TV Top Tens: No.1- British Sitcoms

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I’ve always intended to start blogging lists of my top titles in various genres, which will be a useful thing to return to in quieter periods, and I am inspired to start now by the list of Top 20 British Sitcoms in the current issue of Radio Times.  I enjoy lists and, much as with awards, usually manage to find something to annoy or even enrage me in them. Of course, it’s all opinion (especially when it comes to comedy!) and I would hope my own lists may cause rage in others – that’s part of the fun. The latest Radio Times list is actually pretty good overall and the reason for that is not hard to find: the list of 42 practitioners who voted on it contains many estimable names, including the likes of UnknownClement and La Frenais, Linehan and Matthews, and Barry Cryer. However, there is a glaring omission – even these luminaries have somehow managed to produce a top twenty sitcoms list containing nothing by the generally acknowledged masters of the genre – Galton and Simpson. This is not just an oversight – this is mind-bogglingly wrong.

 

The Radio Times list has some other faults, too – there is nothing earlier than 1968, when Dad’s Army started, so nothing made only in black and white – even Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? is specifically included without its monochrome predecessor, The Likely Lads. It’s usually the case that things which get regularly repeated stand a better chance of inclusion and the original Likely Lads is not only not in colour – much of it is missing. The biggest problem I find with so many lists is the lack of historical perspective – the most recent material usually predominates and, looking back on the roster of contributors to the Radio Times list, it is clear that those who would remember the earliest material are in a small minority.

 

There is one thing I need to get clear before setting out my own list and that is to define the parameters of the genre under consideration. In his inaugural 2017 Ronnie Barker imagesComedy Lecture, Ben Elton made the case for the traditional sitcom, recorded in a television studio in front of a live audience, and argued that it is a classic genre which is nowadays looked down upon by devotees of newer forms of comedy, made on location without a laughter track. Now, I am probably one of those Elton is thinking about – most of my favourite TV of the past two decades (both British and American) has been half-hour shows which are ostensibly comedy, but which have a serious edge (sometimes a very serious edge). Some of them are made primarily for laughs, but some are not – some are closer to drama than comedy (and never mind the duration). Another thing that sets them apart is narrative development across episodes, whereas a traditional sitcom usually has self-contained episodes which could be shown in any order. There could certainly be a separate list of half-hour comedy-dramas, but it would contain mostly recent material. Perhaps that is one for the future, or perhaps some of the titles may belong on drama lists, but for the present I am going to include both traditional studio and modern single-camera sitcoms on my list, as did the Radio Times, because I can’t think of any better way to do it.

 

One more consideration before I start – I am not including any titles which are currently still being made, though I may mention them, and some of the titles included here may yet return. Lists are always for future revision.

 

So, my top ten is:

 

  1. Steptoe & Son (BBC, 1962-65, 1970-74)

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Galton and Simpson’s masterpiece – a traditionally made studio sitcom which broke with tradition by casting straight actors in the lead roles and included moments of heartbreaking pathos amongst the laughs. These were real characters with real hopes and disappointments and, when it got serious, you could sense the audience’s uncomfortable reaction, which, of course, released itself in an even bigger guffaw when the laugh line eventually arrived. Four seasons were made between 1962 and 1965, then a further four from 1970 to 1974, when it returned in colour. I was proud to have played my part in recovering a dozen or so missing episodes in the nineties – Ray and Alan knew their worth and had kept them on an early and obsolete home video format.

 

  1. Fawlty Towers (BBC, 1975, 1979)

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Often a poll-topper (not only the Radio Times one, but the BFI’s TV100 in 2000) and for good reason: the highest laugh quotient of any sitcom ever; terrific characters, not all of them particularly empathetic, but all very human; brilliantly constructed plots; memorable quotes – “duck’s off”. It was traditionally made but its impact was revolutionary.

 

  1. The Royle Family (BBC, 1998-2012)

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The key title in the transition from the “traditional” to the “modern” sitcom, thanks to the vision of Caroline Aherne: filmed mostly on a single set, but without an audience, it’s stately pace and minimalist narrative contained a wealth of insight, character, warmth and unspoken humour. Laughter track my arse!

 

  1. Getting On (BBC, 2009-12)

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Certainly one which falls into the category of laughs not being the primary concern, nevertheless there were plenty of them and they hit home. With brilliant characters created and written by the three actresses performing them, and sensitive direction (in the first two series) by Peter Capaldi it literally laughed in the face of death. The final episode said more about life and death than almost anything else I can think of in any genre. The idea was so strong that the American version (made by HBO) was also excellent and Jo Brand has gone on to create more memorable work in a similar vein, Damned (Channel 4) being particularly outstanding amongst current sitcoms.

 

  1. Him and Her (BBC, 2010-13)

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Another minimalist piece, this time not just restricted to a single set, but each episode shot in real time, allowing us to take in the acutely observed characteristics of the sympathetic, though lethargic, central pair and their relatives and friends, who range from the inept to the hateful. When the “action” moves outside the bedsit for the climactic wedding specials, it is apocalyptic. Writer Stefan Golaszewski has since repeated the trick with the beautiful Mum, the resolution of which is eagerly anticipated.

 

  1. The Likely Lads/Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? (BBC, 1964-66, 1973-74)

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Another sixties sitcom which was revived in the early seventies for colour TV, this could not simply replicate the previous format (as Steptoe did) but had to acknowledge that the lead actors had aged, thus introducing a narrative progression which became the series’ key strength. It became about the passage of time, about nostalgia and life progression and about social change in the north of England. It was also brilliantly funny (Clement and La Frenais) and perfectly performed by James Bolam and Rodney Bewes.

 

  1. The Office (BBC, 2001-3)

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Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant not only dispensed with a laughter track, they made a sitcom in the style of an observational documentary, which was a stroke of genius, but an extremely difficult thing to sustain convincingly as the plot became more complex. They pulled it off totally and their inspiration was responsible for so many iconic comedy moments.

 

  1. The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin (BBC, 1976-79)

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A trailblazing narrative sitcom in three distinct seasons, linked by memorable characters, all with their own catchphrases, and with Leonard Rossiter’s towering performance at the centre. The repetitive nature of the dialogue (“17 minutes late…”; ”I didn’t get where I am today,,,”; “cock up on the….front”; “I’m not a…..person” etc), creates an oppressive but secure world which simply cannot be escaped.

 

  1. Blackadder (BBC, 1983-89)

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Following Rowan Atkinson’s Edmund Blackadder and his familiar associates down through the centuries was a joy and the format allowed for constant renewal. Much of the humour came from anachronism, a very special trick which Ben Elton continues to show himself the master of in Upstart Crow (BBC), the best thing he has done since Blackadder.  Difficult to choose a favourite season, but if pushed I would probably go for Blackadder the Third.

 

  1. The League of Gentlemen (BBC, 1999-2017)

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Of all my choices, this is the one I think is most arguably not a sitcom – you could say that, with three performers taking all the parts, it is more a series of sketches linked by a fictional location, though with narrative continuity for each set of characters. But, having included it, a top 10 spot was assured. Its triumphant return at Christmas 2017 was testament to the strength of the format and the characters created for it.

 

I intended my lists to be top tens, but the Radio Times sitcom list is a top 20 and, for purposes of comparison, if I were to continue in the same vein, these would be my next ten choices:

 

  1. I’m Alan Partridge (BBC, 1997-2002)
  2. Father Ted (Channel 4, 1995-98)
  3. Till Death Us Do Part (BBC, 1965-75, ITV, 1981)
  4. House of Fools (BBC, 2014-15)
  5. Hancock’s Half Hour/Hancock (BBC, 1956-61)
  6. Red Dwarf (BBC, 1988-99, Dave 2009-17)
  7. The Thick of It (BBC, 2005-12)
  8. Peep Show (Channel 4, 2003-15)
  9. Detectorists (BBC, 2014-17)
  10. Fleabag (BBC, 2016-19)

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Some of these choices require little further justification, but others demand comment: it is hard to overestimate the importance of Till Death in its sixties heyday – the searing impact of the writing and performances – but unfortunately the inevitable focus on its treatment of race makes it difficult to assess in a modern context; in House of Fools, Vic and Bob were not only conquering yet another genre, having produced their own surreal versions of the variety show, the sketch show and the comedy quiz show, but, by using the traditional sitcom model (70s style), subverting it still further; Detectorists drew you in with its relaxed pace, but the shows just flew by – on so many occasions I was astonished to find it finishing when I thought I had only been watching for ten minutes or so (great direction by Mackenzie Crook) – and I’m really enjoying Toby Jones’ own creation, Don’t Forget the Driver, on BBC2 at the moment; and Fleabag has only just finished, though we are assured it is over, so it qualifies for inclusion and I have put it at 20 simply because it feels too soon to proclaim it an instant classic to rank alongside the others here – ask me again in a year’s time and I expect it to be in my top ten.

 

Last thoughts: having made such a fuss about the difference between “traditional” and “modern” sitcoms, I have (not deliberately) managed to come up with a list of 20 which contains 10 of each, evenly spread through the list. I’ve also included 11 of the 20 titles chosen by the Radio Times panel and regret not finding room for The Young Ones (and I suspect One Foot in the Grave is hovering just outside the 20 in both cases). So, I guess I must be reasonably in line with the consensus, but I’m sure there are plenty of things about my list which will make somebody angry – I do hope so!

 

Four Yorkshiremen hit 50 (comedy, not cricket)

 

Who’d have thought, 50 years ago, I’d be sitting here writing a blog about what is still the greatest TV comedy sketch ever? That’s my opinion, of course, and nothing divides opinion quite like comedy.

There are plenty of lists of the greatest ever sketches and the results differ wildly (especially depending on whether the lists or polls are of British or American origin), and recent hits sometimes usurp the greats (Little Britain’s Lou and Andy topped the Channel 4 poll), but there are certain classics which feature quite regularly. The Dead Parrot, the One-Legged Tarzan and Two Soups usually make an appearance, as well as a much-loved routine by the Two Ronnies – you know the one. But in my humble estimation, the Ronnies couldn’t hold a candle to the sketch that would top my list – in fact they couldn’t hold FOUR candles to it. That sketch was first broadcast exactly 50 years ago tonight, on the 31st October 1967, though it has become such a classic that it has been performed by different casts on different occasions down the years and is regularly wrongly associated with a different show to the one it premiered in.

at-last-the-1948-show-20050930031415462The Four Yorkshiremen sketch first appeared as the last item of the 6th edition of the second series of At Last the 1948 Show, written and performed by John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Tim Brooke-Taylor and Marty Feldman. The show featured sketches by members of the quartet, linked by a hostess – “the lovely” Aimi MacDonald. The final sketch of each show usually featured all four writer/performers. Which of them actually wrote the Four Yorkshiremen sketch was long a matter of dispute, though it seems that Tim came up with the original concept and he was given a credit of thanks for it on the recent Monty Python re-union shows.

But what makes this sketch so special? Of course, it is hilariously funny and the performances are brilliant, but what else? What makes it such a great experience, no matter how many times you have seen it? And why is this, original performance so much better than the ones which followed? For a start it is beautifully structured – almost musical. I would compare it to a string quartet playing a series of variations, like the second movement of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden quartet. It starts with a few short comments which gradually lengthen into these wonderful exaggerated reminiscences which are repeated in style and elaborated in content as they are passed around the four performers, each echoing and then outdoing the previous contributor. The four are actually seated like a string quartet – Cleese at first violin, Brooke-Taylor as second, Chapman on viola and Feldman as ‘cello. And the script is just so poetic, full of alliteration and echoes: “But it were ‘ouse to us”; “Corridor? We used to dream of livin’ in a corridor”. The direction by Ian Fordyce is brilliant too, full of close-ups and two shots and cut to the rhythm established by the script. Above all, the performances by all four are perfectly timed and judged.

yorkshiremen1_203x150The thing that has made this sketch seem such a classic is the fact that it has been re-performed many times, with different casts, usually as part of live theatre shows, particularly charity galas. it’s first stage outings were as part of Monty Python Live shows, first at Drury Lane (recorded in audio only), then at the Hollywood Bowl, which was filmed. Strangely, Cleese was not involved in that performance – Eric Idle taking his part. Chapman played the same role as he did in the original, with Michael Palin filling in for Brooke-Taylor and Terry Jones for Feldman. And so began the association with Monty Python’s Flying Circus which persists to this day, and it is regularly referred to as a Python sketch. Other performances followed in such events as The Secret Policeman’s Ball and Comic Relief, as well as the most recent Python re-union shows at the O2 referred to earlier, though none have come close to rivalling the perfection of the original, probably because the need to declaim in a theatre ruins the essential rhythm of the piece. Guest performers have included Rowan Atkinson and a revival for Amnesty inFour fundraisers 2001 featuring Eddie Izzard, Harry Enfield, Vic Reeves and Alan Rickman was more of a parody than a performance. More recently, the Four Fundraisers sketch for Comic Relief starred Izzard, John Bishop, David Walliams and Davina McCall trying to outdo each other with their tales of the remarkable things they had done for charity (of course, the sketch is introduced with the Monty Python theme!). You can see them all on YouTube, together with countless amateur versions and even one in Hungarian! (hopefully not a misleading translation).

And the Four Yorkshiremen was not the only 1948 Show sketch re-cycled in other shows. One even turned up in Monty Python’s Fliegende Zirkus (the show the Pythons did for German TV), while Marty Feldman revived the wonderful Bookshop Sketch and a few others in his own show, Marty, for the BBC. Cleese and Atkinson also performed a version of the Beekeeper sketch on stage.

But there’s another major reason why the stage performances usurped the original and the association with Python was cemented – the recording of the 1948 Show in question, along with most of the other editions, was lost for many years. In addition, the show had only been seen in its complete form in the ITV London (Rediffusion) area. Fortunately, that was where I lived and, being a massive devotee of TV comedy in the sixties, I never missed it (I also bought the album of sketches from the first series and bored people by reciting them word-for-word at any opportunity). When I joined the BFI archive in 1988, one of the first things I did was search the Rediffusion collection, which the archive had acquired, for copies of the show and was disappointed to find only two had survived. Then, in 1990, Dick Fiddy, my friend and colleague at the BFI, told me he had heard rumours that there were some copies of the show in Sweden. So, at that year’s gatheringSVT_logo of the International Federation of Television Archives I approached Sten and Lasse from SVT and asked them if they had any knowledge of this. “Oh, yes”, they replied, “we have them. We bring them out every Christmas for a laugh”. They promised to send me copies and confirmed that they had five shows, but when they arrived they turned out to be compilations of sketches from both series, edited together for international distribution, rather than original programmes. The Four Yorkshiremen sketch, however, was there and we showed it at the National Film Theatre. Shortly after that, Dick, Veronica Taylor and myself foundedmbw the BFI’s Missing, Believed Wiped campaign to search for lost British TV shows and At Last the 1948 Show has been one of the great successes. Copies of the shows have come back from private collectors, from overseas (ABC Australia) and from the archive of David Frost (who was Executive Producer). There are now only three of the 13 shows which are incomplete, and the search goes on for those.

1948 showAnd the existence of the telerecordings allows a long-overdue re-evaluation of the show itself, which until now has been seen mainly as just a pre-cursor to Monty Python’s Flying Circus, but deserves recognition as a true classic in its own right. Python was more formally innovative and had the greater impact, but the 1948 Show is more consistently funny across its 13 editions. John Cleese, Tim Brooke-Taylor and Aimi MacDonald have all enthusiastically joined in the screenings of the recovered shows and Cleese notes in his autobiography, So, Anyway (Random House, 2014) that he was delighted and surprised at just how good the material was when he got to see it again. The 1948 Show also beat Python to the use of a well-known phrase now indelibly associated with the latter: the words “and now for something completely different” were first spoken by Aimi MacDonald in one of her links between the sketches.

So, please join me in raising a passable glass of Chateau de Chasselas in honour of the 50th anniversary of the Four Yorkshiremen – undoubtedly the greatest TV comedy sketch of all time. But try telling Two Ronnies or Little Britain fans that – will they believe you?