Television seems so neat and tidy these days. With so many damn channels available, you’d think there'd be anarchy. But no. Every channel has a niche audience and a mandate, with carefully targeted programming to match. I sort of miss the 13-channel cable TV service that we had until the mid-‘80s. Every channel had to be all things to all people. They all had news, they all (even PBS) covered sports in some way. There weren't many shows to go around, and programmers sometimes had to draw from unusual sources to fill up the schedule. Now, with every special interest tucked away in its own channel and so many TV shows in production, the chance of coming across something completely surprising is a lot lower.
Here in Vancouver we pulled in a wonderful little station called KVOS on channel 12. Based in Bellingham just across the border, it primarily catered to Canadians. In its heyday, KVOS carried a lot of syndicated American programs (still does, actually), but when 10 PM rolled around, they packed up old Glory and unfurled the Union Jack. It was time to give Canadians heaping platefuls of the televisual equivalent of mushy peas and sausage rolls: old sitcoms like On the Buses and Man About the House, lowbrow sketch/variety shows like Benny Hill and Dave Allen at Large (I always thought Allen was ultra-cool, presiding with his whiskey and fags). In a slightly more upmarket vein, KVOS also gave us lots of Monty Python, Fawlty Towers, and—god bless them for all eternity—Not the Nine O’Clock News.
Not the Nine O’Clock News was a lot fresher than the other KVOS fare. The episodes were only a year or two old when they aired here. It was also skewed a lot younger—it felt like the next generation on from Python. Today it’s remembered as the place where Rowan Atkinson got his start before he went on to Blackadder and Mr. Bean. Even back then, it was clear he was the star in the cast, although the other three players were excellent themselves.
The show had a freewheeling format, interspersing studio sketches with fake news reports and film footage of royalty and politicians edited for maximum laughs. The only reliable segment was the closing song, where they would skewer some musical trend or artist. This was one of the strongest elements on the show—not only were the cast great singers and impressionists, the songs themselves were catchy as hell and offered an interesting insight into music at the turn of the ‘80s.
Here’s a rundown of my favourite NtNOCN songs.
It’s odd to think there was a time when Kate Bush was considered a lightweight flash-in-the-pan pop star. We should be so lucky today. This one’s a little mean-spirited, but Pamela Stephenson’s imitation is spot-on, as is the mangled arrangement of “Them Heavy People.”
Mainstream culture couldn’t help but overhear the rumblings of the NWOBHM as headbangers and rivetheads elbowed their way into pubs and festivals across the country. As with many satires of heavy metal, this isn’t a very good metal song—it's more like bad Status Quo. But it slightly predates “Bad News,” and there’s an exploding head.
Another thing about NtNOCN was that its naughtiness threshold was higher than anything else on TV at the time. The writing usually aimed higher, but any mention of “tits” or “shit” would send me howling. I never actually saw this song on the show; I heard it via one of the three NtNON albums the BBC released.
By the way, there is a significant Difficult Music angle to all this, as some of these songs (including the one above) were co-written by Chris Judge Smith, founding member of Van der Graaf Generator.
Is this ska? Two-tone? Whatever it is, it’s damn funny. Rowan Atkinson in fine form.
This song doesn’t seem intent on parodying any specific musician or style, but it does show how times have changed. To my knowledge, no fatwahs were issued as a result of this.
I don’t know what prompted this one. I can only guess that the CB radio fad arrived in England well after it had died in the U.S. Anyway, this song even features the truck driver’s gear change towards the end. It also inspired the second NtNOCN LP, Hedgehog Sandwich. 1:09 cracks me up every time, as does the line “you can listen to the wireless.” That’s some burly trucker’s tough-guy talk right there!
Like most great British shows, NtNOCN ran for only a few years (27 episodes) before its cast and writers dispersed. Atkinson, as I mentioned, went on to worldwide fame. Smith and Jones did their own show, Alas Smith & Jones, which was more quality sketch comedy in the NtNOCN style. Smith also directed The Tall Guy and Bean, amongst others. Pamela Stephenson joined the cast of SNL during one of its most turbulent periods, and made little impact. She’s now a clinical psychologist and still does television. First-season player and writer Chris Langham went on to do a ton of acting, writing and directing until some unfortunate, not funny at all, charges sidelined his career.
A lot of this material is available on The Best of Not the Nine O'Clock News, a two-DVD set from BBC Worldwide/A&E/New Video. It's a shame the original shows aren't available in North America, but this edited compilation hits most of the high points.