Classic Comedy Year: 1979

Chris Hallam
Chris Hallam
July 2012

1979. The very year evokes images of strikes, political turmoil and er, Smashing Pumpkins singles. Well, for some anyway. Yet the last year of the Seventies was also possibly the finest twelve months for British comedy that there has ever been. Chris Hallam takes a look back...

Confession time: I have no memory of 1979 whatsoever. Yet even I can see that an astonishing range of enduring comedic triumphs came to fruition in that one year. It probably didn't seem like it at the time, but 1979 was the greatest year for British comedy on record. Why?

The greatest British comedy film ever made was produced

Monty Python's Life Of Brian. Image credit: Hand Made Films.Malcolm Muggeridge certainly knew what he thought: "It's such a tenth rate film, it would not disturb anyone's faith," he argued during the televised debate with Pythons Michael Palin and John Cleese. Adding to the Bishop of Southwark's view that the film was essentially "undergraduate humour," Muggeridge, a celebrated journalist and author argued: "I don't think that in the eyes of posterity it will hold a very distinguished place."

How wrong he was. At the time, and as the recent comedy drama Holy Flying Circus reminded us, the critical reception to Monty Python's Life Of Brian was almost completely drowned out by the ensuing religious controversy over its content. In the thirty three years since, however, its reputation has continued to climb and climb to the point where it's now hard to think of a British comedy film that is held in higher regard.

Even the most ardent Python fans would have to concede that most of the team's output was decidedly patchy. Yet in Tunisia, where the team reunited for a project that Eric Idle had originally coined as Jesus Christ: Lust For Glory, everything seemed to go right.

From Terry Jones' shrill performance as Brian's mother, ("Sex, sex, sex. That's all you think about") to Cleese's star turn in the stoning scene ("Are there any women here today?"), and Palin's Pontius Pilate ("welease Woderick!") or cured leper, the film contains classic scene after classic scene almost from the very start to its celebrated musical finish.

And as the famous "What have the Romans ever done for us?" scene demonstrates, it's as much about parodying the narrow mindedness of the self righteous as it is about the tenets of organised religion.

The ageing Muggeridge privately admitted he had missed the beginning of the film's screening, thus explaining partly his failure to understand that the film isn't about Jesus (who briefly appears in the film), but by a luckless figure mistakenly elevated in his wake.

In your author's opinion, no other British comedy film has matched Life Of Brian - before or since.

The second series of one of the greatest ever TV sitcoms was broadcast

Fawlty Towers. Image shows from L to R: Basil Fawlty (John Cleese), Polly (Connie Booth), Manuel (Andrew Sachs). Image credit: British Broadcasting Corporation.Imagine being John Cleese at the end of the Seventies. He was undoubtedly at the peak of his creative powers, appearing in and co-writing Brian while also co-writing and starring in the second series of his sitcom Fawlty Towers.

In some ways, it's a miracle the second series worked as well as it did. The first series in 1975, which introduced the world to Basil, Manuel, Sybil and Polly, plus celebrated episodes including The Hotel Inspector and The Germans, had undoubtedly been a triumph. But four years had passed and Cleese's marriage to co-writer and "Polly" actress Connie Booth had ended.

If anything, however, the new creative tension between Cleese and Booth seems to have helped. The second series - including appearances by a very deaf old lady (Joan Sanderson), a very rude American, a kipper, a corpse and famously Basil the Rat - is every bit as good as the first (indeed, only a true Fawlty fan would be able to spot any difference between each). Cleese, like Stephen Merchant and Ricky Gervais with The Office over twenty years later, showed tremendous restraint in ending the show after just twelve episodes, perhaps ensuring its immortality in the process.

One of the greatest topical TV comedies launched

Not The Nine O'Clock News. Image shows from L to R: Griff Rhys Jones, Rowan Atkinson, Pamela Stephenson, Mel Smith. "It appalled me. I find it deeply offensive that, in what is still, after all, basically a Python-worshipping country, fourteen-year-old children can get to see this film... this 'Jesus Christ' is quite clearly a lampoon of the comic messiah himself, Our Lord John Cleese. I mean, look, even the initials are the same!" - Alexander Walker, as played by Mel Smith in Not The Nine O'Clock News.

Great as Cleese and the other Pythons were, they were hardly the Next Big Thing in 1979, having first hit screens a full decade before. But it would be a brave quartet indeed who escaped their shadow. Happily, with Not The Nine O'Clock News, Mel Smith, Pamela Stephenson, Rowan Atkinson, and in that first series Chris Langham - later Griff Rhys Jones - did just that.

In a sense though, this isn't true. For one thing, the series' success was not just down to them but to now legendary producer John Lloyd and an incredible team of writers including Richard Curtis, David Renwick, Nigel Planer, Rory McGrath and Andy Hamilton.

It's also not true that the show escaped Python's shadow. The series was to be introduced by Basil Fawlty himself as "a tatty revue", beginning in the slot vacated by Fawlty Towers the previous week. However last minute scheduling changes saw the sketch eventually broadcast mid-run some 4 months later - albeit, due to its own delay, a mere 5 days after the final Fawlty Towers episode premiered. Further, the writers apparently strove to end every sketch with a punch line simply because Python a few years earlier had always defiantly done the opposite. And as noted above, one of their most famous sketches directly parodied the controversy over Life Of Brian.

Yet it would be wrong to deny NTNOCN's status as a brilliantly funny show in its own right. Lasting until 1983, it ultimately launched the careers of many of the key figures of the comedy scene of the next few decades.

A new form of comedy was born

The Comedy Store. May 1979 was a historic month. Not only did Margaret Thatcher enter Downing Street, but the London Comedy Store opened its doors for the first time with one Alexei Sayle as its first MC.

Bold claims have been made about the Comedy Store launching the 'alternative comedy' scene. Predictably this does not quite tell the whole story: as we have seen, Not The Nine O'Clock News had been due to launch more than a month previously, and as with the separate emergence of Beyond The Fringe and the televised That Was The Week That Was in the satire boom of the 1960s, the two events were not inextricably related.

What's not in doubt, however, is that the Comedy Store was to provide THE major venue for numerous acts on the alternative comedy circuit in the years to come.

A lot happened in that comedy scene during an incredibly a short period. Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders had met in 1978 whilst Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie would remain strangers to each other at Cambridge until Emma Thompson introduced them in 1980. Meanwhile The Young Ones and The Comic Strip didn't reach the nation's TV screens until 1981.

But 1979 has a stronger claim to having seen the launch of alternative comedy than any other year.

Another classic sitcom started (sort of)

Yes Minister. Image shows from L to R: Bernard Woolley (Derek Fowlds), Sir Humphrey Appleby (Nigel Hawthorne), James Hacker (Paul Eddington). Image credit: British Broadcasting Corporation.Okay, I'm cheating here. Yes Minister wasn't actually broadcast until early 1980. But the first episode was recorded (as a pilot) in February 1979, and a further full series would have followed soon after had the BBC not been cautious of the programme's overtly political nature, in that year of a hotly-contested General Election and following the unrest of the Winter of Discontent (largely the same factors, incidentally, that saw Not The Nine O'Clock News's debut pulled) - and so it was delayed. Yet it was one of the best sitcoms of all time, so it seems foolish not to include it.

That a sitcom about the intricacies of Whitehall ever got made at all, represents something of a triumph. In his book Comedy Rules, the sitcom's co-writer Jonathan Lynn relates how he had to intervene forcefully to prevent the series being rewritten by a director hired from On The Buses: "Paul (Eddington) was now playing a new, silly and "bad" sitcom scene, in which he was fussing around choosing new fabric for his office sofa."

Only by sticking to his guns and after being backed up by actors Paul Eddington and Nigel Hawthorne (Sir Humphrey), did the show we now celebrate survive. Yes Minister and its sequel Yes, Prime Minister ran until 1988, was recently revived for the stage, and the format will reach new television audiences later this year with a revival for GOLD. How's that for longevity?

Deliberately non-partisan - Eddington's well meaning but malleable minister Jim Hacker, was never pigeon-holed as either Labour or Conservative - it is probably one of the cleverest sitcoms there has ever been.

A few other things happened

First Edition of Viz. 1979. The weird thing about 1979 is not so much that there was so much great comedy around but that it sprang from so many different and diverse sources. We have seen that a lot came from the Monty Python and alternative comedy stables. But whilst certainly satirical, Yes Minister does not fit into either camp.

Comedy was springing up everywhere. In Newcastle, Chris Donald began selling copies of a home-made comic in pubs - Viz (pictured). An adult parody of kids' comics and the tabloid press, it would go national in 1985 and was a phenomenon by the end of the Eighties.

Meanwhile, overworked author Douglas Adams produced the first novelisation of his acclaimed radio sci-fi comedy, The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, which itself had only broadcast the previous year. It is still one of the funniest books ever written.

Elsewhere, Peter Cook delivered a hilarious parody of an incredibly biased and elderly judge at The Secret Policeman's Ball, cleverly satirising the end of a recent murder trial of former Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe. Saturday children's show Tiswas was also at its anarchic peak, featuring appearances from rising star Lenny Henry. Minder, originally conceived more as a vehicle for Sweeney star Dennis Waterman than as a launch pad for George Cole's Arthur Daley, also began - as did Hywel Bennett's sitcom Shelley. On BBC2, Ripping Yarns enjoyed its final series.

And then there was some crap

Richard Beckinsale. There's no point pretending everything 'comedy' in 1979 was great. A strong case could actually be made for saying it was an awful comedy year:

On a genuinely tragic note, the comedy actor and star of The Lovers, Porridge and Rising Damp, Richard Beckinsale (pictured) died in March of a heart attack at the ridiculously young age of 31. It is tantalising to imagine what sort of career the actor, who would now be in his sixties, might have gone onto enjoy.

It is also easy to dismiss any comedy that has not aged well: To The Manor Born started in 1979, and does not in my view warrant true comedy great status. Yet it certainly wasn't awful.

Morcambe & Wise were showing signs of having passed their peak, having defected from the BBC to Thames in 1978. OK, they only produced one single special in 1979 so we're pulling threads in here to make the point, but the duo would never again scale the heights of their BBC success.

Similarly, impressionist Mike Yarwood, a huge star throughout the Seventies (much of his output is almost unwatchable now, alas), was already showing signs of trouble. Having made his name impersonating the likes of Ted Heath, Harold Wilson and Denis Healey, Yarwood later claimed he never adjusted to the first woman Prime Minister's succession to the premiership. His one attempt at playing her in drag fell flat. In time Faith Brown, Janet Brown (not related) and Steve Nallon would all make names for themselves impersonating the Iron Lady, who was undoubtedly the dominant figure on the political scene long into the Nineties, and whose shadow is still cast today. In truth, Yarwood's alcoholism was probably a bigger factor in his fall: both Phil Cool and Rory Bremner, after all, emerged as leading impressionists during the Eighties without ever impersonating Thatcher.

Make no mistake though. There was lots of rubbish on in 1979. ITV double-act Cannon and Ball enjoyed their first solo series, whilst the awful night-school sitcom Mind Your Language continued to thrive on absurd national stereotypes. Elsewhere, British film production reached an all-time low.

So to conclude...

1979 may have seen the launch of alternative comedy, but for most people the likes of Terry & June and George & Mildred held sway. But the times were changing alright. By the end of the next decade, alternative comedy had become so prominent that it was practically the mainstream, while more traditional variety acts were increasingly forced into quiz shows or off TV screens entirely.

But let's not worry about that now. Life Of Brian, Fawlty Towers, Not The Nine O'Clock News and Yes Minister. 1979: has there ever been a better year for British comedy?

 
Raindance launches web pilot

Raindance launches web pilot

Raindance has announces the return of its Web Fest with the launch of web series pilot competition. Read

Laughing Horse competition

Laughing Horse competition

Entries are now open for the Laughing Horse New Act of the Year 2014 stand-up contest. Have a go? Read

Noel Fielding interview

Noel Fielding interview

Noel Fielding talks about how he's put story at the heart of Series 2 of his Luxury Comedy sketch show. Read

Still Game to return to TV?

Still Game to return to TV?

Still Game, the hit Scottish sitcom starring Greg Hemphill and Ford Kiernan, is set to return to TV. Read

Steve Coogan interview

Steve Coogan interview

Steve Coogan's shows are back on TV. He talks about Alan Partridge, Tommy Saxondale, The Trip and more. Read

Abandoman interview

Abandoman interview

Freestyle hip-hop duo Abandoman are just about the most impossible-to-follow act you've ever seen. Read

E4 orders Bad Robots

E4 orders Bad Robots

E4 has ordered Bad Robots, a hidden camera show involving electronic machines pranking the public. Read

Dora Bryan - RIP

Dora Bryan - RIP

Prolific actress Dora Bryan, who featured in comedies like Last Of The Summer Wine, has died. Read

Steve Coogan Outtakes

Steve Coogan Outtakes

Steve Coogan has been recording some voiceovers. Here's some of the funny ones which got cut out. Watch

More Brittas Empire?

More Brittas Empire?

Chris Barrie has expressed an interest in starring in a revival of the hit 1990s BBC sitcom The Brittas Empire. Read

COFILMIC submissions open

COFILMIC submissions open

The annual COFILMIC Film Festival has opened submissions for its 2014 competition. Read

Some Girls Series 3 filming

Some Girls Series 3 filming

Filming has started on Series 3 of BBC Three sitcom Some Girls. Read

Name That Tune Bill Bailey

Name That Tune Bill Bailey

Bill Bailey has hosted a pilot episode of a revival of the classic TV quiz show format Name That Tune. Read

Give Out Girls switches

Give Out Girls switches

Give Out Girls, the Sky Living sitcom set around a group of promo girls, is switching to Comedy Central. Read

Female directors funding

Female directors funding

iShorts+: Funny Girls is a new funding programme with 50,000 pounds to invest in female filmmakers. Read

Carly Smallman blog

Carly Smallman blog

Carly Smallman reveals how, after appearing on TV, she received lots of abuse about how she looks. Read

Shaun The Sheep wins

Shaun The Sheep wins

Shaun The Sheep has been named via a poll as the nation's most popular BBC children's character. Read

Hitchhikers Hacking Guide

Hitchhikers Hacking Guide

Anti-virus firm Norton have released a guide to hacking in the style of The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy. Read

Terry Mynott interview

Terry Mynott interview

Terry Mynott talks about the return of the 'sleeper hit' sitcom The Mimic, and how to do impressions. Read

People Just Do Nothing

People Just Do Nothing

An interview with MC Grindah and DJ Beats, the characters at the centre of BBC3's People Just Do Nothing. Read

Hayley Ellis blog

Hayley Ellis blog

Hayley Ellis provides this handy guide on how to deal with other people on social networking websites. Read

Top 10 from Monty Python

Top 10 from Monty Python

A public poll has revealed the nation's top ten favourite Monty Python sketches. Results here. Read

Nina Conti's BBC2 show

Nina Conti's BBC2 show

Ventriloquist Nina Conti is working on a new show for BBC Two called Nina Conti's Va-Va-Riety Show. Read

Rhod Gilbert's new job

Rhod Gilbert's new job

Rhod Gilbert has been named as the new permanent host of panel show Never Mind The Buzzcocks. Read

Ben Miller interview

Ben Miller interview

Ben Miller speaks about how he went from uni to becoming one of the biggest names in UK comedy. Read

Dead Ringers is back!

Dead Ringers is back!

Exciting news: Radio 4 is reviving its hit impressions show Dead Ringers after a break of seven years. Read

E4 to screen Almost Royal

E4 to screen Almost Royal

E4 is to show Almost Royal, the BBC America comedy series in which two actors pretend to be royalty. Read

Mrs Brown's Boys chat show?

Mrs Brown's Boys chat show?

The BBC is reportedly looking into the possibility of a chat show hosted by Brendan O'Carroll as Mrs Brown. Read

Horrible Histories 6?

Horrible Histories 6?

Childrens' sketch series Horrible Histories may return to screens for a 6th series. Perhaps. Hopefully. Read

Katie Mulgrew blog

Katie Mulgrew blog

Katie Mulgrew explains why she couldn't think of anything worse than going out with a comedian. Read

Stephen Merchant on the USA

Stephen Merchant on the USA

It's Independence Day in America. Here is Stephen Merchant's pro-UK message to the country. Watch

I Live With Models pilot

I Live With Models pilot

Comedy Central is piloting a sitcom which focuses on a chubby hand model living with hot flatmates. Read

Fringe Spotlight: TV Stars

Fringe Spotlight: TV Stars

A look at ten of the best-known acts who will be performing at the 2014 Edinburgh Festival this August. Read

Fringe Visitor Guide

Fringe Visitor Guide

A guide to visiting the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. How to get there, where to stay, what to see... Read

Danny Baker's comedy drama

Danny Baker's comedy drama

The BBC is reportedly working on Cradle To Grave, an eight-part comedy drama created by Danny Baker. Read

Crackanory 2 line-up

Crackanory 2 line-up

David Mitchell is amongst the stars reading stories for Series 2 of Crackanory. The full list here: Read

You, Me & Them again

You, Me & Them again

You, Me & Them, the GOLD sitcom starring Anthony Head and Eve Myles, has been given a 2nd series. Read

Mid Morning Matters 2

Mid Morning Matters 2

The second series of Alan Partridge's Mid Morning Matters is now being filmed, plus a 'hard-hitting special'. Read

New Fighting Talk team

New Fighting Talk team

Josh Widdicombe and Georgie Thompson have been named as the new hosts of Fighting Talk. Read

Monty Python as Paper People

Monty Python as Paper People

Make models of Monty Python stars John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin. Read

No Pressure To Be Funny

No Pressure To Be Funny

Aisling Bea, Liam Mullone, Bob Mills and former MP Tom Levitt join the topical panel show podcast. Listen

Yonderland - Series 2

Yonderland - Series 2

Sky1's hit fantasy comedy series Yonderland - from the Horrible Histories gang - is to return next year. Read

Zawe Ashton stars in Cut

Zawe Ashton stars in Cut

Fresh Meat star Zawe Ashton leads the cast for Cut, the new comedy drama series from Channel 4. Read

CBBC goes to Scream Street

CBBC goes to Scream Street

CBBC has ordered 52 episodes of stop-motion animated series Scream Street, based on the books. Read

David Hasselhoff's TV show

David Hasselhoff's TV show

Channel Dave is creating Hoff the Record. David Hasselhoff plays a fictionalised version of himself. Read