I grew up in suburbia. My parents worked in offices. As a podgy, nerdy kid always picked last in games, I was never going to be a fireman or an astronaut or anything else that required my body to be anything more than the place I kept my mind. And so, I guess I always knew, I was destined to work in an office too.
Which was a problem, because offices are bloody boring. They’re bad enough now; they were worse before the age of the internet and social media, because you weren’t just bored, you were isolated. On work experience in the mid 1990s I spent three days reorganising a company’s filing system – not because they made me, because it was genuinely more interesting than anything else I could find to do. There were only so many rounds of Minesweeper a kid could play.
As with most forms of suburban mediocrity, of course, this comes under the heading of good problems to have, since very few people lose limbs or meet an early death thanks to catastrophic photocopying accidents: if you are in a position to whine about how dull your boring job is, that is, in itself, a form of class privilege. All the same, as much as I may have longed for the freedom of adult life, I was also slightly concerned I was going to be bored for most of it.
Until I saw Drop the Dead Donkey.
If you’ve never had the pleasure, Drop the Dead Donkey was a Channel 4 sitcom which ran for six seasons between 1990 and 1998. It was written by Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin, who’d later produce Outnumbered; it effectively launched the careers of several of its cast, including Stephen Tompkinson and Neil Pearson.
And it was set – this is where it gets kind of self indulgent; I am aware of the problem, I promise, but I’m in this now – in the media. The show took place in the news room of the fictional GlobeLink news.
Some of the show’s humour came from office politics. But much of it came from topical jokes: the scripts were written, and the episodes filmed, mere days before broadcast, and repeats required a voiceover explaining what was in the news at the time of original broadcast just so that viewers would have some vague chance of understanding what the jokes were referring to. (The setting, incidentally, explains the show’s apparently nonsensical title: it’s an example of the sort of thing the writers imagined might be yelled out in the last few moments before the news went on air. It was almost called “Dead Belgians Don’t Count”.)
There was much about life at GlobeLink News that didn’t look pleasant. In the first episode the company is taken over by Sir Roysten Merchant, a media mogul with suspiciously familiar initials, who pressures the editors to be more sensationalist and run fewer stories that might negatively affect his businesses.
We never actually see Sir Roysten: he appears once, to speak one line in the very last episode, but his views are made known via his right-hand man Gus, a walking LinkedIn account who speaks in a surprisingly creative stream of incomprehensible management-speak (“There is just something I’d like to pop into your percolator, see if it comes out brown.”)
All this, though, was rather better preparation for real life than I appreciated at the time, and there was a lot else about the show that made the media look like an interesting place to be. The way the staff were mostly clever, engaged people who sit around making jokes about the nation’s leaders. The energies they poured into, basically, trolling each other, with varying degrees of plausibility. (This will make no sense whatsoever if you’ve never seen the show, but for those who have, a personal favourite is: “‘Xylophone for sale’? Who put this here?”)
Then there was field reporter Damian Day’s habit of sexing up his footage of war zones or natural disasters by adding a battered child’s teddy bear to every pile of rubble (“This bear’s visited more disaster scenes than Margaret Thatcher! It’s the only cuddly toy to have taken part in the Iran-Iraq War!”).
Best of all, the thing I feared most about most about working life – being shut off from the world, isolated in a world of post-it notes and white boards – didn’t seem to apply. The show took place in an office; but it was an office where what happened in politics and the wider world mattered. It made working in journalism look fun.
As with most British sitcoms, most of the characters were utter wankers. But, as I watched Drop the Dead Donkey, I would find myself thinking: “That’s the kind of wanker I want to be.”
As a kid, your view of the world is tightly constrained, and your idea of what options might be open to you in adult life can be directly influenced by the books, TV or film you consume. There’s a generation of SpAds who got into politics in part because they wanted to live in The West Wing. I suspect there are lawyers out there, too, who grew up with John Grisham or thought it looked fun on The Good Wife. (This raises the interesting possibility that, somewhere in the world, there are guys who, inspired by The Wire and Breaking Bad, went onto a career in the exciting and lucrative illegal pharmaceuticals industry. But anyway.)
For me, though, it was Drop the Dead Donkey. It didn’t make me become a journalist. But, as Gus Hudges might say, it certainly put the idea in my mental microwave to see if it would defrost.
This is part of the New Statesman’s look back at classic sitcoms from the 90s. You can find our takes on why Martin Crane’s hideous chair was the true star of Frasier here, and how Absolutely Fabulous is a reminder of pre-Brexit Britain here.