Drop the Dead Donkey: The Complete 1st Series Review
Drop the Dead Donkey is a television sitcom that started in 1990 and ran for 8 years and 6 series. It was one of the most successful shows of the 90s and opened the door to many later comedies which took political issues and used them for humorous effect. The shfow is based in the offices of Globelink News, a serious news operation which (in the very first episode) is bought by Sir Royston Merchant, who seems to want to glam it up and dumb it down. The ramifications of this buyout are the catalyst for many of the jokes in the first season. As the show settled down and the characters in it started to take on a life of their own over subsequent series, people didn't just watch the show for its gimmick but because they genuinely wanted to see what happened to the cast. (The 'gimmick', for anyone who doesn't already know, is that the show was only finally recorded mere days before transmission, so that the writers could insert extremely up-to-date jokes about the news of the day.)
However, the success of Drop the Dead Donkey cannot solely be attributed to its topical humour. The characters, though stereotypical, were given enough humanity for people to grow to like and care about them. From the nervous wreck of a news editor, George Dent (Jeff Rawle), to the very dodgy ace reporter Damien Day (Stephen Tompkinson), each character possessed both humour and empathy. The jokes and humorous situations were also spread around so it is most definitely an ensemble piece. Other key roles include the sparring news editors Sally Smedley (Victoria Wicks) and Henry Davenport (David Swift), competent deputy editor Alex Pates (Haydn Gwynne), slimy management liaison Gus Hedges (Robert Duncan) and ladies' man Dave (Neil Pearson). The cast work well together and bring us a crew of characters that bicker, tease, mock and gamble their way through each day's news.
It's quite strange to sit down and watch Drop the Dead Donkey again after so many years, and thankfully each episode has a voiceover at the very start which imparts some of the relevant news that was going on when the episode aired. It helps to provide a context for the jokes, though I have to say it was a rather surreal experience to put in the first episode and hear about President Bush and a war with Iraq… how things change in 15 years, eh? The show is still funny though, especially once you get to know the characters - and subsequent series get even better in my opinion (but that could be because I miss the presence of Joy... the dour office girl in this series). It made for pleasant viewing though, and not simply due to the nostalgia factor – although television seems to have changed a lot since 1990, this remains very entertaining television.
1: 'A New Dawn'
Globelink News learns they're being taken over by Sir Royston, despite all their self-assurances that this would never happen. Gus arrives to 'not be there' and keep an eye on the news team, and dodgy journalist Damien Day is nearly sacked, until Gus steps in on his behalf.
2: 'Sally's Arrival'
Sally Smedley arrives to add a touch of glamour and youth to the news anchor team, and no-one is happy about it, except Gus and apparently Sir Roysten himself.
3: 'A Clash of Interests'
News Editor George decides to run a story about a chemical spillage from a company owned by Sir Roysten, despite Gus' attempts to censor the story. Henry accidentally gets to watch his obituary and is soon on the war path.
4: 'A Blast from the Past'
Alex's ex-husband turns up as Damien works on a story about slum landlords. Sally and Henry have some pronunciation lessons.
5: 'Old Father Time'
When Henry's nephew comes to do some work experience in the newsroom, the main gossip seems to be just how young he is!
6: 'Special Branch Raid the Newsroom'
The Legal Department of Globelink get involved when Alex gets her hands on a top secret cassette that the Government wants to bury. Meanwhile we learn of Sally's sexual peccadilloes which Dave manages to record – so cue expected confusion with cassettes, of course.
7: 'Stress Therapy'
Gus decides the staff could use a stress therapist, but after a group session Dave and Henry have a fight, so the therapy appears not to have worked.
8: 'The Root of All Evil'
Dave is having money problems and is accused when Sally loses her purse. Gus also goes on an economy push at the same time.
9: 'Animal Rights'
Damien fakes a firing squad, and also get hurt organising an animal rights protest he can film. In hospital, he still attempts to get a story.
10: 'The Big Day'
Gus announces that he wants Sally to interview the Prime Minister, despite reservations from the rest of the team. Damien finds himself under threat of the sack again.
The picture is presented in its original 4:3 aspect ratio and has held up quite well over the years. Some of the colours seem muted in certain episodes, but the change of tones between flesh and clothing is about right throughout, and by the end of the series particularly, the colours ring true. Of course it's not a digitally perfect picture, the show is old as are the masters and there are a few glitches and a touch of grain, but overall this looked a lot better than I thought it would.
The audio doesn't seem to have any particular directionality and it appears to be a fairly standard stereo transfer, which again, is probably what's expected from a show of this vintage. The dialogue is clear throughout, optional subtitles in English are an option and overall I didn't have any problem with the audio track here.
The writers, Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin, introduce the series, explaining a little about how it came about and the political climate in which it was written. The introduction is included on the first disc and includes a fair amount of comment on how much duller politicians are these days.
The bulk of the special features are included on the second disc and include the unaired pilot, with a small intro from Hamilton & Jenkin as well as some of the cast members. The latter seem quite surprised and a little upset that anyone's ever going to see the pilot which everyone seems a little embarrassed about, but which I thought was actually OK!
The final extra is a series of interviews with cast and crew which cover all manner of topics from how the show was conceived, what the title means, how it was received and what it was really like to handle spaces in the script for the up-to-date jokes. And don't expect to see any female faces during these clips of interviews – only male cast members contribute, along with Hamilton & Jenkin.
Although I think the majority of people interested in this release approach Drop the Dead Donkey with a certain nostalgia, it's a good enough show to watch even without any foreknowledge. (I even tested this on my husband, who'd never seen it before.) It's quite a different style of show to what modern fare affords us these days (with CSI, 24 and the witticisms of Buffy behind us), but that doesn't make it any less fun to watch. The reliance on politics and the news-of-the-day doesn't date it as much as I thought it might – it merely adds a contextual layer that helps to flesh out the newsroom and make it feel more authentic. The cast and the writing are strong and enjoyable to watch and thankfully we're no longer limited to just a writer's choice compilation DVD. It's a good, solid release of a classic show – roll on the next series!