This Sunday I appear on Radio 4’s The Reunion with Sue MacGregor and four of the original creators of The Young Ones, the iconoclastic BBC comedy in which I played morose hippy Neil nearly 40 years ago. A whole lifetime, really.
One of the first questions we were asked – one that’s frequently asked – was: “Do you think The Young Ones, and the alternative comedy of the early 80s, changed comedy for ever?”
Rather than just reply with a monosyllabic “No”, as Alexei Sayle, aka landlord Jerzei Balowski, and I did at the recording, I’d like to respond here by quoting a few lines from a play.
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The scene is as follows. Two guys decide to make the long journey to hell to meet the great dramatists of the past. They have rather a lot of luggage with them. One says to the other: “How can we get all the way to hell with all this luggage?” And his companion replies: “I know! Let’s ask someone who’s on the way there anyway if they’ll take it for us.”
At that moment, a corpse is being carried by. They stop the pall-bearers and ask: “You, sirs! Would you take our bags with you since you’re going that way?”
The corpse sits up and speaks. “All right,” he says, “but it’ll cost you two quid.”
“What? That’s way too much.”
“Well, out of my way then, losers!”
“Wait, wait! I’m sure we can come to some arrangement. One and a half?”
“Look, I am dead, you know. If I was alive, I might have been able to do it for that, but…” The corpse then lies down again and is carried out.
The scene could have come from The Young Ones, but it was actually written more than 2,000 years ago, by Aristophanes. Comedy is comedy, and always was. I prefer to see our 12 half-hours of telly as being part of a continuum of laughter, rather than some one-off sociopolitical event that had more to do with the concerns of TV executives or commentators.
The story goes that the BBC only agreed to put our programme on because they were worried that Channel 4 was about to start up and had booked this really radical group of shocking new comedians – The Comic Strip – otherwise known as… well, us, actually.
Since the 1980s, I’ve often been asked to go on those “100 best comedy moments” clip shows where they have talking heads in front of a green screen intercut with archive footage. In fact, I’ve done so many of them that I sometimes feel they could just cut and paste my last interview into the new format. I’ve even offered to wear the same shirt to make the editing easier.
But The Reunion is different. You sit around a table with people you may not have seen for years and you talk with Sue MacGregor for a couple of hours, her steady voice expertly alternating between calming and probing. She’s done her research and after lulling you into a comforting sense of warm vanity, she’ll then gently lob a little hand grenade among you with a question like, “So, how much of it did you write, Lise?” (Lise Mayer was one of the writers of the series), or “So, Alexei, would you consider yourself a Bolshevik?”
One truism I noticed is how different people remember things differently. For instance, I recalled an afternoon rehearsal when Ben Elton (another of the writers) had to go to another room and completely rewrite the dialogue of a scene in a laundromat. He returned 20 minutes later with an entirely new set of jokes, and I remember general amazement at his speed and wit. Lise, on the other hand, had no memory of Ben ever attending rehearsals. Adrian Edmondson, who played Vyvyan, wasn’t there to adjudicate, but I’m seeing him next week – we’re writing a play together – so I’ll ask him. And will no doubt get a different story again.
It was very nice was to be joined by Chris Ryan, the guy who played Mike in the series. At last he had the opportunity to discuss what a tough gig that first series of The Young Ones was for him. We were a bunch of comedians who had been working together for years, our group dynamic firmly established; he was an experienced stage actor who suddenly had to hold his own among us. It was a job he did excellently.
My feeling is that if we’d had another crazy character from our troupe, the whole thing might well have become boundaryless. As it was, we had Chris holding it together.
It’s interesting how, as much as one may feel one has developed and turned into the wise and rounded person that one obviously is today, within seconds of getting back with the gang, the original group dynamic kicks in and we are bickering children once more – with the same chips, the same pecking orders and the same chemistry as almost 40 years ago.
Alexei, with whom I’m now good friends, became intimidating once more; Chris, who has enjoyed a distinguished acting career, became once more shy and self-deprecating; Lise, nowadays a martial arts aficionado, became once again the timid, conscientious student.
And then there was Steve Frost – forgive me for not mentioning him before now – who back then used to constantly interject with puns, jokes and manic laughter. Actually, he hadn’t changed all that much to tell the truth – although, to be fair, it was all new material. As for me, I’m not sure how I came across. I would imagine they will all have come away saying, “Same old Nige”, if they said anything at all. But I don’t feel “same old”. Well, old maybe, but not same.
Nigel Planer starred as Neil in the 1980s comedy The Young Ones. The Reunion airs on Sunday 29th April at 11.15am on Radio 4