WEEKENDING - By Radio Haha
Radio 4 - First broadcast 1970, Final broadcast 1998
This hugely important satirical show, currently the longest-running programme in the history of British radio comedy, and a springboard for dozens of successful comedy performers, producers and writers, had, by the time of its controversial demise 28 years down the road, changed pretty much out of all recognition. The show was set up in 1970 by producers David Hatch (already well-known for his role in I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again, and destined for a glittering career in BBC management) and Simon Brett (who eventually became one of Britain’s best-known comedy writers). It had a strong university-revue feel, and originally featured a host, Michael Barratt, to link the various sketches. It also had only one writer (Pete Spence) and was performed by an all-male cast.
The show soon began to evolve in order to maintain its enormous output (anything up to 44 weekly programmes per year). New writers were drafted in, and by the 1980s the show had developed its famous, almost parodically long credit lists. Most of the writers featured were not commissioned, but casual or amateur gag-men and women, often contributing by post. Along with its Radio 2 sister show The News Huddlines, Week Ending pioneered accessibility for scriptwriters (in the later years, enthusiasts could literally walk in off the street to attend writers’ meetings), and countless individuals got their first breaks in comedy through writing for the series.
Before long, Week Ending lost its presenter and became a straightforward sketch show: there was no introduction, and no Studio audience (each programme was assembled by the producer, rather than being performed live), just a succession of satirical sketches which relied on the performers to produce convincing impressions of the politicians and other figures involved.
The last regular feature (Next Week’s News, a collection of pun-based spurious news stories at the end of the show) was dropped in the late 1980s, and Week Ending was truly formatless a blank canvas onto which just about anything could be deposited.
Apart from allowing an entirely free selection of writers, this also meant the show did not have to be attached to any particular producer: from the eighties onwards, new producers were shuttled through at what appeared to be an ever-increasing rate. Most had been put on the programme to gain experience, and many went on to greater things (although the consequences of this policy for the programme itself were occasionally unfortunate).
There were also frequent changes in the cast. The first female performer a virtual necessity with the rise of a certain future prime minister was Sheila Steafel in 1977. From this point forward, the cast generally contained three male performers to one female (sexual equality occured from time to time in the later years). Steafel was succeeded by Tracey Ullman and, in 1983, Sally Grace. Countless male performers have come and gone (David Jason was one: he remained with the show for twelve years), but through most of the 1980s and beyond the line-up was fairly stable, consisting of Grace, Bill Wallis, David Tate and AN Other. Wallis and Tate had both been with the show from the beginning and are the longest-serving cast members, clocking up more than twenty years apiece. Both left the show before the end of its run, however unlike Grace, who remained to the finish, joined in the final years by performers including Jeffrey Holland and Toby Longworth.
The show also had four different theme tunes in its lifetime (although the last two were used for only a couple of years each). The second and most memorable theme was, obscurely, a repeating loop of the instrumental from Party Fears Two by the Associates. Repetition was a necessary feature of the Week Ending theme, since it had to be held under a credits list which might contain anything up to forty names.
Of course, it wasn’t long before the programme came to be accused of being, in the time-honoured phrase, not as funny as it used to be. There were also claims that the programme had lost its satirical bite, which began to set in around the mid-eighties and intensified with the collapse of the Thatcher regime. There was a telling contrast between the election campaigns of 1987 (when the programme was deemed too controversial to remain on air) and 1997 (when the show was, coincidentally, due to go off air anyway, for one of its periodic breaks; however, the series which had been allocated its slot, Mammon, was taken off owing to suggestions of political bias, and Week Ending was actually brought back in its stead!) Ultimately, the show became a target for parody itself: in 1991, ex-Week Ending writers Richard Herring and Stewart Lee penned a sketch for On The Hour about a show called ‘Thank God It’s Satire-Day!’, which they portrayed as filled with tiresome and irrelevant Robin Hood pastiches.
It has to be admitted that the series suffered a downturn in quality in its later years: many of the 1990s shows were undeniably poor. This, however, had more to do with who was producing and writing the series than anything else, and was only ever an intermittent problem. For the record, the show hit a strong patch a few months before its demise, and included a number of sketches which were as good as anything the series ever produced.
Week Ending was finally killed off in April 1998, a victim of Radio 4 controller James Boyle’s wholesale reorganisation of the schedules. Listener reaction to the decision was mixed; against the inevitable howls of protest from some quarters, Boyle responded that the programme had been tired and that it was time to experiment with new formats a somewhat incomprehensible claim when applied to this essentially formatless show, which could only be as tired as the creative input behind it. Reaction to the few successor programmes which have so far appeared, meanwhile, has been poor: it could be that Week Ending will rise again one day, and resume its operations before an entire new listenership.
See also: Ten Years With Maggie, a BBC Radio Collection compilation cassette issued in 1989 and culled from the Week Ending sketch cupboard.