The Sitcom Story

Monday, May 19, 2003 by

A few years ago you couldn’t pick up a paper without someone announcing that the TV sitcom was dead, and that there hadn’t been a decent one for years. That’s perhaps not surprising given that, at the time, the genre was represented by such shows as Babes in the Wood, Dad, Operation Good Guys and Let Them Eat Cake. Now, though, everything’s changed.

With My Family, BBC1 have got a hugely successful mainstream hit. Shows like Early Doors and The Book Group have been critically acclaimed (despite the latter being utterly dreadful), and even ITV have produced something half-decent in Hardware.

Hence, while a few years back The Sitcom Story would have been greeted by critics as akin to the BBC admitting that they could no longer match the standards set in the past, it’s now considered a celebration of our comic heritage that continues up to the present day. We seem to get documentaries about the sitcom every so often – the last was the same channel’s Laughter in the House in 1999, which traced the genre from it’s beginning, talking to the people involved, looking behind the scenes and attempting to draw some conclusions. The Sitcom Story, by contrast, is a simple clips-and-talking-heads affair.

This in itself isn’t a problem, of course – a simple nostalgic wallow through the archives is always welcome. Unfortunately, the show is scuppered by poor execution. The first, and most obvious, failing is Dawn French’s links. It seems to be that all programmes about comedy must attempt to be funny themselves. Alas, French’s links are not funny, simply some useless bit of improvisation or a stream of crap jokes. She seems uninterested in the clips she’s linking and as such it makes the whole thing seem even more pointless than it already is. Why try overshadowing the clips in any case?

A further problem is the way the programme is put together. Despite what the title suggests, we’re not getting the “story” of the sitcom at all – we’re simply getting shows in a random order, linked by some loose theme. This week it was “friends and workmates”, which meant it attempted to find links between The Good Life and The Young Ones – a ludicrous concept. There’s no sense of progression, of how the genre developed over time, because it’s compiled so abitrarily.

Still, even if it’s not a proper documentary, we can at least get some decent clips, yes? Well, no, because the programme has an irritating habit of representing shows via montages of their most crowd-pleasing bits. Hence Men Behaving Badly was illustrated by clips of Gary and Tony arsing about while drunk – yet this was only a small part of the entire series, and indeed most of the clips came from just one atypical episode. Furthermore, it just makes the shows seem more repetitive and contrived – if this was the first time you’d seen some of the sitcoms, you would assume that Terry and June simply involved Terry Scott falling over, Fawlty Towers was all about John Cleese hitting people, and Absolutely Fabulous consisted entirely of Jennifer Saunders being drunk (actually, that’s not far from the truth).

Yet the programme’s approach seems to be concentrating on the “sit” at the expense of the “com”. There was little attempt to explain why some sitcoms worked while others didn’t. All we were told about The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin was that, basically, it’s about a man having a nervous breakdown. Yet they never got round to explaining why this was such a funny series. Rodney Bewes said that they had trouble selling The Likely Lads to America because the concept (two blokes from the North East talking, mostly) sounded so ordinary and unexciting – yet it was never explained how the show managed to be such a success with such a dull concept.

The talking heads didn’t help, of course. Ben Elton said that he thought critics would probably pounce on him for claiming that Fawlty Towers was “perfect” – but of course everyone involved all said exactly the same thing. There was nobody around to say that, actually, I don’t really like it. Few pundits added anything of interest – Brian Murphy suggested that Man About the House led on to Rising Damp, though quite how, I’m not sure, while Wendy Richard claimed Are You Being Served? was a hit because “people were bored of seeing the same sofas and kitchen tables” (this coming from the star of a sitcom with one set). Why is The Office funny? Because “people like that really do exist”, claimed Caroline Quentin. Yes, and?

Linking into clips of Porridge, French claimed it was funny because “sitcoms work best when the characters can’t escape”. That’s true enough, but tell us why. The show veered wildly between assuming we knew nothing – laboriously explaining the concept of shows that everyone’s seen – and then assuming we knew everything – so Ben Elton referred to “what Lise and Rik did” on The Young Ones, and we were presumably all supposed to realise he was talking about his co-writers Mayer and Mayall. In some cases the show picked the most obvious clips it could find – ooh look, Del Boy falling through the bar – yet in other situations it took completely random scenes – The Liver Birds clip, for one, made virtually no sense.

The Sitcom Story surely disappoints both the comedy fan, who wants something other than just the same old clips again, and the casual viewer who just wants the clips without the dull chat. Yet that’s obviously the problem with trying to squeeze some 50 years of television into three hour-long shows. What you’ve got is a production team so scared of boring the audience that they frantically throw clips, comments and French’s rotten links at us to try and stop us turning off.

So the sitcom is still very much alive. The documentary, on the other hand…


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