Show People: Behind a Donkey's tale: Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
FORGET French and Saunders, forget Baddiel and Skinner. The funniest double act in television don't even appear on the screen. Andy Hamilton, 40, and Guy Jenkin, 39, are the duo who write and produce Drop the Dead Donkey. In three series since 1990, this has established itself as the sharpest sitcom made in Britain. It's a single-handed rebuttal of the Jeremiahs who wail that Britcoms are in the doldrums. It has rescued the sitcom from three-piece-suite hell.

But what makes it special? Why has Donkey amassed 12 awards, including two Emmys and a Bafta, up to 5 million weekly viewers (stratospheric by Channel 4 standards) and a following far beyond the narrow mee-jah world of the television news organisation it portrays?

Much of the show's appeal stems from its immediacy. Produced by the prolific Hat Trick Productions, the programme is recorded in front of a live audience on a Wednesday, the day before transmission, and up to a fifth of the material consists of topical jokes about the week's news. The producers can slip in 'topicals' over the end-credits right up to Thursday evening. Hamilton and Jenkin have been known to deliver the edited version to Channel 4 as late as an hour before the show goes out.

The producers are immersed in news during the 12-week run, getting up every morning at 6.30am to plug themselves into the early-morning bulletins. 'We don't watch the news for two months after the series ends,' Hamilton says. 'If Russia invaded China the week after the series ended, we wouldn't know about it,' Jenkin adds.

Before the first series, Hamilton and Jenkin spent some time observing the BBC newsroom, but Hamilton says, 'that wasn't much help, because by and large they were all very sane and responsible'. So the writers' imagination took over.

In the very first episode, the amoral reporter Damien (Stephen Tompkinson) was revealed planting a child's plimsoll and a blood-stained teddy bear at the scene of various disasters. What the writers didn't know was that a certain real- life tabloid journalist is infamous for doing just that. Similarly, in the second series, the newsreaders Sally and Henry were 'fighting to have the last word on the bulletin,' Jenkin recalls. 'We were worried that it was too silly, but just before it went out, this story came out about Julia Somerville and Trevor McDonald arguing over who got the right-hand chair on News at Ten.' Hamilton is short, bearded and slightly balding, a bundle of energy, talking with an infectious London accent familiar to listeners of such Radio 4 programmes as The News Quiz and The Million Pound Radio Show. Jenkin, well over six foot and clean-shaven, is similarly sparky (as well as being the fastest thing on two crutches at the moment after worsening an old knee injury climbing a hill on location). He returns his partner's speedy serves with top-spin. They are a sort of funny version of Little and Large - without a straight man. They even talk like a double act, finishing each other's sentences and egging each other on to cap jokes. Often, on the tape of the interview, their voices mesh seamlessly. They seem to think and speak and laugh on the same wavelength.

Hamilton was brought up in Fulham, and Jenkin in Bath. They both went on to Cambridge, but two years separated them and they didn't meet. The pair first crossed paths on the script-writing team of Week Ending in 1978, and were soon sharing a house in Herne Hill, south London. Writing stints followed on Not the Nine O'Clock News, Spitting Image, Shelley, Kit Curran Radio Show and Chelmsford 123. By 1982, Hamilton and Jenkin were an established team - acting as sounding-board and quality-control for each other. They contributed to and co- produced four series of the sketch programme Who Dares Wins, which almost ended in tears when the programme was blasted by a ballistic Jeremy Isaacs over a risque allusion to the then Home Secretary, Leon Brittan.

Hamilton and Jenkin have always relished tweaking the tail of the Establishment and pushing material to the very edge of taste (their proposed title for the show - Dead Belgians Don't Count - was rejected by Channel 4, perhaps fortunately, as the series is now screened in Belgium). Surprisingly, however, Donkey has never been sued; the lawyers who monitor the scripts - particularly the topicals - from conception to transmission obviously do a good job. The nearest the programme came to trouble was when a near-the-knuckle joke about Margaret Thatcher elicited an angry letter from 'a Conservative MP who was head of some self-appointed defenders- of-the-family group,' Jenkin remembers.

'The wording was,' Hamilton says, ' 'This will be one of thousands of letters protesting at this vile joke you made about Mrs Thatcher.' ' 'So we looked up the Channel 4 duty log,' Jenkin says. 'And there had been three calls,' Hamilton says. 'One complaining about a different joke altogether, and two to ask where Sally had got the dress.'

The programme enjoys cult status among journalists: 'The Paxmans and the Birts and the McDonalds have all been very kind about it,' Jenkin says. Newsroom insiders feed the writers material. 'We had a mole inside one of the news organisations - which shall remain nameless,' Hamilton continues coyly, 'who sent us examples of management bollocks. The way that Gus (Globelink News's chief executive) talks is not that far removed from a John Birt directive, or even a rather poncy editorial - not in the Independent on Sunday, of course.'

Jenkin takes up the theme: 'Everything is a 'raft' these days.' 'You can't have a group of anything anymore, it's a raft of ideas,' rejoins Hamilton. 'A lot of rafts make a pontoon,' Jenkin suggests. 'Or a Bailey bridge,' Hamilton finishes with a flourish.

When they banter in this way, it is easy see the comic cross-fertilisation which makes the programme bloom. In addition to the fourth series, a 90-minute special (scheduled for Easter) and a novel set on New Year's Eve 1999 are being run up the flagpole (as Gus would say). Clearly, the Donkey is going from strength to strength.

'Drop the Dead Donkey', Channel 4, Thursdays at 10pm from 29 September.

(Photograph omitted)