Travails with a Donkey

Jokes don't come more topical than those in Channel 4's TV newsroom sitcom Drop the Dead Donkey. JOHN PASSMORE spent a breathless week with the production team as they trawled the news for their latest script

The hostages never did get into Drop the Dead Donkey last night. It was all a matter of taste and timing - and a flood of Robert Maxwell jokes. For just as Maxwell dominated the news this week, so he took over the script of Channel 4's gem of a TV newsroom comedy - and because this is a clever sitcom, that was the joke.

Not to put too fine a point on it, the show was awash with Maxwell jokes, they surfaced at every turn - see what I mean? A pound in the Robert Maxwell Bad Joke box.

But that was not how it started out. It started with Terry Wogan's show being axed, World Aids Day, Maastricht and the Kennedys. And so began the frenetic process of producing a television sitcom in which the action is largely dictated by Acts of God.

Nobody had ever tried this before the series began in August 1990 - in fact there are times when the production team and actors can understand why. But so the viewers can appreciate what goes into their euphoric half-hour on Thursday evenings, this is what happened this week.

It is eight o'clock on Sunday morning and a small, heavily bearded man is in his study at the top of the house in Southfields fighting with the Sunday papers - all of them. This is Andy Hamilton, one of the two writers, and at the moment all he has is a basic script written months ago.

The storyline is fine - news editor George's frightful daughter in the office, Damien the immoral reporter on a disastrous police raid, a documentary crew filming the ensuing chaos. But it is the topical jokes the audience will be waiting for.

Hamilton begins to toy with the Ukrainian referendum on independence: the heavies are weighed down with complicated consequences. He writes a joke about Sally the glamorous but dim newsreader pretending to understand them for the benefit of the documentary crew.

Over in Battersea, Guy Jenkin, the other half of the writing team, turns to Ceefax and The Week Ahead. For Monday it offers him the Bank of England seeking a winding-up order on BCCI, Kenneth Clark publishing details of the new tests for seven-year-olds and the Rachel McLean murder trial opening.

There is an ideal joke to be made about Sally being unable to pass the seven-year-olds' test and they already have a BCCI joke cut from a previous episode. He passes over the murder trial.

MONDAY, and the two writers are up at six and running tuning into breakfast TV. They arrive at the Brixton rehearsal rooms by eight o'clock, each carrying a sheaf of "topicals", and begin the process of swapping ideas and knitting them into the script. Because they first worked together at Cambridge in the Seventies and went on to collaborate on Not the Nine O'clock News and Who Dares Wins, they have now reduced the joint creative process to something approaching telepathy. By 10 they give a pile of apparently meaningless scribbles to Janice the PA.

The cast arrive. The actress who plays Sally, Victoria Wicks, has noted that she only has one line - but with the new pages suddenly she has three more: the frightening coverage of World Aids Day (Diana matching that hat with that dress), Ozone (why can't they move street-level ozone up there to fill in the hole?) and the Ukraine (more impressing the TV crew with "economic infrastructure" and "internecine strife").

Recession being "technically" over gets in too and so does the sex life of the Kennedys, plus Maastricht and the National Curriculum.

There are plenty of others which could have been included - the papers say Joseph Cicippio might soon be free but you have to be careful making jokes with the news: originally the show was going to be called Dead Belgians Don't Count but Channel 4 worried about the possibility of a disaster in Belgium. So they thought of a country where nothing ever happened - Kuwait. This, six weeks before the Iraqi invasion.

Fortunately somebody told them about the TV company which was to have a prize-winning dog on the show - only it died on the way.

TUESDAY and Maxwell shares are suspended. Jenkin and Hamilton have been advancing gradually on Robert Maxwell ever since he died.

First they picked on the size of the Daily Mirror's tribute, then the speculation about the cause of death. Now they declare open season: Maxwell sons in buoyant mood. Will the companies stay afloat? This is too easy. They introduce the Robert Maxwell Bad Joke box and tack a Dalai Lama gag on the end. Sally gets yet another line - the tests for seven-year-olds which had not yet found a space.

The One O'clock News on a Sony Watchman gives them Cicippio's freedom. They promptly award two hostage jokes to Henry the randy old newsreader: "Now we can say what shits the Syrians are" and "kidnap victims wait less time for operations than NHS patients".

WEDNESDAY and the whole team moves to the South Bank studios. The writers arrive with another line for Sally and a third Maxwell joke: Now they're selling the European - to Andrex. Of course, they have to make room for all of this. The topical about Wogan is out - it was never very funny and who will remember what happened last weekend?

Besides, the director has decided that since Terry Anderson is still held, the whole Syrian/hostage speech has to go.

But just at 10 o'clock Hamilton passes a television set - he tends to do this a lot now, sucking up news, zapping Ceefax buttons: Terry Anderson is free. Hamilton runs for the control room.

At 7.30 an audience of 200 friends and fans pack the studio for the recording. There are more fluffed lines than in an everyday sitcom, and more retakes. The constant changes heighten the challenge and the cast build up a sympathetic rapport with the audience very quickly. Hamilton entertains them between shots: "Terry Waite? Wasn't he just like a vicar. Maybe that was why they let him go, he kept organising jumble sales."

In the control room Jenkin goes through each scene marking the lines which fail to get a big enough laugh - lines, for instance, like the Dalai Lama and the European. They will come out at the editing stage. The cast are sent home with next week's script.

THURSDAY is edit day. Again Jenkin and Hamilton are up at six. They work in a taxi on the way to Wardour Street and they are cutting with a vengeance. Out goes the Dalai Lama, the hostage and the Syrians, the "technical" end of the recession. They prune with both hands but must have something about the Middle East.

At lunchtime the actors who play Damien the reporter and Dave the assistant news editor arrive to record the voice-overs which will be played over the closing titles. These have to be the most up-to-date of all. The writers leap on the morning reports that the Israelis will not turn up to the peace talks today and the Arabs refuse to go on Monday.

Just over 12 hours after they arrived at the editing suite the finished tape is raced round to Channel 4 - transmission time is only 90 minutes away.

But is this the end? Not a bit of it. FRIDAY means back to Brixton for next week's read-through and SATURDAY they work out the moves. And then it's SUNDAY. What's in the papers?

The Evening Standard, Friday 6th December 1991.

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