"But It's Got Pipes In It!!"
For two nights early in 1987, it felt as though television had entirely lost control of itself.
Cutting a very long story very short indeed, Hardwicke House was an anarchic sitcom made by Central for ITV and set in a failing mid-eighties comprehensive school populated by feral pupils and a mixture of incompetent and sadistic staff. Its humour was pitched somewhere between the already pretty controversial 'kids run amok' post-punk children's comedy shows Educating Marmalade and Your Mother Wouldn't Like It (with which it shared some of its cast), and the politically-charged violent slapstick and taboo-breaking of the Comic Strip crowd; indeed, Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson were set to show up halfway through the series as Lenny and Tiny, two highly dangerous former pupils fresh out of borstal. It had been made with ITV's edgy late-night Sunday comedy slot - home to Spitting Image, Hale And Pace, Hot Metal and other fondly recalled shows you were 'allowed to stay up for' - in mind, but to the surprise and indeed concern of everyone involved with the show, was shunted into a midweek late evening slot, reputedly with the aim of capitalising on the recent early evening success of Central's Girls On Top, an itself hardly controversy-free (are you noticing a theme developing here?) vehicle for Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, Tracey Ullman and Ruby Wax.
And so it was that, accompanied by a massive push from TV Times, those first two episodes went out on successive days between 8pm and 9pm, in what was possibly the most severe misjudging of the likelihood of scoring a hit TV show of all time. Of course, it was a 'hit' with those whom presumably would have sought it out in a later timeslot anyway, and I can personally attest to the playground being abuzz with excitement the next day (particularly over the scene with school bully Slasher Bates' gang eating raw liver as an initiation ceremony, and Granville Saxton's astonishing performance as the Dickensianly cruel Mr Fowl), much as it was over Blackadder II, Filthy Rich & Catflap, Happy Families and indeed Cool It! around the same time, but it sat much less comfortably with those who had been exposed to it by accident rather than design. The first episode, with its rough language, hefty swipes at apartheid and teacher with an unhealthy interest in half-naked boys, upset a huge proportion of the viewing audience, and the second, with its infamous electrocution gag, upset even more - in all seriousness, you would not believe how utterly massive and headline-pervading and indeed virtually tangible the outcry was unless you'd been there to witness it first hand; the overall impression was that there was almost a panic that television had wilfully launched an assault on taste and decency and that law and order would break down if something wasn't 'done' 'about' it straight away - to the extent that the series was pulled with immediate effect, and the already commissioned second series was written off at considerable expense; and, for that matter, a projected video release and tie-in 'School Yearbook' were summarily cancelled.
And that very nearly wasn't all - loath to admit to their own mistake, and keen to pander to the offended, Central's 'high ups' originally demanded that the series was wiped to eradicate any danger of it accidentally causing them further upset by reappearing in some form; it's difficult not to draw parallels here with the whole 'Video Nasties' phenomenon, which provoked many campaigners and politicians into suggesting quite sanely and soberly that those hapless low-budget Italian horror films could somehow affect people by their very existence from beyond the tape. Some subterfuge from the rightly disgruntled staff at Central saw to it that the tapes survived in clandestine circumstances, but they were hardly exactly at risk of damage through overuse. Rumblings of a late night reshowing later in the year, or even on Channel 4, came and went (well, there is still a question mark hanging over that, but that's a discussion for another time), and even if the tapes hadn't been erased, Hardwicke House itself had been as good as erased from TV history.
Hardly surprisingly, most people just seemed to forget about Hardwicke House after that - you'll search in vain for a mention of it in Roger Wilmut's Didn't You Kill My Mother-In-Law?, an exhaustive history of alternative comedy (and Mayall and Edmondson in particular) published barely eighteen months later, and it also bafflingly failed to join the rogue's gallery of similarly controversy-stricken drama and comedy shows in BBC2's TV Hell night in 1992. And yet there were those who just couldn't forget the thrill of what had been, whether retrospective commentators like it or not, a wild and dangerous intrusion into safe and sanitised fun family entertainment, and the mixture of incredulity and injustice that they had felt when they were suddenly told that they weren't allowed to see any more of it. Yes, injustice. Youngsters feel aggrieved about the most trivial and unreasonable things. Live with it. Anyway, as time went by, injustice was replaced by curiosity - as I've already noted in this post here, the listings for the untransmitted episodes of Hardwicke House were amongst the first things I looked up when I realised my local library had back issues of TV Times available for research purposes - and eventually incredulity that, even in an age where all manner of much more sensitive material has been prised from much more highly regulated archives and a few smudgy black and white frames of a forthcoming Doctor Who episode can be all over the internet in seconds, not a single second of unseen Hardwicke House - apart from an outtake that regularly does the rounds of the TV's Naughtiest Blunders-type shows - had ever surfaced in any form.
A couple of years back, it looked as though all those unseen seconds of Hardwicke House finally were going to surface in one particular form, and I was commissioned to write a detailed history of the show for a prospective DVD release (which you can now find in my book Well At Least It's Free; as to why you'll find it there rather than inside a DVD case, well we're getting to that). The tapes had been located, the cast and crew clearances had all been obtained (which in itself was apparently no mean feat) and I had a fine time speaking to some of them and finding out some amazing behind-the-scenes detail. Unfortunately - and this really IS cutting a long story short - its untransmitted status meant that it had to be assessed as a 'new' programme by ITV's approval committee. The fact that this was only a short while after 'Sachsgate' should probably be taken into account, but it seems that they didn't much care for it at all, and refused to sanction its release on the grounds that it was not the sort of programme that ITV would wish itself to be associated with. This was largely due to - and I don't think I can really be accused of 'spoilering' a series that nobody can see - the final episode, which would have gone out in Easter week, in which a vicar gets hit by a falling cross at the school's Easter Service, and the staff attempt to cover up the incident. Not exactly Full House, admittedly, but who in the name of sanity did they think would even see an episode at the far end of a DVD release of a deeply, deeply obscure comedy series notably short on big names, let alone take sufficient offence to cause any actual tangible trouble for anyone? As with the DVD release of the similarly (if less severely) neglected Fist Of Fun, which did come out but was forcibly shorn of inoffensive material for ludicrous reasons, the kindest thing you can accuse these decision makers of is trying to tick a predefined amount of boxes on someone else's orders. The least kindest thing you can accuse them of, of course, is sheer cowardice, and capitulation to what the sort of people who ideally should be largely ignored might concievably and theoretically be expected to potentially think about something that is probably so far off their radar that we'd actually need a bigger campaign to get them to notice it than the one against the show in the first place. Meanwhile, ITV continues to gleefully associate itself with exploitative fly on the wall 'docudramas', glorified witch hunts under the pretence of 'hard hitting' current affairs, and that thing with Dom Joly in. Still, at least they protected us all from seeing Slasher drop someone over a banister.
So near, and yet so, so far. And yet it's difficult to convince people of just how much this trivial and inconsequential television programme, that means absolutely nothing either positive or negative in the history of the medium, means to me personally, or for that matter of why it does. Some have bluntly and repeatedly told me it's not funny, as if that should be a line drawn under the whole matter, apparently missing the point that its weirdly off-target gags that misfire more often than not are actually part of the appeal in the first place. The world would be a dull place if we shunned everything bar committee-approved 'classic sitcoms'. Others have scoffed that I wouldn't be nearly so interested if it hadn't been 'banned'; apart from being possibly the most pointlessly hypothetical argument of all time, that discounts the fact that, for those two exhiliarating days, it was up there with so many other shows of its era that, rightly or wrongly, I'm still ever so slightly interested in. But above all I just want to see it, and it seems ludicrous that now that I'm a fully grown adult, who has quite legally and legitimately sat through genuinely offensive films and albums (and that's not even getting started on the vile exploitative trash that gets forced into our consciousness unbidden by modern day TV), I should be told by finger-wagging PR-conscious nobodies that I'm not allowed to. And above even that, I want to see half an hour's worth of Rik and Ade at the top of their game, and it is truly staggering that when the proper tribute shows roll around, chances are that there won't be a single frame of them driving haphazardly into the playground and perving over Pam Ferris. Remember, somebody somewhere has decided that you are not allowed to see that.
So, that's Hardwicke House, and that's why I will keep going on and on and on and on and on and on and on about it until it gets broadcast or released or whatever. And I've not even mentioned which politically inconvenient name you might well find lurking halfway down the cast...
You can find a detailed history of Hardwicke House in my book Well At Least It's Free, available as a paperback here or as an eBook here.