Dateline: August 16, 2000
On November 2, 1982, Britain's Channel 4 took to the air, and on its opening night premiered the first episode of Comic Strip Presents, "Five Go Mad In Dorset." It was a great way to launch Britain's second independent commercial channel, and announced that a new sort of comedy - and television - had arrived. Comic Strip was the brainchild of Peter Richardson, who a few years earlier had opened a comedy club in London's Soho district featuring the then-unknown talent of Nigel Planer, Rik Mayall, Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French, Adrian Edmondson and Alexei Sayle. A leap to television (and to a fledgling channel looking for something to distinguish itself) was the next logical step, and Richardson and his gang were determined to be different than anything that had come before. For comics used to getting the instant laugh in front of a live audience, it was exhilarating in the Comic Strip episodes to be able to create characters, mood, and go for deeper kind of comedy.
Looking back on the experience, French and Saunders said, "They took every opportunity they could to either play guitars, throw grenades, fire guns or shag girls. Half of them wanted to be rock stars, the other half wanted to be Clint Eastwood." And that was exactly what the audience got. Elaborately filmed pastiches each week conquered new territory from Enid Blyton's beloved "Famous Five" series, to the rock music scene ("Bad News Tour" chronicled a terrible band and was made at nearly the same time as This Is Spinal Tap). Over a period of 11 years on and off (before being resurrected in 1999), Peter Richardson and partner Pete Richens wrote over half the 37 Comic Strip episodes, with Richardson appearing in many himself.
But it was the usual cast of players who made an impression on a generation of TV viewers. As well as graduating to The Young Ones over on the BBC, Mayall, Edmondson, French, Saunders, et al, became household names in Britain over the years in their own series. Robbie Coltrane, best known for Cracker, appeared in many of the productions, sometimes in drag, or impersonating a famous actor like Charles Bronson. Keith Allen, although vehemently disassociating himself from The Comic Strip team, made a number of striking appearances and also co-wrote many episodes.
There was nothing like it at the time in 80s Britain: a filmed half hour comedy anthology, whose style was intentionally different for each episode, whether black-and-white expressionism ("The Beat Generation"), faux Blade Runner ("Slags"), or spaghetti Westerns ("A Fistful of Travellers' Cheques"). British icons were a frequent target, including the popular police series The Professionals, but Hollywood and its excesses were also shamelessly lampooned, particularly in "Strike" (the Arthur Scargill miner's strike is recast with Al Pacino and Meryl Streep), and "GLC" (this time Bronson and Cher take on Margaret Thatcher's dissolution of Ken Livingstone's Greater London Council).
Richardson directed many episodes, but several were also helmed by Bob Spiers, who would go to do Jennifer Saunder's Absolutely Fabulous series; and Stephen Frears (who directed the memorable "Mr Jolly Lives Next Door") and later made High Fidelity in Hollywood. Two features released theatrically were spun off from the series, Eat The Rich in 1987, and The Pope Must Die(t) in 1991. More recently, the Comic Strip has been revived on Channel 4 (after several years on BBC-2) with two specials, "Four Men in a Car" and "Four Men in a Plane." Most Americans remember Comic Strip Presents from when MTV used it as Sunday night filler in the 1980s with episodes from the first three seasons running over and over (along with The Young Ones). Unfortunately, the few video releases of Comic Strip episodes are now sadly out of print.
Comic Strip Presents Episode Guide