Drop the Dead Donkey was a situation comedy that ran on Channel 4 in the United Kingdom from 1990 to 1998. It was set in the offices of "Globelink News", a fictional TV news company. Recorded close to transmission, it tried to use current news events as a means of giving the programme a greater sense of realism. It was created by Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin. The series had an ensemble cast, making stars of Haydn Gwynne, Stephen Tompkinson and Neil Pearson.
The series began with the acquisition of Globelink by media mogul Sir Roysten Merchant, whose name is probably a reference to Rupert Murdoch, or perhaps Robert Maxwell, who was still alive when the series started. Indeed, Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin note on their DVDs that it was fortuitous for their libel lawyers that the two men shared the same initials. The series is mostly based on the on-going battle between the staff of Globelink, led by editor George Dent, as they try to maintain the company as a serious news organisation, and Sir Roysten's right-hand man Gus Hedges, trying to make the show more sensationalist and suppress stories that might harm Sir Roysten's business empire.
The originality of the title attracted speculation as to its origins. The working title was Dead Belgians Don't Count which was replaced by Drop the Dead Donkey:
- Gus Hedges (Robert Duncan) – The unctuous Chief Executive of the company, and yes-man to Sir Roysten Merchant. A management stereotype, complete with clichés and clumsy metaphors, he swiftly transforms Globelink from a serious news network to a ratings-chasing tabloid channel. He talks in barely-comprehensible management jargon, and is notable for such phrases as, "Are we cooking with napalm? You bet!" In light of what he refers to as his 'hands-off' role, he frequently prefaces his interference in editorial matters with the opening, "Now, as you all know, I'm not here...". He is disliked and distrusted by the staff, who are unafraid to treat him with contempt. Outside of office life, Gus is a very lonely man - although he is far too afraid to admit this, even to himself. He has no real friends, and his occasional attempts to make friends at work often fail, largely because of his inability to behave like a human being rather than an 'executive management module'. Some of these personality traits stem from his childhood. One episode features his older brother who, it later transpires, was clearly his parent's favourite and Gus has terrible feelings of inadequacy. He is very sexually inexperienced and fears advances from women. He is also afraid of illness - particularly mental illness - and thoughts of his own mortality terrify him. Despite his executive position, he fears that he hasn't really achieved anything or made a mark, and worries that he will be quickly forgotten. Gus is alleged to have been based on Channel 4's controller at the time, Michael Grade although the original idea was first pitched to the BBC, with Channel Four only picking up the series after the BBC refused to broadcast it. In series six it becomes clear that Gus has absolutely no life beyond Globelink and working for Sir Roysten and cannot come to terms with the station's closure. The final scene of the last episode sees a host of furniture removal men clearing the office with Gus sat miserably on his chair with a gloomy expression on his face.
- George Dent (Jeff Rawle) – The station's editor. George is a nervous wreck and hypochondriac who frequently finds himself in conflict with Gus over editorial decisions, but he is usually too afraid to argue with the Chief Executive. George is generally a moral man, who has a good sense of what a news company should really be doing and what stories are important, but he is frequently bullied by Gus and distracted by his staff. He suffers from a number of anxiety disorders and apparently psychosomatic symptoms, which he will often relate apprehensively to his colleagues. George once remarked that his doctor had suggested that he stop visiting the surgery and simply fax his new symptoms in every day. Earlier scripts followed the deterioration of George's marriage to his somewhat exploitative and vindictive wife, Margaret, and following their divorce, George's problems at home generally revolved around the antisocial and increasingly criminal behaviour of his daughter Deborah. He meets a woman from Poland called Anna who wants to marry him but he believes it's out of love when all she wants is a passport. When Globelink closed in 1998, George chose to devote his future to caring for the ill Margaret rather than pursue a new life in Australia with new love Sue despite making promises to finally leave his loveless marriage and painful home lifestyle behind.
- Alex Pates (Haydn Gwynne) – Assistant editor and George's second-in-command. The token 'normal' person, Alex is determined, skilled and professional, if very cynical. However, her personal life is complicated and messy, and from time to time this intrudes into her work life. Married and divorced before the series begins, her ex-husband - now a slum landlord - reappears on one occasion to use Alex to thwart the broadcasting of a news story about his unlawful business practices. In response to this, Alex breaks his nose. Alex's mother (known only as 'Mummy' or 'Mrs Pates' and until the final episode of Series 2 is an unseen character) repeatedly interrupts important meetings with frivolous and bizarre telephone enquiries, such as whether she should stockpile petrol in the bath in response to rising fuel prices or whether signing up to the Social Chapter would mean having to use a squat toilet. In the very final moments of Series 2, the final series in which Alex appears, Mrs Pates finally visits the Globelink office just in time to hear her daughter announcing to the office that she has had a one-night stand with Dave. Between Series 2 and 3, Alex leaves Globelink for the BBC.
- Helen Cooper (Ingrid Lacey) – Replacing Alex as Assistant Editor from the beginning of Series 3, Helen is extremely efficient and organised, and is frequently annoyed and frustrated by the general inefficiency of Globelink. At home, she is the single mother of a daughter called Chloe (Jocelyn Barker), and is a lesbian - a fact she has been keeping secret from her daughter and her parents despite a powerful sense that she really ought to tell them. When George admits that he has fallen in love with her and asks her out, she discloses her sexuality to him in an attempt to let him down gently. George assumes she is lying to spare his feelings - a suspicion reinforced when Helen has a drunken one-night stand with Dave while the staff are on a team-building weekend. Dedicated to the service of 'proper' news, Helen often clashes with Gus, but is usually supported, if ineffectually, by George. Helen quickly earns the nickname of Stalin from other staff due to her obsession with organisation. She does join in with some of the zanier antics of the office and has been seen to be the only source of support for Joy and Sally despite the latter's vindictive behaviour. Surprisingly unable to land another job in the industry, Helen reluctantly works for her girlfriend's food delivery company when Globelink closes.
- Henry Davenport (David Swift) – One of the station's news anchors. Apparently a dignified veteran reporter, he is deeply contemptuous of Sir Roysten, Gus, and everything about the "modern" news industry. He in constant conflict with his newsreading counterpart Sally, the two of them taking any opportunity to make jokes and jibes at the other's expense. However, very infrequently, particularly in later episodes, the viewer gets the impression that Henry and Sally have become rather fond of each other - although neither would admit it. They also on one occasion work together to prevent an up and coming presenter from potentially replacing either of them by getting her to badmouth Sir Roysten, unaware she is in earshot of a newspaper journalist. Henry frequently derides younger presenters on other stations as 'androids' and 'holograms', and bemoans the loss of what he considers to be the more interesting personalities of the past. In contrast to his stately on-screen persona, he spends much of his spare time drinking, gambling and womanising, often in cahoots with Dave. The tabloids occasionally report these activities, but Henry's image seems oddly untarnished by these articles. Married and divorced several times, with two daughters, Henry is constantly struggling with alimony repayments and the demands of his ex-wives. Henry also believed for a short time that he had an illegitimate son, although the 'son' later proved to be a fraud who was out for Henry's money. His extramarital affairs in the past have included wives of so-called friends in the industry. Henry may have been based, at least in part, on Reginald Bosanquet, and indeed at one point he owned a yacht named Bosanquet. Although Henry has made some remarkable contributions to TV news, and met many of the great leaders of the modern world, it often transpires that his achievements were intertwined with or as a result of his drink- or sex-related excesses. After Globelink closed at the end of series six in 1998, Henry found a new role well suited to his outspoken nature - as a late-night radio host on Radio Gab.
- Sally Smedley (Victoria Wicks) – Globelink's second news anchor, handpicked by Sir Roysten when he acquired the company. Sally is noted for her snobbishness and vapidity, and tends to view newsreading merely as a means to boost her public image and attract fashionable promotional contracts. All her views are conservative and it is much to her chagrin that she is a pin-up for so many gay men. She always has a problem with at least one member of the staff, and complains incessantly, usually prefacing her gripes with "I'm not one to complain…" She is generally disliked and mocked by her colleagues, mainly due to her obsession with fashion and her own image to the exclusion of any real awareness of current affairs. Helen occasionally tries to sympathise with her, and there are infrequent incidents that reveal Sally's vulnerability. She was raised by her grandmother, who clearly abused her as a child - incidents are recounted in which Sally is locked in a rat-infested cellar; or abandoned in a forest, ostensibly to cure her fear of trees. Sally lives alone with her Filipino maid, who she views (and treats) as little more than a slave. Sally is infamous throughout the Globelink offices and elsewhere for her supposedly secret liaisons with dockers, soldiers, sailors, sportsmen and, in particular, lorry drivers. During one encounter with a sound engineer, her colleagues were delighted to discover she had left her radio microphone on, and tapes of her experience were quickly circulated around the office. The episode where Sally miscarries her baby and agrees to conduct a magazine interview suggests that Sally's sexual preferences are something of a defence mechanism to ensure that she is devoid of emotional feeling because she fears being overwhelmed by them. Sally - who is 42 at the end of the final series in 1998 and no longer wanted by many television companies echoing many of the complaints by middle-aged female news readers such as Selena Scott, Jan Leeming and Anna Ford - opts to make her money by marrying a very rich old man with a weak heart, Sir Gordon Miller (see minor characters).
- Damien Day (Stephen Tompkinson) – Globelink's star field reporter, whose goal is always to make his stories as sensational as possible, even where doing so requires the use of exaggeration or misrepresentation. Damien's unorthodox (and unethical) methods are undeniably a hit with the viewers, and therefore he is popular with Sir Roysten and Gus, making it impossible for George to fire him, despite his frequent desire to do so. Damien is quite happy to stage incidents for the camera, arguing when challenged that he is making 'reconstructions' of what would have happened. When filming a firing-squad execution in a South American dictatorship, Damien asked the officer for a retake so he could make the execution look better. When filming in a war torn country he punched a small boy in the face to make sure he had a crying child in shot, and threw a hand-grenade over a wall to create panic before delivering his piece to camera. Perhaps surprisingly, he is generally open-minded about other cultures, expressing interest in Tarot cards and the predictions of Nostradamus. He likes to keep himself fit, does not drink or smoke, drives a Porsche and is considered to be sociopathic. A psychologist who visits the office to carry out a study of workplace stress describes Damien's personality as "completely stress-free. Psychotic, but stress-free." Some indication as to why Damien became the driven, amoral individual he is was provided when his mother, Professor Avril Day (Rosemary Martin) made a one-off appearance: she was a nuclear physicist who had unrealistically high expectations of her son, rarely if ever praised him and constantly pressured him to achieve. Damien gets his kicks from danger and excitement, and has virtually no interest in actual sex, except in one episode at the end of Series 4, in which he loses his virginity to a similarly danger-obsessed Globelink weather girl. Despite his high opinion of himself, Damien's frequent breaches of ethical standards do not go unnoticed by other stations and he fails job interviews in the final series. After going off to film a piece on an Amazonian tribe, Damien is made a God by the natives - who refuse to let him return to civilisation.
- Dave Charnley (Neil Pearson) – The deputy sub-editor and general dogsbody. As a compulsive womaniser and gambler, he gets on very well with Henry, owing to these shared interests, and Damien, owing to his willingness to bet on outrageously tasteless things. Dave and Henry have the only friendship that appears to extend beyond the office, although it can occasionally turn volatile - usually over gambling matters or women. Dave runs a large number of office books and sweepstakes, although outside the office his gambling has landed him in debt to the tune of several tens of thousands of pounds. Dave has occasionally been very successful in his gambling but usually through his own actions manages to squander his good fortune. He is also addicted to one-night stands with married women, and sees any married female colleague or acquaintance as a challenge. These involvements rarely last long enough to qualify as affairs, since Dave seems to relish the chase. As a colleague put it, "[Dave doesn't] want to get involved with anyone who could conceivably want to get involved back". Although Dave clearly has the potential to be a highly competent professional, his career progress is continually hampered by these many weaknesses and addictions, and his generally irresponsible and childish behaviour. On rare occasions, however, Dave does develop real feelings for others. After seducing a drunken Helen - initially just for the challenge of winning over a lesbian - he finds that he has a genuine attraction to her, and it takes him some time to recover when she tells him that their brief fling has simply helped her to reassure her of her homosexuality. He also gets engaged - despite serious doubts - in Season 5; however he is shocked when his fiancee breaks up with him, claiming she'd had no idea he would get so serious. Dave became assistant to Henry on his radio show when they left Globelink in 1998.
- Joy Merryweather (Susannah Doyle) – Joy Merryweather is entirely wrongly named; she is in no way joyful or merry. From her first appearance in Series 2 and for the remainder of the programme's run, Joy is the terrifying, outspoken production assistant in the Globelink newsroom. She is utterly cynical, completely unafraid, contemptuous of men and generally misanthropic and prone to threatening (and occasionally applying) violence. Her behaviour is tolerated by the other staff firstly because she is extremely good at her job - George often remarks that she is the most efficient production assistant Globelink has ever had - but mostly because everyone in the office, without exception, is afraid of her. Joy began as a background character, intended to feed topical gags - however her popularity with audiences was such that she took an increasingly prominent role and eventually had a number of storylines of her own. Perhaps the most significant of these in terms of character development was the Series 5 episode "The Graveyard Shift", in which it is revealed that her father (already established as an alcoholic) abandoned the family, her mother became suicidal, and all of her brothers and sisters were affected by psychological problems (except, at least in her own mind, Joy herself). In the final series, Joy has much of her doodled artwork put on display as she looks set to find a new career - only to discover she is being conned by the man and apparent lover behind the exhibition.
- Sir Roysten Merchant – Sir Roysten Merchant is a wealthy businessman who buys out Globelink News in the first episode and remains the owner of the company throughout all six series. He is unseen on screen until a brief appearance in the final show, in which he is played by Roger Hammond and suggests that he does not know who Gus is. Sir Roysten is a terrifying figure, with a large business empire. He is also involved in housing, shipping, and sundry more shady enterprises which, based on the information that occasionally comes to attention of the Globelink News team, border on (if not specifically involve) the illegal. On buying the company Sir Roysten installs Gus Hedges (see above) in order to prevent any potentially damaging information being leaked out in news stories. Sir Roysten is a strong, right-wing figure, supporting both Margaret Thatcher and John Major. However, when Major and the Conservative government begin to weaken from 1994, his support starts to shift, and with the Labour victory in 1997 Sir Roysten defects to Tony Blair. In private, it is known that Sir Roysten visits prostitutes, and that his wife, Lady Caroline, also has many affairs. He has a daughter, Octavia, who works for a brief time in the Globelink office, and a son, Roy Merchant Junior, who lives in fear of his father. Other offspring are not named, aside from one reference from Gus to a 'Roystonia' - however no further information is provided. Persistent rumours circulate to the effect that Sir Royston's father, who was also a businessman, was a Nazi sympathiser and war profiteer. Sir Roysten has several pet rottweilers and an armed personal security team who guard his mansion.
- Gerry (voiced by Andy Hamilton)– One of Globelink's outside broadcast cameraman, Gerry is regularly assigned to work with Damien and frequently suffers injuries and mishaps as a result. His footage would normally end with something unpleasant happening to Gerry, while Damien yells at him to keep filming. Gerry is an unseen character, but incidents are frequently shown from the point of view of his camera as it disppears down holes, off cliffs or into rivers. His only on-screen appearance (of sorts) is at the office Christmas party, but on this occasion he is covered head to toe in bandages. Gerry seems to have a decent sense of both morals and safety standards, but is usually over-ruled by a determined Damien.
- Deborah Dent (Louisa Millwood-Haigh) – George's daughter, and one of the main problems at home. A juvenile delinquent, Deborah frequently runs away from home, steals cars and other vehicles (including a fully-laden car transporter and an InterCity 125), sells drugs (George's prescription medication), sets fire to supply teachers, and attacks her school classmates with a pickaxe handle. She once attempted to sue her school for failing to provide her with an education – having previously burned the school buildings down; and on one occasion is mentioned as having found her way to a Middle East guerilla training camp.
- Lynn Yeats (Elizabeth Downes) – A reporter for a rival news company and Damien's nemesis. Lynn invariably arrives at disaster sites and warzones before Damien; she gets bigger and better stories; wins awards and generally manages to achieve everything Damien fails to achieve. Although Damien usually attributes her success to her greater resources and financial support, Lynn is simply more ruthless and unethical even than Damien himself. Damien also makes references to his bitterness towards real-life reporters such as Kate Adie.
- Anna (Nina Marc) – A short-term love interest of George's, Anna is a Polish migrant seeking marriage in order to obtain a British passport and stay in the country. George, however, is convinced that she is the love of his life, though the rest of the staff try to persuade him of her true intentions. In an attempt to save George, Dave finally asks Anna to marry him, offering her a straightforward and honest arrangement rather than an exploitative marriage to the vulnerable George. Suspicious that Dave is trying to incriminate her, Anna instructs him to remove his clothes so she can ensure there is no hidden microphone. Dave complies, removing his trousers just as George enters the room...
- Sir Gordon Miller (Melvyn Hayes) – When Globelink News is axed in Series 6, Sally starts to plunder the Sunday Times Rich List as her final career move. Eventually, she teams up with the miserly and dispassionate Sir Gordon, the 34th richest man in the world. The physically diminutive Sir Gordon is probably the most fleshed-out of the several recurring characters in the short Series 6. He is the epitome of a controlling husband, with a pre-nuptial agreement designed to iron out absolutely every future disagreement or opinion in his favour. Despite his coldness, Sally claims to have genuine feelings for him because, she says, he reminds her of her granny. She discloses to Helen that, actually, he does have a heart... and that, importantly for her ambitions, he also has a very severe heart condition.
- Wes Jasper (Neil Stuke) – Wes Jasper is a thinly disguised parody of Chris Evans, hosting what is clearly a very thinly disguised parody of TFI Friday, with an identical set, and the same 'ridicule-the-punter' features. In an attempt to forge a post-Globelink career for himself in Series 6, Henry makes several appearances on this show as a sidekick for Wes. Dave Charnley is appalled and disappointed by his distinguished friend's fall in standards - but so is Henry himself. Torn by the conflict between the need for a job and the desire to recover his dignity, Henry is finally goaded into issuing a string of swearwords on air before the watershed (another regular feature of TFI) after being told to remove his wig live on air by Jasper. Although this outburst effectively ends Henry's television career, it helps him land a new role as a talk show host.
- Sue (Victoria Carling) – Sue is Henry's niece, with whom George develops a promising relationship in the final episodes of Series 6. She is kind, compassionate, calm and gentle: the polar opposite of George's highly emotional and manipulative ex-wife Margaret. Like George, Sue is an escapee from an unhappy marriage. Although George - due to his natural pessimism and lack of confidence - has to be prompted and encouraged every step of the way, their relationship blossoms, and they plan a new life together in Australia. However Margaret, having suffered a heart attack and now looking to George to nurse her, seems determined to undermine their future. Despite George vowing to go to Australia with a woman who genuinely loves him, he opts to stay and look after Margaret.
- Vivian Stanmore (James Bannon) – Modern-art gallery owner who decides to exhibit Joy's office sketches, assuring her that, despite her doubts, they are works of genius. Joy soon discovers that his seemingly attentive and thoughtful nature is simply the mask for an exploitative ruthlessness which he soon plans to turn on her. His final appearance is on a gallery pedestal, naked, gagged and bound, exhibited by Joy as a work called Naif Minimalism - a term he had smirkingly applied to her sketches while in discussion with an associate.
- Chloe Cooper (Jocelyn Barker) - Helen's self-obsessed and attention-seeking daughter in several episodes. Helen, who worries constantly over the time she spends at work and away from her daughter, agonises over Chloe's upbringing and doubts her own abilities as a mother. She is particularly alarmed when she discovers that Chloe has written a school essay entitled The Invisible Mummy. Chloe eventually admits, however, that she is entirely happy with arrangements at home and wrote the essay merely in an attempt to gain sympathy from a new teacher.
- Alfred and Bernice Cooper (Geoffrey Hutchings & Paula Jacobs) - Helen's supposedly conservative parents, from whom she spends years concealing her lesbianism - even going to the extent of persuading Dave to impersonate her boyfriend while they visited for an evening. In Series 6, Helen's father dies, with Helen fearing the shock of him reading a letter from her admitting her sexuality will have killed him. But Helen discovers the letter was never sent and, when she comes out to her mother on the day of his funeral, finds out they had suspected she was a lesbian all along and their lives aren't quite as conservative as Helen supposed...
- Roy Merchant Jnr (David Troughton) - Sir Roysten's badly stammering, bullied, and reluctantly bullying son, sent by his father to the Globelink office to oversee the company's final hours. Roy, whose stammer is always at its worst when referring to Sir Roysten, reveals that he has been pitted against his siblings in a challenge: only the most ruthless will inherit the Merchant empire. Roy announces early in series 6 that Globelink News will close, after initially proposing to significantly cut the workforce. One of his sisters, Octavia (Hermione Norris, appeared in the series 2 episode "The Gulf Report" as a trainee reporter who is a love interest of Dave's.
- Amanda (Saira Todd) - Helen's much-mentioned girlfriend in the later series. Her first and only on-screen appearance is in Series 5, where she arrives at the office while working as a despatch rider - a job she took to help pay for her university course, but which causes Helen some social embarrassment. The pair soon break up after a dinner at their house with Helen's friends from the office ends in disaster, but they are later back together. By the time Helen’s own respectable career comes to its abrupt end, Amanda is running her own send-out snack delivery business, The Sarnie Army. She quickly offers Helen a job after the closure of Globelink in the final episode, and although Helen is initially reluctant to lower herself to such work, she finally swallows her pride and accepts.
- Jenny (Sara Stewart) - Joy's more easy-going predecessor as PA who appears several times in the first series. Her main contribution is to join Dave, Henry and Henry's great-nephew Jack on a night out and then apparently sleep with Jack - to the bemusement of Dave and Henry who have both failed to get anywhere with her.
Unusually for a sitcom, the show was topical, and was usually written and filmed in the week before broadcast. The writers commented that this made for a very natural style of acting. In most offices people normally converse while looking at monitors, clipboards or newspaper crosswords; the cast of the show reproduced this while actually cribbing their lines. Typically the last scene was filmed either the day before or sometimes on the day of broadcast, and episodes concluded with audio-only dialogue or (in later seasons) an additional scene during the credits, which would usually involve topical references. The most frantic rewrite is said to have occurred when, on the day of filming, British media mogul Robert Maxwell drowned. (As the writers said in a later episode, "We don't want to go overboard with the story".) A number of politicians including Neil Kinnock and Ken Livingstone made guest appearances.
The humour, like that in a real newsroom, was often very black, as the writers did not shy away from sensitive subjects. A typical line (from Henry): "The 'Troubles' in Northern Ireland. What a bloody stupid phrase. What do they think two thousand people have died from? Stress?"
The series ended with GlobeLink being closed down, with series 6 being spent with the main characters trying to plan their futures elsewhere (largely unsuccessfully). The format for the final series differed slightly from the previous five. As well as being shorter (seven episodes), far less emphasis was placed on the news than before (both in terms of topical references and stories covered in the newsroom). Instead, much of the focus was on where the main characters would be once GlobeLink closed, after an announcement in the second episode of the series. Several minor characters appeared over the course of a few episodes in the final series, whereas most previously had only been in single episodes.
The ending contradicted the already thoroughly contradicted novel Drop The Dead Donkey 2000 by Hamilton and Alistair Beaton (1994) ISBN 0-316-91236-0, in which the company is almost destroyed in a bomb blast at the turn of the millennium.
Reruns of the programme often appear on Paramount Comedy 2. Before the show starts, there is often a short review of the major news events which happened during the week of each episode's filming. Episodes on DVD compilations are introduced in the same way (although not for Series 6 when topical references were very limited).
Channel 4 now has a Video on Demand service, where episodes can either be downloaded from the internet and watched on computers or watched on cable TV