British comedy owes quite a lot to the writers Andrew Marshall and David Renwick. While the most recognisable TV shows by them were those they wrote on their own – Marshall has “2point4 Children,” “Health & Efficiency” and “Dad” to his name, while Renwick created “One Foot in the Grave,” “Jonathan Creek” and “Love Hurts” – they had fifteen years of writing as a double act on sketch shows “End of Part One,” “There’s a Lot of It About” and “Alexei Sayle’s Stuff,” while creating satirical sitcoms such as “Hot Metal,” set inside a newspaper. Their most recognisable work from this time were first written for their radio series “The Burkiss Way,” often compared with “The Goon Show,” and reworked for TV: a sketch involving a clueless hi-fi system buyer was re-enacted on “Not the Nine O’Clock News” (“Do you want speakers? Do you want rumble filters? Do you want a bag on your head?”), and a sketch where a “Mastermind” contestant gives the answers to the previous question was reworked by Renwick, and performed by Ronnie Barker & Ronnie Corbett.
What may be their greatest achievement, now I have seen it, is their 1982 sitcom “Whoops Apocalypse,” satirising the leaders of the nuclear powers that will, probably, kill us all. It is a hard sell – the opening titles begin with a vision of a destroyed city that could have come from the documentary series “The World at War,” ending on a woman selling poppy-like remembrance badges, with the phrase, “Wear Your Mushroom with Pride.”
Fortunately, the comedy is as broad as it is cutting. The President of the United States is the Reagan-like Johnny Cyclops, obsessed with his ratings, and is even shot to increase his popularity. His Secretary of State, a religious fundamentalist, is nicknamed “The Deacon,” with Marshall & Renwick having no knowledge that Ronald Reagan’s real-life chief was known as “The Vicar.” Meanwhile, the UK is led by the left-wing politician Kevin Pork, who believes he is Superman. Soviet Russia’s leader, Dubienkin, is in fact a series of clones, a new clone coming in once the previous one dies.
In 1982, it would have been hard, even then, to imagine politics being so chaotic: a nuclear alert is caused by a malfunctioning Space Invaders arcade cabinet; the deposed Shah of Iran, attempting to find sanctuary, is shunted between Britain and France over most of the series, unable to leave a cross-channel ferry, until he is stowed onboard a space shuttle; the insane Prime Minister is blackmailed by Russia into joining the Warsaw Pact, leading his foreign secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer to go mad themselves, becoming Hawkman and Green Lantern; two American captives of the Russians are aware the US know they are captured because they had a newspaper delivered with their continental breakfast, meaning they will have no choice of jam until after they make a confession; a counter-revolution by Iran is discovered by Russia after the Shah’s pet parrot; and events are reported at all hours of the day by dramatic US newsreaders, CNN having only began in 1980.
“Whoops Apocalypse” is a brilliantly-written show - a favourite line, even though it is also from "The Burkiss Way," was of how an admirer of Frank Sinatra sold a lock of his hair back to the singer for an undisclosed sum. The show's bite still holds up even now, although the story it tells is rooted firmly in the early 1980s, before the conversation over nuclear weapons became, well, deathly serious, and before the seminal dramas “The Day After” and “Threads” were made. For that reason, the remaking of “Whoops Apocalypse” as a film in 1986, released in the US in 1988, suffers in comparison with the TV original – with the urgency dissipating from the situation, and almost gone by the end of the decade, lampooning leaders didn’t feel like enough, and replacing Iran with a Falkland Islands-like conflict was an obvious step. Still, it has Rik Mayall as the leader of a too-gung-ho SAS unit...