When I was writing my thesis on anarcho-punk, I really wanted to fit in something about the British sit-com The Young Ones, however, neither time, space, nor a sense for relevancy allowed it in the end. The connection may seem a little tenuous at first – yeah, there's a punk character, so what? -- but all this time later I'm still convinced that The Young Ones is a critical summary of a particular cluster of British subcultures in the late 70s and early 80s.
For the unfamiliar: The Young Ones ran for twelve episodes over two seasons in 1982 and 1984. The series centres around the lives of four male roommates and takes place mostly inside their decrepit house somewhere in London. All of 'the boys' are students, although they don't seem to attend class or do much schoolwork. The plots are usually simple or absurd (e.g., having a party, discovering an oil patch in the cellar), and their development involves a lot of sight gags, bad puns, toilet humour, guest appearances, and non-sequitur sketches using one-off characters. Almost all of the episodes also work in a band who plays one song whilst the narrative is still being carried out, but more on that later.
Each of the young ones is unlikeable. Bratty and obnoxious in various ways, they spend as much of each episode bickering amongst themselves as they do on anything else. Yet much of their repulsiveness stems from the characters' basis around a particular subculture. Each of the four boys is a caricature that sums up and highlights many of the negative stereotypes associated with their respective subcultures.
The most obvious is probably Vyvyan, he's your prototypical hard punk rocker with nuclear orange spiked hair and lots of metal studs – four of which adorn his forehead for a ridiculous tough-but-stupid-guy effect. Vyv rarely speaks, but growls and screams whilst he stomps around the house and smashes things. He goes out of his way to shock, disgust, and offend people – much like the first-wave of British punks in the late 1970s. But Vyvyan also has a touch of metal (as evidenced by the 'Very Metal' slogan written across the back of his jacket), and the punk-metal combination may be to signify Vyv's working-class background (the only character clearly identified as such). Both those genres certainly had lots of middle-class elements, but they tried hard to affect a blue-collar persona.
The other overtly identifiable character is Neil, the 'bloody hippie.' He's a long-haired, flared trouser downer who finds many situations 'heeeavy!' He's also a pacifist, a fan of Gong and Hawkwind, and the most disliked of the group, the rest of whom continuously and brutally pick on him. As a perpetual victim, he rarely fights back and when he does it's 'ineffective and useless' which pretty much sums up how punks and mainstream society viewed hippie.
There were two types of hippie: the ones who were politically active, and the ones who were mostly into the lifestyle of smoking up and loafing about. The former was seen as useless because their efforts didn't change the world into the peace-loving utopia they claimed they would and the latter because they never really tried – at anything. Both were considered incompetent and judgemental and were subjected to fairly severe criticism throughout the 70s and into the 80s. Neil exemplifies the stoner hippie (perhaps because having two political characters – the other being Rick - would have been too much for the show), although he does make efforts at keeping peace within his own world of the house. That said, he's also extremely self-deprecating and keenly aware of the others' attitude towards him – it's as if he has internalised every criticism levelled at hippie over the years and morphed them into self-loathing and his own social ostracism. Finally, we also know that Neil comes from an upper-middle class background because his posh parents visit the house in one episode. This raises another negative perception of hippie – that only those from privileged backgrounds would and could chose 'dropping out' as a form of rebellion.
Mike is the leader of the group. The other three boys largely respect and kowtow to him. While they think he's a cool ladies' man, the audience clearly sees that he's bluffing his street credibility and prowess with women. From a modern perspective, he's a bit ambiguous in terms of his subcultural affiliation. He could be a teddy boy – once or twice he's seen wearing Edwardian style clothes and in another scene he's listening to Buddy Holly. But teddy boys absolutely hated punks who in turn saw 'the teds' as highly reactionary. Instead, his smart outfits in the latest styles (as opposed to old-fashioned Edwardian clothes) most likely mean that he's a mod. And, since there is no strong presence of the 'natural enemy' of the mod – the rocker – this may explain why Mike is exempt from the shenanigans the other guys inflict on each other.
Rick – the reason I got on to this whole bit in the first place – is the anarcho-punk, or something approximating one. He's trying very hard to 'fit in with the groovy revolutionary front and failing, badly.' He identifies himself as an anarchist numerous times in the series, wears the anarchist symbol on the back of his jacket, and makes confused political references to Trotsky, Lenin, and 'the Thatcherite junta.' He desperately wants to 'be political,' but has no idea what he's talking about; on more than one occasion he parades his popular music preferences as though they're indicative of his political awareness:
Rick: 'I'm going to write my MP!'
Neil: 'But Rick, you're an anarchist. You don't have an MP.'
Rick: 'Ah, well... I shall write to the lead singer of Echo and the Bunnymen!'
One anomaly here is that Rick is a fan of the 'establishment' musician Cliff Richard whose 1962 song 'The Young Ones' is, obviously, the namesake of the series and its theme-song. Perhaps this was done to further reveal Rick's ideological hypocrisy (he's repeatedly shown to be terribly selfish and to possess none of the radical values he claims to hold dear) or merely to allow for a few more pop culture references in the series.
Although an obscure genre now and one that wasn't popular in the mainstream in its heyday, anarcho-punk was familiar enough to most people – or youth, at least – in Britain that those watching The Young Ones would have understood the reference. As with all post-punk genres, anarcho bands were, for a time, regularly covered in the major and minor music weeklies and fanzines (NME, Sounds, the Face, Melody Maker). This influence, along with certain initiatives of the Socialist Workers Party, the revival of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and even some lingering hippie remnants, all contributed at the time to a general vogue in Britain for a being a 'politico', so this might be an alternate or additional way to understand Rick. In either case, he's only one notch above Neil in the social order of the household and harbours the greatest amount of hatred for the sad hippie. Yet Vyv reeeeally hates Neil too and given the ever-growing backlash against hippie since the late 1960s, it seems reasonable to read Vyvyan and Rick's treatment of Neil as a personification of punk and post-punk's rejection of hippie, whilst the fact that these three boys continue to live together and interact hint that the subcultures were more closely related than anyone actually involved in them cared to admit at the time. (For more about this, see Jon Savage, England's Dreaming, 1992, p. 109, 231 and Simon Frith, 'Beyond the Dole Queue: The Politics of Punk,' 1977, Village Voice, October 24)
In trying to contextualise The Young Ones in the history of British comedy, commentators have noted that the series grew out of the alternative comedy scene at the time. Musically, the show was also aligning with alternative music – even if it was alternative music that was popular in the mainstream. Already mentioned is that most episodes featured a performance by a band on set (although the 'performance' was clearly and poorly lip-synched). These were included so the show could qualify as a variety programme and thus get more funding from the BBC. But a look at what bands appeared reveals that there must have been some effort to choose bands that matched the subcultures represented by the characters and that were also reasonably well-known:
The Damned (punk)
Madness (ska – a genre which mods were heavily into)
Dexys Midnight Runners (pop)
Nine Below Zero (blues – also listened to by mods)
Rip, Rig, and Panic (post-punk)
John Otway (folk punk)
All of these bands fall into genres associated with the subcultures represented by the main characters, with perhaps the exception of Dexys Midnight Runners who may have been included for their sheer popularity at the time. The other interesting thing to note is that there are no 'hippie' bands or associated hippie genres in the list. There is a bit of a nod in one episode where a cover of Dylan's 'Subterranean Homesick Blues' is performed, but the general absence of any contemporaneous hippie bands or genres is a reflection both of the continual sidelining of hippie into 1980s culture and perhaps even of Neil's low position in the house as a result of his hippiefication.
Each of the boys was based on people The Young Ones' writers had known in real life during their own student days. Since the writers and producers chose to end the series when it was at its peak, we can only hope the insufferable aspects of its characters' models also took a similarly short lifespan.