I was absolutely forbidden from watching the first series of The Young Ones, in 1982. I relied on awed playground rumour of its violence and uproar. I was a little scared of it. Second time around, in 1984, I could watch it but not in the living room – only upstairs on our small black and white second set, getting up every five minutes to retune. This time I loved it – what eleven-year-old wouldn’t? And then 1986 – a pantomime version of their brutal slapstick, for charity. This time the Young Ones could be on our colour television: the takeover of TV comedy by its “alternative” complete.
Perhaps some people thought Mayall et al were selling out. There was none of that at school: we felt ourselves a little too sophisticated for “Living Doll” but we appreciated the fact that it was ‘our’ comedians making the record, and we appreciated the fact that Cliff was doing his bit. There was a safe kind of naughtiness about the whole thing which would become the standard tone for Comic Relief events: a light entertainment Feast of Fools. They have become a tradition, quite deliberately but no less authentically for that – “alternative comedy”‘s most lasting legacy.
Later Comic Relief records – and we’ll be meeting plenty of them – have often taken the hilarity of “comedian meets pop star” as read and not bothered with the actual jokes. It’s a shock to be reminded of how carefully the performers constructed “Living Doll”. Not only does it have gags, it even has a plot of sorts. Young Ones help Cliff sing song – they accidentally knock him out and have to finish it themselves (though naturally he recovers to help). The attention to detail puts it above most comedy singles, though that isn’t saying a great deal.
All the banter, asides, and slapstick business push one of Cliff’s weaker hits to twice its original length – “Living Doll’s” lyrics are dim enough to incite the abuse, the tune strong enough to cope with it, and Cliff is – naturally – a trouper. (This was the first time, I think, his record of No.1 hits in every decade was widely discussed.) It wasn’t meant to age well, and it hasn’t, but it’s a happy memory. There are two bits that can still make me smile – Neil’s “I feel sorry for the elephant” (the only joke on the record you actually had to ‘get’) and the best part of the song, the very genuine glee in the massed backing vocals. Cliff sings “Gonna lock her up in a trunk” and the boys all cannon in with “TRUNK!”, sounding all of a sudden like friends having a laugh, not characters trying for one.