British Sitcoms


Tonight sees the start of The Sitcom Story, a three-part history of (guess what ?) the sitcom presented – with excruciatingly lame, flat joviality, by Dawn French.
The series, not surprisingly these days, comes across as just an excuse to re-run a string of classic clips from the BBC’s (extensive) archive of sitcoms. The conclusions French comes to are all despairingly obvious. Situation comedies revolve around, and thrive upon their situation; families, friends and neighbours are pivotal.

Given French’s sexuality, it is perhaps not surprising that she misses a more obvious conclusion that leaps out as the litany of sitcoms Britain has produced over the past 50 years.

The best sitcoms are about bitter, misanthropic, put-upon, men – deluded losers, trapped usually in suburbia with only their stale ambition and self-hatred for company. But maybe that’s just me.

Think of the men in Fawlty Towers, The Office, I’m Alan Partridge, Shelley, Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads, The Fall & Rise of Reginald Perrin, Hancock, One Foot In The Grave, How Do You Want Me ?

Good sitcoms about working-class characters – even/especially ones who don’t actually do much work – like The Royle Family, Steptoe & Son, Rising Damp, Til Death Do Us Part, Only Fools & Horses, Porridge have also been successful. But the quintessential British sitcom usually delights in the sustained humiliation of characters (men) from the middle-class tortured by their own aspirations to be something more – your Basil Fawltys, Victor Meldrews, and Capt Mainwarings.

Sitcoms are meant to be based on the situation (Fawlty Towers – a hotel; in Porridge – prison etc) and are notoriously based around work, families, or neighbours. But, for the most part they seem to stand or fall on the strength of their male characters.

There’s just something inherently funny about the pomposity of men. Softer men or fey men (Some Mothers Do ‘Ave Em, Are You Being Served, Last of The Summer Wine, the appalling Brittas Empire) don’t work nearly as well.

Sitcoms about women (italics) meanwhile just don’t work at all. Absolutely Fabulous, Birds of a Feather, Girls on Top, The Liver Birds, Butterflies, Keeping Up Appearances and so on have done well, but none have gone down in TV history as real classics of the genre.

Maybe I’m just less reluctant to laugh at the misfortune of women. Or maybe men are just funnier than women. Or maybe I just hate Dawn French. The success of The Vicar of Dibley has always completely mystified me. Even the way she presents and narrates The Sitcom Story is thoroughly irksome.

Of course, male writers and writing teams (Galton & Simpson, Croft & Perry, Iannucci, Baynham & Coogan, Gervais & Marchant, Clement & La Frenais, The Young Ones mob) have dominated so it’s perhaps not surprising the best characters are male. Even in series like The Good Life, The Royle Family, Men Behaving Badly or Butterflies with strong female characters, I remember the more subservient male characters more fondly. No matter what he’s in, Geoffrey Palmer is always brilliantly dour whereas his female equivalent, June Whitfield is just always thoroughly irritating. Are You Being Served had several male lead characters but was forever blighted for me by the very mention of Mrs Slocombe’s pussy.

Male friendships just seem funnier. Father/son relationships (most notably Steptoe & Son, by proxy, series like Only Fools & Horses and Porridge) are a staple ingredient of successful sitcoms.

Men Behaving Badly and its precursor The Likely Lads have lasted longer in the memory than The Liver Birds or the (admittedly godawful Girls On Top – another monstrosity starring Dawn French).

Even men with NO friends (Norman Stanley Fletcher, Alan Partridge, David Brent, Rigsby, Basil Fawlty, the Steptoes) seem to provide a source of endless fascination and humour.

Inspired by the first American sitcom, I Love Lucy, British sitcoms started with the utterly misanthropic Tony Hancock and, right up to Victor Meldrew and Jim Royle, leading male characters haven’t cheered up much since.

Impotent men (most of the above, plus less-loved characters like Frank Spencer, George Roper) rank almost as highly.

The key to the best of them seems to be to inspire enough fondness for the characters that the audience – despite themselves and despite the failings of the characters themselves – end up willing them on to secure a rare triumph.

Think of Alan Partridge getting a second series of his chat show, or Rigsby getting somewhere (anywhere) with Miss Jones, Basil getting just a glimmer of joy out of Sybil.

The nation’s joy when Del Boy and co. became millionaires was unconfined.

It’s quite unfathomable, not entirely something to be particularly proud but a very British phenomenon.

It comes as no surprise that the heirs apparent will also be about flawed, potentially friend-less men – namely Eyes Down, starring Paul O’Grady, which starts next month and Early Doors. Craig Cash’s first sitcom since The Royle Family, Early Doors starts tonight (BBC2, 9.30pm) and is about a pub landlord, his daughter and the characters/men who hang around there.

It almost goes without saying that none of them are particularly edifying but they are funny.


Jim Shelley’s Top Ten British sitcoms:

1.The Royle Family
(“I’m only doing a finger buffet”
“Oh finger my arse !!”)

2.I’m Alan Partridge
“time for music now and who is this beautiful blonde man with a beautiful voice. It’s Annie Lennox”

3.Fawlty Towers,
“Oh youre speaking, German. I’m sorry, I thought there was something wrong with you.

4. Dad’s Army
“What is your name ?” “Don’t tell him Pike !”

5. The Fall & Rise of Reginald Perrin,
6. Porridge
7. Whatever Happened to The Likely Lads,
8. The Office,
9. Phoenix Nights,
10. and of course, Shelley.

Ten Worst

Terry & June
Some Mothers Do Ave’
The House That Jack Built
Love Thy Neighbour
Girls On Top
The Brittas Empire
Gimme Gimme Gimme
Babes In The Wood
My Family
All About Me