“I used a toasting fork to assault Daniel Craig”: exploring the chaotic origins of Drop the Dead Donkey.
When the TV show “Drop the Dead Donkey” first aired on Channel 4 on August 9, 1990, it was a completely new concept. The creators, Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin, used the fictional TV studio GlobeLink News to blend a traditional workplace sitcom with current and relevant jokes. As the show progressed, the characters became the main focus: the arguing news anchors Henry Davenport (played by David Swift) and Sally Smedley (played by Victoria Wicks), the unscrupulous foreign correspondent Damien Day (played by Stephen Tompkinson), and Gus Hedges (played by Robert Duncan), the corporate talk-spouting representative of GlobeLink’s greedy owner Sir Roysten Merchant. Other actors included Neil Pearson (as office assistant Dave Charnley) and, for two seasons, Haydn Gwynne (as skilled assistant editor Alex Pates).
The show Drop the Dead Donkey was very popular, consistently drawing 4-5 million viewers over its eight-year span. It had notable guest appearances from figures like Neil Kinnock and Jon Snow, as well as rising actors Andrew Lincoln, Hermione Norris, Gina McKee, and Daniel Craig. The remaining cast members (excluding deceased actors Swift and Gwynne) have now come together for a live stage production called Drop the Dead Donkey: The Reawakening!. This show places the characters from GlobeLink into a modern news setting that makes the scandals of the 1990s seem almost tame.
Andy Hamilton, along with Guy, worked on various shows together starting in 1977, including Radio 4’s satirical program “Week Ending” and TV sketch shows “Not the Nine O’Clock News” and “Who Dares Wins.” Drawing from their experience of creating sketches last minute, they wondered if the same approach could be applied to a sitcom. They then came up with the idea of setting it in a newsroom.
The co-creator and co-writer, Guy Jenkin, earned a living by being humorous while working. The newsroom presented unique ethical challenges that were not often found in other workplaces. Although we initially pitched it to the BBC, they had not reviewed it after three months.
“We forwarded it to Channel 4. BBC News allowed us to observe for one day. The editor and their assistant were both dedicated and competent. Around 5:40pm, the assistant informed us, ‘Someone has been shot in Belfast.’ The editor responded, ‘Is he dead? If he is, then he’s in.’ That was the tone we were aiming for. The initial title was rejected by Channel 4.”
Sales in Belgium were not favorable for Jenkin.
The journalists at Hamilton discussed the meaning behind the title “Drop the Dead Donkey,” but the reality is that we invented it. We brainstormed ideas and considered what phrase could be yelled out in a time of urgency. Perhaps a tale about a deceased donkey is what would be dropped, and the use of alliteration added to its catchiness.
Neil Pearson (Dave Charnley) It was a very different template to the usual UK sitcom. It was much more US in that it was ensemble-based. The UK format was a leading couple, the couple next door and a sofa. This was a working environment, like Taxi or Cheers.
The group remained together, with no one individual standing out as the star.
Stephen Tompkinson, who played the character Damien Day, shared that it was a great experience for the actors because the story was heavily driven by the script. The actors were aware that Andy and Guy were the main stars.
Hamilton was surrounded by individuals who had an impressive portfolio, despite not being prominent figures. David Swift, who had experience as an agent and had represented John Pilger, was familiar with the industry.
Sally Smedley, also known as Victoria Wicks, and I, David, would often get reprimanded for fooling around. Despite this, our relationship was very meaningful.
I had initially planned to dedicate all my time to writing and was not interested in acting opportunities. However, after attending the audition, I realized that the role of George Dent in Jeff Rawle’s project was incredibly amusing.
Susannah Doyle (Joy Merryweather) I wasn’t in season one. They wanted a very divisive character to be the messenger of doom: dump chaos and leave. Everyone is terrified of Joy. She gets jobs because people are scared of her.
Robert Duncan (Gus Hedges) My new agent said, “There’s this character who is an absolute rogue. He would shop his own granny. I really think that’s you.” I’d only known my agent for two months!
Hamilton Gus constantly attempted to reduce everything to the simplest form, foreshadowing the unpleasant future that lay ahead. We would often receive faxes from individuals in corporate settings filled with meaningless jargon that they had recently heard.
People were constantly speculating about the identities of the on-screen performers. Some believed that Sally, with her initials SS, was actually British newsreader Selina Scott. However, there was never any concrete evidence to confirm this.
I am not modeled after Jon Snow, Wicks.
The Channel 4 attorney, Hamilton, stressed the importance of clarifying that no one is modeled after anyone else. I replied, “Well, no one is based on anyone else.” He confirmed, “Yes, exactly like that.” I insisted, “No, I mean it!” Roysten Merchant was depicted as a distant corporate figure.
It was beneficial that both Rupert Murdoch and Robert Maxwell shared the same initials, as it helped prevent any lawsuits.
The journalists from Pearson were strangely eager to take credit for the foundation of these morally repulsive individuals.
While on tour with a play, I visited several regional BBC radio stations where they all identified a person named Damien as the inspiration for my character. The individuals we were satirizing were actually flattered and willingly shared information and anecdotes that we incorporated into our performance.
Politicians from Doyle were eager to be a part of it.
After losing to John Major, Hamilton Neil Kinnock was seen as a defeated man. Despite this, he showed a great sense of humor and kindness. Later on, we had drinks at the bar and my father, who was a working-class supporter of the Conservative party, attempted to explain to Kinnock why he had lost the election. I was embarrassed, but I thought Kinnock handled the situation gracefully.
Tompkinson, the news often presents a polished final product, but this program was the first to reveal the behind-the-scenes process. It definitely sparked more skepticism in me. I began to wonder, “How did they arrive at this point…?”
This sitcom gave off a unique vibe compared to others I have been a part of. It seemed like it would be a significant comedy.
The Pearson pilot was a test of bravery.
During the period when Parliament was not in session, there was a lack of activity. However, once we began our work, there was a sudden influx of news due to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. Although it may seem callous, we were fortunate to have this increase in information.
The scripts for Hamilton underwent multiple revisions, but there were still gaps in them, specifically in the Topical Dialogue A and Topical Dialogue B sections.
On Friday, we would begin with a 22-minute script for a 28-minute time slot. We would work on Friday and Saturday. On Monday, we would create a tentative list of topics. This would be revised until Thursday when we would record. The show would air at 10pm on Friday, so the editing process would take place throughout the day. Two of us would then add a voiceover during the end credits to cover any breaking news from that day.
The actors in Hamilton were given the dialogue very late, so they resorted to using Post-It notes on their screens and newspapers. The set was intentionally cluttered and well-designed.
Duncan Gus shared a saying with me last week: “A clean workspace leads to a clear mind.” As I quickly cleaned up my desk and gathered Post-It notes, I noticed David following me. He exclaimed, “You’re stealing my lines!”
Ingrid Lacey (Helen Cooper) It’s really quite frightening to have chunks of dialogue that you’re learning in your lunch hour while you’re having a costume fitting. I would watch the news the night before and think, “Please God, don’t let a story break.”
Wicks Like news tycoons falling off boats.
Unfortunately, Hamilton Robert Maxwell had an unfortunate accident and fell off of his boat at a very inconvenient moment. We had an ongoing joke about him that we had to put an end to. Our usual routine was to begin recording at 7:45, and by 9 o’clock, we would often be found at the bar. The atmosphere was always lively and enjoyable.
Lacey I had a line that was “Tony Blair and Ceausescu”. And it kept coming out “Tony Benn and Chichester”. I remember saying to the audience: “I hope you’ve brought sleeping bags; we might be here all night.”
I used a toasting fork to assault Daniel Craig, which is my only notable achievement. I forced him to do the birdie dance on one leg as retribution for kidnapping my daughter. He often reflects, “If it weren’t for that scene, where would I be today?”
Channel 4 made a big impact with Hamilton. [Chief executive] Michael Grade was determined to move it to the 10 o’clock time slot. Despite our objections, we firmly stated: “No Michael, that’s a terrible plan, our viewers will be tuned into the news.” However, the ratings soared and he was ultimately proven correct.
As the actors became occupied with other projects, it became more difficult to gather them all for Jenkin. We felt we had reached our limit with the characters and expressed everything we wanted to convey. It is ideal to end on a strong note.
I believe no one wanted to continue the show with only 60% of the cast and have to explain that three of them were killed in a combine harvester accident. Instead, we chose to end the show altogether rather than struggle through.
Duncan The final scene was shot. I’m in deep, deep depression – mentally flummoxed. And then Steve comes in dressed up as a pantomime donkey!
It was an opportune moment to end because news coverage became non-stop. GlobeLink was not able to keep up with the advancements in technology, which overshadowed the show’s purpose.
Rawle Michael Grade mentioned, “I am considering doing this on a daily basis.” The writers responded, “Oh no! It is already challenging to do it once a week.”
Now, we are performing [on stage] every evening.
Duncan has achieved his desired outcome.
The opening of the stage production Hamilton will include a clip from 1990, showcasing the characters being dropped into the chaotic world of modern media. This will serve as a clear visual representation of the changes that have occurred.
Some news channels prioritize sensationalism over accuracy, making it challenging to determine what is actually true. As a result, many viewers no longer trust that there is one definitive truth. It is ironic that GlobeLink News, once considered scandalous and chaotic, is now seen as a model of professionalism and decency.
Hamilton It feels like we’ve reached an event horizon with the relationship between news and democracy. And that cast has remained very close, so we thought wouldn’t it be great to get them all out again?
Tompkinson We’re still feeling Haydn’s loss every day. It seems very cruel and unfair. She’s going to inspire us to do the best that we possibly can.
Upon my initial reading, I was deeply moved. I reflected, “It has been 25 years, but all the elements are still present: the subtle characteristics, the voices.”
It’s reminiscent of going back in time. It’s not often that you have another chance to experience something you were passionate about.
The play “Drop the Dead Donkey: The Reawakening!” will be performed at Richmond Theatre in London from January 31 to February 3, and will continue touring until June 22.