Funny Business

Jack Kibble-White on the British sitcom

First published August 2003

The British sitcom has for years been treated as the perennial “sick patient” of British television. Whilst a survey conducted by the BBC in 1998 suggested that viewers strongly disagreed with the notion that the British sitcom had seen its heyday, the television industry still periodically returns to an assumed truth that the Brits can no longer “do” sitcoms properly.

Deriding British situation comedy is now a national sport, with a derisory analysis of the latest offering a ready source of cheap, cynical copy. Such is the intensity of scrutiny that any new sitcom comes under in this country, it is no wonder that programme makers think long and hard before unleashing a new one upon us. Yet why should this be? What is it about the genre that provokes such a strong reaction in audience? Why are new sitcoms so often met with cynicism and derision, and, more importantly, what can we learn from the most recent successes and failures in the genre?

The television drama serial scriptwriter may find himself subject to scrutiny when a critic attempts to evaluate the relative merits of a specific programme, however other factors (such as the performance of the cast) hold equal sway in determining the programme’s overall value. Not so with the sitcom. Here, the scriptwriter is traditionally held up as the sole cause of the all programme’s ills. Poor direction and weak acting is often interpreted as stemming from an inadequacy within the script that has lead the actors to interpret their parts in such a crass manner. Generally speaking, most ongoing drama serials involve a whole script development process, making it difficult to “point the finger” at any individual writer (note how EastEnders‘ last Executive Producer John Yorke was praised for the perceived high-quality of the storylines). By contrast, a British sitcom traditionally has very few writers, with many having only one writer or writing partnership.

Within the last 10 years it has become fashionable to compare British sitcoms with their American equivalents. Such a comparison can seem fuelled by a desire to further deride British efforts by making derogatory comparisons with programmes created in a culture that many still like to think of as less sophisticated than our own. Undeniably though, American television has an excellent track record in sitcoms, and long-running series such as Seinfeld, Frasier and The Simpsons have displayed an enviable consistency, as well as a willingness to engage in a sophisticated level of comedy. Most attribute these programmes’ success to the large writing teams that are employed to work on them. The idea seems to be that a multitude of writers ensures consistency, as well as a high “gag” ratio. For sometime now, British programme makers have been urged to adopt this model. Curiously though, neither Seinfeld, Frasier nor The Simpsons has been able to find a home on BBC1 or ITV1 – the home of the really big ratings in the UK, and most new British sitcoms still come from the pen of a single writer, or partnership.

The last few years have seen something of a proliferation in new British sitcoms. This has been partly due to the need to fill gaps in the schedules caused by popular series such as Men Behaving Badly and Only Fools and Horses coming to an end. However it has arguably been the critical success of the BBC’s I’m Alan Partridge (1997) and The Royle Family (1998-2001) as well as Channel 4′s Father Ted (1995-98) that has tempted writers to look again at the genre.

Channel 4′s Spaced (1999) appeared at the time to be the beginnings of an important new sub-genre. Building on the increasing audience acceptance of surrealism in sitcoms (as developed by Father Ted), Spaced sought to be the first “slackcom” – a sitcom for the slacker generation. Written by Jessica Stevenson (who had appeared as Cheryl in The Royle Family) and Simon Pegg (who would later turn up in the BBC’s own “slackcom” Hippies), the series represented a move away from traditional sitcom characters (middle-aged professionals) towards something different. Channel 4′s commissioner for entertainment at the time, Cheryl Taylor, confirmed that the station had received numerous “proposals revolving around twenty or thirtysomething non-professionals”. But Spaced‘s willingness to trade off shared popular culture reference points distinguished it from the pack. That the predicted avalanche of “slackcoms” has somehow failed to arrive was to Spaced‘s advantage, allowing it to retain a core appreciative audience precisely because there was very little else like it out there.

The ability to absorb the most successful elements from a sitcom such as Father Ted and distil them into something new is arguably more difficult for BBC1 than any other channel. Their viewers demand sitcoms of a high quality, but also expect conventional and recognisable formats. Consequently, original or offbeat premises are more difficult to sell to an audience expecting populist entertainment. The Royle Family was a major ratings success for BBC1 in 2001 (peaking at around 9 million viewers) but was an extremely unconventional sitcom. Such success seems predicated on the fact that the show began life on BBC2, and therefore viewers understood what they were in for when they sat down to view its BBC1 series. Conversely My Hero (2000) began life in a primetime slot on BBC1 and initially struggled to attain either critical or ratings success.

Starring Ardal O’Hanlon as the dim-witted George (who is really a superhero called Thermoman), the premise of taking the popular Father Ted actor and placing him within another surreal environment appears at first to be an intelligent move. However, whereas the intricate world of Craggy Island offers up a consistently skewed take on reality, the surrealism in My Hero is derived purely from the contrast of the fantasy superhero figure against an the “ordinary” world. Crucially though, this is a juxtaposition that has been explored on countless occasions, and whereas Father Ted was able to tap a previously unexplored seam of humour, most of the “superhero in a real world” jokes have already been made in sketch shows and films. Nonetheless the BBC stuck with the series, gradually turning it into a team-written production and in 2001 it was able to attain ratings of almost 7 million. This was of course, largely due to the programme being scheduled at 8.30pm on Monday nights – the slot immediately following EastEnders.

Over at Channel 4, subsequent iterations of Father Ted continued into 2000 with the arrival of Black Books. Originally co-written by comedian Dylan Moran (who also stars in the series) and Father Ted co-creator Graham Linehan, Black Books was initially an attempt to look at the “white noise” of modern society within a sitcom as slick as Seinfeld. However, through the scripting process (in which the duo attempted to “live the characters” for a month before committing anything to paper), the central dynamic of the programme’s two main characters was created. Moran’s Bernard Black is a second-hand bookshop owner attempting to escape modern life, whereas his assistant Manny (Bill Bailey) seeks to embrace it. The characters exist within a self-contained world that is becoming increasingly left behind from modern society, and it is only the inclusion of a third character – the neighbouring shopkeeper Fran that prevents Black Books‘ premise becoming indistinguishable from the classic sitcom Steptoe and Son. Nevertheless, the series’ idiosyncratic humour ensures that Black Book‘s appeal remains far narrower than the BBC series.

Whilst the plotlines and characters are more rooted in reality than either My Hero or Spaced, this is still by no means a realist sitcom in the manner that we would traditionally understand it. For example, in one episode in the first series Manny accidentally swallows “The Little Book of Calm” and is heard offering soothing advice for the remainder of the episode. Ultimately though, the traditional rules of the sitcom are strongly adhered to. Moran describes writing a sitcom “as tight a form as writing a ballad”; Linehan’s interpretation is slightly different. “Or a haiku. It must end as it began. Everything has to be in stasis, it’s a constant loop.” Whilst Linehan did not return to write the second series (broadcast in 2002), the structure remains largely unchanged. Writing alone, Moran retreated somewhat from the more surrealistic elements of the first series, but the end result retained the audience’s affection – perhaps largely due to the continuing appeal of the programme’s main characters.

In September 2000, BBC1 brought us My Family. Seen by its star Robert Lindsay as an antidote to typical British sitcoms (“I thought they were caricatured and stereotyped, too quickly rehearsed and over-expansive because of the studio audience”), My Family is notable for the BBC in that it utilises proven American talent behind the camera. For the first series, Fred Barron (of The Larry Sanders Show and Seinfeld fame) headed up a large team of American and British scriptwriters. Their intention was to craft stories using the actor’s input that would examine topical issues. To Lindsay though, the most important aspect of My Family (and a factor that he believes distinguishes American sitcoms from their British equivalents) is the fact that Barron’s writing team tailor their scripts to the personalities of the lead performers. Whilst containing a very stereotypical premise (Lindsay plays Ben Harper a dentist who is married to a tourist-guide and has three smart aleck kids) that allows the programme to attract a mainstream audience, the ruthlessness of the American scriptwriting process (a single episode can go through up to 12 drafts) ensures that a My Family script outguns all of its British rivals in terms of jokes-per-page.

Audience’s natural suspicion towards new sitcoms meant that My Family got off to a relatively slow start, however the series is now well established, commanding almost 8 million viewers on a regular basis. Unsurprisingly, Jon Plowman, the BBC’s head of comedy entertainment commissioned longer runs of both My Family and My Hero whilst he continued to seek out other new sitcoms that will continue “pushing boundaries post-watershed”.

The last few years have seen ITV1 maintain their traditional struggle with the Great British sitcom. The belief that the network has never been able to produce popular sitcoms is as accurate as the assertion that the British sitcom itself is in decline. Certainly, only a handful of BBC sitcoms have ever achieved higher ratings than ITV’s On the Buses, Mind Your Language, Robin’s Nest or Only When I Laugh. However, the truth is that most of ITV’s highest rated sitcoms ended production in the late 1970s, and, with the exception of Rising Damp, After Henry and perhaps The New Statesman, few have achieved any level of critical success.

Whereas the BBC and Channel 4 seem able to call upon proven comedy talent (either in front of or behind the camera) to bolster a new sitcom, ITV has very little such readily available resource and has often had to rely on the popularity of performers from another genre to spearhead a new sitcom. Babes in the Wood (1998 – 1999) attempted this by drafting in Denise Van Outen (then famous for presenting Channel 4′s The Big Breakfast). Whilst this tactic ensured that the series first episode would not pass without some kind of comment, the attention brought to bear on the programme due to the presence of Van Outen was disproportionate to the quality of the production and consequently Babes in the Wood received some vitriolic reactions from critics. In May 2001 ITV, seemingly undeterred, attempted the same trick by casting popular presenter Davina McCall in their sitcom Sam’s Game. This time however, initial audiences remained low (just 5.5 million viewers) and whilst the series faired little better than Babes in the Wood it failed to attract the high profile criticism that the earlier programme had received.

Resultantly, the channel’s latest sitcom Hardware (2003) has used the combination of a writer with a previous track record (Simon Nye) and a performer from the most respected sitcom around at the moment (Martin Freeman) in the latest attempt to break ITV’s recent sitcom hoodoo.

In the midst of this proliferation of sitcoms, BBC2, arguably the channel with the best success rate of sitcoms in the last 10 years, has only been able to produce a couple of unreservedly successful additions. Coupling was first broadcast in 2000, and is concerned with the unfolding platonic and sexual relationships within a group of six thirtysomething friends. However, this is no slackercom. Coupling draws its inspiration not from any of its recent British antecedents, but from the highly successful American sitcom Friends. Coupling does not seek to augment or add to the American series’ proven formula. Instead it relies upon a simple transposition of Friend‘s central concept into a British context to create a distinctive programme identity. However, Coupling‘s success cannot be explained in terms of its adherence or divergence from accepted formula. It is a well written programme that, whilst relying on only one writer, is able to produce episodes as cleverly constructed and amusingly scripted as its American counterparts. Its positioning as part of BBC2′s “Comedy Zone” line-up has ensured that it has come to the attention of the kind of audiences already pre-disposed to high quality comedy such as I’m Alan Partridge and The Royle Family and has profited from such inheritance.

Conversely, series such as Perfect World (2000) and Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps (2001 – present) have suffered from such a direct comparison. Whilst starring a performer best known for acts of real life celebrity subversion (committed under the guise of Dennis Pennis), casting Paul Kaye as the lead in a sitcom to be broadcast in a post-watershed slot on BBC2 suggests subversive stuff indeed. However Perfect World, although amusing enough, appeared somewhat out of place, and it came as no surprise to see the 2001 series roundly beaten by Channel 4′s Secrets of the Dead (which broadcast at the same time as Perfect World achieved 3.1 million viewers to the sitcom’s relatively meagre 1.5 million).

Two Pints of Lager … has similarly not yet met expectations. The series is something of a curio in that it is deliberately aimed at the younger end of BBC2′s target market, and that intention has influenced almost everything about the programme. Written by recent graduate Susan Nickson, the series comes across much like a junior Coupling with five characters attempting to come to grips with life in the 21st century. Whilst the scripts occasionally demonstrate flourishes of inexperience (in particular the realisation of one of the character’s mothers, Flo), one of the most intriguing elements of the programme is its casting. Drafting in Beverley Callard, Will Mellor and Natalie Casey from soap operas Coronation Street and Hollyoaks, as well as Ralf Little from The Royle Family suggests that the BBC do not believe the promise of a good script alone is enough to entice the kind of viewers the BBC is looking for. In reviewing the first episode for The Guardian, critic Gareth McLean remarked that the series “would be fine on BBC Choice”. One cannot help agree with his observation, yet ponder on whether or not BBC2 has somehow managed to set a subconscious expectation within us as to what a sitcom on its channel should be like.

The Office (2001 – present) fulfils all of our expectations, and consequently has gone on to attract widespread acclaim for BBC2. Set in a Slough paper merchants, the series has drawn on the quasi-realism of The Royle Family and I’m Alan Partridge and has pushed this further than either series by shooting each episode as a mock documentary. Whilst such an approach is far from original (the BBC’s own People Like Us and Channel 4′s 1988 series This is David Lander both come to mind), it sets an expectation as to the kind of comedy we can to see. Co-writer and lead performer, Ricky Gervais, likens the programme to the spoof rock documentary film This Is Spinal Tap, commenting that the comedy does not come so much from the script, but from its authentic realisation via the performance of the cast.

Much of the programme’s appeal lies in our ability to recognise people that we experience in our every day lives in the programme’s characters. The titular setting of the series too, is familiar to most of us, allowing us to very quickly work out relationships and character types portrayed in the series without Gervais having to resort to long expositional exchanges that would surely diminish the series’ reality. This is a difficult juggling act for any sitcom to take on, and the desire to extinguish any element that undermines the authenticity of the programme, must be tempered with the knowledge that the series’ primary aim must be to make us laugh.

Described as the “sleeper hit of last summer” it is telling to note that on its first run, The Office attained ratings of only about 1.5 million. That its second series was so widely anticipated and peaked at around 5 million viewers must bear testimony to the power of “word of mouth”, and the ongoing ability of British television to recognise a hit series when it sees one.

In truth then, the British sitcom remains in no better or worse a state then it has ever been in. The ITC’s Annual report for 2001 is somewhat damning of the state of sitcoms on commercial television, questioning the commitment of both ITV1 and Channel 4 to the genre. Whilst conceding the appeal of Black Books and its ilk, the report seems to suggest that such programmes do not “really count” because they are designed to appeal to a narrow audience only. However outside of television events (such as ITV1′s Pop Idol) and soap operas, it is difficult to think of a single television genre that is able today to achieve a mass mainstream audience. ITV1′s Barbara, as well as the BBC’s My Family should be commended for being able to bring in audiences of 7 or 8 million. Meanwhile, the question should be asked if such idiosyncratic work as Black Books, Spaced or The Office should be evaluated on ratings alone. Such programmes cater for an increasingly sophisticated audience, and the fact that each is able to command a dedicated following should, in this day and age, be proof enough to quell, for now, the ongoing debate surrounding this most scrutinised of genres.