Thanks for Dropping By

TJ Worthington looks back at Girls on Top

First published December 2007

As strange as it may appear from this distance, television was initially very nervous of Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders. Of the original rising stars of the alternative comedy scene, they were the last to make their name in the medium by some distance. While this has often been attributed to the simple fact they were the dominant female presence in the movement – their comedy presumably unable to totally counteract the sexism it so frequently railed against – the reality is it was far more a result of the sheer strength of their humour.

Much of French and Saunders’ early act was deliberately challenging and taboo-breaking, and while they made guest appearances in such shows as Friday Night and Saturday Morning, the first programme to capture them in full unrestrained flow – an edition of Channel 4′s stand-up anthology series The Entertainers (the name chosen as a deliberate counterpoint to ITV’s more “traditional” The Comedians) – was bumped back from its usual 8:30pm slot to close to midnight.

They were, of course, well known for their participation in the likes of The Young Ones, not to mention impressive turns as writers and performers on The Comic Strip Presents …, but as the middle of the 1980s approached they had still to secure a headlining series of their own.

This was not for want of trying. In 1982, French and Saunders met Ruby Wax, a vivacious American actress who had been living and working in the UK since the mid-1970s and was then in the process of scripting a long forgotten Channel 4 chat show spoof called For 4 Tonight. The three hit upon the idea of devising a prospective television vehicle for their respective stage personas. The obvious format for getting the trio of obnoxious and self-centred characters together was to have them forced by circumstance and desperation to share a flat, one that none of them had the means, motivation nor intellect to escape.

After initial writing meetings, the team felt they needed a fourth character for balance, and French’s husband-to-be, Lenny Henry, suggested Tracey Ullman, whom he had recently worked with on three series of the vaguely “alternative” BBC sketch show Three of a Kind. Although barely in her 20s, Ullman had enjoyed a dramatic rise to fame, initially drawing acclaim as a straightforward comic actress before demonstrating her versatility to a far wider audience with Three of a Kind and its stablemate A Kick Up the Eighties. In tandem with these projects, she had enjoyed considerable success as a pop singer, enjoying hits with a number of ’60s-themed songs given a slight comic twist.

As well as her remarkable skills as a performer, Ullman brought an all-important bankable “name” to the project, and it may well have been her involvement that ultimately secured a surprisingly high profile slot for this slightly edgy effort from a bunch of still largely unknown performers.

A pilot under the title Four F’s to Share was made over the summer of 1983 for Central, who were sufficiently impressed by it to commission a series of 13 episodes for production the following year. However, the projected recording dates in April 1984 were affected by industrial action, and despite some talk of an autumn remount it eventually transpired no convenient dates would be available until the New Year. According to some sources, Wax and Ullman used this unexpected break in production to collaborate on scripts for a series of standalone comic playlets, which unfortunately was ultimately left unmade.

When the team finally returned to the studios in January 1985, so long had elapsed since the recording of the original pilot it was decided simply to remount production of the first episode of the series – now going under the title Four-Play – as a “new” pilot. It is likely the characters, performances and entire concept had already been sharpened considerably during this 18-month delay, but the new studio dates also brought with them what was possibly the deciding factor in shaping Girls on Top into what eventually appeared on screen. Whereas the original production had been handled by a team more used to working on Central’s traditional sitcoms, the reins were now handed over to Paul Jackson, a young producer with a strong understanding of alternative comedy, who had worked with the main performers in various permutations as far back as 1980.

Wax’s loud, attention-demanding stage persona was streamlined for Girls on Top into Shelley Dupont, a brash drama student with plenty of ego but precious little discernible talent. French became Amanda Ripley, a humourless diehard left-wing feminist whose ideology was decidedly at odds with her rarely-satiated hunger for men, and Saunders Amanda’s dozy, lethargic childhood friend Jennifer Marsh, a girl without a malicious thought (or possibly a thought of any kind) in her head. Ullman, meanwhile, quickly honed the part of Candice Valentine, a bitchy and manipulative It Girl who associated with the rich, powerful and glamorous, yet was still not above committing acts of petty theft against her flatmates. Rounding off the main cast was veteran actress Joan Greenwood as Lady Carlton, a twittering eccentric romantic novelist who doubled-up, arguably not entirely to her own awareness, as the girls’ landlady.

Perhaps inevitably, much of the humour in Girls on Top revolves around the massive clash of personalities between the equally voluble and volatile Shelley and Amanda, with Jennifer playing less of a part in the dialogue but wonderfully indulged with extended physical comedy-based sequences based on her immense lack of intellect and self-awareness. However, it’s Candice who really steals the show, not least because her often lengthy “solo” sequences take place in a surreal, dreamlike world of glamorous discos and exclusive nightclubs, and it is never entirely clear to the viewer whether or not this is all simply taking place inside her head.

The scripts for the first series were primarily written by French, Saunders and Wax, with Ullman contributing additional material and Ben Elton acting as script editor.

Introduced by a stylish theme song performed by the cast and written by Chris Difford and Glen Tilbrook of Squeeze, Girls on Top finally found its way onto ITV when the first run of seven episodes appeared in an 8.30pm Wednesday timeslot from 23 October 1985. Storylines included Candice’s attempts to hoodwink Shelley into appearing in an “adult” film, Jennifer being kidnapped and held to ransom, Amanda’s pathetic attempt at staging a multi-cultural street festival, the disappearance of Lady Carlton’s stuffed dog, and more attempts at dodging rent payments than the combined cast could have counted on their collective fingers.

Among those making guest appearances were Helen Atkinson-Wood, Helen Lederer, Alan Rickman, Robbie Coltrane, Mark Arden, Stephen Frost, Simon Brint, Roland Rivron and – in a fantastic semi-regular turn as Amanda’s jumpsuited feminist co-conspirator – Harriet Thorpe.

Despite the inevitable limitations of its timeslot and prominence – although the writers did their best to find increasingly cunning ways around this – Girls on Top was a deserved hit with both the regular sitcom audience and fans of the alternative scene alike; its brashness and vulgarity neatly balanced by the air of surrealism and the traditional bright lights and studio audience sitcom setup.

Some observers have long maintained the series was simply a carbon copy of The Young Ones, and superficially this criticism would appear to hold some weight. The basic setting is the same, and even the characters are not that dissimilar – Amanda and Rik are certainly very close contemporaries, with effectively Shelley taking the place of Vyvyan, Jennifer as Neil and Candice as Mike. However, it is true that at least three of the characters were simply extensions of what the performers had been doing on stage for several years beforehand, and even taking the magpie nature of the average commissioning editor into account, the idea of a television company electing to produce their own version of a series which was at that point barely more than a cult hit and literally only a couple of months old does stretch credibility somewhat. In any case, whatever its derivation, Girls on Top quickly developed a very distinct and separate style from The Young Ones, not least in its exploration of the genuine relationships between the characters.

What is perhaps most surprising about the show in retrospect was how much they were able to get away with in such a prominent pre-watershed timeslot. While there is no swearing there is a fair amount of what would be generally deemed “bad” language, and a good deal of explicit sexual references, both of which were arguably still shocking in the mid-1980s. Central did in fact have some worries about this, but the writers preferred to leave this in the capable hands of Paul Jackson, who was well experienced in negotiating with his more conservative contemporaries. In any case, sometimes Central seemed to be making a fuss over nothing, and the team have often wearily recalled being informed of concerns that the utterly fictional Irma La Douce might sue for defamation of character.

By the time the first series of Girls on Top was airing, Tracey Ullman was already in talks with American television networks about the possibility of her own solo project. This would eventually result in the acclaimed The Tracey Ullman Show, a superb series of offbeat playlets (some possibly derived from the abandoned series mooted during the interruption to production of Girls on Top) that ran on Fox between 1987 and 1990, and has since been somewhat overshadowed by the fact that it also provided the launch pad for the success of The Simpsons.

These negotiations precluded the possibility of Ullman appearing in the second series of Girls on Top, recorded in the early summer of 1986, but rather than replace her, the remaining three opted instead to write Candice out. Ullman was ultimately available to record a small amount of material for the first episode, but her absence would leave the second series sorely lacking when it finally appeared in October 1986. The problem with the new batch of six episodes, which commenced on 30 October in the same timeslot, was not simply that they missed Candice and her glitzy fantasy world, but that the other characters had also been noticeably reshaped to cover the gap – Shelley’s brashness and confidence noticeably toned down, Amanda revealed to be unexpectedly weak-willed and easily manipulated by men, and most jarringly of all Jennifer becoming some sort of a mutedly scheming bitch, siding with whichever of the others she stood to gain the most from. This resulted in a muddled dynamic with less inspired interplay between the flatmates.

In fairness, the writers may simply have not been able to lavish enough time and energy onto the new scripts (work on which was already underway before the first batch had even aired) as they had for the first series, and indeed Dawn French hinted at this when interviewed for Roger Wilmut’s history of Alternative Comedy, Didn’t You Kill My Mother-In-Law?. Girls on Top appears to have been somewhat rushed back into production to capitalise on its success, and during the short break between series Wax was engaged on a number of other writing projects, while French and Saunders (the latter of whom also had her first child during this time) were hard at work both on Ben Elton’s lavishly-produced BBC sitcom Happy Families (also produced by Paul Jackson) and their own superior The Comic Strip Presents … film “Consuela”.

Ultimately, whatever the reasons for it were, the second series was a massive comedown after the offbeat vulgar charm of the first. This is not to say it does not have its moments – the first episode in which Amanda and Shelley are both accused of murdering Candice by assisting one of her “mystery” illnesses (in fact she had run away to marry a rich nobleman, suggesting yet another of her apparent delusions may have been realistic after all) is well up to standard, while others featured entertaining guest appearances by Harry Enfield, John Sessions, Hugh Laurie, and former Soap star Katherine Helmond in an arresting turn as Shelley’s mother – but as a whole it failed to work as well as the previous outing. Even the theme song, remixed to remove Ullman’s vocals, seemed a pale shadow of its former self.

With the final episode featuring the main characters apparently killed in an explosion – yet another unintentional but widely-derided echo of The Young OnesGirls on Top made its final appearance on 11 December 1986. Despite never giving an inch in terms of the strength of its content, the success of the show in its unlikely timeslot did much to make this new strain of comedy acceptable in the eyes of the wider viewing public. It also acted as a springboard for the cast to find their way into similar areas. Even aside from Ullman’s phenomenal success in America, French and Saunders finally secured a headlining series of their own which rapidly elevated from an offbeat cult favourite into one of the BBC’s biggest ratings draws, while Wax would soon find her way into mainstream light entertainment via a string of documentary and chat show assignments for Channel 4.

However, this success did not extend to all parties involved – early the following year, Central attempted to fill the Girls on Top-shaped hole in their output with the similarly conceived Hardwicke House, and found themselves with one of the biggest misjudgements in broadcasting history.

Sadly, nowadays Girls on Top seems to be generally regarded as something of a poor relation of the alternative comedy boom. Perhaps this isn’t so surprising, given the lacklustre second series was seen – and by association judged – by far more people than the genuinely very good first. But at least initially it was a sterling effort from four developing talents (five, if you count Ben Elton) and deserves slightly more respect than its reputation might suggest. Yet arguably the biggest laugh of the entire series was that, having been shunned by television virtually outright for so long, Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders beat their contemporaries into the mainstream schedules by some distance.