The QT

Thursday 16 May 2024
16/05/2024

Newsflash: Drop the Dead Donkey is back…

It’s been a while but the hit TV sitcom has been ‘reawakened’ on stage. David Whetstone chats to two of its stars ahead of a run at Newcastle Theatre Royal
Stephen Tompkinson, Robert Duncan, Jeff Rawle, Neil Pearson and Victoria Wicks in the stage revival of Drop the Dead Donkey. Credit: Manuel Harlan

What was in the news on August 6, 1990? Over to the studio of GlobeLink News where the next bulletin is taking shape.

Iraq has invaded Kuwait, there’s something about Alastair Burnet (youngsters had better Google) and the Queen Mother; and there’s a story cooking – or being cooked up – about crop circles.

This was in episode one of Drop the Dead Donkey, the award-winning satire of television news whose six series spanned the 1990s and was required viewing for many TV viewers.

The last of them aired in 1998 but it seems the donkey (no-one ever seemed sure about the title which sparked much debate) wasn’t actually dead. Or at least it has been revived as a play.



Drop the Dead Donkey: The Reawakening! trots on stage next week at the Theatre Royal.

The same writers are behind it – Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin whose credits also include that other TV hit, Outnumbered – and, extraordinary though it might seem, it boasts the same cast, or those still with us.

David Swift, who played news anchor Henry Davenport, died in 2016, aged 85, and Haydn Gwynn, who appeared in the first two series before being replaced by Ingrid Lacey, died of cancer in October.

Both are fondly remembered by surviving members of the cast.

Stephen Tompkinson, who played keen-as-mustard reporter Damien Day, supposes it might seem extraordinary to “the outside world” that they’re all still in touch.

Speaking from Norwich on a mobile phone, just one reminder of how the world has moved on since 1990, he says the cast has always been close.

“Once or twice a year we meet up for a meal and during Covid we were all regularly quizzing… so it feels very natural for us to be getting back together again.

“When Andy and Guy said they had a stage idea I suppose we were a little trepidatious. We were hoping it wasn’t going to be a series of episodes cobbled together – a sort of greatest hits performance

“But it’s a completely original stage show.”

Neil Pearson, who played raffish sub-editor Dave Charnley, reckons it must be about 10 years since he last did a major theatre tour.



“But we knew we got on with each other so that wouldn’t be a problem.

“Various people have always nudged the writers, saying ‘Why don’t you bring it back?’ But none of us wanted to do it half cocked. We needed to make sure everyone could be there and we’d all be happy with what we were going to present.

“Eventually the stars aligned and here we are. It took a while.”

The world really has changed since Drop the Dead Donkey first aired on Channel 4. We’re in a new century; a new millennium even. News delivery has changed and so, perhaps, have views on what’s acceptable.

Put it to Stephen that Damien was hardly a paragon of journalistic probity and he replies: “Lord, no. He was into fake news before there was such a thing.”

Or perhaps before people were quite so aware of its existence.

The cast of Drop the Dead Donkey – The Reawakening. Credit: Manuel Harlan

In episode one of the TV series Damien is rebuked for what Stephen calls his “bag of tricks”. Surely that’s the same lost teddy in his reports from various trouble spots?

The tragic and much-travelled symbol of human suffering is reluctantly handed over to editor George Dent (Jeff Rawle).

“But I believe a lot of the things we did for Damian’s reports were suggested by journalists,” says Stephen, adding archly: “Not that I’m suggesting for a second that our present day journalists behave other than decently.”

Another inevitable change is that the cast, all pretty fresh-faced in 1990, have, shall we say, matured. So what brings these characters back together?

Neil says the original members of the GlobeLink news team arrive one by one at the spanking new studio to which they’ve been lured individually.

Quite who wants them there is something of a mystery.

Victoria Wicks (Sally Smedley) and Stephen Tompkinson (Damien). Credit: Manuel Harlan

“It’s a kind of Agatha Christie-style thing,” says Stephen. “Amazing offers of money” have got them there. But as for what’s required of them, all are in the dark initially, just like the audience.

One thing that made Drop the Dead Donkey special on TV was its topicality. Scripts would be reworked like lightning to make sure GlobeLink was on a footing with the BBC and ITN. 

That’s also a feature of the stage show with weekly re-writes to keep pace with current affairs.

“If a big story drops on a Thursday and you’re coming to the show that evening you’d like to see it in,” says Neil.

“Occasionally stuff goes in at very short notice but we’re used to that. It’s a useful corrective to any tendency to complacency after you’ve done 70-odd shows.”

What goes in, says Stephen, “literally depends on who’s in the news.

Ingrid Lacey as Helen. Credit: Manuel Harlan

“We had the SNP debacle and the local elections, so if you do something wrong and you’re in the news you might get into the show as well.”

Newcastle is a special stop on the tour for Stephen who was born in Stockton and lives in Tynemouth, glorying in the sea view.

He has appeared on stage at the Theatre Royal many times in shows such as Art, Educating Rita and The Play What I Wrote. 

“It’s a beautiful theatre, one of my absolute favourites. I especially like doing comedy there because the audience will let you know if you’re doing it successfully or not.

“This particular show is a joy to perform. It’s different every night so it keeps you on your toes and it seems to be attracting younger people who don’t remember the TV series, which is great.”

Neil, as well as being a successful actor, is also a book dealer and collector.

A new news era dawns. Credit: Manuel Harlan

“I was always a reader and have always fetishised books as objects as well as for their content.

“Collecting is a strange bug and has many mutations. I’ve no idea why people collect classic cars or stamps or matchboxes. They could be spending all that money on books.”

Neil spent six years as president of the Independent Libraries Association and in that capacity visited Newcastle’s Lit & Phil on several occasions, often as the star attraction.

On the Friday of the Newcastle run, May 24, Neil and fellow cast members Victoria Wicks (news anchor Sally Smedley) and Jeff Rawle will be dropping in to the Lit & Phil at 1pm to chat about Drop the Dead Donkey: The Reawakening! and the TV show that inspired it.

Tickets for that can be bought via the Lit & Phil website

It will be a return visit for Victoria who will also be at the Lit & Phil at 6pm on Monday, May 20, to talk about her grandfather, the writer HE Bates whose much-loved novels include Fair Stood the Wind for France and The Darling Buds of May.

Drop the Dead Donkey: The Reawakening! is in Newcastle from Tuesday, May 21 to Saturday, May 25. Tickets from the Theatre Royal website.

@DavidJWhetstone

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