Comedy Classics: The New Statesman

by Lisa McGarry

This week the series which raids the comedy archives of ITV brings us Comedy Classics: The New Statesman.

Rik Mayall was the star of the show as Alan B’stard the right wing MP who was the personification of Tory sleaze and corruption.

The sitcom, which was first broadcast on ITV in 1987, centred on Alan, his equally corrupt wife, Sarah, and his whipping boy, Piers Fletcher-Dervish.

Fans of The New Statesman, including Lesley Joseph and Antony Cotton share their memories of the show and Mayall’s character.

Lesley tells Comedy Classics: “He was monstrous, unfeeling, nasty and vindictive. He pushed it as far as he could go and he created a monster.”

Antony adds: “He was a pig of a character.”

Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran, who wrote the sitcom, tell Comedy Classics that Mayall approached them to ask them to write a character for him.

Maurice Gran says: “We said, ‘What do you want to do? What sort of character do you want to play?’ and he said, ‘I like to play characters who are the worst side of me – cowardly, depraved, greedy, over-sexed and murderous’. And so we said, ‘Well then, you want to be a Conservative back-bencher’.”

The pair describe how the character was corrupt and sadistic but exactly what they considered every Tory MP to be like – and he sent shockwaves through the House of Commons.

Former MP Edwina Currie tells the show: “There were certainly members of the back bench Conservative side of the house who were disgusted, absolutely appalled.”

Comedy Classics features favourite clips of the sitcom, which courted controversy and satirised all the political issues of the day from the illegal sexual antics of elderly MPs to government blackmail and embellishment.

There are also clips of Alan and his trophy wife, Sarah. The couple hated each other but needed each other even more as Alan wanted Sarah for status and she wanted him for his money.

Actress Marsha Fitzalan, who, until The New Statesman had only ever featured in period dramas and domestic sitcoms, explains what it was like playing the bisexual and promiscuous Sarah.

She says: “It’s far more fun playing a villain than some little soppy do-good type person. That’s why I loved playing Sarah actually, because she’s a baddie.

“Sarah’s life was all shopping and f***ing really, that sums her up. I used to hope that my parents wouldn’t watch it. I used to tell them that is was on on a different night so that they missed particular scenes that I didn’t want them to see.”

The writers also tell Comedy Classics about Mayall’s embellishment of the physical scenes. One scene in particular had more complaints than any other – the torture of Piers’ teddy bear.

Maurice Gran says: “Rik Mayall loved to embellish the physical business of the show, so you could come in for a rehearsal halfway through the week and find that it has run on for ten minutes because whereas you’d written in the script, ‘Alan hits Piers’, there was now five minutes of choreographed violence.”

In 1990 the series won a BAFTA and an Emmy but as the writers were creating the third series Margaret Thatcher resigned. With Major at the helm of the Tory party, the creators decided to set the fourth series in Europe – and that was to be the last.

Comedy Classics takes a look at what happened to the cast members when the series ended.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008, 10:40PM – 11:40PM