Proletarian revolution and Radio 4 comedy are natural bedfellows – I don’t think anyone can deny that – but they need a matchmaker to bring them together – and encouraging them both to swipe right on this conceptual Tinder is, naturally, football.
Lenin of the Rovers, broadcast in two series in 1988–89, told the story of Felchester Rovers (geddit?!?) from the ‘grimy soot-stained Midlands’, and the Communist revolution spearheaded there by their balding Russian signing, specially-bred socialist football genius Ricky Lenin, played – complete with generic eastern European accent – by Alexei Sayle.
As the title and the name of the eponymous club suggest, there was a nod to popular soccer comic Roy of the Rovers, and indeed when we first meet them their player-manager is Ray Royce (geddit?!?), who despite being 100 doesn’t look a day over 23*, while the team are ‘unbeaten in their last million games’. Then again, Royce is overthrown at the end of the first episode by a complicated revolution involving a Chelsea-style electric fence and 500,000 forged FA Cup final tickets. The sole remaining nod to the venerable comic strip is that pretty much every game Felchester play involves an unlikely second-half comeback.
So the writer Marcus Berkmann – then a computer games reviewer, now a Daily Mail columnist – and the producer, the late Harry Thompson, concentrate on satirising 1970s and 1980s football, and anything else they fancy, with the very occasional sprinkling of Marxist thinking.
The series is also perfectly placed in the sweet spot between the violence-tinged football present (‘Last week Felchester fans boiled a nun in Leeds, raped a police horse in Leicester and set fire to the Minister of Sport in Bolton, but you were playing in Ipswich’) and the already-glimpsed future of sponsorship and glamour (‘There now follows the draw for the Heinz Sandwich Spread FA Cup’).
Mainly though, it takes the opportunity to do something rarely ventured in Radio 4 sitcoms: putting in stuff what’s funny. There is little reason for Ricky Lenin to speak partly in pop lyrics – e.g. at the end of a rousing, emotional speech, pausing before asking his team-mates to: ‘Take a good look at my face. You see my smile don’t seem out of place…’
It also allowed for some imaginative casting. I presume it would have been illegal at the time for a comedy eastern European communist to be played by anyone other than Sayle (correctly), but they also cast Ballard Berkley (aka the Major in Fawlty Towers) as club treasurer Colonel Brace-Cartwright, a man deep in his military anecdotage: ‘The midday heat in Rangoon gets up to 500 degrees in the shade. Horses used to melt in the stables every day.’
Jim Broadbent, John Sessions, Phil Cornwell and Keith Allen were also in the ensemble, while Frank Lee Brian, the presenter of Footyscene – the must-listen radio show that the pros listen to – is played by Kenneth Wolstenholme, the BBC’s famed 1966-World-Cup-final ‘they think it’s all over’ former lead football commentator, who by the late 1980s was a bit-part mic-man on regional ITV after his Beeb ousting in the previous decade.
Wolstenholme was certainly game, prepared to introduce himself not only as ‘ace reporter’ but also ‘Frank Lee Brian, the man Lambeth CID want to chat to about the Dutch magazine’, and ‘The man who’s back from El Telvador** with a suntan and a funny itch that won’t go away’.
Wolstenholme/Brian’s show allows for some useful plot exposition, as well as occasionally allowing Ricky Lenin in for a grilling. In the second episode, lightly billed in the Radio Times as ‘Frankly admitting a mistake, ascertaining the reasons for it, analysing the conditions which led to it, and thoroughly discussing it – that is the earmark of a serious party, that is the way it should perform its duties’, Lenin explains his Communist plan to Brian.
‘I want to see goalscoring shared equally between the teams, on the basis of a five-year plan. The pitch will be divided equally between the teams, and I promise the fans bread, peace and goals – it’s a sort of five-year goal plan,’ he says. Brian responds: ‘Ah, I see, as opposed to Arsenal’s five goals a year plan.’ (This was when Arsenal were still the epitome of ‘boring’ football).
In the following episode, Felchester face an FA Cup tie against Cambridge, with their famous five-man forward line of Burgess, Maclean, Philby and Blunt. (‘Who’s the fifth man?’ ‘Nobody’s really sure’). To thwart them, Lenin has to infiltrate the team via a friendly don, who turns out to have amorous intentions towards him. This is explained to Lenin by Trotsky and Stalin with a list of ‘left-footer’/‘uphill gardener’-type euphemisms that only just about passed muster even then, Sayle breaking character briefly to plea: ‘Don’t tell City Limits about this bit.’
Something similar happened with the real-life Sunday Mirror columnist in an episode satirising then multiple-football-club-owning Robert Maxwell with a subtle change of name: ‘Even a big fat publisher like Max Gut has no answer to the stirring socialist message I regaled you with at the start of the second half. He’ll also be looking for a new columnist for his Sunday paper I should expect.’
And so on through various ludicrous plots embracing ’80s mainstays like tabloid sensationalism, football hooliganism, northern unemployment, privatization, Gloria Hunniford and European football, where Felchester take on Borussia Mönchenpastry in the ‘Let’s See If You Can Avoid Hitting Each Other This Time Shall We? Mercantile Credit Classic Challenge Plate’.
However, off-field events rather militated against the series really catching on. After the first two episodes were recorded, Ballard Berkley died, to be replaced by Croft and Perry regular Donald Hewett, who was, with all due respect, very much a reserve team player to the Fawlty Towers favourite’s first-choice status. Then, on the day the penultimate episode was to be broadcast, the Hillsborough disaster ensured an understandable postponement of a series that was to conclude with Felchester playing in the FA Cup final.
Even Sayle himself admits he overlooked the series at the time: ‘It was around the time of the first series of Alexei Sayle’s Stuff and there was lots of stuff going on. Looking back, I didn’t fully appreciate how original Lenin of the Rovers was. I wish I’d paid more attention at the time.’
He is right. Not commercially available, though intermittently repeated on Radio 4 Extra, Lenin of the Rovers emerged at a time when football was at its lowest ebb, presciently identifying the cultural space it could one day occupy.
‘There was a time in the late 1980s, after Heysel and all that, where it wasn’t even shown on the telly,’ Sayle told When Saturday Comes a few years ago. ‘Football was considered the province of morons. Lenin of the Rovers, in its own odd way, was the beginning of the reappreciation of the game.’
* The ‘real-life’ Roy Race was still a prolific goalscorer at 50 with a thick mane of blond hair when Lenin of the Rovers was broadcast, and didn’t retire until a helicopter crash in 1993.
** Latin American socialist paradise visited by the club on a pre-FA Cup final tour, but menaced by rogue CIA operative Colonel C Hopper Harris. ‘El Tel’ was the nickname of late-1980s Barcelona manager Terry Venables.