Spaced and Hippies both debuted in 1999, and both starred a plucky young actor by the name of Simon Pegg… but that’s pretty much where the similarities end. In the former, he plays a bitter and cynical comic book artist, who spends his days drowning Lara Croft, and drawing incredibly violent revenge fantasies involving his ex-girlfriend. In the latter he plays the naive and idealistic editor of an underground magazine, back in the “Swinging Sixties”. And while Spaced was a hectic, post-modern mash-up of cinematic styles and references courtesy of uber-geek Edgar Wright, Hippies is a far more sedate and traditional studio sitcom, with a live audience providing the laugh track.
The BBC apparently had high hopes for Hippies, and who can blame them? It was written by Arthur Mathews, of Father Ted fame, and boasted an incredibly talented cast, including the aforementioned Pegg as ‘Ray’; Darren Boyd as the shy, easily befuddled ‘Hugo’; Julian Rhind-Tutt as the languorous, urbane ‘Alex’; and Sally Phillips as ‘Jill’, a slightly confused but committed Feminist. There were also some top-notch cameos by the likes of Peter Serafinowicz (bullying Pegg once again!), Kevin Eldon, Dave Lamb, and the legendary Eleanor Bron as a “Mrs Robinson”-esque seductress. Sadly, however, it was not a critical or popular success, and a second series never materialised. Obviously I’m the last person who should be trying to analyse “where he went wrong”, but if I had to make a guess it would be that Hippies was a period sitcom that required a certain pre-existing interest in the wacky clothes, slang and attitudes of that time, to fully appreciate a lot of the jokes. It is, in essence, a live-action cartoon set in a fond pastiche of a bygone age… as opposed to (fellow Ted creator) Graham Lineham’s The IT Crowd, which is a live-action cartoon set in a modern office environment. In this case, I think familiarity breeds contentment.
Whatever the case, as a fan of the idea of The Sixties (as opposed to the much duller reality), this show was right up my alley. I love the costumes, and the hair, and the music… and I identify to a greater extent with the characters, and their struggles to wrap their heads around the “new consciousness”. As far as a politics go, the characters all know how to talk the talk, but they aren’t quite so sure how to walk the walk. And I can certainly relate to that. If I were ever forced to describe myself using only sitcom characters as reference points, I’d have to say I was a combination of Ray, Hugo and Jill from this show… in the body of Garth Marenghi.
One of the interesting things about Mathews and Linehan’s most recent creations is that they all feature a main cast of three men and one woman. Whether that’s the influence of Seinfeld creeping in or not, I can’t really say… but it seems to work in their favour, as hilarity often ensues from the men’s attempts to understand or relate to the token female character. Whether they are cloistered priests, awkward techies, or arrogant millionaire playboys, they’re all equally clueless where the “fairer sex” is concerned. This conflict is even more apparent in Hippies, where the men are all trying to be “right on”, but remain rather condescending and inconsistent in their support for Women’s Rights. A prime example of this comes in the third episode, where Ray and Alex discuss an upcoming issue of their paper, devoted to the subject of Sex:
RAY: I thought it would be a really good idea to give Jill a whole half-page to write about sex from the woman’s angle.
ALEX: A whole half-page?
RAY: Yeah. Women have sex as well, don’t they?
ALEX: Yeah, but they have, uh… women sex.
RAY: And that must be… bizarre. But don’t forget, they are 30% of the population.
It is later revealed, in a post-credits gag, that Ray couldn’t find room in the magazine for Jill’s contribution. They then have a good hearty chuckle at Alex’s ludicrous suggestion that in the future women might have their own magazines in which to write about their views on sex! Of course, Jill isn’t the optimal advocate for equality either. Her insistence that no one think about her bottom, at any point during the day, only leads poor Hugo to obsess over it. And while her proclamation that “women are going to be the men of the 21st Century” makes a semblance of sense, she stammers and babbles herself into a corner when challenged to explain further. Throughout the series, it’s strongly suggested that most of her ideas and attitudes are being fed to her by a more militant lesbian friend called ‘Cynthia’… who Ray despises for thwarting his constant attempts “get off” with Jill, when really his own arrogance and insensitivity are more likely to blame. I mean, just because a girl starts taking male hormone tablets and grows a full, bushy beard that puts your own to shame… that’s no reason to kick her out of bed, is it? Um…