In tribute to Rik Mayall: The Young Ones, Thatcherism and the People’s Poet

It is very saddening news to hear of the sudden death of Rik Mayall at the age of 56. As Rick, the lefty sociology student in The Young Ones, Mayall helped create one of the greatest contemporary portrayals of life in Thatcherite Britain, while indulging in surreal and off-the-wall comedy. The longevity of The Young Ones is a topic that I have written about at length. In a paper under consideration for publication at the moment, I wrote:

The Young Ones can be viewed historically and gives us insight into how Thatcherism and the 1980s was experienced by sections of British society. The show can be read as a text that portrays popular opinions about Thatcher’s Britain and satirises contemporary issues… However this does not mean that The Young Ones is an accurate reflection of the times per se – the show is obviously an over-the-top and surreal portrayal of student life in Thatcherite Britain. We, as historians and students of history, don’t watch The Young Ones to observe an authentic depiction of life under Thatcherism as it actually was, but because we can see certain themes and concepts (important for understanding Thatcherism and 1980s Britain) depicted in the television show. The show works as an excellent demonstration of the zeitgeist of Britain under Margaret Thatcher, but at the same time, it is factually inaccurate and stakes no claim to historical authenticity… 

Janine Utell has written that The Young Ones ‘challenge[d] the hegemony of Thatcherism’, using laughter to highlight the ‘profound ruptures and transformations in society’ under Margaret Thatcher’s Prime Ministership.. Characters that espoused left-wing positions had been in British television comedies before, but had often been the focus of ridicule. Robert Lindsay’s character of Wolfie in the late 1970s sitcom Citizen Smith was a stereotypical Marxist attempting to start a socialist revolution in suburban London via the Tooting Popular Front… On the other hand, The Young Ones were obviously critical of Thatcher and capitalism in the 1980s and sympathetic to the ideas of the left, but also willing to poke fun at the left for its sanctimonious tendencies.

The Young Ones doesn’t show us Britain in the 1980s as it really was, but it is a depiction of how the 1980s were experienced. The references to phenomena such as unemployment, police racism, popular capitalism, student activism, sexism and class stratification in the show are taken from the real life experience of living in Britain under Thatcher and depicted as icons/symbols that could be popularly recognised, but satirised to an unreal level. The Young Ones captures the zeitgeist of Britain in the early 1980s under Thatcherism by making reference to many symbols of the era, but the context in which these symbols are represented is often contorted and push to the bounds of the absurd. The juxtaposition of the political and social commentary with surrealism and cartoon slapstick makes the show enjoyable to watch, while telling us much about the recent past – this is why historians should rewatch The Young Ones.

Other alternative comedy television shows broadcast around the same time as The Young Ones, such as Not the Nine O’ Clock News, Spitting Image and OTT, were predominantly made up of topical sketches and stand-up performances and could be immediate in their satirical take on the politics of the day. However The Young Ones had to weave its satire into the broader narrative of the episode and accordingly its parody of aspects of Thatcherite Britain had to have broader resonance that were not so instantaneous. Arguably the longevity of the show’s satire and the significance of its comedic targets makes The Young Ones much more valuable for historians of Britain in the 1980s than other television shows that have not had the same durability.

This paper is based on a bunch of blog posts I wrote after the death of Margaret Thatcher in 2013. You can read the series, titled ‘What can The Young Ones teach us about Thatcherism?’, here:

Part One: Introduction

Part Two: ‘Race’ and the police in the 1980s

Part Three: Unemployment

Part Four: Neo-liberalism, market populism and crony capitalism

Part Five: Activism and the left

Part Six: Women and sexism

Part Seven: Higher education and class

And here’s Rick with the final word:

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