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Wednesday, July 14, 1999 Published at 17:10 GMT 18:10 UK


Coming up after the news

Not The Nine O'clock News made stars of four unknowns

By BBC News Online's Rebecca Thomas

It's 20 years since the anarchic BBC TV satire Not the Nine O'Clock News burst onto our screens.

Now revered as one of British comedy's crowning moments, the series nonetheless broke virtually every rule in the book.

Its near-the-knuckle humour covered everything from racism and politics, to re-dubbed news footage and unadulterated bad taste jokes, all delivered by a motley crew of four young unknowns.

[ image: Morecambe and Wise: Ruled the comedy roost]
Morecambe and Wise: Ruled the comedy roost
These days, it is difficult to appreciate just how dangerously different Not the Nine O'Clock News was.

But up until the showing of the first episode in autumn 1979, television comedy had been the territory of the likes of Morecambe and Wise and The Two Ronnies.

The show proved for the first time that comedy did not have to be "safe" and comedians did not have to be over 50 or famous to be funny.

As a result, it not only paved the way for shows such as The Young Ones and Spitting Image but also made the careers of its four stars.

Magic chemistry

The combination of the rubber-faced Rowan Atkinson, the portly, long-haired but balding Mel Smith, the ever-so-slightly posh Griff Rhys Jones and the beautiful blonde Pamela Stephenson was electric.

That chemistry guaranteed the success of such absurd and risqué sketches as Gerald the Gorilla and the Super Dooper satire on Abba.

[ image: Satirical sketches set the agenda for future comedy]
Satirical sketches set the agenda for future comedy
The four were the first of the alternative comedians to make it big. But in their meteoric rise to the top, they have now become part of the mainstream establishment.

Griff Rhys Jones and his latter day sidekick Mel Smith are mainstays of BBC programming, as is Rowan Atkinson with Blackadder and the Thin Blue Line.

Most surprising of all perhaps is that Pamela Stephenson, once considered the most outrageous of the group, is now a Los Angeles-based psychotherapist.

Even so, the influence of the show that launched all their careers has played a big hand in their continued, if more sober, success.

Solid partnership

Since Not the Nine O'Clock News wound up after its 27th programme, Smith and Rhys Jones have hardly been out of each other's hair.

[ image: Mel and Griff in a sketch from Alas Smith and Jones]
Mel and Griff in a sketch from Alas Smith and Jones
They have clocked up eleven series of the BBC TV comedy partnership Alas Smith and Jones.

Away from the cameras, they run the successful production company Talkback - responsible for They Think It's All Over, Never Mind the Buzzcocks and The Day Today.

Rhys Jones has also won acclaim for solo projects, such as his West End stage appearance in Charley's Aunt and presenting Bookworm on BBC One.

Smith, out on his own, has strangely enough found himself again under the influence of his zany past.

Directing has become his main sideline, with his most notable project to date being 1997's Bean: The Ultimate Disaster Movie - starring Rowan Atkinson.

Comic connections

Atkinson has never really looked back since those early days, and it has a lot to do with the comedy writer Richard Curtis.

[ image: Rowan Atkinson at the centre of the Thin Blue Line cast]
Rowan Atkinson at the centre of the Thin Blue Line cast
Curtis is now known to many as the talent behind Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill.

But after he cut his teeth on Not the Nine O'Clock News he created Blackadder and the Mr Bean series - characters which have made Atkinson a worldwide star.

The unlikely looking Atkinson has played a number of minor film roles too, including Small-Fawcett in Never Say Never Again.

There has also been a new comedy role for the BBC as the uptight Inspector Raymond Fowler in The Thin Blue Line.

The lady vanishes

As for "madcap" Pamela Stephenson, as she was often dubbed, she vanished from television at the end of the 1980s.

Her disappearance came when she moved to Los Angeles with her husband the comedian Billy Connolly and their children.

[ image: Pamela Stephenson: A wicked mimic]
Pamela Stephenson: A wicked mimic
Connolly had signed a contract with US studio Warner Bros to make TV programmes.

For her part, Stephenson appeared on the American series Saturday Night Live, dabbled in movies and then quietly dropped out of show business altogether.

Looking at her now conservative appearance and career, it may be hard to believe that Dr Stephenson-Connolly was ever really so very raucous.

Her husband Billy however is always there to remind her. Their romance blossomed when he appeared as a guest on Not The Nine O'clock News and her impersonations had him in fits.

A special anniversary programme The Not The Nine O'Clock News Story can be seen on Saturday 17 July at 22.00 BST on BBC Two.

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