With the brilliant Rowan Atkinson set to turn 64 on Sunday, this week’s From the Vault looks back at a classic sketch comedy series from the late ’70s, Not the Nine O’Clock News.
Best known to audiences for his work on the sitcoms Blackadder, Mr. Bean and, more recentl, for his brilliant work as French detective Jules Maigret in the 2017 reboot of the popular George Simenon novels, Atkinson’s brilliant talent first came to prominence in the BBC2 sketch comedy series Not the Nine O’Clock News. Airing from 1979-1982, the series featured satirical sketches on current news stories and popular culture.
FROM THE VAULT
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In addition to Atkinson, who went on to star in Blackadder, the series launched the careers of Pamela Stephenson, Mel Smith and Griff Rhys-Jones. Smith and Rhys-Jones went on to star in a bit of a spin-off to Not the Nine O’Clock News with Alas Smith and Jones which aired on BBC1 from 1984-1998. Stephenson joined the cast of Saturday Night Live in 1984–85, making her the first female SNL cast member born outside North America.
From a broadcast standpoint, sketch shows at that time were mainly programs such as Monty Python’s Flying Circus, The Two Ronnies, Dave Allen at Large, The Dick Emery Show and The Benny Hill Show. Not the Nine O’Clock News deviated from a free-style sketch comedy format and returned to a much more conventional sketch style, using film clips and satire to give a spoof of the news and pop culture of the day.
Created by BAFTA award-winning producer John Lloyd (Spitting Image, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Blackadder, QI), the show’s name was derived from its scheduling as it originally aired on BBC2 at the same time serving as the comedic alternative to the Nine O’Clock News on BBC One. The show was originally scheduled to air in Fawlty Towers’ timeslot, perhaps the most difficult series on Planet Earth to have to take its place.
John Cleese was to have introduced the first episode in a sketch referring to a technicians’ strike that hindered the production of the show. Cleese, in character as Basil Fawlty, was to explain that there was no episode of Fawlty Towers that week and suggested that maybe a “tatty revue” would be broadcast instead. However the 1979 general election intervened, and NTNOCN was pulled as too political, being replaced with, of all things, repeats of the American sitcom Rhoda starring Valerie Harper.
In addition to launching the careers of those in front of the camera, Not the Nine O’Clock News featured a number of other future notables behind the camera as well, including writer Richard Curtis (Blackadder, Mr. Bean, Vicar of Dibley) and musical director/composer Howard Goodall, who also composed the theme songs to Red Dwarf, Blackadder, Vicar of Dibley.