Manchester University may have produced more Nobel Prize winners than any other non-Oxbridge city, yet we can also make a claim no less necessary in retaining the peace and happiness of the human race; the university has produced a veritable bundle of comedy greats over the last 30 years. Where would TV comedy be without the comedic revolutionaries of the late 1970’s? Chances are we’d all still be stuck watching re-runs of The Good Life if it weren’t for Ben Elton’s wonderfully anarchic The Young Ones, a series which simultaneously broke with Britain’s Carry On tradition of sitcom; retaining the Python’s surreal take on the everyday and giving it a punky, 80s ‘youth’ makeover.
This was TV emerging as countercultural, ready to both comment on and sneer at Thatcherite Britain. The shouty, idiotic and absurd nature of Elton’s creation can be seen as Manchester’s answer to Fry and Laurie and their Cambridge Footlight’s gang of the same era. Indeed, the Cambridge pair even make a cameo appearance in the second series when Edmonson and Mayall and their fellow housemates are put up against “Footlights College” on University Challenge, a team of insufferable posho’s, comprising of Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry, Emma Thompson and Ben Elton himself.
The Young Ones may perhaps now seem somewhat dated, but the lasting influence that the show had on comedy, and on TV in general, has been profound. The two series follow the lives of four dislikeable social inadequates; self-proclaimed anarchist Rik; punk medical student Vyvian, suicidal hippy Neil and Mike “The cool person”; each ostensibly studying at “Scumbag College”. Elton’s time living in East Didsbury whilst reading drama at the University with Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmonson was where they gained much of their material.
The set; a deeply squalid Victorian semi-detached house which over the course of the series gets progressively annihilated, is no doubt familiar to anyone residing in Manchester’s student accommodation.
This template of student squalor is one obviously referenced in last year’s Fresh Meat, a show directed and starred in by UoM alumni; its writers, Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong (also of Peep Show fame), and star on the rise, OP veteran Jack Whitehall.
As Armstrong and Bain themselves said recently, it seems odd that the format has not been used more often. With around 45 per cent of young people now attending university, they relished in finding comedy in the notion of disparate types of people being forced to cohabit. “We always felt that Manchester was the right place, partly because it’s so huge and you get all these different people from very different backgrounds.”
As well as churning out comedic writing talent, Manchester also provides the setting for some of the best comedy of recent years. Perhaps most popular is Shameless, managing to make the grimmest of sink estates brim over with a quintessentially Mancunian tongue-in cheek humour. The show manages to provide a direct antidote to the glossy finesse of modern sitcoms of this, the Desperate Housewives era. Writer Paul Abbott describes it as “The Waltons on acid”. Shameless follows a precedent set by the Royle Family in depicting the funnier side of Northern English working class life and family. Is this because Manchester particularly makes a good comedic setting, or is there a sense of socio-economic tourism going on here? Shameless’ immense popularity amongst the chattering classes suggests the latter. Yet the show is equally popular with readers of The Sun as it is with the literati. The brilliance of the series is perhaps its combination of complete lunacy amongst total normality.
Abbott knows first hand the reality of living somewhere like the (fictional) ‘Chatsworth Estate’, having grown up parentless with seven siblings in Burnley. His experience gives him the ability to create humour within a setting others would not dare to attempt.
With the immense popularity of shows like Shameless, now in its eighth series, we can hope to see more controversial shows being commissioned, that show the humour within diversity which Britain, and Manchester in particular, seems to excel at. With the movement of the BBC up to Salford, here’s hoping we’ll be seeing the fruits of many more Manchester student’s labours on the small-screen before long.