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!

 

Ten TV Programmes that “Made Me”

A few weeks ago, I was tagged to take part in one of those Facebook games where you have to create a cultural list over 10 days. It may be favourite books, it may be films or other things. In this case it was the TV programmes which “made me” – which I interpreted as being those with the greatest influence on my life, rather than my all-time top ten. I chose to take a chronological approach, spreading the choices fairly evenly across the decades, and explained my choice in each case. I am reproducing my posts below as I wrote them, partly because they make a reasonably coherent narrative, but mainly because there is so little currently on TV that I want to blog about, so I might as well re-cycle something I’ve already written. My first blog on this site, 11 months ago, was about last year’s “glorious summer” of great TV shows. This summer, by contrast, is a drought, both literally and televisually, so let me take you back through time instead…..

Day 1

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It’s November 23rd 1963 and the 10-year-old me is really at a loose end. Somebody important was shot in America yesterday and all my favourite Friday night programmes, even Bootsie and Snudge, were cancelled! Things aren’t much better today, but there’s a new programme starting at teatime which looks intriguing, so I’ll give it a go. That new programme, Doctor Who, expanded my imagination like nothing on television had done before. There was mystery and menace in every dark corner of the monochrome screen. I was hooked for the rest of the sixties, through the Hartnell and Troughton years (I still think Troughton is the best Doctor, though Capaldi came close). I rather drifted away from it after that, but then it became a professional concern when, as the BBC’s TV Archivist, I became involved in the search for missing episodes in the 1980s (with some success, including some of the earliest dalek episodes). And, of course, I’ve been a fan since it was revived by Russell T.Davies earlier this century. It is one of three titles on my list first transmitted in 1963/4 which have been with me throughout my life and are still going strong. I will post about the second one tomorrow but leave the third (which is very dear to me) until the end of my list.

Day 2

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Today’s choice is my TV equivalent of comfort food – a programme which I have watched (and occasionally fallen asleep in front of) most Saturday nights since I first caught the football bug in the mid-sixties (and that’s “soccer” to my American friends!). It’s a bug I have never shaken off – in fact, the infection becomes more severe with every passing year. Through it all, MOTD has been a constant – the familiar theme tune, the presenters (Kenneth, David, Jimmy, Des and Gary), the commentators (Motty), the pundits (Hansen, Shearer) the “goal of the month” competition. The quality of the coverage has developed, but the format stays much the same. It’s officially the longest running football programme in the world. My favourite period? – probably the seventies, when it was the closing part of the legendary BBC1 Saturday night schedule. My favourite edition? – has to be the one when the Bees led the show thanks to an FA Cup upset over Premier League opposition. I just can’t wait until we reach the Premier League (as we will) and feature every week!

Day 3

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Today, “It’sssss…….” – the big one! The one programme which I would say “made me” more than any other. If I was doing this by importance rather than chronologically, this would be top. Just as so much of our language contains phrases and sayings that originate in Shakespeare, so barely a day goes by without my regular discourse containing something that can be traced back to Python, whether in conversation or commenting on Facebook. You may have noticed – maybe not. But it doesn’t stop there. My entire world outlook is influenced by this show – my general air of flippancy, of not taking anything too seriously, of always immediately looking for the funny side of any situation, the cheerful atheism, the always looking on the bright side. It hit me at exactly the right time, between reaching the end of my school days and going on to university. I was never one for going on street demos, but I did take part in a mass “silly walk” through the streets of Oxford. I had been a big TV comedy fan throughout the sixties, especially things like Not Only, But Also, but this was on a whole new level. At times, I laughed so much it was painful, and so much of it still gives that reaction. The first season was a revelation from the start, but the gradual development of the stream of consciousness style throughout that run is what made it so compelling. If I have a favourite sketch it may be the argument, which is pure poetry, as well as being one of the many Cleese/Palin highlights. So, time’s up….No it isn’t!

Day 4

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So, it’s late 1973 and I am into the final year of my degree in Modern History – there are some wonderful lectures by the great historian AJP Taylor on the Second World War. But then a mammoth TV documentary series arrives which presents the same serious history in a way that is so much more compelling and direct than any book or lecture could be. I’d like to tell you that, in that moment, I resolved to spend a life’s career working in film and television archives, but it wouldn’t be true. Nevertheless, the seed was sown and after I had embarked on that course some five years later, I never lost any opportunity to cite TheWorld at War as an inspiration. It remains the beacon in terms of the use of archive material – research, selection, correct presentation and attribution – something which became a bit of a professional obsession to me, to the extent that I would bore my fellow Peabody jurors to tears over it in later years. It was the work of many fine historians, writers and producers, but the guiding hand was that of a TV hero of mine – Jeremy Isaacs, who ran the programme department of Thames TV, one of our major commercial broadcasters, as though it were a PSB and then invented the ethos of Channel 4. I was fortunate to be the organiser of a 75th birthday tribute to him at the National Film Theatre in 2007 and spent many fascinating hours with him selecting and editing the clips for that event. The pitch-perfect narration by Olivier, the haunting score by Carl Davis – everything is right about TheWorld at War.

Day 5

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There had to be a Dennis Potter on my list. Yes, The Singing Detective is his masterpiece, but Pennies from Heaven is arguably the greater leap of imagination as to what could be done with a TV drama series and it does mean more to me personally. It was transmitted just a couple of weeks after I joined the BBC in 1978. I had immediately begun to take a closer interest than previously in the BBC’s output (after all, this was the material I was now handling every day) and a new Potter was a big event. I was mesmerised and immensely proud that I now worked for an organisation which could produce such a thing. I was pretty obsessed with exploring the art of film at the time, to the exclusion of most else, but here was a studio-based TV drama which could engage me, entertain me and make me think just as much, if not more, than the greatest cinema. The use of popular songs of the thirties, mimed by the actors to express the characters’ thoughts and hopes or as an ironic commentary on the narrative was revolutionary and never bettered. Thought for today: “Though things may not look bright, they’ll all turn out alright, if I keep painting the clouds with sunshine”.

Day 6

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I’ll say it up front. For me, this is the greatest TV drama series of them all. Some people will tell you it is a film – made on 35mm by a film director, Edgar Reitz – and, indeed, I first saw it in a cinema. But it was co-produced by TV companies, WDR and SFB of (then) West Germany and is clearly designed for television presentation in 11 parts of irregular length – the shortest under an hour, the longest almost two and a half – and, in that respect, it anticipates by 30 years the sort of thing now being produced for streaming platforms. Reitz went on to make 2 sequel series, a prequel and some spin-offs, but none of them matched the ambition and historical sweep of the original. Telling the story of a village in the Hunsruck from 1918 to the early 1980s, it is basically German history in the turbulent 20th century in microcosm, seen through the eyes of a number of ordinary families. There are elements of soap opera about it, which is partly what makes it so effective. Who will survive the war? How much did ordinary Germans know (or care) about the crimes of the Nazis? How did technological advances like radio, telephones, motorways and TV affect their lives? The trivial is given the same attention as the momentous, and the weight of memory accumulates. Some characters are played by several actors, others by the same one through the whole series, but you get closely involved with them all.

Day 7

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Having reached the period of my life when the assessment of the significance of television programmes was my professional concern, it becomes harder to isolate individual titles which had a particular effect on my attitudes, not because there are too few, but because there are too many. I choose The Royle Family because it pioneered the metamorphosis of the sitcom into the half-hour comedy/drama. It dispensed with the studio audience and the laughter track, even though it hardly ever left the single set – the front room of a Manchester terraced house – and relied on the brilliance of its writing and characterisation to capture you, to make you laugh, and sometimes to make you cry. Many of the programmes I most treasure from the last two decades owe it a debt – from Getting On and the work of Stefan Golaszewski to Fleabagand Detectorists. At a time when TV drama was reaching a new plateau by becoming cinematic, these programmes (and their US equivalents from Louie to One Mississippi), by virtue of their duration, expanded the dramatic and comedic possibilities of a purely televisual form. And, of course, the Royles constantly referenced TV itself because watching TV was what they were doing most of the time, just like those of us watching them. Post-modernism, my arse!

Day 8

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Today’s choice is for my daughter Hanna as well as myself. One of the joys of having a daughter with learning disabilities is the extended childhood, with the result that I have been watching programmes for kids for much longer than most parents – not only that, but many of the same things again, again, again – so that I have come to appreciate how well-crafted and subtle the best of them are. I have reached the stage when I am keenly anticipating the next offering from that crazy genius Andrew Davenport, but my two favourites have to be Charlie and Lola and Peppa Pig. I chose Peppa because, whereas Charlie and Lola has wonderful visuals and music, Peppa has the better humour, which is firmly aimed at the kids but with the occasional wink towards the adult audience. It doesn’t moralise – just presents family and school life though animated animals. There’s even the occasional political satire, such as the school’s International Day, when Madame Gazelle (brilliant name) gets the children to dress up as different nationalities to promote peace and harmony, but they end up arguing over access to the sandpit. The voiceover artists include the Welsh contingent from Absolutely, Morwenna Banks and John Sparkes, plus the familiar tones of Brian Blessed, Andy Hamilton and others. And if I were to be asked which TV character I most identify with it would have to be Daddy Pig – a genial everyman constantly out of his depth and something of a British equivalent to Homer Simpson. I didn’t expect such a programme to become a big part of my life at this stage, but ultimately everybody loves jumping up and down in muddy puddles.

Day 9

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So, there I was, six or seven years from the end of my career in television archiving/curation and drifting along happily towards retirement, doing much the same as I had for the last 25 years, when something wonderful happened. I was invited to join the Peabody Board of Jurors. Not only did this involve engaging with American TV in much, much greater depth than I had before, but also enhancing my critical approach in order to participate in the rigorous and exhilarating board discussions. It also coincided with an explosion of creativity in US output, both drama and documentary, driven by cable and online platforms. So, I got to see masses of marvellous programmes, many of which I either followed thereafter or caught up with in full, and The Leftovers has to be my favourite of them all. In the same way as another favourite recent drama, the French series Les Revenants, The Leftovers uses a supernatural event to explore questions of grief, love, relationships, spirituality and the search for meaning in a meaningless universe. It appeals to atheists like me and believers alike because there are no answers but lots of questions, asked in the most strikingly imaginative and dramatic way possible. Max Richter’s score is outstanding and the acting and direction uniformly brilliant. The ending, appropriately after three series, is overwhelming and open to multiple interpretation, but I choose to let the mystery be.

Day 10

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This is the only thing I could have as my final choice. It reaches back to where I started (Seven Up was transmitted in 1964), but it justifies its place at the end of my chronology because it also represents the future – 63 Up is due to air next spring and I really can’t wait. To say this is a programme that “made” me doesn’t quite get it: it is me, just as it is countless others of my generation. Like a short-period comet, it returns every seven years and each return is more momentous than the last. I can find points of identification with every one of the participants, and they are only three years younger than me, so seeing their lives develop in parallel with my own and against the backdrop of the same social, political and technological changes, and regularly looking back on how they got to where they are, is an incredibly moving experience. Leaving seven years between each catch-up is a stroke of genius, because they can get back to normal lives away from the media spotlight (though their fame has impacted in some ways on some of them). We know there has been the first death among the group since the last visit, so it may start to get a little painful, but Michael Apted is the perfect intermediary – I wish him extreme longevity, so that he can go on making the series. I am very proud to have been part of the Peabody Board which gave the series an institutional award (the same year, coincidentally, that my first choice, DoctorWho, was similarly honoured). The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that this is British television’s greatest achievement.

So, there you have it – three dramas, two comedies, two docs, two children’s programmes and one sports show to sum up TV’s influence on my life.