In 1982, on the launch night of Channel 4, the first-ever Comic Strip Presents… was broadcast. Starring Peter Richardson, Ade Edmondson, Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, Five Go Mad in Dorset mercilessly parodied Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books, tickling and appalling in equal measure. Three decades later, they’re back in buttoned-up blue shirts and shorts, brandishing bicycles. But instead of ginger beer they’re glugging lashings of vodka. Oh yes, the Famous Five have grown up…
RadioTimes.com sneaked on set and found Richardson and co cowering from the rain and reminiscing about that golden summer thirty years ago…
Is Anne still a “proper little housewife”? Ade Edmondson: The only one who hasn’t changed is Dick. All the rest are… Jennifer Saunders: Strangely bizarre adults Ade: And I have to try and persuade them to be like their old selves. Peter Richardson: Anne’s had a hard life. She was going to be a perfect little housewife but things didn’t really work out for her. She has some issues. Jennifer: She has mental illness.
So who’s in rehab?
Dawn French: Julian and George. George got married a lot and took to the bottle. Jennifer: She’s an old suburban drunk. Peter: Julian has been involved in corruption abroad… Ade: African coups. Rather like Mark Thatcher.
Will there be lashings of ginger beer? Peter: Lashings of vodka. Jennifer: Vodka laced with ginger beer – it proves a potent combination.
Does George still have a soft spot for Timmy?
Dawn: Definitely. He’s now 38 years old and looking completely different. Ade: Much younger.
Do you get back on your bikes? Jennifer: The boys do. We girls go in a car because Dawn had a slight problem with her bicycle all those years ago in the first one. Tell them, Dawn. Dawn: For a start, I was on a boy’s bike and I’m quite short so that rendered me childless. For ever. And Pete made sure it didn’t have any brakes and then asked me to go down a hill. I had to jump off! Peter: It was a bit of jollity.
Has the constant deluge been causing problems? Peter: Yes, it’s been horrid. Shit. Dawn: Surely, the real Famous Five must have had some trouble with rain? Jennifer: No, it was all golden sunshine and endless summers in Enid Blyton-world. Peter: The summer we filmed the original. Actually, it wasn’t, was it? Jennifer. No, it was wet like this. But it felt just great. Peter: That’s the joy of 16mm film, isn’t it? You couldn’t see any of the rain the definition was so poor.
What do you remember most about filming Five Go Mad in Dorset? Peter: Sheer joy. It was the first time most of us had been properly in front of the camera. Ade: We chose Dorset because Pete lived down here. We all stayed in his mum’s house in bunk beds. Jennifer: We couldn’t believe that a) there was catering b) every day we were given expenses – £5 a day in a little brown envelope Dawn: Wages! Hurrah! Jennifer: We’d go straight to the pub, drink through the night and somehow stagger up for work the next day.
Why did you target The Famous Five? Ade: Yeah, why did you suddenly think about them in the early 80s? Dawn: Easy target because they’re already dead. Peter: With the whole “alternative”, non-sexist, non-racist comedy coming in – they were ripe for doing, for taking the piss out of. There were such awful, racist, anti-Semitic things in the book. The scripts virtually wrote themselves. Jennifer: I have to say I’ve never read a Famous Five book.
Was there much controversy when it was broadcast? Peter: The night before Enid Blyton’s lawyers turned up at Channel 4 and announced they were applying for an injunction because there had already been a lot of stuff in the press about how we’d turned these famous children’s characters into porn. Then the lawyers watched it and apparently laughed a lot, and decided they would only give us more publicity if they took us to court. Ade: I can believe they loved it because it was just a bit of fun.
Has the British comedy scene changed since then? Jennifer: TV comedy has certainly changed. We were allowed control of what we did and there wasn’t an executive culture then. Peter: Are we not in control of this? Jennifer: No Pete, we’re not. Now people go into comedy knowing they can make a living out of it. It’s a profession. Dawn: Whereas we never thought it would last. Jennifer: We didn’t dare think beyond each thing we did. Dawn: There were days I thought I’d have to return to teaching. Ade: There were days I thought I’d go into insurance.
Do you feel you’ve grown old – oops, older – more gracefully than your characters? Jennifer: I hope so. I hope I’m not quite as bonkers as she is. Dawn: Better mentally organised. Peter: I think we’re a lot happier than our characters. Obviously. Jennifer: Yes, they’re all deeply, deeply unhappy. Ade: And deeply, deeply flawed.
Why the sequel? Peter: The idea had always been hanging around. I thought it would be fun seeing how these prejudiced people with their priggish ideals about Empire and the rest had changed and tried to adapt to the modern world… Ade: Not very successfully. Peter: We were going to do it with Channel 4 because they broadcast the original 30 years ago. Dawn: But you put too many swearwords in, didn’t you Peter? Peter: Not enough for Channel 4.
And does the sequel end happily ever after? Jennifer: Endless misery. They continue on their miserable way. Ade: They do learn something… Peter: Yes, Julian’s only going to drink in moderation now. Dawn: Only a bottle of vodka a day.