Old faces bid a short but sweet farewell
by Matthew Bond
Wednesday, October 28
Drop the Dead Donkey
C4: 9.00pm - 9.30pm
Michael Jackson, controller of Channel 4, can allow himself a smug little chuckle this week as his comedy department purrs into overdrive: Friends and Spin City, still pulling 'em in on Friday night, Rory Bremner on Sunday and Simon Nye's Is It Legal? enterprisingly picked up from under the noses of ITV. But best of all, Drop the Dead Donkey, one of the top five comedies of the decade, is back for a new series.
Its appeal is marvellously straightforward and actually has little to do with the much-vaunted last-minute recording schedule or the topical gags voiced over the final credits. No, it stems from being set in the sort of office we've all worked in, staffed by the sort of people we've all worked with. I admit that you might have to be a journalist to appreciate the full tragedy of Sally, the fragile prima donna, or Henry, the grizzled veteran snarling his way to retirement, but the management-speak of the troubled Gus and Joy's reign of secretarial terror are surely recognised the office-world over.
Their return is the good news. The bad news is that this is the last series and not a very long one at that. Where once the extraordinary goings-on of Globelink's newsroom were served up 12 episodes at a time, this sixth and final outing - which comes a full two years after the last - is only seven episodes long. Channel 4's award-winning, kudos-carrying comedy doesn't even make it to Christmas.
Everyone blames the actors, who, it is said, are now so successful it is impossible to get them together to make a longer series. What they actually mean is that Neil Pearson, who plays idle womaniser Dave Charnley (a role model for so many) and Stephen Tompkinson, whose Damien Day was faking footage long before it became fashionable, are too busy. Or - to be more honest - probably too expensive.
While all that is true - it is not really an explanation for the demise. In America, the answer would be to pay them more but British television doesn't work like that and to be fair, even smash-hit Channel 4 comedies don't pull the audiences to make that possible. But what American television is also very good at is the budget neutral alternative - introducing new characters to replace the old. Drop the Dead Donkey has done it before, when Ingrid Lacey replaced Haydn Gwynne as news editor after the second series. It would be hard to replace Pearson and Tompkinson but not impossible for a top-flight creative team such as this.
No, I think (without actually knowing) that the series is ending because Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin, its creators and writers, have had enough. While Tompkinson and Pearson have been off making Ballykissangel and Rhodes (funny thing stardom, isn't it?), they have been getting on with other things.
Hamilton, for example, gave us Underworld (to be treasured forever for Mike Reid as a taxi-driver-turned-hit-man) on Channel 4 and the delicious Old Harry's Game on Radio 4. Jenkin is even more prolific, perhaps because he doesn't always look that far for inspiration for his enjoyable comedy-dramas. His Mr White Goes to Westminster, you may recall was all about a white-suited television journalist who becomes an MP.
But back to what made all that possible and a series which deserves the best possible send-off. Difficult to give much away about an episode that hasn't been recorded yet but those who enjoyed Hamilton's recent Huw Wheldon Memorial Lecture about television and the truth will discover that his research has not been wasted. A fly-on-the-wall documentary team arrives at an apparently doomed Globelink...
The Daily Telegraph, Television & Radio supplement, Saturday October 24th 1998.