Not the Nine O’clock News was one of those rare comedy creations that did far more than just get us chuckling. It defined a decade, influencing scores of other shows and helping to launch the careers of some of Britain’s most talented comedians and writers.
Like many innovative television programmes, it took a while for the NTNON producers find the right formula. The programme’s original conception as a fast-moving sketch show loosely based on the news and overtly political in places remained solid. But there was a lot of tweaking before the format most viewers remember was established. Nervous BBC executives cancelled an early version featuring six performers because they considered it too politically controversial to screen during the general election of spring 1979. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise because the producers used the opportunity to rethink the show’s line-up. When it finally aired in October 1979, NTNON was just as political but the cast had been trimmed. The fate of the new show rested on just four regular performers, all of them unknown to the wider public.
The quartet most viewers remember were Rowan Atkinson, Pamela Stephenson, Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones. In fact, Jones didn’t join the show full-time until the second series. Chris Langham was the fourth performer for series one, though Jones had some supporting roles. The chemistry between Atkinson, Stephenson, Smith and Jones produced very funny television indeed. Highlights included a fabulous send-up of Abba, Stephenson’s uncannily adroit impersonations of newsreaders and an acidic satire on religious sensibilities in which supporters of Monty Python’s Life of Brian accuse the Church of blaspheming against the Flying Circus.
It wasn’t just unknown performers who got the chance to shine at NTNON. The producers cast their net wide for writing talent, too. Among the eager scribes to get a break on the show were Richard Curtis, whose subsequent credits include the sublime Blackadder as well as hit Brit romcoms Four Weddings and a Funeral, Bridget Jones’s Diary and Love Actually. Nigel Planer, Rory McGrath, Clive Anderson and Ruby Wax all worked on the show, too.
As the first truly satirical comedy revue on the BBC since That Was The Week That Was back in the 1960s, the producers wanted NTNON to have a contemporary feel. Every episode contained news footage that had been re-cut and re-voiced to satirise public figures. We take this technique for granted today but it was pioneered by the NTNON team. The show was also the first to exploit the potential offered by digital graphics. Writers were given guidelines they had to follow when penning a NTNON sketch. The piece had to be short: the overwhelming majority of sketches were less than two minutes. It also had to have a modern setting – even if the gag itself was as old as the hills!
Griff Rhys Jones
Producers: John Lloyd, Sean Hardie
Writers on the show included the cast as well Richard Curtis, Andrew Marshall and David Renwick, Colin Bostock-Smith, Rory McGrath, Andy Hamilton, Guy Jenkin, Paul Smith and Terry Kyan, Nigel Planer.
Network: BBC Two
Duration: 27×25 minute episodes
Aired From: 16 October 1979 – 8 March 1982