Not the Nine O’Clock News is a television comedy sketch show which was broadcast on BBC2 from 1979 to 1982. Originally shown as a comedy alternative to the Nine O’Clock News on BBC1, it featured satirical sketches on current news stories and popular culture, as well as parody songs, comedy sketches, re-edited videos, and spoof television formats. The show featured Rowan Atkinson, Pamela Stephenson, Mel Smith, and Griff Rhys Jones, as well as Chris Langham in the first series.
The format was a deliberate departure from the Monty Python’s Flying Circus stream-of-consciousness meta-comedy, returning to a more conventional sketch show format. Sketches were mostly self-contained, lasting from a few seconds to a few minutes and often had a degree of naturalism in performance. The series launched the careers of several high-profile actors and writers, and also led to other comedic series including Blackadder, Mr. Bean, and Alas Smith and Jones.
The series benefited from video editing and recording techniques. The pace was enhanced by jump-cutting between library clips, usually of politicians, royalty, or celebrities. Then-PM Margaret Thatcher complained when, by adroit image editing, the show implied she had crashed a car. Effects used in pop videos, provided by the Quantel Paintbox, were often a highlight of the musical numbers.
Not the Nine O’Clock News was produced by John Lloyd. Lloyd pitched the idea to the heads of BBC Comedy and Light Entertainment and was given a six-show series on condition that he collaborate with Sean Hardie, who had worked in current affairs at the BBC. The idea came from the then-recent publication of Not The New York Times, a spoof of the famed paper which was not circulating at the time because of a general strike occurring in the city, leaving it with no papers.
Initially, Lloyd and Hardie were considering doing a lampoon of actuality programmes à la The Frost Report with Rowan Atkinson portraying an old-fashioned host dissing liberal and/or modern trends. The show was to be called Sacred Cows but the news show was chosen because of its larger quantity of sources. As well as the homage to Not The New York Times, the show’s name derived from its schedule, as it originally aired on BBC2 at the same time as the Nine O’Clock News on BBC1.
Aborted first series
Aside from Atkinson, the original cast comprised Christopher Godwin, John Gorman, Chris Langham, Willoughby Goddard, and Jonathan Hyde, and the first episode of a planned series of shows was scheduled for 2 April 1979. The episode also featured Chris Emmett (impersonating Denis Healey), Robert Llewelyn (impersonating Bob Hope) and Hertz Rental (narrating general elections in Greenland). As the show was originally scheduled to air in Fawlty Towers’ timeslot, John Cleese was to have introduced the first episode in a sketch referring to a technicians’ strike then in progress that hindered the production of the show, explaining (in character as Basil Fawlty) that there was no show that week so a “tatty revue” would be broadcast instead. However the 1979 general election intervened, and the show was pulled as too political, being replaced with reruns of American sitcom Rhoda.
The sketch with Cleese was broadcast later that year, when the final episode of Fawlty Towers went out during the broadcast run of the first series of Not the Nine O’Clock News, though the significance of the sketch was lost. This link is included on the Region 2 Fawlty Towers DVD boxset. Basil’s waiter Manuel also appeared the end of the unaired episode, trying to get a joke about the Ayatollah’s contact lenses. Other sketches of the unaired first episode were also lifted or remade on episodes throughout the show. Healey’s and Hope’s impressions were achieved by the use of “talking head” puppets, which in the mid-80s would become a characteristic staple of Spitting Image, which Lloyd produced in its early series.
by simon schofield