Justin Quirk on The Young Ones legacy 25 years on

It revolutionised sitcoms and forced an entire generation of comedians into retirement, but The Young Ones' influence didn't last long, says Justin Quirk

"Yes, we've got a video!"

"A package from the Transvaal ... how strange!"

"Bad for society ... when the kids start to get into it!"

It'll be difficult for readers under the age of 30 to believe, but if you were watching TV between 1982 and 1984, these phrases are like "Garlic bread!", "I'm Rick James, bitch!" and Andy Pipkin's "Yeah, I know" all rolled into one. They helped cement The Young Ones' reputation as the high watermark of 1980s comedy. This month marks 25 years since the airing of the first episode, Demolition, and sees the rerelease of all 12 shows on DVD. In a fittingly iconoclastic gesture, that episode ended with the entire cast being wiped out in a plane crash; but then logic and continuity were never the show's strong points. Rather, it was their disregard for convention that people found most endearing about The Young Ones, and this stemmed largely from producer Paul Jackson, who cobbled together the best new acts appearing at The Comedy Store, then London's pivotal alternative comedy venue. Bar the 1980 BBC2 showcase Boom Boom ... Out Go The Lights, the cast and crew had virtually no TV experience, which Jackson turned to his advantage.

"I told them 'don't worry about budgets or technical constraints. Just write what's in your imagination and if we can't film it I'll tell you.'"

So, it was out with jokes about mother-in-laws and black people, and in with atomic weapons, talking Glaswegian hamsters and Motorhead playing in the front room. The anarchic mixture of violence, explosions, authority-bating and alternative music proved a hit, but not with the target audience. The intended 18 to 30s were slow on the uptake, while 10 to 14 year olds instantly warmed to a show where a hippy had nails driven into his skull and a ginger punk drove "a yellow Ford Anglia with flames up the sides". The Evening Standard's TV critic Ray Connelly summed up the cultural sea change when he wrote: "There's something going on in my house. My kids are sneaking off to watch this show that I don't get but they find hilarious."

Crucially, these were the first generation of technologically-literate children with access to VCRs. By the show's second series 18 months later, obsessive taping, lending and replaying of the first six episodes had swelled their popularity. The short-term impact was seismic: with the Comic Strip films running concurrently on Channel 4, the comedians showcased in The Young Ones spread across sketch shows, films and rival channels like a rash. As well as the original cast, French & Saunders, Keith Allen, Hale & Pace, Robbie Coltrane, Tony Robinson, Fry & Laurie, Alexei Sayle, Ben Elton and Smith & Jones all cropped up in the show. And the phones of an entire generation of older, less-PC comics suddenly stopped ringing.

In truth, the show hasn't aged brilliantly. The first series feels particularly unstructured, with the surreal interludes dragging on. There is also the problem for any programme of this age that the washed-out film stock and studio sets instantly date it. The lightweight cameras and lack of laughter track that gave The Office its documentary feel belong to the modern age. The Young Ones came at the tail end of the pre-digital period when technical constraints - namely, two massive fixed cameras and a live audience - made televisual comedy closer to the theatre. The declamatory speeches and pauses for laughter make even a show as energetic as this seem rather slow.

There is also the uncomfortable truth that for a programme so fondly remembered as revolutionary, it changed nothing in the long run. Most of the cast themselves became cosily ensconced in the establishment with unseemly haste. Alexei Sayle is the only member who pretty much stuck to his principles, and pinpoints the first episode of series two - when Emma Thompson and Fry & Laurie appeared as Scumbag College's University Challenge rivals - as an inkling of the future. "These people were the enemy and everyone else was like 'Stephen's looovely '," he recalls, grumpily. "I'd have been out there cutting their brake cables."

Indeed, for all its anarchy and iconoclasm, the show was still a comfortably white, middle-class proposition that dealt with the familiar baby-boomer touchstones of university life and liberal politics. With hindsight, the early series of Only Fools And Horses from the same year - with their portrayal of an otherwise unseen, hand-to-mouth Thatcherite London - now looks like the more radical proposition.

Glance around the current entertainment landscape and light entertainment is once again predicated on talent shows and ballroom dancing, just like Gary Bushell always said it should be. Jimmy Carr cracks gags about Gypsies and gets endless Channel 4 gigs. Ricky Gervais tours the country with a routine that even Kelvin MacKenzie damned as "both unfunny and offensive ... basically Jim Davidson from two decades ago." The Young Ones may have played a crucial role in the development of a generation of comedians and had plenty of flashes of genius, but ultimately it won the battle and lost the war. If you watched it first time around, remember it fondly. Just don't expect any genuine young ones to find it as funny as you.

· The Young Ones: 25th Anniversary Complete Series Box Set is out on Monday


Justin Quirk

The GuardianTramp

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