A show that combined satire, nostalgia and comment on football culture. Rob Hughes revisits a neglected favourite
They say football and politics don't mix, but Lenin of the Rovers was a rare exception. Aired on BBC Radio 4 between February 1988 and April 1989, it was a sharp, fabulously inventive comedy series written by Marcus Berkmann and Harry Thompson, with an ensemble cast that included Alexei Sayle, Phil Cornwell, John Sessions, Keith Allen, Jim Broadbent and the legendary Kenneth Wolstenholme.
Sayle, who posed for publicity shots in outsized pre-war kit and Rasputin beard, played Ricky Lenin, "the balding midfield maestro" of Britain's only communist football team, Felchester Rovers. It was both spoof and affectionate satire. There was ample parody of 1980s football culture (pampered players, sponsorship, stockbroker hooligans), offset by farcical plot-lines and a subtext that suggested a genuine nostalgia for a simpler, none-too-distant age. There were gags about Peter Marinello, Colin Viljoen, Marvin Hinton and Ralph Coates, the latter the subject of a sex scandal in the Daily Tits.
Ricky Lenin was a socialist warrior whose ideology was found to be shakily suspect at the mere mention of conflict, money or celebrity. Especially celebrity. "It's hard to remember now just how beyond the pale football was at that time," Sayle says. "There was a time in the late 1980s, after Heysel and all that, where it wasn't even shown on the telly. 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 series was one of the first to take a nostaglic look at the game – pre-Standing Room Only, pre-Baddiel and Skinner – for those of us who grew up in the early 1970s. One memorable episode, "Apocalypse Des", found Lenin and the boys stranded in the People's Republic of El Telvador on a disastrous pre-season break. There they hear tales of a mysterious Colonel C Hopper Harris, a CIA renegade and mercenary who's now a warlord. "I love the smell of shin-pads in the morning," he declares. But C Hopper is deeply scarred by what he's seen – a world without morality, where civilisation ends and major powers get sucked in by terrain it can never master.
He's talking about the sloping pitch at Yeovil. His soliloquy – delivered in perfect Brando-ese by Jim Broadbent – reaches its climax with the moment that finally tipped his mind. It was during his time in 'Nam, he explains. There, in the midst of the devastation, he saw a TV in an abandoned GI bar. On it he witnessed a man advancing on goal with only the keeper to beat, the trophy within his grasp: "That man was Jeff Astle. Every night I relive that miss, Mr Lenin. You know the rest: defeat, disgrace, the decline of England as a footballing power."
"Popular culture in general was considered disposable," Sayle reflects, "so wasn't celebrated in the way it is now. I suppose now it's gone too much the other way. I mean, every comedian does that whole ‘Do you remember Spangles?' thing. But it was a very original thing to do at the time."
Lenin of the Rovers' other creations included Cornwell as hard-nut defender Terry Trotsky and John Sessions as the old Tyneside hero, Wor Jackie Frankly. Wolstenholme, meanwhile, was terrific as anchorman Frank Lee Brian, "the man in the chunky jumper who's even worse than Elton Welsby". Sayle remembers him fondly: "I think there was a thing where he'd almost been blacklisted. They wouldn't use him for some reason. He was very jolly, but there was some reason why – either at the BBC or somewhere else – he was persona non grata, so he seemed a little sad in some ways."
Listen again today and Lenin of the Rovers is strangely prescient. It often feels like a bridge between two worlds – at one end the relatively archaic, pie-and-a-Tetley's era of post-war football; at the other a rapidly mutating age in which players, and the game itself, are no longer the sole realm of the man in the street. A-list superstars, celebrity agents and what Wolstenholme himself termed, with some bitterness, the "Americanisation" of football. The series itself remains criminally untended by BBC archivists. It's still unavailable on CD and, save for the odd repeat on Radio 7, largely unheard.
It did reach a discerning few on its original transmission though. "I have a memory of being in a lift with Roy Hattersley and him saying how much he liked Lenin of the Rovers," Sayle says. "I think it straddled a lot of different genres. 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."
From WSC 285 November 2010