To understand Thatcherite Britain, all you need is The Young Ones

Get to know them and know the 80s. BBC

In the cult 1980s sitcom The Young Ones, lefty sociology student Rick, threatens to commit suicide and berates his fellow housemates:

I feel sorry for you, you zeroes, you nobodies. What’s going to live on after you die? I’ll tell you — nothing, that’s what! …

This house will become a shrine! And punks and skins and Rastas will all gather round and all hold their hands in sorrow for their fallen leader! And all the grown-ups will say: “But why are the kids crying?” And the kids will say, “Haven’t you heard? Rick is dead! The People’s Poet is dead!” …

And then one particularly sensitive and articulate teenager will say: “Why kids, do you understand nothing? How can Rick be dead when we still have his poems?”

With the sudden passing of Rik Mayall, who played Rick on the show between 1982 and 1984, we still have his comedy. Although Mayall starred in many sitcoms, such as Blackadder, Bottom, The New Statesman and Man Down, he will best be remembered as “right-on” Rick from The Young Ones.

The Young Ones was a ground-breaking show. It was this that really launched the alternative comedy scene into the mainstream and held a fractured and surreal mirror up to life in Thatcherite Britain. Other shows like Not the Nine O’ Clock News, Spitting Image and OTT may have offered satirical takes on the news items of the day, but The Young Ones took these issues and weaved them into the sitcom narrative. This is the reason for the show’s longevity and partly why it has occupied a firm place in the popular memory. It can now be read as a great insight into the concerns of young people in the early 1980s.

There had been portrayals of left-wing people in British sitcoms before The Young Ones. There was Robert Lindsay’s Citizen Smith in the late 1970s for example, but this had been a parody of the left-wing youth. The Young Ones, conversely, was a show made by those alienated by Thatcherism; a group of young and left-leaning comedians, led by Mayall, Adrian Edmondson, Ben Elton and Alexei Sayle. It threatened the middle class and suburban status quo that dominated British comedy in the 1970s, and so had enormous appeal to the British youth.

Rik Mayall in The Young Ones, 1982. BBC

Most remember the show’s barbs towards Margaret Thatcher, such as Rick’s description of the country suffering under the “Thatcherite junta” or his rant against her “Victorian values”: “Oliver Twist, Geoffrey Dickens. Back to Victorian values. I hope you’re satisfied, Thatcher!”

But it also addressed other issues affecting young people. Unemployment rose to 3 million in 1982, and The Young Ones, which debuted in November of that year, referenced this heavily. In the first episode, they mocked “yoof” television and the glib advice given to the unemployed in the fictional TV programme Nozin’ Aroun’. Then in the second series, Neil has to join the police because it is the only job available.

And then one episode makes reference to the racism of the police, which had been a key reason for the inner-city riots across the country in 1981 and was highlighted by the subsequent inquiry by Lord Scarman. In others, the police are depicted as violent and quick to anger, smashing up people’s property, threatening violence and hitting Rick with a chair. The height of this satirical look at the police is the portrayal of Sayle as Mussolini, working for the Metropolitan Police.

The issue of class stratification under Thatcher was also referred to. Famously in the episode Bambi, Alexei Sayle ranted about the job prospects for those not graduating from Oxbridge:

I mean, they told me while at school, if I got two CSEs, when I left school I’d be head of British Steel. That’s a lot of nonsense, innit? I mean, you look at statistics, right. 83% of top British management have been to a public school and Oxbridge, right? 93% of the BBC have been to a public school and Oxbridge, right? 98% of the KGB have been to a public school and Oxbridge.

All you get from a public school, right — one, you get a top job, right, and two, you get an interest in perverse sexual practises. I mean, that’s why British management’s so inefficient. As soon as they get in the boardroom, they’re all shutting each others’ dicks in the door! “Go on, give it another slam, Sir Michael!” BAM! OW OW OW! “Come on, Sir Geoffrey, let’s play the Panzer commander and the millkmaid, EW EW EW EW! YOO HOO!”

Later in this episode we see the most explicit attack on the upper class, with the four students from Scumbag College taking on Cambridge Footlights, comprised of Lord Snot (Stephen Fry), Lord Monty (Hugh Laurie), Miss Money-Sterling (Emma Thompson) and Mr Kendall-Mintcake (Ben Elton), on University Challenge. When asked by Rick if they could win, the host Bambi simply replies, “the posh kids always win, everybody knows that”.

The Young Ones offered the youth of 1980s Britain laughs in the face of severe changes in British society, brought on by the neo-liberalism of the Thatcher government. It struck a chord with many and the show has been a cult hit ever since. Mayall’s portrayal of Rick, the left-wing “right on” student, has become an enduring symbol of youth in Thatcherite Britain. It is recognisable in contemporary British history as an icon of the post-punk culture that challenged the status quo in all sections of cultural world.

Rik Mayall may have died, but his character endures as a sign of laughing in the face of authority – which is perhaps an inspiration for young people in these austere times. And for anyone trying to understand the history of Britain’s recent past and the impact of Thatcherism upon British society, one need look no further than The Young Ones.