Not The Nine O’Clock News (BBC2, 1979-1982)
This is the comedy sketch show that caused a sensation in the early-80s and really helped to pave the way for the alternative comedy era. But just like with most successes, the background of how it all came together is rather interesting because it almost didn’t get on the TV at all. Not The Nine O’Clock News was originally planned to launch on BBC2 in April 1979, and was designed to be a satirical look back at the week’s news in a style that hadn’t been done on TV for a while at that point.
The show was planned to replace Fawlty Towers in the schedule, and the first edition was going to begin with a sketch featuring John Cleese in character as Basil Fawlty explaining to someone at the BBC that there wasn’t an episode planned for that week, so you would have to watch this new show instead. The show featured sketches performed by up-and-coming talent including Rowan Atkinson.
But it was felt that the mix wasn’t really right, and as there was a General Election coming, the political content of some of the sketches was felt to be unsuitable, it was decided not to air the show at rather short notice and have a rethink. This turned out to be a blessing, because when Not The Nine O’Clock News finally did launch six months later then planned in October 1979, it was a much better all-round package.
Rowan Atkinson stayed on, and was joined by the likes of Mel Smith, Griff Rhys Jones, and in an aim to have a female regular in the cast, Pamela Stephenson. The show would be topical, with some sketches being recorded as close to transmission as possible, and also fast-paced, with an open door policy for aspiring writers to contribute their work alongside the cast.
There were no regular characters as such, but there were plenty of memorable parodies with pop stars, TV presenters, and news reports all being targeted, along with satirical comment which all combined to create a big success. There were 27 episodes in four series of Not The Nine O’Clock News that covered a huge amount of ground and were accompanied by a tour, along with an album, a book, an American spin-off series, a documentary, and some really rather bizarre Radio Times descriptions.
I didn’t see the show myself until some repeat runs in the mid-90s, but these consisted of compilations, and the highlights of these have been released on DVD, but there are currently no plans to release the show in full. I did like what I saw, and like most people, I’ll never be able to think of the likes of hedgehogs or toilets in the same way again. After the show ended in 1982, Smith and Jones remained together for ten further series of quirky sketch comedy, and Atkinson has starred in acclaimed sitcoms including Blackadder.