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Classic TV Revisited: Three of a Kind

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Three of a Kind was a quick-fire sketch show, strictly non-satirical and safe to watch with your granny. The Daily Mail wrote: ‘There is no time to get bored. By the time you realise a joke has not worked you are laughing at the next.’

When was it on?
From 1981 to 1983 on BBC1. There were three series and a couple of specials – a total of 18 episodes in all.

Who were the star turns?
Lenny Henry, fresh from New Faces, The Fosters, Tiswas and OTT; Tracey Ullman,an aspiring young actress; and David Copperfield, a northern comic not to be confused with the American illusionist.

Who recurring themes?
Three of a Kind pioneered the use of computer graphics and featured ‘Gagfax’where jokes were printed on screen between sketches. Among the characters Lenny Henry introduced were Fred Dread, Minister for Reggae, and black community policeman, P.C. Ganja, who had dreadlocks, a Rasta hat on top of his helmet, and a Walkman in place of a radio.

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What sort of sketches were on the show?
Tracey Ullman was adamant that there would be nothing sexist. At the first writers’ meeting she stood up and said: ‘I’m not a blonde, I don’t have a big bust, and I don’t want any sexist jokes. Thank you very much!’ Otherwise most subjects were fair game with send-ups of everything from pop groups to Blue Peter.

Who wrote it?
A cast of thousands — well, 70 anyway. Among those who cut their writing teeth on Three of a Kind were Grant and Naylor (later of Red Dwarf fame), Ian Hislop and Hale and Pace.

How did it come about?
Paul Jackson, then a young BBC producer, had been given the job of creating a fast-moving show featuring new ‘alternative’ comics. The show was originally going to be called Six of a Kind but it proved tough work finding six stars of the right calibre. So they settled for three. Henry and Copperfield were first to be cast and then Paul Jackson sent them to watch Ullman in a play at the Royal Court Theatre. ‘We just fell about laughing,’ said Copperfield of Ullman’s performance. She was hired.

Who watched it?
Over 12 million tuned in each week. Its hi-tech image and (sometimes) corny gags made it popular with kids.

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Any spin-offs?
Tracey Ullman landed her role in Girls On Top thanks to Lenny Henry recommending her to his future wife Dawn French. Ullman also launched into a singing career which peaked with a number two hit in 1983 with Kirsty MacColl’s ‘They Don’t Know’.

Why did the show end?
‘Basically we didn’t want to become The Three Ronnies,’ said Lenny Henry in 1983. ‘I don’t want to go on just doing impressions. David Bellamy, Trevor McDonald and all those other characters are all right to fall back on, but I want to do better than that.’

Any distant cousins?
A whole wave of sketch shows sprang up in the early 1980s to utilise the new ‘alternative’ comedians. There was a Kick Up The Eighties (which also featured Tracey Ullman and gave early exposure to Rik Mayall in the guise of Brummie investigative reporter Kevin Turvey); Laugh??? I Nearly Paid My Licence Fee (with Robbie Coltrane and John Sessions); Alfresco (with Robbie Coltrane, Ben Elton, Fry and Laurie and Emma Thompson); and later Naked Video which brought the world Rab C Nesbitt.

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Alastair James is the editor in chief for Memorable TV. He has been involved in media since his university days. Alastair is passionate about television, and some of his favourite shows include Line of Duty, Luther and Traitors. He is always on the lookout for hot new shows, and is always keen to share his knowledge with others.

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