Drop the Dead Donkey

According to Taflinger this would be an act-com, action comedy, wherein the comedy is derived from the actions of the rather eccentric characters and the set is clearly defined as a news room but with no real personal touches.

 

This is quite an unusual situation-comedy because although set in the work place, which is not that unusual, it is a topical show and many of the elements in it are up-to-the-minute it is also written, shot and filmed in the week of broadcast. Apart from these elements it otherwise conforms to the standard conventions of a sit-com, being of approximately half an hour’s duration, using a set of stock characters and stereotypes and the whole being set in a limited number of sets or places. It also adheres to Todorov’s model in that the narrative is circular with a beginning, where there is equilibrium,(the office on a normal working day Sally asking for time off to go to granny’ funeral) and Damien with news of a scurrilous report on the government in the pipeline) a middle, where there is a disruption to that equilibrium (where Sally’ granny’s ashes in their urn get upset and Damien’s informant turns out to be a fraud) and an end, where there is a return to equilibrium (Dave, Damien and Joy chain smoke ton top up the ashes, and Damien sets up his arch rival Lin Wright with a fake informant act of his own.) This programme even has the coda which is feature of more modern sitcoms where two voices discuss the most recent newsworthy events in an unseen head to head over the credits of the show.

 

Originating in the late 1980s and early 90s during the, for it, hey day of the Thatcher years, it had a wealth of material to draw upon; politics was much more interesting and opinions much more polarised, equal rights for women had gotten as far as the work place for most and men were just beginning to find out that they were becoming redundant in many women’s lives.

 

Of course it is a feature of British sit-com humour that most often the central character is male but a particularly ineffectual one and this show was no different. Here George Dent, is the editor of Globelink News which should place him in a position of respect but, not only does he have the journalists working for him undermining his position by taking advantage of his extreme gullibility, he also has the owner of the channel (Sir Royston)’s lackey, Gus, bending his ear and questioning his judgment at every turn. Fortunately for George everyone hates Gus so they tend to side with George if there is any conflict. George, who wears a cardigan, is probably in his early forties, has a horrendous home-life with a demanding and emasculating, witch of a wife (Margaret) and daughter who should probably be either in prison or in a padded cell in a psychiatric hospital because she is continually being suspended from school for setting fire to it and other such offences. He, of course, always sees their side of the story (because he’s gullible) and is constantly making excuses for their outrageous behaviour, which we only ever hear about from George himself quite often from one-sided phone calls.

 

In the early series’s, Alex played by Hayden Gwynne, is George’s efficient deputy, who is seen as capable, hard-working, popular but very straight. She is very tall, slim, quite good-looking but doesn’t use her sex appeal overtly. The two ‘boy’ journalists, Dave and Damien who know they can pull the wool over George’s eyes, know they can’t get away with it with Alex.

Henry and Sally are the superior news anchors, better educated, better spoken and better paid, a source of resentment with the others at times. They occupy a pair of desks next to each other but slightly removed from the desks of the others as if to heighten their sense of both superiority and isolation. Both are very idiosyncratic; Henry’s penchant is for the Times crossword, in this episode he spends the entire time trying to get the last clue ‘gegs’ only to have the post boy give him the answer at the end, and dining out with old chums and mates from political circles and school. He is the stereotypical old-boy, greasing palms and smarming (or as we would probably call it now ‘networking’) his way through life. He and Sally hate each other and it is a source of ironic amusement to the viewer that they are shown in the opening credits as smiling at each other over the news room desk on camera, for we know that as soon as the camera stops rolling the bitching will recommence.

 

Sally, represents the eye-candy being quite attractive and well-spoken and dressed, but she really ought to be blonde because she is so brainless and thoughtless. Most of the time the audience hates her for she is just a smug, arrogant and insensitive bitch and then, as on this occasion, we are given insight into her character which makes us realise to some extent why she is like she is. This time she has to attend the funeral of her grandmother who brought her up, she asks for the time off: we feel sympathetic; she brings her ashes back to the office prior to scattering them over Box Hill, then asks if she can go early to open a supermarket: we feel unsympathetic; but later still it is revealed that Sally was abused by her grandmother but since she was the only person in her life who showed her any kind of feelings we are forced to become sympathetic as she recounts the horrifically unkind things her ‘granny’ did.

Joy the office girl, a role undeveloped at this stage, knocks the urn over and cleans up the ashes putting them in a black bin bag which promptly gets taken to the dump: we feel horrified and sympathetic with Sally again. Dave and Damien now provide this episode’s most comic moment and allow us to see that they’re not just insensitive and manipulative ‘ lads’ because when they find out they are genuinely horrified (although admittedly this might be because Gus has threatened anyone who disrespects Sally’s grief with a ‘return to the job market’)

and the three of them end up in George’s office chain-smoking to top up the missing ash.

 

Joy is an interesting character. At this stage she is a very angry young woman, she is prone to snap at everybody, very rude or sarcastic to Gus and singularly unhelpful generally. In subsequent episodes we learn she has had a series of unsuccessful relationships with men and is soured as a result. If she was older and this sitcom was set in the late 90s she would be a prime candidate for the stereotypical menopausal female. Possibly at this stage she might be here as an embryonic man-hating feminist or even lesbian. This is something the writers took up when Alex left and they replaced her with Helen an attractive feminine, lesbian! A leaning the men in the office find very hard to believe and certainly don’t understand!

 

With regard to the use of stereotypes in this programme, they are essential to the viewer here because most of us are unfamiliar with the particular organisation portrayed. As Bowes pointed out not all stereotypes are ‘bad’ ‘…what is important is to examine the place of the stereotype in the structure of the programme – is (it) the target or the producer of the humour?’ And although Gus, George, Dave, Damien, Sally and Henry are all stereotypes and we are invited to laugh at all of them at some points, there are always other points when we are able to identify with their humanity, with their weaknesses and flaws. We are, at heart, all afraid of becoming like them! And it is with a sigh of relief that we are enabled to laugh at this propensity in ourselves!

 

This is an office of men, where the women are few and far between, so much of the humour is derived from sexist remarks and the laddish behaviour of Dave and Damien. These two are stereotypical unreconstructed men whose foremost obsessions are drinking, gambling (they’ll bet on absolutely anything) and of course women. Dave is the more sensitive of the two (as witness his suggestion that they couldn’t allow Sally to be upset by the loss of her grandmother’s ashes) but his obsession is with his sexual prowess, he has to keep a book of the names of all the girls he’s slept with because he can never remember. Damien is the bad boy reporter who makes up or stages his stories, uses unscrupulous informers and cheats to get supposedly ‘live’ footage or a scoop. In this episode we see him boasting about this informant who is coming in to the office to give him some documents and minutes of a meeting held in Strasbourg on 14th July which will cast the government in a bad light. Nobody among the office staff but the post boy, again, spots that 14th July was Bastille Day and Europe was shut! The informant turns out to be a previous informant for Damien’s stories but under different names, nationalities and even gender and exposes the fact that he likes to make fools of journalists. The audience is left wondering if anything they read or hear on the news is true!

 

Alex is never a figure of fun, she is the mother figure, keeping the boys under control and looking after George as a wife does her husband. George, in his totally unsuccessful attempts to keep both his workers and his family under control is a ‘nice’ man, as a result everybody takes advantage of him and we feel sorry for him much as past audiences did with Tony Hancock and others.

 

Gus, whose real job is undefined, creeps around getting in everybody’s way and up everybody’s noses with his false flattery, his overdependence on jargon phrases (he was a forerunner of the political correctness of the late 90s) and his tendency to tell tales to Sir Royston. He is an inept middle-manager with delusions of adequacy. His ambivalent position within the organisation is characterised by his meaningless jargon filled sentences and his uneasy relationships with those below and above him. He is more in the tradition of the archetypal sit-com males, because he is insecure, a bully and deep down very lonely as were his predecessors Mr Peacock (Are You Being Served) and Mr Rigsby (Rising Damp). The purpose of this character within the narrative is to offer a subversive and critical look at those who, most people are familiar with in the business world, have got where they are through family connections or ‘brown-nosing’ and who haven’t earned their position. He is the ultimate snob; he has his own office but hates being alone in it and is afraid that the others talk about him behind his back. He pretends to be their ally but would as soon stab them in the back if it would help consolidate his position or increase his power.

 

Here we have a sit-com which was originally shown on channel four at the forefront of their alternative comedy slot, post-watershed and vying for an unusual audience of B, C1 viewers. With Ch 4’s PSB remit shows like this with an admittedly niche audience found a good home for several years. Not needing to have to pander to advertisers or a mass and therefore rather watered down market this show was vibrant, intelligent and the epitome of post-modern entertainment.

 

It highlighted such ideological issues as class background, political chicanery and women’s rights in the work place. Alex, though a subordinate character to George rightly has her own place, in control and practically at the helm of, this important social organisation. Her straight down the line values about what stories they should include in each bulletin often come into conflict with the ethos of the organisation itself, or with the journalistic methods or political pressure. She is uncompromising in her opinions of what good news values are. And she often gets her way thus showing the writers have no desire to undermine the value and importance of news broadcasting on the whole.

It is an unusual sitcom in that it does not have a laughter track, going more for realism than for audience pleasure.

But the audience for this programme are probably more worldly and sophisticated than many and do not need telling when to laugh; most of the laughs here come from the recognition and appreciation of the relevance of the jokes, most of which are politically based and therefore appeal to a wider read and better educated viewer. This dependence on intertextuality works to create a sense of shared cultural experience among the audience who gain pleasure from both its subversion and their recognition of that fact.

 

Again using Todorov‘s model the disruption to the equilibrium usually comes from two directions: personal or character driven and political. By highlighting the problems inherent in newsgathering and broadcasting the programme makes the audience both appreciate the difficulties and the finished product.

Bazalgette et al identified ‘…chiefly class and gender although sometimes power relations…’ as being the most commonly articulated generators of conflict within sit-com.

 

Yet overriding everything this sit-com does not challenge it merely reinforces the stereotypes of its time, despite the realism of its form and style, despite the apparent subversion of the political jokes everything turns out alright in the end, the characters’ traditional roles and values are affirmed and all returns to normal. The bad boys get found out, Sally and Henry are put in their places, Gus is humiliated, George is supported and Alex’s mother hen’s feathers are smoothed.

 


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