Recently a good friend mentioned that he’d rewatched the entire series of The New Statesman and enjoyed it a great deal, with the caveats that there was the odd dodgy joke which by 2020’s standards wasn’t on, and that some of the fourth series was a little patchy. Intrigued by this I decided to give the first ever episode a re-evaluation, not having seen it since it first aired 13th September 1987 when I was still a worryingly fairly naïve thirteen year old.
Back then I’d loved it a great deal, though as has been proven in previous articles, it didn’t take a lot to entertain me and over three decades later there’s been many an occasion where I’ve winced my way through something that I’d previously enjoyed. But this isn’t one of those times, this first episode of The New Statesman has a lot of funny moments in it, and introduces many characters effectively, even if it could be suggested that this is essentially ITV’s version of Blackadder.
Written by Laurence Marks and Maurice Gran (Shine On Harvey Moon, but also Birds Of A Feather, the dirty so and so’s) Alan B’Stard certainly has a lot in common with Rowan Atkinson’s famous creation, he’s a scheming Machiavellian figure who will screw over anyone and everyone if it increases his own standing. If anything B’stard is even more of a shit however, as this opening episode proves as he wants to arm up the British police. Technically it’s not his idea however as after Alan’s elected the Chief Constable Sir Malachi Jellicoe (John Woodvine, gloriously menacing) tells him he knows Alan cheated his way in to office by screwing with the brakes on the cars of two of his opponents, but rather than send him to prison he plans to blackmail him, much to Alan’s relief.
Along the way we get to meet the snivelling Baldrick-esque Piers Fletcher-Dervish (Michael Troughton), an MP who shares an office with Alan, though in the way they’ve made B’stard even more of a bastard, Fletcher-Dervish is somehow even more pathetic than Baldrick, and an utterly cowardly figure who allows himself to be used and abused by Alan seemingly without caring, at least in this episode. B’Stard also shares the room with Sir Stephen (John Nettleton), a doddering old fool who’s not quite as dumb as some of Blackadder’s idiotic figures like Tim McInnery’s Percy, but he’s not a million miles off either. Alan’s wife Sarah (Marsha Fitzalan) is also introduced, and though they initially pretend to be greatly in love both are cheating on each other, after a phone call with her Alan declares “Right I’m off down Stringfellows to commit adultery”, while we see Sarah in bed with another woman. It feels a little confused as at first they both pretend to like each other, but later on in Church she’s mocking Alan and he’s quite happy to insult her back, but someone who can take Alan on is desperately needed in the show so I’m not complaining.
A couple of moments haven’t aged well, when Alan mocks Sarah’s heritage he calls Edward The Second “a poof”, and Alan’s business manager Norman has to fake his own death due to issues with both the inland revenue and the fraud squad, and so plans to change sex and become Norma. To be fair to the show Alan only responds with a raised eyebrow and a smirk, and there’s a minor callback to the situation right at the end, so at least it’s not as offensive as it could have been, or as bad as the way the subject is dealt with in a number of other eighties series.
Otherwise this is very strong material, Alan’s right wing beliefs are mocked heavily and the dialogue is often laugh out loud funny, what with the way Alan comments on Piers being an MP because below Watford “They’d elect a hat stand if it had a blue rosette on it”, persuades parliament to arm the police as “In the immortal words of Hill Street Blues, let’s do it to them before they do it to us”, and some of the guns Alan plans to arm the police with are made out of “Recycled frying pans” and likely to explode if used.
John Woodvine’s truly fantastic as the deranged Sir Malichi, believing that he can see God and at one point uttering to Alan “Have a pork scratching, says the lord”, while there’s a lot of very memorable imagery in the episode too, not least a bunch of choir boys turning out to be policemen, but they also have fun with some fake newspapers (“Lords Give Licence To Bang” reads The Sun in one bit) while the car chase at the end is well filmed and has an amusing ending as the policemen try to use one of the gun’s Alan’s provided for them on him.
It’s surprising (and questionably depressing) how relevant this particular episode still is given the corruption in politics and the way deals are made with politicians friends and associates, while at one point a Labour MP suggests just why the police shouldn’t be armed and it’s an argument that is difficult to disagree with. That only a couple of jokes haven’t aged badly given that this was a deliberately edgy sitcom made almost forty years old is impressive too, and it’s packed with strong performances, Mayall’s at his best here as the slimy lead but everyone else is great too.
Skimming through the list of episodes on Wikipedia suggests that the show became increasingly ridiculous, and given some of the topics it deals with I doubt all have aged as well as this debut episode. But judged as a one off, it is a superb first episode which introduces the main characters seemingly effortlessly and contains a very entertaining storyline too, and this is a great slice of classic tv comedy of the kind that ITV sadly stopped making a long time ago.