Leeds Heritage Theatres – where every seat tells a story. Find out more about how you can name a seat at one of our venues.

The cast of Drop The Dead Donkey at the Truth News desk, some sitting and some standing, looking the audience.

10 Things You Never Knew About Drop The Dead Donkey

To get you in the mood for the arrival of Drop The Dead Donkey at Leeds Grand Theatre next month, co-creators Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin reveal some little-known facts about the show. 

Written by Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin


Cast and characters

Henry Davenport would be out of work in the modern era. He was, let’s be honest, a reprobate. No modern broadcaster would fail to suspend someone whose photo was constantly splashed over the tabloids, leaving a nightclub drunk and with an age-inappropriate woman on his arm.

Henry was played by the magnificent David Swift in a performance that conveyed both the character’s chaos and dignity. David had represented the investigative journalist John Pilger, so he revelled in portraying a man who championed free speech and would never be cowed by guidelines. David’s very individual style made Henry wonderfully explosive, but often very touching.

In real life, David was the gentlest of men, very much the father-figure of the team. Though he had a wild side, as anyone who’s seen the episode where he dances in a Chippendale costume can testify.

Late rewrites were an occupational hazard for the cast. Often they were given new topical dialogue to learn just a few hours before the recording. We were always vulnerable to late-breaking stories. Robert Maxwell nearly ruined a whole episode by selfishly falling off his yacht.

But not all last-minute changes were news-related. We once had to introduce a late storyline where Dave – played by Neil Pearson – had been beaten up by an angry husband. In reality, Neil’s facial wound had been caused by the flying nozzle of a hoover attachment during a game of imaginary baseball!

The cast of Drop The Dead Donkey grouped together onstage looking at the audience and holding clipboards.

The cast of Drop The Dead Donkey in action.

A woman in a green boiler suit leaning against a desk 'Well Done Team'.

Production photos from Drop The Dead Donkey.

The cast of Drop The Dead Donkey on stage with a giant red screen reading Truth News above a news desk.

Some actors suffered for their art, although we would argue that we were never to blame. For instance, we did not know that when we buried Stephen Tompkinson up to his neck in the ground his forehead was hot because he had malaria. Similarly, when we lashed Robert Duncan (Gus), naked, to a lamppost we had no idea that a crowded night bus was about to drive past.

Many giants of TV appeared as themselves in the show (who knows, there may be more in the live show). There were guest cameos from news veterans like Jon Snow, Kirsty Wark, and Michael Buerk, and politicians like Teddy Taylor MP, Ken Livingstone, and Neil Kinnock.

And if you watch the final moments of the last ever episode you will see Gus having his desk carried off by two very tall removal men. One is the show’s co-creator, Guy Jenkin. The other is a very youthful-looking Richard Osman.

Making the show

“She’s a bit mad, but I think you’ll get on” was the recommendation from our friend Denise O’Donoghue that led us to our wonderful director, Liddy Oldroyd. Liddy had not directed a sitcom before, but we had interviewed several established sitcom directors who all seemed a little ho-hum. Liddy, on the other hand, was someone who was fizzing with ideas and energy. She was like a human firework.

Liddy came up with innovations that had not been seen in sitcoms before. For instance, she used long lenses to give shots depth, she sometimes switched to hand-held cameras to get in amongst the action, she choreographed dozens of extras who provided a dynamic, human backdrop. In so many ways, she gave the show a highly original feel and, without her boldness, the show would not have been such a success.

Dead Belgians Don’t Count was the original title that we chose for the show. But Channel 4 pointed out – not unreasonably – that such a title might adversely affect sales to Belgium. One option that was considered was Dead Kuwaitis Don’t Count, but that was rejected – which was lucky because, as the first episodes arrived on air, Saddam Hussein launched his invasion of Kuwait.

A man holding a teddy bear and a woman holding up a shoe to look at.

Production photos from Drop The Dead Donkey.

Two newsreaders at a desk with the word TRUTH on it.

The show featured many animals, including alligators, cockroaches, Harris Hawks, a panther (that Damien tried to pass off as the Beast of Bodmin), wallabies, a Pekinese dog (Sally’s doomed pet), Siamese fighting fish, a rabbit, some lobsters, and a cat that casually wandered into shot. During the filming of a stunt. Involving a falling piano. Don’t worry, the cat lived.

We were confused with reality on social media (where else?). A sequence where Damien was reporting on the burning of seized cannabis and got high as a kite found its way onto the internet and was mistaken for a real reporter getting stoned. The accompanying caption read ‘Look at this idiot!’ which is ironic, given that the caption was put there by an idiot.

The show won many awards, but one episode from the third series – Paintball – won both a BAFTA and an International Emmy, even though it very nearly didn’t get made. Jeff Rawle (George Dent) had spent the week in hospital, stricken by a kidney stone. He only managed to rejoin us on the last day of rehearsal, after he’d had surgery. Unfortunately, for Jeff, the episode ended with George fainting – which required one of TV’s most painful ever pratfalls.

Politicians rarely complained about us, which always made us worry if we were doing our job properly. In 1990, we did receive an angry fax from an obscure Tory MP informing us that his would be one of ‘thousands of complaints’ that we would receive concerning a ‘vile joke’ made about the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. So we checked Channel 4’s overnight log. The programme had triggered three telephone calls, one to commend the joke about Mrs Thatcher and the other two enquiring where you could buy the dress that Sally Smedley had worn in Part Two. The PM was now so unpopular that not one single viewer could be arsed to take offense on her behalf. The writing was on the wall. A few weeks later, the Tories defenestrated her.