by Allan Fish
(UK 1990-1998 1,710m) DVD2
Interlocking brain spaces in the work area
p Andy Hamilton, Guy Jenkin d Liddy Oldroyd, Andy Hamilton w Andy Hamilton, Guy Jenkin, etc.
Neil Pearson (Dave Charnley), Stephen Tompkinson (Damien Day), Jeff Rawle (George Dent), David Swift (Henry Davenport), Victoria Wicks (Sally Smedley), Robert Duncan (Gus Hedges), Susannah Doyle (Joy Merryweather), Ingrid Lacey (Helen Cooper), Haydn Gwynne (Alex Pates),
Coming back to Donkey nearly 20 years after it finally went off air, it wasn’t without some sense of trepidation. After all, it was a show that built much of its humour on current affairs, a successor to the heritage of That Was the Week That Was, Spitting Image and Jasper Carrott. How much laughter will be lost to memory of the events in question? In reality it stands up remarkably well; partly because what they’re saying about current affairs and celebrities of the nineties can easily be transferred to a present day satire, partly because it blows away the insipid so-called newsroom insights of Broadcast News but essentially because at its heart it’s a study of office politics that prefigures The Office.
GlobeLink is a news service on an unspecified network. The executive in charge, Gus, insists he’s not there but undermines everyone’s authority at every turn with his boss-speak garbage. George is the official editor in chief, but couldn’t make a decision if his life depended on it, leaving the essential running of the day to day business to his deputy, Alex (later Helen). To these add their roving newshound Damien, so ruthless he’d sell he’d burn his own parents at the stake for a story, and Dave, a serial philanderer addicted to gambling who sets up books in the office on the merest trifles. Chief newsreader is Henry, a borderline alcoholic who thinks he’s still irresistible to women, and he shares his desk with Sally, a faux-posh former children’s TV presenter with the political acumen of a dead crab. Finally, there’s Joy, acid-tongued PA, who spits venom at regular intervals and keeps a scorpion in her desk that she calls Sally.
Donkey is a literal time capsule of the 1990s, a series which caught the spirit of the zeitgeist on a weekly basis. Yet the challenge of being as up to date and topical as possible made it a nightmare for the cast. The first four series ended each episode with a couple of the cast talking over a news item, quite literally recorded at the last minute. Yet even during the core episode the scripts were often delivered so late that the cast had no time to learn their lines so that prompters and cards had to be placed at strategic points on the set to allow them to be read.
By taking the newspaper headlines as their autocue, Hamilton and Jenkin would never run out of one-liner material and it maintained a steady stream of incisive humour across six series which still holds up today. Much of the credit must go to the cast, who would always be associated with their GlobeLink alter egos. Gwynne was missed when she left after two series, but Lacey was a worthy replacement, while Wicks and Duncan were part of the office furniture. Pearson is a perfect office lothario, matched by Tompkinson’s Damien, speaking to his camera like a Machiavellian David Attenborough, the only reporter who could “find dead bodies before the vultures.” Rawle is a hypochondriac joy as George, while Swift is a grouchy, combustible pleasure as Henry and Doyle is brilliant as the least appropriately named character in TV history. Great quotes are ten a penny. One recalls Alex reading a statement where the Iraqis call Thatcher “a grey-haired old hag with a canine voice who vomits poison like a spotted serpent” and Henry muttering “they’ll never get around her with flattery.” Or there’s George pondering how the old East Germany would make the change from socialism to capitalism and Alex retorting “the Labour Party managed it.” Or Henry on the rise in crime figures; “apparently that’s the fault of the general public for not being careful enough. They’re going to start prosecuting mugging victims for going equipped to be beaten up or wilful bleeding on the pavement.” A series scabrous enough to use copies of Whitaker’s almanac as bog roll, we’ll never see the like again.