TV Review: The Young Ones – RIP Rik Mayall


News of Rik Mayall’s death had talkback radio in merry reminiscence yesterday. I can’t recall anyone’s untimely demise being the font of such happy memories and familiar phrases.

Most of Mayall’s apalling, egotistical characters were grating and egregious enough to be instantly recalled with precision after decades. Mayall demonstrated the inherited traits of the great British tradition of comic acting – panto, slapstick – but it was his particularly frothing rendition of a spotty, nerdy, virgin, snivelling, obnoxious, insufferably politically-correct pseudo-Anarchist, arts student in The Young Ones which was most outstanding (Alan B’Stard in the New Statesman must be a close second). He and that crew had us weeping in laughter late on Friday nights. This was the mid 1980s.

Children who had been put to bed would be up listening to parents in total hysterics watching this anti-social mayhem on at the latest possible scheduled time in the days when two state TV channels both closed down sometimes before 11 each night. It was an instant cult hit in New Zealand.

The Young Ones was total stark bollocking anarchy. Raving loony nonsense with an anti-Thatcherite bent. A flat of students whose only common bond is they like Cliff Richard – what an idiotic premise. It was like punk had arrived on TV (although the music was usually London ska bands). It may be difficult to make the iconoclastic nature of The Young Ones comprehensible to this generation and why it has fond recollections by the previous generation, but it comes down to NZ being a very different place to what it is now. The Young Ones was so novel and so appealing in a NZ where Mr R D Muldoon of the National Party controlled everything from exchange rates and wages to which number on your plate you had to have so you could drive your car that day and how much a packet of biscuits is allowed to cost. It was anti-establishment and anti-everything at a time when conservatism, repression and conformism had peaked and popular discontent was swelling.

And sometimes it just didn’t even make any sense at all. It was deliberately surreal. They would break character, subliminal images and words would flicker at random, they would break through a wall into alternate universes – stuff like that. In this respect it was like a TV version of BBC radio’s The Goon Show where the writers and performers were creative and ambitious collaborators who pushed the boundaries of linear storytelling. British TV comedy shows of the time were variety features – Kenny Everitt, Morecambe & Wise, The Two Ronnies and Benny Hill to mention but a few – which would combine skits, audience items and musical interludes, but The Young Ones managed to do all that in a sit-com format. Monty Python’s Flying Circus had introduced the viewers of the previous decade to full colour absurdity, but this was unlike anything anyone had previously seen – and it was hilarious.

Kids before the advent of multiple media overload in the 90s were only allowed up past 10:30 to watch three things on TV: Royal weddings, All Black internationals and Telethons. This changed when The Young Ones were on because the kids would come out to watch from the doorway on account of not being able to sleep for all the parental laughing and they would relent and we would be able to share this manic moment as a family.

If the adults thought it was amusing on their level with jokes about Apartheid and the TV licence fee, the children had talking, scheming rat puppets, explosions aplenty, snot in abundance and head-butting galore to keep them amused. It was the show the whole family could enjoy together and it was on at the latest possible time because TVNZ deemed it so corruptive to youth. It was a shared experience of a two channel nation in a way that is impossible now in this multi-platform world.

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The Young Ones impressed upon our generation more quotable quips and twisted scenarios than all of Shakespeare’s comedies. People associate Hippies with lentil soup to this day because of the Neil character. I find myself saying rhetorically on the odd occasion where it seems appropriate, ‘Have we got a video!?’ as Neil did repeatedly in one episode. Then there’s Vampires from Johannesburg, University Challenge, the youth club for us ‘young adults’, pick axes through heads, ‘nature grows the seed…’. Everyone has their favourites from that wrecked flat – there are so many to choose from. It wouldn’t have been the same without Rik Mayall’s infuriating git of a character. RIP Rik Mayall.


  1. We were a bit past the student stage when Rik Mayall’s anarchic comedy hit our screens, though we certainly laughed over “The Young Ones”. But we remember “The New Statesman” with particular affection: the timing of that programme was spot on here, as we suffered under the excesses of the neoliberal project.

  2. RIP – the People’s Poet. Just a minor point the flat didn’t like Cliff Richard, only Rik did – which was part of the joke.

  3. I’m amazed. When Tim focuses on a relevant subject he can actually be a brilliant and coherent writer. An excellent and appropriately off-beat tribute.

  4. I only wish we had more “young ones” like that today, as what I mostly see is conformism, narcissism and selfishness, and little sense and questioning. Where the hell have we gone wrong raising this generation?

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