The Young Ones: “Demolition”
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The Young Ones: “Demolition”

Everything’s coming up lentils

“Demolition” (season 1, episode 1; originally aired 11/9/1982)

In which a few walls are broken…

For fans of the BBC’s cult comedy series The Young Ones—which revolves around the madcap misadventures of four squalid college students who share a house—picking a favorite character is akin to Beatlemaniacs picking a favorite Beatle. Is it Rick, the narcissistic activist played by the late Rik Mayall? Is it Vyvyan, the nihilistic punk played by Adrian Edmondson? Is it Neil, the grumbling hippie played by Nigel Planer? Is it Mike, the unconvincing stud played by Christopher Ryan? (Not that anybody actually picks Mike.) Or do you go deeper and choose one of the various incidental characters played by the show’s brilliant, often overlooked fifth cast member, Alexei Sayle?

For me, the answer is easy. My favorite character is the house.

Throughout The Young Ones’ original, 12-episode run, the house in which the characters live is never given a name. It never talks or displays any other explicit sign of sentience (although that’s open to interpretation, as I’ll explain later). But it’s a character, I’ve come to believe. And not just any character, but the main character—the one to whom all the others play vital supporting roles as functionaries, caretakers, parasites, invaders, destroyers, creators, and at times perhaps even the house’s own children.

Take, for instance, the show’s pilot episode, “Demolition.” The title alone implies that the house—or should that be The House?—is the primary focus of the story’s danger and drama. The plot bears that out. And it is indeed a plot; The Young Ones has been both dismissed and embraced over the years as an erratic spew of incidents, skits, and fragments, but all the elements of a classic plot are at play in “Demolition.” The characters are introduced by means of both their commonality and their conflicts (starting auspiciously with a batch of lentil casserole). A chain of causal consequence is established: The four roommates are wound up and set in motion as as verminous cretins of the highest order who don’t live much differently than the various rodents (two cannibalistic rats plus a pet hamster named Special Patrol Group, in honor of a notoriously brutal unit of London’s Police Service) that inhabit—or infest—The House with them. Their lives of gleeful seediness lead directly to a demolition order from the local council; efforts are made to save The House from destruction, but ultimately they’re thwarted by, well, a plane that inexplicably crashes into it.

It’s a coherent story, even with all its tangents, inversions, perversions, and meta-referential asides. That skeletal simplicity anchors its post-punk postmodernism. The show immediately cops to its self-consciousness: The walls of The House are leveled in the end of “Demolition,” as the title happily spoils, but the fourth wall is razed at the beginning, when The Young Ones’ jaunty theme song bleeds from the opening credits directly into the radio sitting on the kitchen table in the episode’s first scene. Right out of the gate, we know that The Young Ones is the type of show where its own theme—which granted, is a version of the title track from the 1961 teen movie The Young Ones, starring British pop pioneer Cliff Richard—exists in the fictionalized world where the characters live.

Then again, as the episode spastically points out, pretty much anything can exist in The Young One’s world. Like the cartoon cast of a Looney Tunes short staging a harebrained revival John Osborne’s Look Back In Anger, the laws of physics and physiognomy do not in any way intrude on the pressure-cooker tale of four people, four walls, and the agony they can extract from each other’s souls. Even when those walls keep getting fists plunged through them. In the first scene of “Demolition,” Vyvan the punk—although, as the slogan “VERY METAL” scrawled on his denim vest proclaims, he clearly likes heavy metal as much as punk, another reason why he’s a miscreant after my own heart—has the superhuman power to crash through timber, brick, and mortar. He bores through The House like a human termite, even as he joins in on the mutual character assassination that he, Rick, Neil, and Mike all engage in, each in his own way.

But Vyvan’s Kool-Aid-Man-style entrances do more than just shock. They set the tone—not only for the annihilative onslaught to come or the show’s wanton, scattershot fourth-wall-breaking, but for the abrupt transitions between scenes and settings that The Young Ones will adopt as its jagged, disjointed rhythm. There’s a musicality to that chaos. The way Neil’s lentil-stained laments are woven throughout the opening scene—where the suffering hippie, already a relic by 1982, tries to prove his worth to his roommates by making lentil casserole, complete with powdered soap and the dribbling fruit of his own sneezes—is an intricately spaced code of beats and notes. The three poems of his own creation that Rick recites—so pompously mundane that they’re worthy of both a Vogon and William McGonagall—have the cadence of fractured jazz. And when Vyvyan cracks through a window with his bare head in order to address the councilwoman who’s shown up to officiate The House’s demolition, he decides for some reason to bite a nearby brick; it explodes in his mouth, to which he replies, “Some of these bricks explode! That’s good, innit?” That rapid-fire chain of nonsense, non sequiturs, twisted wreckage, and pulverized logic settles into its own demented melody.

Rick’s first poem is a quote-worthy classic. Written in honor of the show’s unwitting muse, Cliff Richard, it’s short, sweet, and absurd: “Oh, Cliff! / Sometimes it must be difficult not to feel as if / You really are a cliff / When fascists keep trying to push you over it / Are they the lemmings, or are you Cliff? / Or are you, Cliff?” Richard, at that point, had made a huge comeback as a soft-rock-meets-disco solo artist after having led the early rock ’n’ roll band The Shadows in the ’50s and ’60s, a group that influenced everyone from The Beatles on down. In other words, he was about the uncoolest musician imaginable that Rick—or the show—could have doted on. But dote they do. Rick’s paean to Richard not only puts in motion a running gag that’s still a kick (even now that the context is obsolete), but it foreshadows the last scene of the final episode, “Summer Holiday.” In the pilot, The Young Ones laid the entire foundation for what was to come in the next 11 episodes, from Neil’s suicidal, sad-sack, Jesus-meets-Eeyore martyrdom to the way The House would wind up unfolding into so many domains and dimensions, it might be able to hold the entire multiverse. And like that other iconic structure in British television that’s larger on the inside than the outside, Doctor Who’s TARDIS, The House is given a spark of personification—not by speaking, but by being spoken to.

In “Demolition,” Rick protests the imminent destruction of The House by tying himself to Neil’s full-size crucifix. (Neil to Rick: “That’s a really negative way to kill yourself. You know, like, I’ve tried it hundreds of times. There’s no way you can hammer in the last nail.”) There Rick recites his second poem of the episode: “House! House! House! / You’re made of stone / But you’re not alone- / -ly house / I am here!” The snarling, snotty student who doesn’t have a civil word for anyone human, his roommates included, suddenly finds empathy. For an inanimate object. And in doing so, he opens up the notion that The House is not only a character, but a character we can also truly care about. In fact, maybe the only character we can truly care about. As The Young Ones progresses, however, the strangest thing happens: The quartet ot miscreants that turn The House into a combination toilet bowl and abattoir manage to evolve from obnoxious to cathartic to somehow perversely noble.

“Demolition” has proven itself to be one of the most eye-gouging, groundbreaking pilots in the history of television, but The Young Ones is cherished more dearly for something else: As with its spiritual uncle, Monty Python’s Flying Circus, almost every line of the script is a quotable gem readymade for a cult following. Many U.S. viewers (myself included) were introduced to The Young Ones via the show’s rebroadcast on MTV in the ’80s, and being able to tape the show on videocassette meant it was easier to commit those quotes to memory and try to out-geek your friends by dropping them at the most random times. “I wouldn’t even discuss the color of orange juice with you, Neil,” sneers Rick. “It will soon be over for you lentils,” moans Neil. “That’s because you’re very boring!” exhorts Vyvyan. And then there’s the most indelible line from “Demolition,” courtesy of one of Rick’s poems, of course: “Totalitarian vegetables,” a term coined in accusation of Neil’s allegedly South African lentils, a purchase that would have violated the general anti-Apartheid boycott of South Africa that was so popular at the time. In many ways, The Young Ones is a product of the politics, economics, and pop-culture atmosphere of the early ’80s. But as “Demolition” proves, a bunch of idiots blowing shit up is forever.

Stray observations:

  • Musical Guest Report: Nine Below Zero is The Young Ones’ inaugural musical guest, and you should not feel dumb if you’ve never heard of the band. Appearing in “Demolition” is its biggest claim to fame, and in all my years as a music fan, music critic, and inveterate Anglophile, I’ve never heard Nine Below Zero mentioned unless it was in the same breath as The Young Ones. It’s not hard to see why. The group’s workmanlike blues-rock is not only bland, it was way out of date by 1982—this is the kind of stuff that pub-rock groups like Dr. Feelgood were playing in England in the mid-’70s, before that style of stripped-down, retro-rock ’n’ roll was supplanted by punk. Luckily for the show and for us, the musical guests get better from here. Much better.
  • Speaking of musical references, “Demolition” sports a show-within-a-show called Nozin’ Aroun’, a spoof of a “young adult” variety show in which everyone, even the interviewees, talk while dancing to a vapid pop track. It’s not the funniest part of the episode, but I can’t help but be amazed at the daring it took to stick a 4-minute, one-off gag into the pilot episode of a series. Unlike some of my other favorite shows-within-shows—like the soap opera Invitation To Love in Twin Peaks—we’ll never see the cast of Nozin’ Aroun’ again. But I still love two of its nods to British music at the time: the awesome Siouxsie Sioux lookalike swaying despondently in the background, and the host of the show, a dead ringer for Jimmy Pursey, the blustery frontman of the legendary punk band Sham 69. The surrogate Pursey—played with frantic intensity by Young Ones cowriter and future star Ben Elton—even signs off from Nozin’ Aroun’ with one of Sham 69’s most famous choruses: “If the kids are united, they will never be divided!”
  • The episode’s other prolonged interlude—with the Eastern European couple warming their hands over a bare light bulb—is downright eerie.
  • The manic, electric Alexei Sayle makes his first appearance as The House’s landlord, Jerzei Balowski, whose indeterminate nationality becomes yet another excuse for cracking the fourth wall. He steals the scene. Seizes it, really. Get used to that.
  • “I don’t want to depress you or anything, but…” is the preface I hear in my head before everything Neil says.
  • “I go over people’s heads. A bit like an aeroplane. You think I’m an aeroplane, don’t you Mike?” Am I the only person who, upon hearing Rick say these lines, immediately thinks of Shellac’s “Wingwalker”?
  • I wasn’t kidding earlier when I compared Neil to Jesus Christ: the crucifix, the self-sacrifice, the traitorous friends, the, um, hair, and most obviously, his need to spoon out 13 portions of lentils because “This is my last supper.”
  • The orchestral version of Cat Stevens’ “Morning Has Broken” that plays when the demolition van pulls up is an inspired touch.
  • Another pet theory of mine: I think The House may be located on Danny The Street, the sentient boulevard from Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol.
  • “It’s what he would have wanted.”
  • “Yes, that’s absolutely icebox!”
  • Although I’ve been writing for The A.V. Club since 2006, this is my first official piece for TV Club. Thanks for reading, and I’m looking forward to trekking into the heart of The Young Ones with you over the next few weeks.

One last thing:

Let’s all take a moment to remember the late, great Rik Mayall, who died on June 9, most likely of a “cardiac event,” according to his wife, after having a jog. His role in The Young Ones—which he co-wrote as well as starred in—launched him into the public consciousness, but his career was long and full of comedic accomplishments. He got his start with Edmondson in the London comedy club The Comic Store, where he tested out the glaring, pretentious-poet persona that we know and loathe as Rick. He and Edmondson then launched their own club, The Comic Strip, which wound up being the breeding ground for various future contributors to The Young Ones. His association with Edmondson—one of the truly great chemical reactions in comedy history—was sharpened in the post-Young Ones series Filthy Rich & Catflap and Bottom (with Bottom being a particularly underrated showcase for Mayall’s mastery of both poignancy and putridity) as well as the feature Guest House Paradiso. Roles on Blackadder and The New Statesman helped cement his legacy outside of The Young Ones, but it’s his turn as the title character of the 1991 film Drop Dead Fred that introduced him to many, as divisive as that film is. (I love it.)

I’ve already stated that I think The House is my favorite character in The Young Ones (which I’ll get into in more depth as my Young Ones reviews go along), but Rick had always been the Young One I relate to the most. Mayall’s pacing, facial elasticity, physical language, and uncanny ability to swoop from sympathetic to megalomaniac in a split second were a few of his many strengths as a comic actor—and also a reminder of my own spastic insecurities as a kid, since you asked. Beneath all of his technical talent, there was clearly some kind of pain he was able to tap into and twist around at will. I could relate.

As Edmondson said after hearing of his longtime partner’s death—and sounding for all the world like Vyvyan—“And now he’s died for real. Without me. Selfish bastard.” Edmondson also helped carry Mayall’s coffin, and the thought of Vyvyan being one of Rik’s pallbearers is enough to chill my soul (not to mention reminding me of a certain scene from a certain upcoming episode of The Young Ones, but we won’t jump ahead of ourselves). Edmondson, though, wasn’t the only former cast member of The Young Ones who has paid tribute to Mayall since his passing. The house in Bristol that portrayed The House has graciously allowed itself to be turned into a shrine. Kudos, The House. And God save Rik Mayall. You bastard.

Upcoming schedule:

July 21: “Oil”

July 28: “Boring”

Aug. 4: “Bomb”

Aug. 11: “Interesting”

Aug. 18: “Flood”

Aug. 25: “Bambi”

Sep. 1: “Cash”

Sep. 8: “Nasty”

Sep. 15: “Time”

Sep. 22: “Sick”

Sep. 29: “Summer Holiday”

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