Tearing Down The House – A Love Affair With 'Not The Nine O'Clock News'

Using the title as a running gag opposing the statutory mid evening news on BBC1, 'Not The Nine o'clock News,' favored as funnier, topical viewing at the same time on BBC2. Chancing their livelihoods on the 17th of October 1979, the first show was broadcast, but not in the politically incorrect style that it was supposed to have first hit our screens. Sworn in by the legendary Basil Fawlty at the end of the final 'Fawlty Towers,' the cast of 'Not The Nine ..' appeared young, arrogant and opinionated, or at least, in very much the same manner as Python was heralded a decade before.

After more line up changes than a heavy metal band, the crew was finally set as Rowan Atkinson, Mel Smith, Pamela Stevenson (who replaced Victoria Wood who had turned the venture down and balancing out an all male cast,) and Griff Rhys Jones ( who, in turn, replaced Chris Langham who decided on other pursuits.)

After a shaky 'will they or won't they' start in regards to broadcasting fixtures, the first series seemed to go down a storm. Whilst taking on the tried and tested formula of 'open house to any comedy writer' theme from Python, the world of the written joke / sketch was at last, fair game. This alternative approach to comedy writing of an even more alternative style of television comedy brought great wealth of new, hidden talent to the fore. Names started to creep into view and themselves, became permanent fixtures in the BBC vaults of the written word. Unheard of scribblers were Clive Anderson and Richard Curtis (the latter itching to flex his muscles before embarking on the future years of successful 'Blackadder's.) The years rolled by eclipsing the team in a cocoon of comic genius that lived for three years, four series 'and two directors. Eventually giving us Billy Connolly's wife, Blackadder himself and one of the greatest British comedy double acts since Morecombe and Wise ….. Not bad for another low budget gag show …?

The art of the alternative comedy era was firstly, one of excitement and anti establishment. Hardly a ground breaking prospect when you think about it in today's terms, yet a show like 'Not The Nine o'clock News,' was floodlit in it's forward thinking, surrealism in the same light as Python in the Sixties and The Goons further back in the Fifties. Young comics were suddenly given the full park to charge around in. They could think, act and perform in every way or shape possible. Since making social comment a joke had been something only left to the domestic absurdities through situation comedy in 'Father, Dear Father,' or 'Bless This House,' now, all at once, the man in the street or the blind woman crossing the road was open to ventfulls of ridicule. Young talents could create comedy out of every day life, far from the comforting surroundings of behind the front door.

It wasn't just left to write silly songs about The Prince Of Wales or misrepresent serious television interviewers; no, past kings, queens and figures of religious authority were open to offers of fun also. From the same country that only a hundred years before, would have experienced heads literally rolling for such personal poking, suddenly, it was here, for all to laugh at, on mankind's biggest medium, ever.

If the breaking moment had been the first glimpse of David Frost in a suit applauding the failing works of MP's and the class system in his newly built brand of satire, then aspects of 'Not The Nine,' should have been seen as coming from several miles away. 'Alternative,' was the new 'little black number' and it gave good reason for shattering taboos, black comedy and anything observational. Ad libbing or 'improvisation,' as we professionally term it, was enough at one point, to put the look of fear in the Controller of Light Entertainment's eyes, so what all of a sudden made this approach to visual and play on words comedy so approving? It was the way forward. Radio was dying a death, and especially since the untimely death of Kenneth Horne, one of British radio's long serving and most loved shows; 'Round The Horne,' ceased to exist and Sellers had found Hollywood, it was time to drive on. Move over the wireless – the telly is coming through ….

Since shows like 'Not The Nine,' had come exploding onto our goggle boxes without warning, to the humble knotted hankie man, it was still teetering on the brink of 'mainstream' – a word that such young, innovative talents dread to hear. Rebellious to the bone, these young movements of comedy writers plowed their way into our minds and for this show in particular, the word 'cult' was one that was not just used for strange groups of Americans living in one large house in the middle of nowhere. Kids at school were no rein acting sketches in the playground like their fathers had mimicked voices from The Goons two decades before. Yet the latter was audible, and the other, visual, that same 'quick fire' approach to comedy brought to us speed for gags. It was a sure thing to rely on in those early days of British alternatives; if the audience didn't like it or at least, didn't get the joke, they wouldn't have time to think about it before being plunged into the next sketch. Young writers could test the water quickly to see what worked and what didn't without having the trauma of dying, literally, on stage.

The system had vastly changed since the days of 'nudge nudge, wink wink, say no more,' when Idle donned a tweed suit and sat in a middle class public house swigging an equally middle class pint. Through 'Not The Nine …' we are presented with street figures from our daily society. Mods, punks and social outcasts; for example, politicians, were on show for topical humor. The sketches more troublesome, and aggressive in their approach to observational comedy. It wasn't hard to find a sketch knocking the Catholic Church or ethnic minorities – puns that couldn't possibly be broadcast on today's screens for fear of starting a riot or a tube train being blown up. Yet, it appears to us now, that the world must have been a far more relaxed place if we have programs such as 'Not The Nine …' to reflect back on. We were, as a nation, stronger from post war in our daily society. Unlike today, when the sturdy back bone that was once post war Britain, has now crumbled away into the sea like West Pier in Brighton. We can't even laugh at ourselves anymore.

One thing that the team of 'Not The Nine …' did successfully conceive was the remarkable parodies of our own lives. Looking back, it is surprising how much the team attacked the church. Not just the Catholic, but the Christian and Anglican also. Parallels were focused on through current adverts from ITV and the advert of the time 'Made In Wales,' was given up for comical moments in sketches titled; 'Laid In Wales,' and 'Made From Whales,' Nothing was safe from the claws of the lesser spotted alternative comedians.

Even if Rowan Atkinson dressed up as a six foot gorilla being accompanied by Professor 'Mel Smith,' on a television interview about evolution wasn't enough to tickle your ribs, it still has to be noted as one of the turning points in British television comedy. Not for just catapulting certain careers into mainstream, but for unleashing the inner humor of us all. The formats were copied to the hilt and still can be seen in the highly successful and more recent, 'Little Britain,' or 'The Fast Show,' and even, 'A Bit Of Fry And Laurie,' from a few years before. Again, not to everyone's taste, but when a style of format is still trusted nearly thirty years on, it can't be knocked.

Although Monty Python had been groundbreaking for it's day from the old school ties of the young establishment rebels, it was 'Not The Nine …' that gave us working class humor. As surreal as Python was from a bunch of highly talented University students, 'Not The Nine …' was from a level that the rest of us could tune in to. It appeared to be 'cold humor,' and sometimes, bad taste, but always true to the life that it represented – our lives, and the world we lived in.

Comedy sketch shows had not been formatted before to add some sort of musical anecdote as the final scene and also to over run the credits. Perhaps the one video clips that we remember the most was the song entitled, 'I Love Truckin,' which controversially showed a flat hedgehog on the front of a truck's grill. Such songs recorded on external film, then run along side video tape from inside a studio included songs about the Royal family, the Church again and other political figures, all given double the amount of ridicule only to music. Albums were made to run in the shops at the same time as the program schedule. Three albums even made the top ten, an unusual achievement.

To the humble young and very impressionable viewer, 'Not The Nine o'clock News,' was effortless rude, impertinent and close to the mark. Our parents tutted loudly at it, much the same as their parents before had, at The Beatles. The world was changing and the days had died when the whole family, all three generations could sit and enjoy a comedy show – all inoffensive and above board. Now the ever widening valley in society was growing fast, breaking the generations in two. Kids could snigger at 'Not The Nine …' Not like Python, when your dad would join the mimicking with you …

Nowadays, humor has taken a turn once more. If we're not giggling at 'Little Britain,' we are sinking heavily into the deep waters of satirical panel game shows like 'QI,' and 'Mock The Week,' Suddenly to be 'up to the moment,' topical and simply poke fun at the news or the newspapers is about as creative as we can get.

Gone are the days of imagination in the comedy script writer's world. Writers can only sit down now with a bunch of today's new papers and think up 'jolly good gags,' from doing just that. Hardly a qualification for a BAFTA is it …? Cleverer with the spoken word rather than with the visual concept is the 'new in thing.'

It would be nice to go back to the days of comedy when we didn't have to our wit each other with quirky anecdotes of plays on words using historical figures. If they are still lost as to what it was all about and what the rise of British Comedy was like before the great fall, then I shall leave you with this …

A series of scenes were shot and featured across the four series of 'Not The Nine …' in which Rowan Atkinson is filmed, walking down a street, when after a short time, he spots the camera from the other side of the road . He side glances at it in a smug way and smiles. In a moment of being so transfixed on the camera focusing on him, he walks straight into a lamppost, (the clever bit here being that the lamppost doesn't come into view until the last second.)

On the second piece of filming, Atkinson spots the camera again, but this time notices the lamppost in front of him, he points, acknowledges the camera on his intelligent discovery then drops promptly down a man hole …..

The whole sequence lasted only a few seconds …..

'Not The Nine o'clock News' were;

Mel Smith – (now a highly acclaimed director.)

Griff Rhys Jones – (now gathers huge amounts of money to stop old buildings from being knocked down ..)

Pamela Stevenson – (Married to Billy Connolly. She is a Doctor in that stuff about psyche's and brains.)

Rowan Atkinson – (After a mile run of Blackadder's, whiles away his time by racing vintage cars at Goodwood at the same time campaigning to the government to keep comedians employed and material of any subject open as fair game. Here, here!)

First shown on BB2 between October 1979 and March 1982.

On DVD – 'The Best of … Vol One' (2003) BBC Shop at £ 12.99
'The Best of …. Vol Two (2004) BBC Shop £ 13.99

© Michelle Hatcher (sam1942 on ciao and dooyoo and other sites) 2006

Source by Michelle J Hatcher

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