The groundbreaking female-led sketch show Smack the Pony burst onto screens exactly 20 years ago.
It’s hard now to imagine the Channel 4 show without the leading trio of Fiona Allen, Doon Mackichan and Sally Phillips.
But the show’s creator, Victoria Pile, tells BBC News it could have looked very different.
Britain’s Got Talent’s Amanda Holden, and not Mackichan, rounded off the trio of leads in the pilot.
Pile, who went on to create the Channel 4 sitcom Green Wing, says: “We made a pilot with Sally Phillips, Fiona Allen and Amanda Holden as the cast.
“Come the series, Amanda dropped out and Doon Mackichan joined the gang, with Sarah Alexander as our ‘regular guest’. ”
Holden, who’s now best known as a judge on ITV’s Britain’s Got Talent, still appeared in Smack The Pony, featuring in four episodes of the show’s first series.
Making a comedy classic
When it first went on air on 19 March 1999, Smack The Pony stood out as a primetime, female-led sketch show.
There were some popular shows with female stars, like French and Saunders, and Victoria Wood’s As Seen on TV, but these were hugely outnumbered by male-dominated sketch shows, such as BBC Two’s The Fast Show and Channel Four’s Harry Hill.
Pile explains how her show came about: “It was actually Caroline Leddy [then commissioning editor at Channel 4] and Peter Fincham [then head of production company Talkback] who realised that it was time for an all-girl sketch show.
“The overriding mission from day one was to prove that women could make anyone and everyone laugh. We quickly established a writing brief that banned all period jokes…, no over-indulgence in female-centric issues, and concentrating on contemporary life.
“We had a strenuous development period, seeking out the funniest women… sometimes this was just a great big gossip session – swapping experiences, confessing home truths, and discovering things that made us laugh or cringe.
“It was a very fruitful way of accessing characters and ideas, which we could write up as sketches later.”
What’s the secret to the show’s success?
The first two series of Smack The Pony each won an Emmy and all three were nominated for a Bafta.
But the show finished after just three series and two specials, as the three leads wanted to end it while it was still a success.
Perhaps because it didn’t include topical humour, the show has hardly dated, and is finding a new generation of fans on Channel 4’s streaming service All 4.
Fiona Allen, one of its three main stars, says: “I think it’s aged perfectly well, so much so that apart from a sketch with a cheque it’s pretty much relevant now.”
While French and Saunders heavily satirised popular culture and The Fast Show relied on catchphrases and recurring characters for its comedy, Smack the Pony stood out for taking a different approach.
Allen says: “We weren’t topical. We had no repetitive catchphrases to get bored of.
“It’s simply this: good writing and strong performances…. It was three women being ‘allowed’ to do some comedy and be silly.”
The first sketch, which saw Mackichan laboriously limbering up by a swimming pool and then doing a belly-flop, set the tone for a show that would defy expectations.
Each week brought a barrage of unique sketches, on themes like competition at work and nightmare dating. Any regular elements, like the popular dating videos segment, featured new characters every week.
Paving the way for Fleabag and Miranda
Though Smack The Pony didn’t last as long as other TV sketch shows of the time (French and Saunders ran from 1987 to 2007), it’s had a lasting influence on the comedy of today.
Pile says: “I think we’ve seen a greater tendency to explore subject matter from the taboo to the ridiculous, whilst still rooted in realism – and, thankfully, I feel there’s been a marked increase in women taking the lead in being irreverent, silly, rude and honest.
“I think we opened some doors that people didn’t know existed.”
Certainly, it’s possible to trace a line from a video date in which Phillips broaches the subject of anal sex to the opening monologue of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag, or the frank discussions of sexual issues in US comedy Broad City.
Maybe the biggest sign of Smack The Pony’s influence is in the continuing commissioning of comedy shows that focus on female experiences.
A notable example is Miranda Hart’s sitcom Miranda, which has more than a surface connection to Smack The Pony. Hart had an early role in an episode of Smack The Pony, and gave Phillips a recurring part in her hit programme.
Darren Boyd, seen recently as Frank in BBC One’s Killing Eve (written by Fleabag’s Waller-Bridge), was one of the show’s regular writers and performers.
Boyd says: “It was like being let loose in an adult playground – proper dressing up and playing type stuff. No rules.
“Victoria Pile had a such a confidence and freedom which I really responded to and the talent of the female leads was stellar. It was an incredibly satisfying rollercoaster to hitch a ride on. “
Smack The Pony alumni choose their favourite sketches
Fiona Allen – The Matador and the Bull
Allen’s favourite sketch is about a cross-species romance between a matador (Allen) and a bull.
Allen remembers how the making of the sketch unfolded: “At first they found a lovely bull but it was brown. I said no. It had to be black. We found an absolutely beautiful black bull (who incidentally had won awards for his fabulous personality!)
“I met the bull in the morning and was so terrified. After filming for a while, it was fine.
“To see that little thought come to life was brilliant. It’s a bit of a reach to want to perform with a bull but, hey, it worked.”
Darren Boyd – Saying Goodbye
Boyd’s favourite sketch is set after a dinner party.
“I’m at the door acting amorous with Sarah [Alexander] as Sally [Phillips] attempts to say goodnight.
“After some increasingly awkward PDA on my part towards Sarah, Sally finally asks if I’m ready and I quickly snap out of my intimacy bubble, grab my coat and leave a bemused Sarah on the doorstep and a furious Sally telling me “We need to have a chat…”
“Not only was it a brilliantly simple but knockout idea, there was something in the execution of it that just clicked.”
Victoria Pile – Video Dates
Pile says it’s impossible to choose a favourite, but she has a soft spot for “countless Video Dates”, particularly “Doon’s ‘I’m a beautiful laydee’ because it is fabulous to see such quirky self-belief”.
Could Smack The Pony make a comeback?
Core trio Allen, Mackichan and Phillips reunited for a short revival for Red Nose Day 2017.
But is there any truth in rumours the show could come back for a full series?
Boyd says: “I have heard talks of a revisit to the world of Smack The Pony, although nothing official. We simply can’t have too much comedic respite in this curious time we’re living in, so if the girls are lining it up I’d say we’re all in for a treat.”
Allen doesn’t rule out a comeback, but says it’s a question of finding the time. “We’re always kicking ideas around,” she says. “But we also do our own stuff separately.”
With Allen providing her voice for the cartoon Fox and Hare, Mackichan in award-winning BBC Two comedy Two Doors Down and Phillips to be seen this year in Channel 4 series Year Of The Rabbit, all three have hectic schedules.
It looks like viewers may have to satisfy their Smack The Pony cravings by rewatching classic episodes on All 4 for a while longer.