Who Killed the British Sitcom?
Monday, January 2, 2006 by David Hendon
Those of a cynical disposition may have been tempted to guffaw at the idea of a programme pondering why there aren’t many sitcoms around these days being presented by somebody who used to run ITV, a channel that has produced fewer enduringly funny shows than any other.
Indeed, the whole premise of Who Killed the British Sitcom? seemed flawed from the start when you consider that in the last year alone the likes of Nighty Night, The Smoking Room, Peep Show, Extras and The Thick of It have washed up on our telly shores and engulfed us in mirth.
Further, the viewer was not filled with hope when considering this was clearly an unofficial follow up to 2004’s Who Killed Saturday Night TV? (albeit, made by a different production company), a programme so prescient that it went out just a year before a third of the British nation sat down on a Saturday night to watch the finals of either Strictly Come Dancing or The X Factor.
In fact, these fears proved to be unfounded, largely because of the stellar cast of talking heads. This felt like a proper discussion of the shifting sands of television, its fashions and prejudices, and spoke to many of the people responsible for making us laugh over the past half a century: Galton and Simpson, David Croft, Eric Chappell, John Sullivan, Ben Elton, Carla Lane, Andy Hamilton, Victoria Wood, Ian Hislop, Simon Nye, Steve Coogan, Armando Iannucci, Andy Harries, Simon Pegg and Fred Barron among them.
The presenter, David Liddiment, skulked about vast empty studios and dull offices effecting all the gravitas of somebody about to reveal the Watergate scandal. His thesis was clear: there aren’t as many sitcoms in prime time now as there were 30 years ago.
Five “suspects” were identified, though these actually represented five separate developments in television that had negative effects on the sitcom.
First up, alternative comedy, made flesh here by Ben Elton, was fingered for shattering the cosy suburban sitcom conventions typified by programmes like The Good Life and To the Manor Born.
Frankly, anyone who has sat through even a few minutes of Elton’s Blessed may already have him on a hit list but you can certainly see why the likes of Carla Lane were dismayed by the brash anarchy of The Young Ones, its shouty, in-yer-face style a world away from the cosy contemplativeness of Butterflies. Lane, who did not make any attempt to disguise her bitterness that she can no longer stroll into the BBC Head of Comedy’s office unannounced and walk out again a few minutes later with a contract to write a 10-part series of her choosing, seemed unhappy that the BBC had chosen to pursue the youth market, as if this group of people were somehow dirty.
Next up, Ted Danson as suspect number two. Again, this was tokenistic, this time of the series Cheers and American television comedy in general, with its slick conveyor belt of sharp, fast gags and high production values. The argument here was that once audiences had witnessed how well sitcom could be done, and not just for six weeks of the year but for more than 20, they would turn against the traditional British model.
This didn’t happen immediately but by dint of only getting the very best US show we here in Blighty would naturally assume they are superior (Frasier was voted best sitcom of all time by writers and producers in the programme that followed).
The third “suspect” was Jeremy Spake. Yes, that’s right, the chubby camp one off Airport. He represented reality television, that cheap, cheerful genre in which members of the public humiliate themselves for our entertainment. Ian Hislop argued that fly on the wall shows, edited as they are, have become faux sitcoms, without the horrid expense of actors, writers or, well, any talent whatsoever.
Suspect number four was Caroline Aherne, writer and star of The Royle Family, a sitcom which broke free of convention by casting out the studio audience and filming in real time, with great long pauses and not very much happening. She represented the challenging of traditional sitcom style, which has been followed by sundry shows since, The Office being a notable example. Victoria Wood, writer and star of the under-rated dinnerladies, admitted to her embarrassment at how The Royle Family made her show seem 50 years old in terms of its look and performance.
Finally, John Major was identified for being the Prime Minister who heralded in the digital age. 30 years ago there were only three channels, now there are 300. With that sort of choice, even if most of what’s available is utter tosh, getting a large number of people to sit down and watch the same show is near impossible.
Liddiment’s list of suspects all made sense, but he missed out the most obvious innovator, which did more than any other to challenge the traditions of sitcom: Channel 4.
It was C4’s arrival in 1982, and its stated intention to run the Comic Strip’s series of alternative sitcoms, that forced the BBC to commission The Young Ones. It was Channel 4 that brought us American favourites such as Friends, Frasier, Will and Grace and Scrubs. It was Channel 4 that pursued more offbeat sitcom ideas, like Father Ted, Spaced, Black Books, Phoenix Nights, Green Wing and Peep Show, winning audiences, awards and critical acclaim. But it wasn’t Channel 4 who killed the sitcom. It lives and breathes and though there are fewer in the schedules than in previous decades, quality has triumphed over quantity.
Yes, there are still shows that would fail to raise a grin from a stoned hyena but, right now, there is greater diversity in terms of sitcom types than ever, from the traditional (My Family), the satirical (The Thick of It), the surreal (The Mighty Boosh) and the dark (Nighty Night).
It could even be argued that what Ricky Gervais is doing now, playing, to varying degrees, a vain and deluded loser, is not much different from the central character in British TV’s first proper sitcom: Hancock’s Half Hour.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, as Del Boy wouldn’t have said.