Men Behaving Badly at 30: how the definitive 90s sitcom almost never got made
Simon Nye was working as a translator in a bank when, out of the blue, comedy super producer Beryl Vertue asked him if he’d like to try turning his debut novel into a sitcom. She’d worked with Spike Milligan, Eric Sykes and Tony Hancock, and helped make successes of Til Death Do Us Part and Steptoe and Son. Now she wanted Men Behaving Badly.
“I knew I was lucky,” he tells The Telegraph now, 30 years on from the show’s first broadcast in February 1992. Men Behaving Badly went on to become perhaps the definitive sitcom of the Nineties, and certainly the most intensely Nineties sitcom the decade produced.
Flatmates Tony and Gary and their crass, daft, consequence-free escapades became emblems of a very hetero kind of masculinity which didn’t want to apologise for itself, and they were just about ironic and goofy enough to get away with it. “But also, it sort of felt like, well that’s obviously what happens: you write a novel, and then it becomes a TV series, and then you’re off.”
Men Behaving Badly was a meandering 1989 novel about two men living in a grotty London boarding house who both fall in love with the woman who lives in the flat above theirs. Nye didn’t have any grand ambitions for the book and certainly hadn’t plotted out his break into TV. It was, he said later, “just two men chatting – aimless and nonsensical.”
The book didn’t sell particularly well or ride on a wave of glowing reviews. In fact, it came to Vertue almost by chance. A publisher’s list of its upcoming releases landed on her desk and her eye was immediately caught by Nye’s title. Without knowing anything about it or its writer, she ordered it.
“Funny how a yellow piece of paper can change your life,” she reflected to the BBC later. Vertue had vaguely wondered if Men Behaving Badly might be a good film project.
“Once I’d read it, I realised it wouldn’t,” Vertue, who passed away two days ago aged 90, told the Guardian later, “but it would be a good sitcom.”
Vertue tracked Nye down and began developing his idea. Out went a battle-axe landlady, and the focus shifted instead to the two 30-something flatmates: grumpy skinflint Gary Strang, who owns the flat, and his drifting, work-shy lodger Dermot Povey. They’d be joined by Deborah, the unattainably glamorous woman upstairs, and Gary’s girlfriend Dorothy.
Harry Enfield, then probably the biggest comedy star in the UK, came on board first as Dermot. In turn, he talked his friend Martin Clunes into playing Gary, after the pair had starred in ITV’s Gone To The Dogs together.
Vertue and Nye went to check Clunes out at Regent’s Park open air theatre, where he was playing a Regency comedy in full wig, britches and buckled shoes. Nye saw him in another play as “a hilariously rapacious estate agent,” and concluded he was spot on. Dorothy would be played by Caroline Quentin, and Deborah by Leslie Ash.
The scripting process was more knotty. Before his novel, Nye had spent his early career translating works by Georges Braque, Henri Matisse and Richard Wagner, and had no idea how to write for television. “I don’t want to make myself sound like an idiot,” Nye says, “but a little bit of me thought actors must improvise a lot of TV. I was that dim about the process.”
After a few drafts, Vertue offered to send his scripts to her old friends Ray Galton and Alan Simpson who, with Steptoe and Son and Hancock’s Half Hour, had pretty much created the British sitcom. Quite some time later, Nye realised he’d heard nothing back. That felt, he says, “pretty damning”.
Nonetheless, after several drafts a pilot script was readied and shot. That pilot, in Nye’s recollection, was “quite shaky”. Martin Clunes’ memory of it is even less rosy. “I’ve not watched the pilot since,” he told the Guardian. “Actually, no one has. It's never been aired. It was everything Harry railed against: coarse, with the director saying you’ve got to be chalk and cheese – abrasive like The Likely Lads.”
Nye knows now that Enfield was the real reason the shoddy pilot got picked up.
In 1988 his absurd, ultra-Thatcherite character Loadsamoney had become so popular he put out a novelty single (sample lyric: “Doin’ up the house is my bread and butter / Me bird’s page three and me car’s a nutter”) which got to number four in the UK singles charts. In 1991 Enfield’s sketch show Harry Enfield’s Television Programme took off.
Clearly, Enfield didn’t want the potential flop of Men Behaving Badly to taint his winning streak, and Clunes has said the comedian wanted out.
“His original vision was for it not to be like a usual sitcom. Then we made the pilot and it shocked him. It was bad,” Clunes remembered. “It didn’t faze me since I was nobody from nowhere, but you could see Harry wanted out. He was under contract, though, so had to do one series.”
Men Behaving Badly debuted on ITV at 8.30pm on 18 February 1992. Reviews and ratings were middling. Despite Enfield’s star power, the first series just about kept pace with ITV’s own Surgical Spirit but lagged way behind the 15 million watching One Foot in the Grave on the BBC.
Even So Haunt Me, a sitcom about a family which moves into a house in Willesden only to find it’s haunted by the ghost of a Jewish grandma, was beating Men Behaving Badly by three and a half million.
In the Daily Mirror, Hilary Kingsley admitted settling down “glumly” to watch Dermot (“a dope”) and Gary (“a brute... appallingly rude”). She admitted to being slowly won round. But looking at the first series now, it feels oddly airless and strangulated. Dermot is blank and passive; Gary is cynical and cold. Enfield was glad to escape at the end of the first series, with Dermot’s absence explained via a postcard at the start of the second series telling Gary that he’d found love abroad.
At Clunes’ suggestion, Neil Morrissey came in to replace Enfield with a character called Tony Smart. Like Dermot before him, Tony was less than keen on getting a solid job and besotted with Deborah, but Morrissey’s puppyish energy completely changed the dynamic.
“[Morrissey’s] the master of fecklessness in the characters he plays,” says Nye. “But he also conveys the kind of happy to be there quality, which I think is really useful especially when it contrasts with Martin Clunes’ character’s grudgingness or grumpiness.”
Clunes and Morrissey were already good friends, Nye explains. “Although Harry and Martin knew each other, Neil and Martin really knew each other.”
But despite hitting on a pairing with potential, Men Behaving Badly was still under a lot of pressure from TV bosses. “We did two series for Thames TV, then ITV took over and said if any episode got 10 million viewers, the show would stay on air,” Vertue recalled later.
The second series averaged seven million viewers, and was axed. “I thought it was all over,” says Nye. But Vertue, incensed, took Men Behaving Badly to the BBC. It returned in 1994, and shifted to a post-watershed slot just after Absolutely Fabulous. The 24 minute slot Nye had to write for on ITV was suddenly expanded too. “It gave us an extra five minutes – it might sound a bit basic – to have more kind of meandering, slightly surreal, drunken chats on the sofa, which became a bit of a trademark.”
Take, for instance, the time Gary pointed out that Tony and the working world have never really gelled. “Gelled, no,” Tony admits. “Well it’s not natural is it? Man was meant to hunt, fish and forage in the open air.” “Well, why aren't you doing that, then?” asks Gary. “You know I get a bit chesty in the open air,” Tony says.
By 1996, Men Behaving Badly had nearly doubled its viewing figures to 13 million and become the biggest sitcom in Britain. Thanks to Gary and Tony’s phwoaring, predilection for lager and keenness to avoid doing anything important or grown up at all costs, they bobbed up on a rising tide.
Coincidentally, Loaded magazine had launched two months before Men Behaving Badly arrived on the BBC. Its first issue, which trailed a feature about Paul Weller, Gary Oldman and Eric Cantona under the strapline “SUPER LADS”, also contained an editor’s letter which could have served as Gary and Tony’s credo.
Loaded, it said, was “a new magazine dedicated to life, liberty and the pursuit of sex, drink, football and less serious matters… for the man who believes he can do anything, if only he wasn’t hungover”. An unwillingness to mature past one’s early 20s became oddly valiant, and an ironic gloss made the whole thing seem less threatening than the football hooliganism of the 80s.
“A bloke who likes football and lager? That's a really new thing, ain't it?” Morrissey scoffed to the Independent that June, in a piece published the day before England’s 4-1 victory over the Netherlands at Euro ‘96. “Just because we happen to be a popular programme, they use us as part of the formula for what laddism is. If you watch Men Behaving Badly, they say you’re a lager-drinking lad – which is absolute c**k. The programme is very popular across the board. How can it have 13 million viewers if it’s just men that watch it?”
Vertue always maintained that half of Men Behaving Badly’s audience were women, and said she was “surprised” to be at the vanguard of a New Lad revolution. “You’d imagine that this is a show which women wouldn't like because it's so chauvinistic,” she told the Independent. “But women love Gary and Tony because they're very innocent. They’re like little boys; not vindictive in any way.”
Morrissey agreed. “People seem to think that in the series we're burping, farting, womanising, shagging, football hooligans, which is absolutely, completely and utterly wrong. The characters are feeble, inadequate, pathetic, never-go-to-bed-with-anyone, halitosis-infested gits. But their redeeming qualities are a natural charm and vulnerability.”
To Nye, his two 30-something incompetents were the first stirrings of a deeper shift. “Actually, Gary, particularly, and Tony, they were trying to get it right. They were trying to – if only for quiet life – trying to learn the rules of the gender game. It was part of the [thing of] let’s look at how men are behaving and whether they should be trying harder. And clearly, as history has shown, it was very much the early steps of men being told that they’re getting it very wrong.”
Nevertheless, Morrissey and Clunes found that they had become unintentional standard bearers for a tranche of men who took the burping, farting and lager at face value. Both would regularly find themselves accosted in the street by men who gleefully told them that they and their mates were just like Gary and Tony.
“Martin and I were playing a couple of misogynist losers who couldn’t hold down a job, let alone get a decent girlfriend,” Morrissey told the Telegraph in 2016. “We were always representing what was wrong in society, so it was quite ironic. We’d go, ‘Well, you’re really f---ing sad then!’”
Nye does admit, however, that Deborah and Dorothy got little to work with in the early episodes. “They were there very much as foils, and I hope I gave them more of a shout, as the series went on.”
Men Behaving Badly wrapped up in 1998 with three Christmas specials, the last peaking at 15 million viewers. “It was the best job – not a threatening-edgy show, but still cheeky and on the edge,” Clunes remembered. “I have a great memory of sitting in a birthing pool with Neil, farting.”
One particular sequence summed up the whole experience. “There was a closeup of us on it, then the camera pulled back and you could see we were sitting on the penis of the Cerne Abbas giant. The crew had to shoot from a helicopter. We just sat and drank beer in this beautiful valley at dusk. The scene was for the end credits, so our instructions were just: ‘Act stupid as the helicopter pulls away.’ I rolled the whole way down the giant's penis.”