Monday, 18 June 2012

In celebration of the great British Shitcom


There was bad news for lovers of quality comedy recently, as it was announced that both 30 Rock and Community would only be returning next year for a half season each – enough for the writers to give their characters an appropriate send-off. The problem for both of these shows is that, from day one, they’ve been perceived by audiences as being too clever for mainstream success. People want their TV comedy to be like Gemma from TOWIE; broad and easily accessible. 

Look back at the history of the humble sitcom and it’s easy to see that this is not a recent phenomenon, nor is it limited to American shows. Indeed, the UK TV archives are littered with inexplicably popular, long-running shows that were about as funny as a mislabeled blood test.

The reason for these shows’ durability and appeal is a hard one to fathom. The closest I can come to an explanation involves an analogy from early on in my career. At the time, I was attending a meeting with the marketing manager of Britain’s number one family restaurant chain. She told me that they had a problem recruiting people because of how the brand was perceived. As she put it: “Our research tells us that we’re the UK’s favourite restaurant for people who don’t actually enjoy food.” This depressingly contradictory scenario works just as well for TV. Perhaps these woeful examples of the sitcom format were made for, and lapped up by, people who simply didn’t enjoy laughing. Anyway, here are some of the worst offenders – see how many you remember…

Duty Free

A cheap hotel set, and a bunch of stereotypes about lazy Spanish waiters. It’s not hard to see why ITV thought they’d stumbled onto a blinder with this Costa-set misfire about two cheating couples. Unfortunately, the similarities to Fawlty Towers end there. Instead, we were treated to countless scenes of cabbie Keith Barron attempting to get his end away with the imperious Joanna Van Gyseghem. Boasting the kind of lazy ‘quick, hide in the wardrobe’ farce that would shame a regional theatre company, Duty Free ran for three painful series. During that time, the would-be couple’s illicit liaisons became increasingly improbable, not least because Van Gyseghem constantly wore an expression that suggested she’d located the source of an unpleasant smell in her Marbella hotel room. My money’s on Brut aftershave and a pair of sweat-damaged espadrilles.

That’s My Boy

After the runaway success of Are You Being Served? producers were on the lookout for another vehicle for Molly Sugden’s impeccable comic credentials. Or just another chance for her to say “pussy” every couple of minutes. The concept they settled upon involved Sugden playing housekeeper to a young couple, only to discover that the master of the house was the child she gave up for adoption years before. As with many similar sitcoms of the early-mid eighties, much of the humour was derived from feeble attempts at class conflict, as the earthy Sugden repeatedly clashed with the upmarket Mrs. Price, her son’s adoptive mother. It’s painful to think that half an hour in the local Planned Parenthood clinic could have saved us five years of suffering.

Hallelujah!

Nothing screams ‘laugh a minute’ quite like the idea of a show built around a noxious Salvation Army busybody, attempting to eradicate sin from a depressed northern town. Clearly, that’s the opinion that drove Dick Sharples to write this perplexingly dour showcase for Thora Hird’s unique brand of unsympathetic judgement. As if the sight of Captain Emily Ridley stalking the streets of Brigthorpe, with an exhausted-looking brass band in tow, wasn’t depressing enough, viewers also had to contend with the fact that the closest this show ever got to glamour came in the homely form of Patsy Rowlands - a woman who couldn’t even give Bernard Bresslaw a doughie.

Last of the Summer Wine

Perhaps the most bafflingly popular member of this grim rogues gallery, Last Of The Summer Wine seems to have been running since John Logie Baird first entered his living room and thought a box might look nice in the corner. Over the course of 31 series, veteran TV legend Roy Clarke single-handledly wrote all 295 episodes, occasionally including as many as two jokes in each. Aside from fetishizing varicose veins, and mistreating old people so badly that it’s a miracle the undercover Panorama crew weren’t called in, the show was most notable for ending every episode with a scene of a stuntman in a dirty wool cap being pushed down the hillsides of Holmfirth strapped to a hospital gurney.

Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps

Occupying the opposite end of the age spectrum is this appalling show about a group of obnoxious twenty-somethings in Cheshire. Less a sitcom, more a halfway house for Hollyoaks actors not ready to re-enter society, this scatologically-inclined mess managed to run for nine interminable series. Although it was notable for relying on swearing, rather than jokes, for most of its humour, the producers decided that they would only include ‘fuck’ in the last episode of each series. Which is ironic, since viewers were muttering it throughout every other episode.

Terry and June


One of the qualities that distinguish 30 Rock and Community from their peers, is their meta handling of sitcom tropes and clich├ęs. The characters seem archly aware of the fact that they’re stuck in a universe of humorous asides, plot contrivances and mild farce. But when it comes to reducing sitcom convention to a bubbling jus, neither of these shows come close to the accidental genius of this long-running curio. In the early days of computer programming, we learned about lines of code that could be written to create a simple wallpaper effect or basic animation. Conspiracy theorists believe that a similar algorithm was used to generate the scripts for the 65 episodes of Terry & June that ran between 1979 and 1987. The only factors that needed to change were the status symbol Terry acquired, the domestic crisis that June was facing, and what time the boss was supposed to arrive for supper. Time and time again, these simple variables were amended in order to generate an all-new script. Car alarms, mink coats, lawnmowers – the possibilities were as seemingly endless as the episodes themselves.

4 comments:

  1. The first three listed were staples of my childhood, and while I can accept in the cold light of 2012 that Hallelujah and That's My Boy were fatally flawed, I think Duty Free may deserve more credit. Despite its lazy, tired stereotypes, it did have one saving grace. Amy, played by Gwen Taylor, had some absolute zingers of lines. She was allowed to be bitchy in a way that had previously only been the reserve of divas from American soap operas, every week eviscerating weedy Linda and dreary David with her barbs, ultimately rooted in sadness.

    I remember very clearly, the day after its transmission, recounting line-by-line the episode Forty Love, which ends in Amy starting a food fight thanks to a conveniently placed cake trolley. It was a colossal hit, too – probably one of the last overnight successes ITV ever had that wasn't Darling Buds of May or a reality show. The humour may have been dated even then, but Amy was a revelation at the time.

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  2. I'm prepared to revise my opinion based on your glowing recommendation. I think I always struggled to empathise with Amy because she'd married David in the first place, and seemed too happy being the doormat. Retrospectively, all my opinions of Gwen Taylor are based on how much I hated A Bit Of A Do.
    By the way, they were all staples of my childhood too - but that's what happens when you're raised on a steady diet of Yorkshire TV. I had to waggle my aerial to get Tyne Tees, and then it was in black and white.

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  3. Goodness, I never bothered trying to waggle the aerial for Tyne Tees – was there anything on it worth the bother?
    Amy wasn't a very sympathetic character but she was the strongest one in the show and got all the best lines. A scene from the episode I'm talking about is on YouTube, I have just discovered. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cqHyGIGtXrM Note the trolley.
    A Bit of a Do was another YTV abomination which did have its moments, and a wonderful cast, but quickly fell into a formulaic trap, like most sitcoms of the day.
    Gwen Taylor was also in Barbara in the '90s (YTV again), and was pretty good in that too. I don't watch Coronation Street but I was very disappointed she was thrown under the bus as an incidental character; she'd have been a tremendous battleaxe on the cobbles.

    Oh, and remember In Loving Memory? Now *that* was a load of old crap.

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  4. In Loving Memory narrowly missed out on inclusion in this blog post. Like Six Feet Under without the belly laughs...

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