Not to be confused with the legendary American comedy show Saturday Night Live, this is essentially the British equivalent. Certainly as influential in its time (1985-88) as its American near namesake, the show spawned a host of alternative comedy stars and gave early exposure to the likes of Jo Brand as The Sea Monster and Julian Clary, who appeared as The Joan Collins Fan Club accompanied by Fanny the wonder dog.
Saturday Live began as a 90-minute special on Channel Four in 1985. It returned for two full seasons in 1986 and 1987 with its final season rescheduled and renamed Friday Night Live in 1988. The three main ingredients of a typical show are represented here on three discs.
Disc one celebrates the spangly-suited frontman Ben Elton. It was Elton’s notorious ‘motormouth’ and ‘little bit of politics’ routines that secured him the host duties from the second series. The first series had been fronted by hosts as diverse as Lenny Henry and Michael Barrymore.
There is fun to be had watching Elton gradually morph from his rather plain suit into the well-remembered sparkly jackets, always with a (politically motivated?) red tie. The change is almost in tandem with his increasing confidence from the rather tame ‘farty’ to the rabble rousing bearded uber-host at the height of his powers.
It has been observed that Ben Elton’s nickname for Margaret Thatcher – “Thatch” had both familiarity and contempt in equal measure. This series more so than Elton’s BBC series in the 90s showcases his best work. It also underlines just how much he’s sold out in recent years with his rock musicals.
Disc two is devoted to the undoubted rising star of the show, character comedian Harry Enfield. Sketches as kebab shop owner Stavros are followed by the zeitgeist-capturing Loadsamoney, an obnoxiously smug albeit handsomely paid plasterer.
Indeed, Loads’ first appearance was simply entitled “the plasterer”. In retrospect the joy of the sketch comes from the then completely fresh catchphrase. In the space of a few minutes, it drew a response from the audience and after a few more appearances Loadsamoney had seeped into the national conscience with Neil Kinnock’s ‘down with kids’ pronouncements about the ‘”Loadsamoney economy’.
Enfield, working with the soon-to-be famous writers and performers Paul Whitehouse and Charlie Higson, also created an antithesis of Loads, a Geordie victim of Thatcherism called Buggerallmoney who “drank beer and smoked tabs”.
The third disc features a series of sublime sketches showcasing the talents of Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, the show’s original double act adding some ‘silly ass’ oxbridge humour to the mix. We glimpse embryonic characters later to the fore in A Bit Of Fry And Laurie:
The generic businessmen Simon and Gordon, a couple of ineffectual spies later immortalised in the series as Control and Tony Merchison and Peter Mostyn (later Tony Inchpractice) interviewing his guests in the most unlikely situations imaginable: “Tonight I’ll be stealing a car with…” One sketch features an ‘invasion’ by Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson as The Dangerous Brothers. Surely they deserved a disc to themselves?
For the sake of simplicity, the DVDs are branded as Saturday Live. Each features around 25 sketches/stand-up routines together with extras where the regulars are joined by guest stars. Meatloaf appears as an irate American in a two-hander with Stephen Fry, which perfectly encapsulates the perceptions and prejudices we have about America and they have about us. The then recently deposed GLC leader Ken Livingstone performs a very self-aware ‘right-on’sketch to the (mock?) boredom of the regular artistes.
The rather over lit LWT studio feel of the earlier shows is typical of 80s TV production values (we could be watching an alternative comedy edition of Aspel and Company, especially given Harry Enfield’s uncannily accurate impression of the famous Oliver Reed/Aspel moment!).
Friday Night Live, with its marginally moodier lighting and remarkable set featuring the back end of cars (as if crashed into the walls) and flickering neon tube show title, shares more in common with the ubiquitous sweeping-pan-of-the-audience and flashy sets of early 90s shows such as The Mary Whitehouse Experience.
The audience members are a curious snapshot of the fashion of the era. Lots of Boy George trilbys on the heads of the girls closest to the stage. Many go with a ‘student in contentious t-shirt’ look. Others are out for a whacky time sporting ill-advised ‘crazy’ beat-your-brains-out hats and beanies as if they’ve received fashion advice from Timmy Mallet.
By the later shows the yuppie influence of sharp suits and hair gel is in evidence, ironically the very group Harry Enfield is satirising on stage. I may be wrong, but one audience member in a Fry and Laurie sketch bears an uncanny resemblance to a young James May, whilst another watching Ben Elton do his stuff is a dead ringer for a young Alan Davies….
Being a topical show it’s the timeless Fry and Laurie sketches that stand repeated viewing. Harry Enfield’s work here hints at the myriad of characters he was yet to unleash, though we are spoilt by an incredible amount of Stavros routines. Inevitably, Elton’s work has dated most; his optimism for a Labour government seems misplaced viewed from this distance. This is very much his ‘angry young man phase’ and ,although best known for his political rants, his non-political (yet always politically correct) material remains accessible if a little self-consciously ‘right on’ viewed from a post ‘lad-culture’ 21st century stance.
The lack of a Dangerous Brothers disc is an opportunity missed. Maybe they’ll make the cut of a follow up compilation, perhaps accompanied by a disc celebrating the likes of Frost and Arden, Hunter and Docherty, Jo Brand, Julian Clary and Josie Lawrence or ‘old school’ guests such as Spike Milligan and Peter Cook?
Overall, a decent package which captures the slightly subversive feel of a show originally broadcast during the height of Thatcherism. Scheduled by Channel Four mid-Saturday evening as an alternative to the ‘cosy’ double acts of The Two Ronnies and Cannon and Ball on the mainstream channels. A mainstream which, nowadays, is populated by many of the performers showcased here.
Tellingly, a revival (of sorts) mounted by ITV in 1996 lacked the edge of the original. Despite the efforts of Lee Hurst and Harry Hill it lasted just one season.
Saturday Live is out now.