Not The Nine O'Clock News

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The cast of Not The Nine O'Clock News (from left): Griff Rhys Jones, Rowan Atkinson, and Mel Smith, with Pamela Stephenson at the front.

Not The Nine O'Clock News was a ground-breaking comedy television programme shown on the BBC broadcast from 1979 to 1982. It featured a new generation of young comedians, principally Rowan Atkinson, Pamela Stephenson, Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones, and helped to bring alternative comedy to the mainstream. Rather than being written by a single team of writers, it gave virtually anyone involved in UK comedy scriptwriting a chance to demonstrate their talents, creaming the best of their contributions. It was the first mainstream show to include short sketches lasting from a few seconds to a few minutes, creating a format which has lasted until the present (and gave its name to a more recent BBC comedy sketch show — The Fast Show).



Not The Nine O'Clock News was produced by John Lloyd, a mainstay in much of British comedy as well as the BBC light entertainment department. Lloyd pitched the idea of a sketch show to the heads of BBC comedy and light entertainment, and was given a 6-show series, on condition that he collaborate with Sean Hardie, who had worked previously in current affairs at the BBC.

Their original cast list was Rowan Atkinson, Christopher Godwin, John Gorman, Chris Langham, Willoughby Goddard and Jonathan Hyde, and was schedule to be broadcast on 2 April 1979. The first episode was supposed to have been one of the first cross-over created episodes in television history. Originally scheduled to air after Fawlty Towers, John Cleese was to have introduced the first episode in a sketch referring to the then-current technicians' strike, explaining (in character as Basil Fawlty) that there was no show to ready that week, so a "tatty revue" would be broadcast instead. Fortunately for some fans, who consider the episode to be rather unfunny, the 1979 general election intervened, and the show was pulled as being too political. (The sketch with Cleese was eventually broadcast later that year, when by a stroke of luck the final episode of Fawlty Towers went out during broadcast run of the first series of Not The Nine O'Clock News, though the original significance of the sketch was lost.)

Lloyd and Hardie regrouped, and decided to recast the show, keeping only Langham and Atkinson from the original cast. They wanted to bring in a woman: Victoria Wood turned down the opportunity, but Lloyd met Pamela Stephenson at a party and shortly afterwards she agreed to join the cast. Atkinson, Langham and Stephenson were joined by Mel Smith. The first series was sufficiently popular to merit a second series. Langham was replaced as a main cast member by Griff Rhys Jones, who had already appeared in minor roles, and the second series was an instant major success, and Atkinson, Stephenson, Smith and and Rhys Jones quickly became stars. The second series won the Silver Rose at the Montreux Festival .

The show ran for a total of 28 episodes, of 30 minutes each:

Main writers included David Renwick, Colin Bostock-Smith, Andy Hamilton, Peter Brewis, Richard Curtis, and Clive Anderson. However, the producers operated an "open door" policy, and accepted scripts for sketches from virtually any source, which allowed it to select the best product from a wide range of writers and enable the show to include items relating to the current news recorded days before the actual broadcast. Howard Goodall, subsequently writer of the Red Dwarf, Blackadder and The Vicar of Dibley theme tunes (amongst others) was also involved musically. Bill Wilson directed the first three series, Geoff Posner the fourth.

Not The Nine O'Clock News became a stage show in Oxford and London in 1982, but the main actors decided to end the project while it was a success and left for new projects: Stephenson began a Hollywood film career, Atkinson recorded the first series of Blackadder in 1983, and Smith and Jones became a double act in Alas Smith and Jones. A successful American adaptation, Not Necessarily The News ran for 6 years, from 1983–9 on the Home Box Office cable television channel.

Name and format

The show's name derived from its broadcast schedule — it was transmitted on BBC Two at the same time as the main Nine O'Clock News went out on BBC One, leading to the opportunity for some amusing continuity announcements. However, this soon worked against the schedulers, who found that the audience they were hoping to attract were often drawn to both the Nine O'Clock News and Not The Nine O'Clock News. For this reason, Not The Nine O'Clock News was swiftly moved to 9.30 pm.

Starring a new generation of young comedians, it helped bring alternative comedy to the mainstream. It presented a series of individual sketches which were often topical or generally satirical. Unlike other sketch shows up until then, which were based on simple stereotypes or idyllic views of Britain, Not The Nine O'Clock News was modern and aggressive — its sketches featured comedy from the likes of punk rockers, bodily functions, and kebabs, rather than men in tweed jackets and gentle country pubs.

Each sketch could last from a few seconds to a few minutes, creating a format which has lasted until the present (and gave its name to a more recent BBC comedy sketch show — The Fast Show). The show made heavy use of the revolution in video editing and recording which was taking place at the time, and the fast pace of the show was enhanced by the use of jump cutting of archive news footage, usually of politicians, royalty or famous people. The cutting would make it appear that Margaret Thatcher was crashing a car, as one example (she would later complain about this unfair manipulation of actual events). The show was usually shot on film for outside broadcast and video for studio performances, and innovative video effects, provided by the then all-new Quantel Paintbox video effects unit, were often a key element of the musical numbers in the show.

Memorable sketches

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Not The Nine O'Clock News: Episode 1 - Rowan Atkinson
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Not The Nine O'Clock News: Episode 1 - Gerald the Intelligent Gorilla

Memorable sketches include:

  • A darts parody featuring the "sportsmen" being scored on units of alcohol instead of the darts
  • A hi-fi shop with disdainful staff, making fun of the ignorance of a customer ('A gramophone?)
  • Rowan Atkinson addressing the Conservative party conference, interspersed with footage of applauding government ministers. Railing against non-white immigration, he remarks that they can't help it if they're from India, adding "And I like curry. But now that we've got the recipe, is there any reason for them to stay?"
  • The General Synod's Life of Christ (a parody of the controversy surrounding the film Monty Python's Life of Brian)
  • Constable Savage (a barbed attack on alleged police treatment of ethnic minorities)
  • Rowan Atkinson as a vicar trying to express his support for homosexuals within the Church, not very convincingly and with great embarrassment
  • Gerald the Intelligent Gorilla ("Gerald was wild when he was captured" "Wild? I was absolutely livid!")
  • Come Home to a Real Fire (Buy a Cottage in Wales) (a reference to a spate of arson attacks by Welsh people against English people's second homes, and a parody of the contemporary coal marketing campaign). The Welsh were frequent targets of attack, as was the UK political party, the Liberal Party.
  • Pamela Stephenson doing a couple of send-ups of Janet Street-Porter, exaggerated almost to the point of incomprehensibility.
  • Film of Roy Jenkins the then leader of the Social Democratic Party standing behind a lecture stand played to the sound of a man urinating into a bucket.
  • A spoof of the BBC 2 channel close down announcement in which the clock moves to the right to reveal Atkinson running his finger around a glass to produce the closed channel tone.
  • A spoof of religous affairs programmes chaired by Stephenson in which Atkinson complains to an Anglican Priest "Where was God when I cut my finger" to which Stephenson replies "I think Its fair to say God can't be everywhere at once" to which the Priest snaps "Of course he can, he's omnipresent."

The show usually ended with a musical parody or pastiche (as would Spitting Image in later years), normally either from the writing team of Curtis & Goodall, or penned by the show's musical director, Philip Pope. Titles included "I Like Truckin'", "Nice Video (Shame About the Song)", "Sooper Dooper" (an ABBA parody), "Gob On You" (unusually, written by Chris Judge Smith), the "Ayatollah Song" (featuring Pamela Stephenson singing " Ayatollah, Khomeini closer..") and, for the final episode, "The Memory Kinda Lingers" (a verbal pun on the oral sexual act performed on a woman).

Commercial releases

Video and DVD

Two highly-edited videos of the show, entitled Nice Video, Shame about the Hedgehog and The Gorilla Kinda Lingers were released in the mid-1990s.

More recently, in August 2003 the BBC released the first DVD from the series, the originally titled The Best Of Not the Nine O'Clock News — Volume One, which received a followup Volume Two a year later.


Three albums were released at the time NTNON was screening, entitled Not the Nine O'Clock News, Hedgehog Sandwich and (The Memory) Kinda Lingers respectively. These albums were very successful, with the first two both reaching the top ten of the UK albums chart, a rare feat for a spoken-word LP.

The original version of The Memory Kinda Lingers was a double-LP. The second disc is titled Not in Front of the Audience and is a live recording of the cast's stage show. Hedgehog Sandwich . It and the first disc of The Memory Kinda Lingers are now combined on a BBC double-length cassette.

The Ayatollah Song b/w Gob on You was also released as a single.

Books and Misc

Three books were released to tie in with the series; Not! the Nine O'Clock News, whose cover was a spoof of the short-lived "Now!" magazine, Not the Royal Wedding (the royal wedding in question being the marriage of Charles and Diana), and Not the General Election, a tie in with the 1983 General Election.

Finally, two 'page-a-day' tear-off calendars, edited by John Lloyd were released in the early 1980s; Not 1982 and Not 1983.

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