who didn't know how to spend his money on the right things. In a documentary about Enfield's career, Loadsamoney was tellingly described by Oxbridge-educated television executive Geoffrey Perkins as a "working-class made-good absolute slob", a remark which pinpoints the shiver of elite distaste that permeates laughter at the character. In one sketch Loads describes going to the opera in terms of going to a football match (praising Placido Domingo as "the bollocks"), indicating the frightful consequences, for some, of letting money fall into such uncouth hands.

Clearly the politics of Saturday Live were contradictory. At one extreme, Elton's anti-Tory jibes; at the other, Enfield's deeply conservative reliance on ethnic and class stereotypes. That both co-existed may seem strange, yet it would be even stranger to expect ideological consistency from something as volatile and multi-faceted as a live variety show. Asking comedy to toe political lines is to crush the life out of it, to end up with something as cleansed and lifeless as The Corner House. Besides, Saturday Live was a broad comic church. Its stage accommodated both Angus Deayton's smirks and Lee Evans' quirks; it soared as high as Dame Edna Everage and sank as low as Hale and Pace. And what it did best of all was to open doors for new comic voices, widening the possibility of what could be done through comic means. The likes of Enfield could have succeeded at any time - all his tenuous association with Alternative Comedy did was to blind some to the nature of his material, to cloak the fact that he was, as he put it, merely Dick Emery with A-levels. Yet before Saturday Live, and before Channel 4, it's unimaginable that comics as uncompromising and uncompromised as Julian Clary or Jo Brand could have flourished on national television. Their incisive and scathing comedy of sexual politics showed that one of the most important legacies of Alternative Comedy is its expansion of what the term political comedy could encompass. It needn't be confined to topical swipes at particular governments, but could incorporate broader, deeper critiques of social assumptions. That's a message that continues to resonate in more recent C4 successes such as So Graham Norton and Smack the Pony, two of Saturday Live's many indirect heirs.

Saturday Live might have been flawed and fractured, but its influence was profound. A tape of it viewed today looks as hideously dated as its participants' haircuts and sounds hoarsely punchdrunk with its own arrogance, but it genuinely changed the cultural agenda. It freed a generation from Tom O'Connor and Duty Free. It cleared a space for comedy to be young and sexy. It asserted the right of comedians to challenge as well as to conform. It woke British comedy up and we're still enjoying the echoes of its alarm call.

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012