Actors John Cleese (left) and Andrew Sachs in a scene from Fawlty Towers (Photo by Don Smith/Radio Times via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Resurrecting the great British sitcom

We are getting dangerously close to saying British sitcom itself should be off limits

British sitcoms, which once formed the heart of our television schedules, are on life support. Yes, there is the occasional special – a Comedy Playhouse, or a Mrs Brown’s Boys at Christmas – but for the most part, sitcoms, in the traditional sense, have largely disappeared. The main broadcasters still say they want to make comedy, but the emphasis across the industry is on single camera pieces. These tend to focus on smaller, more personalised stories – usually writer-performer led – which rarely offer either the longevity or the laughs of more traditional efforts.

I love sitcoms. I think they are the ultimate entertainment programme; a unique synthesis of television and theatre. The best sitcoms give us a sense of community. The sound of laughter, so despised by Guardian hacks, is the sound of people united in enjoyment. The greatest shows, from Dad’s Army and Only Fools and Horses to One Foot in the Grave and Father Ted, would not work without a studio audience. They’d be different, less accessible beasts. They’d be unlikely to command the same level of universal recognition and love. Very few single camera comedies have broken through in the same way as classic studio audience programmes. I’ve been unsurprised that a show I worked on, Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps, has been doing so well on i-Player. People want warm, characterful comedy set in recognisable worlds. And a good knob gag doesn’t go amiss, either.

As the provision of these programmes has declined, the audience’s attitude towards the BBC has become more fractious

The move away from popular sitcoms, and popular comedy in general, towards more niche-oriented pieces has been particularly damaging for the BBC. When asked to list their favourite characters, the public will immediately reach to sitcom – to Basil Fawlty, Captain Mainwaring, Del Boy Trotter, Hyacinth Bucket. These characters, often heightened reflections of ourselves, etch themselves into our collective consciousness. They provide communal experiences, enjoyable by all, remembered and shared through-out life. We love to be made laugh. For the BBC, providing these mass audience, popular experiences — particularly during high-days and holidays — is essential to the maintenance of its relationship with license fee payers. It is no surprise that as the provision of these programmes has declined, the audience’s attitude towards the BBC has become more fractious. Producers, it seems, are too keen to value reviews and awards over viewing figures. A certain kind of middle-class, graduate attitude seems to be regarded over the tastes of everyone else. 

It is a misnomer that large viewing figures are no longer possible. Line of Duty proves that. Strictly Come Dancing proves that. If you make programmes with their finger on the popular pulse, the audience will come. Making a sitcom is not something anyone can do; they are their own artisan endeavour. Directing them is a particular challenge: even allowing for some pre-records and location work, 25 minutes of material needs to be brought in between 19.30 and 22.00 on recording night. The writing can’t be indulgent, it must be funny enough to actually keep ordinary people, both in the studio and at home, laughing. The show needs to be rooted and recognisable. Whilst the subject matter can cover anything, there has to be comedy. Fortunately, the realities of life – including funerals and other serious issues – often serve to heighten the comic tension. Popular hits, from The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin to Last of the Summer Wine, Steptoe and Son to Birds of a Feather, prove this. As long as it’s funny, nothing is off limits.

If you make programmes with their finger on the popular pulse, the audience will come

There is, perhaps, some embarrassment in the higher echelons of the television industry over the type of comedy large audiences enjoy. “The British sense of humour” is a nebulous thing; but we all kind of understand what it means. The material often plays with class, gender and sexuality; our most successful shows tend to be broader than American imports, and we love bold visuals, big characters and farce. But British sitcoms are still huge money-makers. At any time of the day or night, a station somewhere is re-running Are You Being Served?. Of course, there should still be room for single camera pieces – the excellent 15 Storeys High, co-written by and starring the late Sean Lock, is an example of the form done well – but producers should resist the temptation of trying to ape American single camera pieces. The results often fail to find viewers on either side of the Atlantic; plopping, like most art aimed specifically at transatlantic audiences, somewhere in the ocean. Our sitcoms should be our sitcoms; that is, historically at least, the most likely route to international success too. And our most-loved shows are usually written by writers, either alone or in a duo, people whose temperament is often quite different to writer-performers. 

In a recent piece for The Telegraph, the fine cultural historian Matthew Sweet argued that much of our affection for old-school sitcoms is misplaced. He points towards the racism and sexism of some of the offerings. With programmes like Love Thy Neighbour and The Melting Pot, he undeniably has a point (It Ain’t Half Hot Mum is a slightly more complex affair  – but, for various reasons, including the use of blackface and epithets, I obviously wouldn’t suggest putting it on BBC One now). But the truth is many of our most loved sitcoms, from the 70s or any other era, were not particularly preoccupied with racism or misogyny. By lumping in everything together, we are throwing the baby out with the bath water – and doing the vast array of good-natured shows a disservice. As trigger warnings are placed in front of everything from ‘Allo ‘Allo to One Foot in the Grave, we are getting dangerously close to saying British sitcom itself should be placed off limits. Crucially, every show is a product of its time; everything has something to say about when it was made.

Every show is a product of its time; everything has something to say about when it was made

Rather than scaring producers, this should excite them. Why not try and harness some of the spirit and breadth and brio of a great Britcom, in new shows about the world as it is now? This isn’t about going back, it’s about looking forward. Why not explore family life in 2021? The modern workplace? The people and tropes and experiences we are all collectively sharing. There is so much potential. (I do think a new sitcom set in the war would still bear fruit, because it is so much a part of our culture; there is a reason why dramas set in the period tend to do well.) Comedy is such a massive canvas, with so many possibilities. Currently, it feels like everything is operating in one corner, offering one viewpoint, one section of society – made in one particular way.

Zoe Wanamaker recently said that she didn’t feel a show like My Family, which she starred in for 11 series, and was immensely popular with a large family audience, could be made now – because it was shot in front of an audience. That is desperately sad. British sitcoms are wonderful. We should start making them again.

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