‘I attacked Daniel Craig with a toasting fork’: inside the wild creation of Drop the Dead Donkey

<span>Photograph: Hat Trick Prod./Sportsphoto/Allstar</span>
Photograph: Hat Trick Prod./Sportsphoto/Allstar

When Drop the Dead Donkey debuted on Channel 4 on 9 August 1990, it was something entirely new. Creators Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin used the offices of fictional TV studio GlobeLink News to combine a classic workplace sitcom with hot-off-the-presses topical gags. Over time, the characters became the main attraction: bickering anchors Henry Davenport (David Swift) and Sally Smedley (Victoria Wicks), amoral foreign correspondent Damien Day (Stephen Tompkinson), and Gus Hedges (Robert Duncan), the jargon-spouting emissary of GlobeLink’s rapacious owner Sir Roysten Merchant. Other cast members included Neil Pearson (as office dogsbody Dave Charnley) and, for two seasons, Haydn Gwynne (as adept assistant editor Alex Pates).

Drop the Dead Donkey was a consistent hit, peaking at 4-5 million viewers during its eight-year run. It attracted guest stars such as Neil Kinnock and Jon Snow and up-and-coming actors including Andrew Lincoln, Hermione Norris, Gina McKee and Daniel Craig. Now, the entire surviving cast (Swift died in 2016 and Gwynne in 2023) has reunited for a touring stage show, Drop the Dead Donkey: The Reawakening!, which drops the GlobeLink diaspora into a news landscape that makes the 1990s skulduggery seem almost sweet.


Andy Hamilton (co-creator and co-writer) From ’77 onwards Guy and I were working on the same shows: [Radio 4 satire] Week Ending, [and TV sketch shows] Not the Nine O’Clock News and Who Dares Wins. Because we’d had experience of doing sketches the night before transmission we thought: could you do that with a sitcom? Then we thought we could make it a newsroom.

Guy Jenkin (co-creator and co-writer) We’d made our living by being funny on the clock. And the newsroom gives you constant moral dilemmas in a way that not many offices do. We originally took it to the BBC but three months later they hadn’t read it.

Hamilton We sent it to Channel 4. BBC News let us sit in for one day. There was a very hard-working editor with a very cool assistant. At about 20 to six the assistant said: “Someone’s been shot in Belfast.” And the editor said, “Well is he dead? If he’s dead, he’s in.” That’s the tone we wanted. The original title was Dead Belgians Don’t Count. Channel 4 said no [to that title].

Jenkin It wasn’t good for sales in Belgium.

Hamilton Journalists wrote about what the title Drop the Dead Donkey meant but the truth is we made it up. We thought, what’s something that might be shouted out at the last minute? Maybe a story about a dead donkey is the thing you drop. And it’s alliterative.

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.

Jenkin And it stayed as an ensemble. Nobody emerged as the star within it.

Stephen Tompkinson (Damien Day) It was lovely for the actors because it was so script-driven. We always knew that Andy and Guy were the stars.

Hamilton They all had a good body of work behind them but weren’t well known faces. David Swift had been an agent and he’d represented John Pilger so he knew that world.

Victoria Wicks (Sally Smedley) David and I would be told off quite a lot for mucking around. It was a really special relationship.

Jeff Rawle (George Dent) I’d decided I was going to spend my whole time writing and wasn’t looking for acting work but I went to the audition and realised it was really, really funny.

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 was always trying to drive them down to the lowest common denominator – a grim portent of what was to come. We’d get faxes from people in offices of bits of management gobbledegook they’d just heard.

Tompkinson People were constantly guessing who the on-screen performers were based on. Because Sally had the initials SS they thought it was [British newsreader] Selina Scott. But it was never specific.

Wicks I’m not based on Jon Snow.

Hamilton The Channel 4 lawyer said: “It’s very important that you say nobody is based on anybody.” And I said, “Well, nobody is based on anybody.” And he said, “Yes, just like that.” And I said, “No, really!” Roysten Merchant was an abstract corporate monster.

Jenkin It was helpful that Rupert Murdoch and Robert Maxwell both had the same initials [to avoid either suing].

Pearson Journalists were bizarrely keen to claim credit for the basis for these frankly disgusting people.

Tompkinson I was touring a play and being invited into lots of regional BBC radio stations and all of them said: “We think we know who Damien’s based on. He’s in this office.” So the people we were parodying were really flattered and more than prepared to give us information and stories that we could use in the show.

Doyle Politicians desperately wanted to be in it.

Related: How we made Drop the Dead Donkey

Hamilton Neil Kinnock had lost unexpectedly to John Major. Everybody was saying he was a broken man. But he was very funny and gracious. We had drinks in the bar afterwards and my dad, who was a working-class Tory, started to explain to Neil Kinnock why he had lost the election. I was mortified. I thought he handled himself beautifully.

Tompkinson You’re always shown a finished product on the news and this was the first programme to lift the lid. It definitely made me more cynical. You started thinking, “I wonder how they got to there …”

Rawle This had a very different feel to other sitcoms I’d been in. It felt like it was going to be an important comedy.

Pearson The pilot was an exercise in fear.

Tompkinson Parliament wasn’t sitting at the time and not a great deal seemed to be happening. And then, when we were doing it for real, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. Suddenly there was news everywhere. It sounds quite sick but we were very fortunate.

Hamilton The scripts were written and rewritten but there were holes in them: Topical Dialogue A, Topical Dialogue B …

Pearson We’d start on Friday with a 22-minute script for a 28-minute slot. Work Friday, Saturday. Monday, we’d put in tentative topicals. Then that would be refined through to Thursday when we recorded. On Friday the show would go out at 10pm so they would edit all day and two of us would do a voiceover over the end credits to mop up any stories that had broken that day.

Hamilton With the very late stuff they didn’t have time to learn the dialogue so they would stick it on Post-It notes on their screens and newspapers. The set was wonderfully cluttered.

Duncan Gus’s narrative one week was “A tidy office is a tidy mind”, so I breezed through picking up Post-It notes and I wondered why David was following me around: “You’re taking my bloody 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.

Hamilton Robert Maxwell fell off his boat at a very inconvenient time. We had a running joke about him and we had to fillet that. We would start recording at a quarter to eight and sometimes we’d be in the bar by nine. There was always a cracking atmosphere.

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.”

Rawle I attacked Daniel Craig with a toasting fork. It’s my only claim to fame. I made him stand on one leg and do the birdie dance for abducting my daughter. He always says: “Jeff, if it wasn’t for that scene where would I be now?”

Hamilton It was very big for Channel 4. [Chief executive] Michael Grade insisted on moving us to 10 o’clock. And we said definitively: “No Michael, that’s a terrible idea, our audience will be watching the news.” And the figures shot up. He was proved right, absolutely.

Jenkin Because all the actors went off to do other things it got harder to get them all together. We felt that we’d gone as far as we could with the characters and said what we wanted to say. You want to go out on a high.

Pearson I don’t think anybody wanted to do the show with 60% of the cast and have to explain that some combine harvester accident had wiped out three of them. We decided we would finish all together rather than limp on.

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!

Tompkinson It was a great time to stop because then news became 24/7. GlobeLink was never that. The technology overtook what the show was.

Rawle Michael Grade said at one point: “I’m thinking of doing this every evening.” And the writers were like: “Fuck! It’s hard enough doing it once a week.”

Pearson Now here we are, doing it every evening [on stage].

Duncan Yes, he’s got his way.

Hamilton The stage show is going to open with a clip from 1990 before we discover those characters being parachuted into the modern media madness. You’ll have a vivid graphic example of what’s changed.

Jenkin There are news channels that make no effort to tell the truth but those that do have a great deal of difficulty working out what is the truth. And a lot of audiences don’t believe there is a truth anymore. It’s strange to think that GlobeLink News, which in its day was outrageous, immoral and shambolic, now looks like the height of professionalism and good taste.

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.

Duncan The first read-through was moving. I thought: “We haven’t done this for 25 years but everything is there: all the little traits, the voices.”

Rawle It’s like walking back in time. It’s very rare in life that you get a second crack at something you loved so much.

Drop the Dead Donkey: The Reawakening! is at Richmond theatre, London, 31 January to 3 February; touring to 22 June.