Revisiting the age old show that is The Young Ones, and having lived in student digs myself, I came to notice how (un)subversive the show really was. It’s claimants to the subcultures of punk, hippie, dork and just plain smooth, don’t liberate but simply pigeon-hole the characters into boxy representations of said subcultures; the comedy of the show relies on this dissent between such characters. Where can there be agreement when each and every comment comes from a well of cultural capital implicit in the very different hairstyles of Mike, Rick, Vyvyan and Neil?
Comparing the sitcom to something a little more modern, Fresh Meat, where the motley bunch of characters are students of the fictional ‘Manchester Medlock’ uni, it is obvious how far from enlightened Rik Mayall really was when he coined the slightly less realistic moniker ‘Scumbag College’. Firstly, the only female appearances in the BBC sitcom come from women who stumble ashamedly into the degenerate household of the four men, as pitiful one night stands, or more comically, a giant Easter bunny who doesn’t know what to do with herself.
The creators of Fresh Meat, Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain, spent hours watching The Young Ones while writing the more up-to-date show, so it’s a healthy comparison to make. Their train of thought must have been similar to my own then, when they created such diverse female roles as Vod, the illiterate English student, Oregon, the privileged girl in denial (real name Melissa), and Josie, the open-hearted Welsh lass. The drama which unfolds over the four series is drastically more diverse, fruitful and complex than the comedy of The Young Ones, especially since relationships are properly explored in a household of three males and three females.
On the other hand, The Young Ones is written without pathos, the only heart wrenching moments come when Neil might fall through the roof, get his clothes stolen, or just be completely shutdown by the inscrutable wordplay of his cruel housemates. The fondness I had for The Young Ones aligns with a strange attraction of mine to the culture of the 80s. This culture is of a sundry sort, filled from The Smiths to the New Romantics, from Post-punk to perm hairstyles. This is why The Young Ones were so characteristically of the time, because that is how Rik and Ade made their comedy, out of cultural disposition and conflict; it fits perfectly in the zeitgeist of the time.
Nevertheless, looking back, and looking forward, cultural disposition is less of a conflict, but more an opportunity to build diversity and open new perspectives. This is how Fresh Meat champions the genre, the sundry household is completely unexpected, but it ends with Vod naming Howard, the old eccentric Scot, a genius for stealing from a buffet. This is heart-warming stuff and, comedic.
In The Young Ones, any talk of relationships outside the four walls of the set usually end in a bashful, clueless response from Rik, or, more commonly, a violent retort from the boots of Vyvyan. It is always Neil who is on the receiving end. Maybe, it’s because he has long hair.
Words, Ross Fraser-Smith