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

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)

Arts and Entertainment
At this year's SXSW festival in Austin, Texas

Music Why this music festival is still the place to spot the next big thing

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished
tvReview: The latest episode was a smidgen less depressing... but it’s hardly a bonza beach party
Arts and Entertainment
Crime watch: Cara Delevingne and Daniel Brühl in ‘The Face of an Angel’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
music Malik left the Asian leg of the band's world tour after being signed off with stress last week
News
Author J.K. Rowling attends photocall ahead of her reading from 'The Casual Vacancy' at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on September 27, 2012 in London, England.
peopleNot the first time the author has defended Dumbledore's sexuality
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall

Mexican government reportedly paying Bond producers for positive portrayal in new filmfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Disney’s flying baby elephant is set to return in live-action format
filmWith sequels, prequels and spin-offs, Disney plays it safe... and makes a pachyderm
Arts and Entertainment
Nazrin with Syf, Camden
photography
News
The QI Elves photographed at the Soho Theatre. They are part of a team of researchers who find facts for the television programme 'QI'.
people
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv0-star review: Sean O'Grady gives it his best shot anyway
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss