What can The Young Ones teach us about Thatcherism, pt 5: Activism and the left

In the last post, I looked at how neo-liberal capitalism and market populism was lampooned in The Young Ones and it is pretty clear that the show often critiqued Thatcherism from left-of-centre position. However that did not mean that the show didn’t also criticise the left, with many jokes made about the self-importance of the left (particularly of the student left) and the left’s delusions of grandeur.

The left in the early 1980s was in a state of flux. The early 1970s were a period of optimism for the British left – what Chris Harman in The Fire Last Time called ‘the British upturn’ – but by the end of decade, with the election of Thatcher, the left was quite demoralised. Thatcher’s 1979 electoral victory had both deflated and invigorated the Labour Party – deflated after it was discovered that around a third of trade union members voted for the Conservatives in that election, but invigorated as Thatcher’s policies, up until the Falklands War, made it look likely that Labour would regain power at the next election. Many on the far left were heartened by Labour’s leftwards shift as pronounced by the Party’s 1983 manifesto, which many have argued (wrongly I would say) was ‘the longest suicide note in history’. The Communist Party of Great Britain, as the largest party to the left of Labour, had started its journey into terminal decline in the late 1970s, with the Party split between several warring factions and losing membership quite rapidly. The International Marxist Group, the most ‘student-based’ of the left wing groups dissolved itself in the early 1980s to become an entrist faction inside the Labour Party, joining the long term entrists Militant, who would become the far left ‘success story’ of the 1980s. The Socialist Workers Party had built itself as a party to rival the CPGB for influence on the left and had made a successful venture with the Anti-Nazi League and Rock Against Racism, but by the early 1980s, it had started to stall in terms of membership, wider influence and its analysis of the struggle against Thatcher. The left in the early 1980s was no longer the vibrant movement that it was in the 1970s, but it was nowhere near the dire straits it was in by the 1990s. Although the first series of The Young Ones was filmed in 1982 before the disastrous 1983 election, it was clear that the proletarian revolution was not imminent.

The self-important revolutionary had already been parodied in the late 1970s with Robert Lindsay’s Citizen Smith and the Tooting Popular Front, and Rik in The Young Ones used many similar tropes. But Rik was a younger, student-y version (studying the much-mocked in the 1980s sociology degree) and as much as Rik ‘talked the talk’ of the lefty stereotype, there is hardly any moment in either series where Rik actually partakes in any political activity.

Rik liked to see himself as a ‘guru’ for the left, a figure that ‘the kids’ could look up to – going as far as to call himself ‘the People’s Poet’. Although Rik had recited poetry in the first series already in episodes ‘Demolition’ and ‘Bomb’, the ‘People’s Poet’ is introduced in the episode ‘Flood’, where Rik recites poetry at the police to stop them harassing young people. The ‘People’s Poem’ as recited by Rik goes:

What do you think you’re doing, pig?

Do you really give a fig, pig?

And what’s your favourite sort of gig, pig?

Barry Manilow?
 Or the Black and White Minstrel Show?

As shown in the clip, in Rik’s dream, the power of his words is enough to physically defeat the police.

The power of ‘the People’s Poet’ as an inspiration for the youth of the Thatcherite Britain is also mentioned in the second series episode ‘Bambi’. While losing a bet about how many housemates like Rik, he threatens to kill himself with laxatives and argues that while they didn’t appreciate him, his poetry would have a greater impact upon the world. In the midst of munching a handful of laxatives pills, Rik says to the others:

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?”

As well as this image of himself as ‘the People’s Poet’ and the fantasy of being revolutionary figure, Rik also made other mentions of his supposed (and often conflicting) political affiliations and activist credentials. In the episode ‘Sick’, Rik states he won’t be able to attend the next ‘Friends of Stalin Society “Show Your Bottom” competition’ as he feared being called a ‘bogey bum’, while in the same episode, Rik declares that he can’t write to this MP as he is an anarchist (thus writing to the lead singer of Echo and the Bunnymen – ‘Mr Echo’).

Throughout both series, we also see that Rik was quite accustomed to namedropping revolutionary figures into conversation. In ‘Interesting’, he invites his tutor to the party so they can discuss Trotsky, while in ‘Bambi’, he mentions that Lenin probably had a dirty bottom when he led the October revolution. In ‘Summer Holiday’, Rik namedrops the Red Army Faction when Mike tells the group not to use the guns he bought for the robbery they were planning:

Yeah, c’mon. Robin Hood! Baader Meinhoff! Those bank clerks didn’t have to become bank clerks! They knew the risk when they took the job! Let’s go in and let them have it!

But when confronted with the opportunity to partake in ‘revolutionary’ activity, such as the anarchist bombing of a police car (ala the Angry Brigade), Rik is unsure of this, as seen in this exchange in the episode ‘Interesting’ (at 1.15):

RIK: Hi, Fisher. What do you want to know? Better be ready for some pretty angry vibes! [Man sprays orange paint in Rik’s face, across his mouth]

ANARCHIST: Political activist, eh? Ah, what’s the last thing you blew up?

RIK: Well, I blew up a rubber johnny actually in the union bar. It was hilarious – everybody thought so.

[Anarchist puts his arm round Rik’s shoulders]

ANARCHIST: Yeah. Look, next Tuesday, I’m gonna blow up a Panda in Croydon.

RIK: Yer, right on. Bloody zoos, who needs them?

ANARCHIST: No, a police car, you terminal wally!

RIK: [Nervously] Oh, the – the pigs?


RIK: Yeah [Snort] Especially the few bad apples that spoil their otherwise spotless image.

ANARCHIST: Yer, if pigs could fly, Scotland Yard would be London’s third airport! [He laughs, Rik looks confused]

I’ve got everything ready. All I need is a plan, a bomb and a dedicated and ruthless accomplice. Are you in? [Pours his drink over Rik’s shoulder]

RIK: Er, you spilt your drink!

ANARCHIST: Yeah, I know. I was getting bored.

RIK: Shall I get you another one? Cinzano?

The only time that we really see Rik involved in kind of political activity is in the episode ‘Bomb’ when he tries to use the bomb to convince Thatcher to implement radical social policies. For the record, Rik’s policy demands were (at 6.55):

Point one: Abolish poverty! Point Two: Abolish capitalism. Point Three: Dexy’s Midnight Runners playing free, daily, in the University library!

In contrast to Rik’s stereotype of the student lefty type, the left is also satirised through Alexei Sayle’s piece to camera parts in the series. As discussed in his autobiography Stalin Ate My Homework, Sayle came from a Communist family and was brought up in the 1950s and 1960s as a devout young communist. In the late 1960s, Sayle’s act of rebellion was to join the Maoist Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist) and throughout the 1970s and 1980s, was vaguely associated with the various groups of the left. Sayle makes fun of his Communist heritage in ‘Oil’ when the character he is playing says that his middle name is ‘Yuri Gagarin Siege of Stalingrad Glorious Five-Year Plan Sputnik Pravda Moscow Dynamo Back Four’, as his dad ‘was a bit of a Communist’ (Sayle made a similar joke in his later show Stuff in the ‘pupil x’ sketch).

In the episode ‘Nasty’, Sayle, breaking from the character of Harry the Bastard-cum-South African vampire, laments the problems of being a Marxist comedian and not being respected by other Marxists (at 2.19), who in the 1970s and early 1980s still had aversions to popular culture:

But you see, the worst thing about television is: you see, I’m a Marxist comedian, you know, but em, since I’ve been doing television, a lot of me Marxist friends have accused me of selling out, you know. Like they make me march at the back on demos. They’re all selling the Socialist Worker, and I’ve got to sell the TV Times. So I’d just like to take this opportunity, on national television, to assure you all, comrades, that honest to God, I have NOT, sold out.

This tension between the left and popular youth culture was something highlighted in other scenes in The Young Ones. As myself, Matt Worley and Lucy Robinson, amongst others, have shown, the left had long resisted any attempts to engage with popular youth culture in any significant way and it was only the advent of the Anti-Nazi League and Rock Against Racism that really started to change perceptions of youth culture on the left. In his history of the ANL, David Renton (p. 81) wrote that numerous sections of the British population formed their own ANL support groups, including ‘Vegetarians and Football Fans Against the Nazis’, ‘The Albert [Pub] Against the Nazis’, ‘Aardvarks Against the Nazis’ and ‘Skateboarders Against the Nazis’. The show pokes fun at the various ANL groups and the potential for the ludicrous with Rik forming the ‘People Who Don’t Pay Their TV Licences Against the Nazis’ society in the episode ‘Bomb’ – although the ANL had actually wound up by the time The Young Ones aired in 1982.

But the enthusiasm for youth culture to motivate political activism in British youth was most explicitly parodied in the episode ‘Oil’ with the concert to support the ‘oppressed worker of the house’ Neil. Rik gets the band Radical Posture to play a gig in the drawing room of the house and plans that at the height of the gig, the masses would rise up, liberate Neil and overthrow Mike’s domestic dictatorship. However Neil is the only audience member and has to pay the £500 to ensure the gig goes ahead.

Sayle, as Radical Posture’s singer Alexei Balowski, further parodies the recent enthusiasm for youth culture by the British left (and in contradiction to his statement in ‘Nasty’) by singing that the only thing that would bring people together was Dr Marten’s boots.

So it is obvious that while The Young Ones can be largely seen as ‘progressive’ and an exemplary example of ‘alternative comedy’, critiquing Thatcherite Britain from a left-of-centre perspective, it also was not afraid of sending up those on the left, who were seen by many as self-important and over-confident. But while Rik’s character openly satirises the student left, Sayle’s routines about Marxism were from a much more friendly and sympathetic position.


All dialogue transcripts taken from here.


7 responses to “What can The Young Ones teach us about Thatcherism, pt 5: Activism and the left”

  1. […] Their youth gave them energy, certainty and determination to maintain a non-stop protest over a four year period.  That youthful lack of doubt was certainly sometime expressed with an earnestness that our participants cringe at as they reflect on it from the vantage point of early middle-age.  In that respect, they might conform to popular stereotypes of young activists (and particularly those stereotypes that circulated at the time – exemplified by Rik, with the silent ‘p’, in The Young Ones) […]

  2. So true as I’m not right wing-left wing or non white but the only thing that unites us is Dr Marten boots.

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