It’s difficult to express adequately how distinctive and even dangerous the UK series The Young Ones felt when it landed on MTV in 1985. The angry, chaotic, hilarious series, which positively screamed opposition to conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, represented a timely injection of Monty Python-esque absurdism into the cultural landscape and was, in retrospect, a key purveyor of a scarcely diluted punk aesthetic to the mainstream audience. You know how your older brother was good enough to introduce you to The Clash? The Young Ones served a similar function for me in my middle school years.
What was immediately clear, to me at the age of 13 or so, was that American TV had nothing like this! There wasn’t even anything remotely like it on American TV. This show had actual punks in it! The characters were angry and profane and disgusting and seemed to pay normal bourgeois virtues no heed at all. The focus of the series was ostensibly the filthiest and least likeable set of college students in all of Britain, a premise that they carried over in thoroughly convincing fashion. Their squalid squat featured four enduring archetypes: the hippie Neil (Nigel Planer), the politically engaged poet Rik (played with emphatic genius by Rik Mayall), punk Vyvyan, and “Mike The-Cool-Person”—possibly only by comparison—who is a bit more of a ladies’ man.
Vyvyan, played with a pinched air of dunderheaded menace by Adrian Edmondson, wore torn denim and sported four painful-looking metal stars across his forehead. His key foil is Rik, a prat by anyone’s definition—in so doing the show stacked the deck in favor of the punk, even though he was himself a complete asshole. The issue of “likeability” never seemed to arise much because, indeed, none of the flatmates were in any way likable or ingratiating, evidence of courage on the part of the show’s writers, or perhaps simply conviction that they knew damn well what they wanted to express. The trio of Rik, Neil, and Vyvyan—Mike wasn’t very essential—nailed an anti-buddy comedy nirvana obscurely comparable to Kirk, Spock, and Bones.
The show frequently featured copious amounts of spurting blood and vomit, explosions, and frequent references to almost unmentionable squalor and filth, a refreshing change of pace from, say, “Silver Spoons,” an American sitcom of the same vintage. The anarchic absurdity called for many unmotivated cutaways to puppets who would offer a punchline or some other sort of mordant commentary. One of the best such characters was “Special Patrol Group,” the flat’s resident hamster. (Years later a friend of mine would name his cat SPG in homage.)
But best of all were the bands! Motörhead! The Damned! Madness! Dexys Midnight Runners! Who the hell were these maniacs!? How the hell did they find their way onto a prime-time sitcom? The juxtaposition of a raging rendition of “Ace of Spades” with a near-genius piece of sketch writing between Neil and Rik comes very close to my Platonic ideal of television entertainment:
‘The Story of The Young Ones’ (making-of documentary):
Bonus clip: Nigel Planer, in character as Neil sings his hit cover version of Traffic’s “Hole in my Shoe” (it reached #2 on the UK charts):
Previously on Dangerous Minds:
The Clash jamming with The Damned in 1979