TV Top Tens: No.1- British Sitcoms

unknown-3

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)

unknown-4

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)

images

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)

hqdefault

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)

images-1

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)

images-2

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)

unknown-5

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)

images-3

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)

images-4

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)

images-5

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)

images-6

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)

Unknown-7

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!

 

Stan & Ollie: the Genesis of Sitcom

images

The recent release of the film Stan and Ollie and the associated revival of interest in the films of Laurel and Hardy, always great favourites of mine since childhood and a constant joy to revisit (especially in the company of my daughter, Hanna), has got me thinking once again about a pet theory of mine: which is, basically, that Stan Laurel, whom I regard as the greatest comic genius of the 20thcentury, laid the foundations of television sitcom in the sound film shorts he made with Oliver Hardy between 1929 and 1935.

 

The first TV sitcom was on the BBC; Pinwright’s Progress (1946/7), though it is during the fifties that the major pioneering titles appeared: I Love Lucy and The Phil Silvers unknown-3Show in the USA; Hancock’s Half Hour in Britain. When the origins of the form are traced back beyond the start of the television era, the usual medium cited is radio, quite naturally as it is also a broadcasting medium. Numerous titles which became significant television sitcoms originated in radio and, in the US, the form can be traced back to the 1920s. For example, the notorious Amos ‘n’ Andy originated on radio in 1928, before being produced for television (interestingly enough, at the Hal Roach Studios) in the fifties. As the earliest sitcoms were performed for a studio audience, theatre, especially music hall, can also be regarded as an influence, but film is rarely considered, other than for the impact of one comedian’s work on another’s (and Stan and Ollie are regularly cited in this regard). However, I can see many things which became essential elements of television sitcom in the Laurel and Hardy shorts of the early thirties.

 

So, what exactly is it that makes a sitcom? Well, for a start, I don’t think it is the “situation” as much as it is the characters and the relationship(s) between them. You should get to know those characters well and what to expect from them. What’s more, the characters’ “situation” can change, but the characters can’t, although they can develop. It is the strength of the characters (both in the writing and the performances) that matters, not the situation they are in: in fact, I’d go so far as to say that the characters are the situation. For example, the “situation” in Steptoe and Son (BBC, 1962-unknown-465, 1970-74) is an interdependent father/son relationship in which the son feels trapped. It is not the rag and bone business – there are plenty of episodes in which that business plays no part whatsoever in the narrative. Throughout their short films, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy played highly recognisable and consistent characters and they developed depth to those characters as they continued to play them, much as happens in a successful long-running sitcom.

 

Duration is also an important element of sitcom, with 25-30 minutes seen as the optimum length for fitting in as many laughs as possible without wearing out the audience. The Laurel and Hardy two-reel comedies mirror that optimum length precisely. What’s more, they are often structured to end the first reel on a scene change (in case the venue only has one projector), which also reflects the structure of those sitcoms designed to incorporate advertising breaks. It is no surprise that the short films were so frequently on television in the sixties and seventies.

 

Other standard sitcom tropes can be traced back to Stan and Ollie, not least the familiar and regularly repeated catchphrases (“Well, here’s another nice mess…/well, it wasn’t my fault”; “Why don’t you do something to help me?”) or routines (Stan comes up with a good idea – Ollie asks him to repeat it – Stan fails miserably to replicate what he had said). Although not shot in front of an audience, the presence of a movie theatre images-6audience is also acknowledged in Ollie’s looks into the camera. And two male leads is very common in sitcom, particularly on British TV, which prefers its comedy characters to be losers & failures, rather than the wisecracking types more prevalent in the US – echoes of Laurel and Hardy can be found in the partnerships of Tony Hancock and Sid James, Steptoe and Son, The Likely Lads and more.

 

So far, so good, but, of course, there are flaws to this theory. The most obvious are that the Laurel and Hardy films are each made to stand alone, not to be seen as part of a series, not made in any sort of “order” and feature the characters in a variety of “situations”. However, it is only relatively recently that TV sitcoms have developed narrative continuity – most of the episodes of traditional sitcoms can stand alone. What’s more, it is possible to carry out an exercise of “ordering” on the Laurel and Hardy shorts, which I do purely for fun, but it does strengthen my claim that the shorts can be seen as an early form of sitcom. With one exception, the 38 full-sound shorts can be divided into 4 basic “situations” and it is not difficult to see how a progression could be made from one to the next, forming different “seasons” of the developing Stan & Ollie characters.

 

images-3

In the first “situation”, Stan and Ollie are drifters, trying to survive the depression and often on the wrong side of the law. The films which fit into this scenario are: They Go Boom (1929); The Hoose-Gow (1929); Night Owls (1930); Below Zero (1930); The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case (1930); Another Fine Mess (1930); Laughing Gravy (1931); One Good Turn (1931); Any Old Port (1932); The Chimp (1932); Scram (1932). It is interesting that this section does not include any films after 1932, coinciding with the optimism of Roosevelt’s New Deal. The duo’s first feature length film, Pardon Us (1931) also fits this scenario (and could thus be seen as the equivalent of a “special”).

 

 

In the second “situation”, our heroes are more settled – they have somewhere to live and are often seen in a variety of different jobs, though they invariably end up making a images-2mess of them, much as Charlie Drake did every week in the 1960s sitcom The Worker (ATV, 1965-70). The films which fit this scenario are: Men O’War (1929); The Music Box (1932); County Hospital (1932); Towed in a Hole (1932); The Midnight Patrol (1933); Busy Bodies (1933); Dirty Work (1933): Going Bye-Bye (1934); Them Thar Hills (1934); The Live Ghost (1934); Tit for Tat (1935); The Fixer Uppers (1935). Them Thar Hills and Tit for Tat are especially interesting in that the latter sees the return of a couple, played by Mae Busch and Charlie Hall, whom Stan and Ollie first encounter in the former, and the script makes specific reference to the connection, as regularly happens in serial sitcoms.

unknown-2

Domesticity takes over in the third “situation” – Ollie is either married or engaged to be married – Stan is the best friend who is a bad influence and disrupts the harmony of the relationship. This is the same basic plot as Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads unknown-5(BBC, 1973-74), which was a continuation of The Likely Lads (1964-66) itself comparable to the earlier Laurel and Hardy “situations”. The films are: Unaccustomed as We Are (1929); Hog Wild (1930); Our Wife (1931); Helpmates (1932); Their First Mistake (1932); Me and My Pal (1933); Oliver the Eighth (1934); Thicker Than Water (1935).

 

In the final “situation”, both Stan and Ollie are married, and the comedy usually comes from their feeble attempts to deceive their wives. The films that fit here are: Perfect Day (1929); Brats (1930); Be Big (1931); Chickens Come Home (1931); Come Clean (1931); Twice Two (1933). The feature-length Sons of the Desert (1933), a re-working of the plot images-5of Be Big and regarded as probably the best of their longer films, also fits here (another “special”?). In Brats, Laurel and Hardy play their own children (the final development?) and in Twice Two, their own sisters (and each other’s wives). A further flaw to my theory is that, in both the final two situations, the actresses playing the wives differ from film to film, but similar cast changes are not unknown in sitcom and don’t forget that in real life Oliver Hardy was married three times, while Stan Laurel was married at various times to four different women, one of them twice!

 

The only sound short which doesn’t fit into any of the four “situations” is Blotto (1930), in which Stan is married and Ollie is the disruptive friend. This was an early effort, though, and doesn’t really work – they obviously concluded that it worked better if Stan played the disruptive one. Blotto is the exception which proves the rule. Having established their characters’ rules in any of the “situations” for the contemporary movie audience, Stan and Ollie could exploit their familiarity as a shortcut to the laughs.

unknown

Make no mistake, the sound shorts are Laurel and Hardy’s masterpieces. Like most television sitcoms and sketch shows, they are just the right length for comedy. While there are some great scenes in the features, the films themselves are often padded out with musical numbers or romantic sub-plots which detract from the purity and the structure of the comedy. The main reason Laurel and Hardy made the best, the most successful and the most influential sound shorts is that they were the only ones of the silent comedians to exploit the change to sound with brilliant dialogue and characterisation, while retaining the structure of their comedy form, something neither Chaplin nor Keaton were able or willing to do, while those who came to prominence later – Abbott and Costello, the Marx Brothers – concentrated on feature-length films. So, the short films of Laurel and Hardy remain the original gold standard of the form and a clear inspiration for those who later came to make comedy at the same length.

 

Anyway, that’s my story and I’m stuck with it.