Comedy Rewind

Get on top of Girls On Top

Girls On Top. Image shows from L to R: Amanda Ripley (Dawn French), Lady Chloe Carlton (Joan Greenwood), Candice Valentine (Tracey Ullman), Shelley DuPont (Ruby Wax), Jennifer Marsh (Jennifer Saunders). Copyright: Central Independent Television

First, there was Candice (Tracey Ullman): blonde, Cockney, superficially attractive but conceited, manipulative and self-obsessed. Next was Amanda (Dawn French), an anarchist and feminist who believes comedy demeans women and is prone to spouting slogans like "Women stand erect, lift up your breasts and roar!". Amanda is dogged by Jennifer (Jennifer Saunders), a docile, child-like friend she has known since the Brownies. Then there was Shelley DuPont (Ruby Wax), a brash, spoilt American desperate to find work as an actress.

These were the Girls On Top, sharing the top floor of a flat in Kensington and Chelsea owned by one final "girl", their landlady, the ageing and eccentric Lady Chloe Carlton (played by acting veteran Joan Greenwood).

This new sitcom, a Central TV production, debuted on ITV on Wednesday 23rd October 1985. With its talented young cast and lively, argumentative flat-share atmosphere, the show was widely seen as an "all-female version of The Young Ones". As we shall see, there were plenty of similarities between the two shows, one being that, like The Young Ones' famously brief twelve episode run, Girls On Top ended after just two series totalling 13 episodes.

But, in other ways, it was not like The Young Ones at all. While the names Rik, Neil, Vyvyan and Mike seem destined now to echo forever throughout the annals of comedy eternity, the names Candice, Amanda, Jennifer, Shelley and Chloe don't mean anything to anyone. Indeed, it's very possible that many reading this will be hearing about the show for the first time. It generated little of the excitement or outrage of The Young Ones and has enjoyed none of the enduring cultural impact that its masculine predecessor has. In Eighties music terms, if The Young Ones was Spandau Ballet or Duran Duran, Girls On Top was only ever Five Star.

Yet it was popular in its day, notching up 16 million viewers and bringing French & Saunders to a mass audience for the first time. And, believe it not, collectively the cast of Girls On Top went on to scale even greater heights than the Scumbag College boys. The show captures a unique moment in comedy history. For that reason alone, we would argue it is well worth exploring.

Girls On Top. Image shows left to right: Jennifer Marsh (Jennifer Saunders), Lady Chloe Carlton (Joan Greenwood), Candice Valentine (Tracey Ullman), Shelley DuPont (Ruby Wax), Amanda Ripley (Dawn French)

Girls On Top was written by Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders and Ruby Wax in Wax's tiny flat in Holland Park. Dawn and Jennifer had first met while studying drama in the late Seventies. Neither took to the other at first. Dawn initially had few serious ambitions beyond the perfectly commendable goal of becoming a drama teacher, something she achieved. Jennifer was annoyed by Dawn's bubbly enthusiasm for the course. In contrast, Jennifer to Dawn seemed cool, snobby and aloof. Despite this, during their third year in 1979, out of necessity, the two ended up together as part of a flat share in Steele's Road.

"I was definitely under-joyed by the prospect of that", Dawn wrote later. "It wasn't that we actively disliked each other, not at all, just that we had been on the same course and not really found each other, not really bothered, both assuming that the other wasn't our type. I thought she might be the only one in the flat I wouldn't be able to relate to."

But they soon found they had things in common. Both had experienced similar childhoods, moving from place to place as their fathers were in the RAF. Both had worked as au pairs in Italy. Both found, to their astonishment, that they had even had the same best friend at different times; the same girl moving away and becoming friends with Jen after a period spent being best friends with the young Dawn.

They also shared a similar sense of humour, annoying their flatmates by dressing up in silly costumes and playing practical jokes on each other. Memories of these days sharing the flat - the cleaning rotas and blazing rows between flatmates - later provided fertile material for Girls On Top.

Soon they were performing live under the name The Menopatzi Sisters. Post-graduation, they would achieve real success performing at The Comic Strip. This introduced them to many of the leading figures in the world of alternative comedy. By 1982, they were appearing regularly in Comic Strip productions on TV. They later met jobbing American actor Ruby Wax at a party and were immediately blown away by the strength of her personality. By 1985 they would be ready to write a sitcom together.

Girls On Top. Image shows left to right: Amanda Ripley (Dawn French), Candice Valentine (Tracey Ullman), Lady Chloe Carlton (Joan Greenwood), Jennifer Marsh (Jennifer Saunders), Shelley DuPont (Ruby Wax)

It is easy to see why people drew comparisons between Girls On Top and The Young Ones. It was a flat-share sitcom based around four young women and their older, eccentric landlady, a set-up not a million miles away from the four-man student household of The Young Ones, who often found themselves menaced by Sayle's equally eccentric landlord, Jerzei Balowski. Dawn French's character, the superficially feminist and anarchist Amanda Ripley, also owes a lot to the secretly reactionary self-proclaimed 'People's Poet' and lifelong virgin, Rick (Mayall).

There were, of course, very close comedy ties between the two shows. French & Saunders had both appeared in The Young Ones several times (Dawn notably as an Easter Bunny with a poor sense of timing and Jennifer as an escaped murderer who wakes up next to Rick). Both were close to Rik Mayall and Nigel Planer through their work with The Comic Strip and indeed, six months before Girls On Top first went out, Saunders had even married The Young Ones' Vyvyan, Adrian Edmondson. The Young Ones co-writer Ben Elton also acted as script editor on the new show.

Meanwhile, Dawn had married Lenny Henry the year before: a man who had also appeared as a Hitler-like postman in The Young Ones but was better known for starring alongside Girls On Top's Tracey Ullman in her breakthrough sketch show, Three Of A Kind (1981-83), a show which Ruby Wax had briefly written for.

Thanks largely to Three Of A Kind and her subsequent pop and stage career, Ullman, though the youngest of the five, was undoubtedly the biggest name and received top billing as Candice Valentine, a character best described by the then-fashionable stereotypical phrase 'bimbo'. Ullman, a major creative force herself, also contributed material to Girls On Top and sang the theme tune, which had been written by Squeeze band members Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford.

As mentioned, French's character Amanda was similar on paper to The Young Ones' Rick. A middle-class bossy-boots who quickly appoints herself 'flat supervisor' in charge of collecting rent, she is in truth, less radical than she likes to think she is. Despite being employed by a feminist magazine entitled Spare Cheeks, she secretly loves the Royal Family and seems potentially willing to settle down with the first man who will show her even the slightest interest. In the second series, this includes Tom (Hugh Laurie), AKA 'Big Snogs', a handsome young man who she meets at an evening class and attempts to seduce by stealing one of his socks.

She adopts a mixed attitude, part protective, part bullying, towards her childhood friend, Jennifer, a socially maladjusted character who speaks almost entirely in monotone.

Ruby Wax's Shelley - who only knows Amanda as the result of an ugly encounter at the letting agency in which Amanda learned about the flat in the first episode - is a spoilt wannabe actor reliant on her wealthy parents for money. She clashes badly with Candice (who is already living in the flat when the others arrive) and with Amanda, who has poorly concealed anti-American tendencies.

Girls On Top. Image shows left to right: Jennifer Marsh (Jennifer Saunders), Amanda Ripley (Dawn French), Lady Chloe Carlton (Joan Greenwood), Shelley DuPont (Ruby Wax)

Older viewers might have been surprised to spot the stately presence of Joan Greenwood, a veteran of Ealing classics such as Whisky Galore! (1949) and The Man In The White Suit (1951) amidst this noisy fray. Greenwood always had a flair for comedy (even Spike Milligan had been unable to make her corpse, i.e. break out of character and laugh) and her role here as oddball romantic writer Lady Cartland - sorry, Carlton - undeniably marked a fascinating moment in her later career. Dawn French, for one, seemed to relish reading messages supposedly written by the old lady, such as "close your mouths, you hysterical bitches!"

Typical storylines saw Candice raising expectations by luring a potential film director to shoot his latest project in their flat. Despite exciting Shelley - who becomes convinced this is her big break ("even Lana Turner didn't break through until after she died!") - the project quickly falls apart when it becomes clear the director is intending to make a porno.

Another episode begins with Candice treating Jennifer to a night on the town. Despite extensive warnings from Amanda about the dangers of men and their "dangly bits", Jennifer winds up being kidnapped by two dodgy types (played by Robbie Coltrane and character actor Paul Brooke). After Shelley's attempts to charm her parents into paying the ransom money fall flat, Jennifer ends up annoying the kidnappers so much that they release her anyway.

Bearing in mind their subsequent careers, it must be admitted that performance-wise, Girls On Top is something of a mixed bag. While Dawn French and Ruby Wax are both fine, Jennifer Saunders seems restricted by playing such a bizarre child-like character, a performance that really didn't demonstrate her talent to the full. Edina Monsoon she is not.

Addressing Saunders directly in her book, Dear Fatty, Dawn later wrote about the creation of the show: "You fell asleep a lot, so your character ended up as a sort of dormouse who didn't speak much. Thank God for Ruby, whose energy was the generator for both of us. No wonder she was often exhausted, she was constantly pushing the two of us lazy lardbuckets up the comedy hill to work."

Saunders later admitted she learned a lot about performing from working with Tracey Ullman. It is nonetheless interesting to compare this to Ben Elton's BBC Two sitcom Happy Families, which also aired during the autumn of 1985.

As with Alec Guinness in the classic 1949 comedy Kind Hearts And Coronets (an Ealing masterpiece in which Girls On Top's Joan Greenwood had also played a major role), the series saw Saunders playing multiple members of the same family. The cast list of Happy Families also featured Dawn French and Ade Edmondson alongside many names who also made up the numbers in Girls On Top. Unlike Girls On Top however, Happy Families was a notable ratings flop.

However, Tracey Ullman too seems restricted by the sitcom format. Although perfectly good as Candace, it is a shame to see someone who we know is so capable of slipping effortlessly into such a wide variety of different characters being limited to playing this one, irritating, young woman.

Girls On Top. Image shows left to right: Jennifer Marsh (Jennifer Saunders), Lady Chloe Carlton (Joan Greenwood), Candice Valentine (Tracey Ullman), Amanda Ripley (Dawn French), Shelley DuPont (Ruby Wax)

The first series proving a success, all the leads saw their profile rise during the subsequent year. French & Saunders continued to appear on Channel 4 in The Comic Strip Presents... and Saturday Live and, in April 1986, took part in the inaugural Comic Relief concert alongside many other leading comedy names of the age.

Ruby Wax, meanwhile, was unsettled by her new fame: "While we worked on the scripts in my tiny one-room flat, it never occurred to me that it would eventually go on the air", she later recalled. "Even when we acted in it with Tracey Ullman and Joan Greenwood, it was like we were having a party in an insane asylum. So when it finally was on television for public consumption, I was surprised to find people I'd never met smiling at me in the streets."

Ullman, who was married to Girls On Top producer Allan McKeown, was by this time already contemplating a move to the US. She received a BAFTA nomination for her performance in the Meryl Streep film Plenty, which was released in the UK during Girls On Top's first series run.

As plans for a second series went ahead, it soon emerged Ullman would be unavailable: she was pregnant. With her character discretely killed off, a decision was made not to replace her. Ruby Wax probably benefitted from this the most as the remaining cast expanded to fill the void left by Ullman's absence. It was also decided that this second series should be the last, with the three writers concocting a conclusion as decisive as the double decker bus crash that had ended The Young Ones two years before.

After concerns over a vibrator-themed first series storyline, unusual in a mid-Eighties ITV sitcom that was being aired in a timeslot usually occupied by much gentler middle-aged fare such as Anton Rodgers and Julia McKenzie comedy Fresh Fields, it was decided that the second series should air at 9pm rather than at 8:30pm.

Series 2 in some ways improved upon the first, with the character of Jennifer perking up and joining Shelley on many of her acting jobs and briefly finding work as a stockbroker. Despite never apparently having sex, Amanda also became convinced she was pregnant.

Girls On Top. Image shows left to right: Jennifer Marsh (Jennifer Saunders), Amanda Ripley (Dawn French), Lady Chloe Carlton (Joan Greenwood), Shelley DuPont (Ruby Wax)

Talented as she had been, Tracey Ullman's departure probably helped the show, the format benefitting from the smaller cast. There was also an expansion of the sitcom's already impressive range of supporting players.

With Alan Rickman no less having already appeared in the very first episode, the second series also saw appearances from the likes of Harry Enfield (as a doctor), John Sessions, Pauline Quirke, Harriet Walter, Arthur Smith and cameos from the already famous American actor Katherine Helmond (star of the then-recent Seventies US comedy Soap and Terry Gilliam's acclaimed fantasy film Brazil), as well as the Beverley Sisters.

The final Girls On Top aired on 11th December 1986. Things then moved fast. Firstly, and most sadly, it proved to be the swansong for Joan Greenwood. Although Dame Carlton was not literally her final performance, the great actor's death was announced on 28th February 1987. It had been less than three months after the final episode went out, and a few days before what would have been her 66th birthday.

A few days after that, on 9th March 1987, the first series of French And Saunders went out on the BBC. Less than a later still, The Tracey Ullman Show debuted on US TV network Fox. Both series would prove hugely successful within their own nations - the latter giving birth to The Simpsons.

Just as Ullman found enormous success across the pond, American Wax found significant success in the UK, the series proving to change her life forever.

Having been married and divorced twice before, Girls On Top Series 2 introduced Wax to her third husband, Ed Bye, its British director. The same year saw her host her first chat show, Don't Miss Wax on Channel 4, paving the way for the big successes that would follow the launch of her BBC One series, The Full Wax (1991-94).

Girls On Top thus remains fascinating, not because it holds up as the funniest sitcom ever produced (it wasn't) but for providing a snapshot of a wealth of young comedy talent at a critical early stage in their career.

The girls may not have been on top then. But they soon would be.

Where to start?

Girls On Top. Image shows from L to R: Amanda Ripley (Dawn French), Candice Valentine (Tracey Ullman), Lady Chloe Carlton (Joan Greenwood), Shelley DuPont (Ruby Wax), Jennifer Marsh (Jennifer Saunders)

Make no mistake, the very first episode of Girls On Top is a dud. Despite introducing the premise, the main characters and featuring early guest roles for Alan Rickman, Helen Lederer and Helen Atkinson-Wood, it is best avoided. Start anywhere but there.

Girls On Top - The Complete Series

The nation's favourite comedienne Dawn French stars as Amanda, who discovers the hard way that a Chelsea postcode doesn't come cheap. She has no alternative but to get three flatmates that will hopefully be in tune with her feminist values. Unfortunately, she strikes out on that score and is lumbered with scheming disco diva Candice (Tracey Ullman - Three Of A Kind), crashing bore Jennifer (Jennifer Saunders - French And Saunders, Absolutely Fabulous) and motor-mouth, manic, spoilt brat American Shelley (Ruby Wax - Ruby Wax Meets...). And then there is her frankly mad-as-a-hater landlady (Joan Greenwood - The Importance Of Being Earnest) who receives her daily exercise by taking her stuffed dog for a walk... Revel in flatmate hell as they all try to further themselves at the expense of each other!

With hilarious scripts written by French, Saunders and Wax, three of the leading lights in British alternative comedy, Girls On Top is one of the great all-female British comedies and will appeal to all fans of the genre. The series also guest stars Helen Lederer, Robbie Coltrane, Harry Enfield, Hugh Laurie, Pauline Quirke, John Sessions, Alan Rickman and the Beverley Sisters.

First released: Monday 22nd January 2007

  • Distributor: Network
  • Region: 2
  • Discs: 2
  • Minutes: 325
  • Catalogue: 7952574

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  • Released: Friday 15th July 2022
  • Distributor: Network
  • Region: 2
  • Discs: 2
  • Minutes: 325
  • Catalogue: 7956278

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Search for this product on eBay

BCG may earn commission on sales generated through the links above.

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