Taking the Peace

TJ Worthington on Hippies

First published November 2004

By 1969, at least in Britain, the short-lived psychedelic dream was long since over. The Beatles were returning to their rock ‘n’ roll roots with impromptu rooftop concerts, Syd Barrett had withdrawn from Pink Floyd after dropping one tab too many, and Marc Bolan had one eye on an electric guitar and the other on the upper reaches of the singles chart. Over in the British film industry, “swinging London” was no longer flavour of the month and directors were looking towards grittier tales of gangland retribution, futuristic ultra-violence and coaches teetering over cliff sides in Turin.

Yet the “hippy” movement that had initially gone hand in hand with psychedelia showed no such signs of abating, and would continue to hang in the air like particularly stubborn joss stick smoke for several years to come. Legions of long-haired layabouts labouring under the misapprehension that “all you need is love” descended from across the nation on the leafier avenues of suburban London, most of them apparently settling in Ladbroke Grove and joining a gentleman named Raja Ram in a band called Quintessence, whose vast membership was only matched by the length of their songs. Many of those who did not have the good fortune to participate in the recording of such classics as Gungamai instead became involved with the underground press, producing poorly photocopied magazines with impenetrable psychedelic design and full of incendiary counter-cultural musings that seemed almost guaranteed to invoke the ire of politicians, policemen, moral guardians and “right thinking” people everywhere.

30 years later, one such magazine became the focus of a largely forgotten BBC2 sitcom from the creators of Father Ted. Set in a Ladbroke Grove commune with the heavy vibes of the 1970s looming close on the horizon, Hippies revolved around the everyday lives of the editorial staff of Mouth, one of the least distinguished of the taboo-breaking counter-cultural “underground” magazines.

The publication was intended to provoke subversion and cause social upheaval on a mass scale, but was never actually likely to do so on account of its embarrassingly slow production rate, and the fact that none of the contributors seemed to have any idea of what they were actually supposed to be doing. Editor Ray Purbbs (Simon Pegg) was by far the most passionate of the team, clinging earnestly to his ideals but seemingly struggling to find anything worth reacting against. Failing to prove himself as a thorn in the flesh of any sector of the establishment, even the police who to his immense frustration turned out to have an endearing fondness for the peace and love people, Ray resorts to launching pathetic and utterly futile campaigns against such universal evils as sandpaper manufacturers. Yet despite his hopelessness and naïveté, Ray is by far the most sympathetic character of the quartet presented here. His frequent visits to his parents’ house, a nightmarish and hostile vision of stereotypical string-vests-and-sunburst-clocks 1960s working class drabness, show how deeply committed he is to his lifestyle and his imagined cause, and there is a sense that he might have been able to make something of his aims and ambitions if he hadn’t been surrounded by a group of apathetic leeches posing as co-conspirators.

Jill Sprint (Sally Phillips) is ostensibly Ray’s girlfriend, and in many ways his exact opposite. Often to be seen walking down the street in elaborate wizard costumes, Jill is actually well-versed in all of the radical theorists that Ray merely likes to pretend he’s heard of, and follows their philosophies to the letter with an almost psychotic fervour. She is a great believer in “free love”, but not necessarily with Ray, and the merest hint of a suggestion of an amorous advance is enough to cause him to be landed with a heavy punch to the face.

Alex Pichton-Dinch (Julian Rhind-Tutt) has the air of a genuine tie-dyed-in-the-wool hippy, but closer examination reveals him to be an unreconstructed over-privileged public schoolboy who has merely adopted the lifestyle as a way of avoiding various responsibilities. He is no more interested in the causes that Mouth espouses than he is in the effort it takes to paste up pages, and his main hobbies appear to be playing golf and smoking in an elegant and languid fashion. Meanwhile, Hugo Yemp (Darren Boyd) is so spaced out that he is often to be found standing in doorframes for hours on end. The authorities didn’t seem to be too bothered about the idea of closing Mouth down, possibly because the proprietors were doing a good enough job themselves.

Unlike many other comedy shows that have tried and failed to mine the same era for humorous effect, Hippies did not make the mistake of relying on awkwardly crowbarred-in jokes about the fact that fashions were slightly different in the past. Nor was there really much in the way of tired and hackneyed parodies of “far out” drug culture. Instead, in Hippies the historical setting is used as a backdrop to the action and as raw source material for the creation of gags and comic situations. Much like Linehan and Mathews’ earlier and more famous creation, it simply slots amusingly surreal conceits into what would have been ordinary and everyday routine – at least in an idealised and exaggerated sense – for its main characters. Through a miserable procession of music festivals, orgies, protest rallies, vicious imposition of feminist rhetoric and ludicrous symbolic plays continually interrupted by the “Hippy Horse”, the quartet of no-hopers never failed to have their dreams of an idyllic lifestyle dashed by a series of bizarre and strangely interconnected incidents.

There were no real one-line “jokes” as such, but instead ridiculously escalating build-ups to great situation-driven gags. In one episode, Jill’s obsession with female empowerment leads her to the belief that far too much attention is being paid to her backside within the Mouth office, and that it has to stop. Hugo, who had never given any particular thought to the matter previously, suddenly finds himself haunted by an inability to shake her hind quarters from his mind, and by the attendant guilt. Eventually, while seeking refuge in an Irish pub, he yells, “I can’t stop thinking about her arse!” in despair. Upon which the folk band who have just been asking for requests launch into the beautiful traditional ballad of the same name.

There was also a healthy amount of absurdist slapstick, most of it endured by the long-suffering Ray as he tumbled down an infinite staircase, or found himself being dragged face-first along the world’s longest strip of sandpaper.

Hippies reached a high with the final episode, a culmination of the various running themes of the series with a superbly constructed storyline that was every bit the equal of those seen in Father Ted. Opening with the brilliantly ludicrous sight of a slow-walking Alex being “pursued” by a gang of irate hippy-hating workmen, the episode mirrors the real-life obscenity trial of the publishers of Oz magazine, as Ray follows their lead and ill-advisedly allows some schoolboys to edit the next issue of Mouth. Said juveniles are hardly imbued with the spirit of the age, bluntly berating Alex for his indolence and eventually locking Ray out of the production office. When the next issue of Mouth hits the streets, the thoughts of nation’s schoolkids on the hippy dream are made clear – it comes wrapped in a cover that bears a photograph of Ray declaring, “I am a cunt”. The authorities finally take an interest in the magazine and a date is set for a high profile trial under the Obscene Publications Act. Unsurprisingly, Ray ends up taking the rap for everything, but it seems that he can’t even get being a convenient scapegoat for national outrage at the permissive society quite right. Meanwhile, after his barber commits suicide in the face of declining business, Ray’s father becomes an unwilling owner of long hair. Arriving at court for the trial in the hope that those long-haired layabouts might finally get what they’ve had coming for far too long, he is immediately set upon by the same workmen who had earlier been chasing Alex.

While it would be a brave person who claimed that it was on a par with Father Ted, Hippies was a likeable and at times exceptionally good sitcom that deserved greater acclaim than it received. The main cast were all excellent in their roles, particularly Sally Phillips and Julian Rhind-Tutt, and various guest stars like Kevin Eldon (as a sex-crazed beatnik professor) and Peter Serafinowicz (as a hippy actor with an enormously inflated sense of self-importance) rose to the challenge of playing such deliberately ridiculous caricatures admirably. Mention must also be made of the mock-folk rock theme song sung by Pegg, full of banal clichés and awkward rhymes in support of an exhortation to “build a love state, here in Notting Hill Gate”, and exactly the sort of drivel that Ray might have been expected to come up with had anyone ever been foolish enough to let him loose in a recording studio.

Yet although the criticism that it met with at the time was unfair, there are some respects in which the public’s reluctance to embrace it was understandable. Even despite the slight misfire of their sketch show Big Train, which contained an uneasy mixture of flashes of brilliance and outright filler, the loyal and sizeable following that Father Ted had acquired was enough to ensure that the next move of Linehan and Mathews was eagerly anticipated. Hippies, however, was largely written by Mathews alone while Linehan worked on other projects, and his individual comic vision was perhaps slightly different to what some sectors of the audience might have been expected. On top of this, there is no escaping the fact that the series began not just with the wrong episode, but in fact the wrong episodes, with the strongest editions all appearing towards the end of the run.

The amount of pre-launch hype didn’t help much either, and the end result was that Hippies just didn’t grab viewers who weren’t inclined to persevere with it after being less than overwhelmed by the first few editions. Nonetheless, the critical battering that it met with – much of it courtesy of reviewers who didn’t display any more journalistic flair than Ray, Alex, Jill or Hugo – is quite difficult to understand. More to the point, the adverse reaction was sufficiently strong enough to cause Mathews to sadly give up on the idea of a commissioned second series, even though half of the scripts had already been written.

Like Linehan and Mathews’ pre-Father Ted venture Paris (another series that deserves a chance at re-evaluation), Hippies is an underrated and well above-average venture that has somehow come to be regarded as a failure. Aside from a couple of runs on the now-defunct BBC cable channel UK Play, where it met with a more favourable response, the series hasn’t been seen anywhere since.

Much like the magazine created by its main characters, Hippies is destined to remain a favourite with the small but loyal cult following who were there at the time (man), and repeat showings as rare as new editions of Mouth.