Britian’s Best Sitcom
Saturday, March 27, 2004 by John Phillips
A very, very long time ago, Britain’s Best Sitcom arrived on BBC2, and people all around this great nation of ours thought: “Oh, that might be a vaguely interesting way to kill an hour or two.” Sadly, it was not to be so simple.
The programme followed the usual nostalgia TV format of a presenter, Jonathan Ross, linking a slow countdown through all the usual array of clips (Frank Spencer roller-skating, Hancock’s precious armful of blood, David Brent dancing), separated by interviews with nonentities declaring: “That Ronnie Barker, eh? Genius, I reckon”, or actors and writers sharing their memories, most notably Carla Lane shocking the world by saying “I’ve never admitted it before but Ria [from Butterflies] was based, to an extent, on myself”. All in all, it was a vaguely interesting way to pass a Saturday night.
Unfortunately, when we got to the top 10, Ross enthusiastically told us that, much like Great Britons before it, the final selection was to be decided by us – the great unwashed. What an honour. What a privilege. Oh, hang on, doesn’t that completely ignore the fact that the entire top 100 had already been voted for by us, through the BBC website? Also, isn’t it strangely convenient that the top 10 consists purely of BBC shows, with the highest non-BBC entry, Father Ted, at 11? Maybe, although admittedly it was a dead-cert that Auntie Beeb would dominate the chart, and dominate they certainly did, with the next best Channel 4 offering, Drop the Dead Donkey, at 26, and the highest ITV show, Rising Damp, at 27 (assuming you don’t count Men Behaving Badly, which finished 16th).
And so, for 10 long weeks we had to put up with a series of celebrities hosting hour-long appeals as to why a particular show should get our vote. More revelations followed as the appeals became increasingly desperate. Did you know, for example, that Arkwright from Open All Hours was (brace yourself) tight-fisted? Or that the Walmington-on-Sea Home Guard wasn’t the greatest bunch of soldiers in the world?
No matter, for as Saturday 27 March dawned, the good people of Britain could look forward to the results being announced live in what was promised as a celebration of the greatest comedies of all time, plus The Vicar of Dibley. First, the ever-cheerful Ross welcomed us with a repeat of the countdown from 50 to 11, and then – God help us – a recap of all the arguments from the last 10 weeks. So, once again we heard Johnny Vaughan tell us that: “Porridge is the only one of the 10 to have a proper situation,” Rowland Rivron reveal that: “Victor Meldrew was frustrated by the modern world,”, and Carol Vorderman disclose that: “The Vicar of Dibley was written at a time when there was a lot of controversy about women vicars.”
Finally, the main event arrived. A studio audience had materialised, and Ross welcomed onto the stage the 10 advocates who had bored us silly every Saturday for the last two and a half months. This actually provided the comic highpoint of the evening, as Ross seemed desperate to avoid shaking hands with any of them. OK, surely things can get going now? First question: What’s so great about your respective sitcoms? Cue yet more quotes like “Porridge is the only one of the 10 to have a proper situation,” and “The Vicar of Dibley was written at a time when there was a lot of controversy about women vicars.” One sitcom catchphrase ominously missing was: “Listen very carefully, I shall say this only once”.
Any chance of a decent debate was utterly destroyed by the fact that those who looked capable of making the whole thing watchable (John Sergeant, Armando Ianucci) were comprehensively drowned out by the likes of Johnny Vaughan. Hence, the few witty remarks, such as Ianucci’s claim that “The Vicar of Dibley isn’t as funny as Father Ted or The Passion of the Christ,” were few and far between, whereas remarks like: “That Ronnie Barker, eh? Genius, I reckon” were plentiful.
Ross interspersed the monotony every few minutes or so, sometimes by consigning the advocate of the least popular remaining sitcom to a losers’ area, but more often by showing all the clips you’d expected to see, such as Del Boy falling through the bar, “Don’t tell him, Pike” and Victor Meldrew picking up a dog, thinking it’s the telephone. This painfully ignored the fact that these clips have been shown so often they have long since ceased to be amusing. Worse still, we were shown endless sequences telling us how to vote, how many votes the rejected sitcoms had received, and the order in which they’d been given the boot. It seems to be the curse of 21st century Saturday night television that each show must be punctuated by the need for viewers to vote for something, which then requires unbearably lengthy explanations of how to do so.
To give Ross his credit, he did valiantly try to vary the conversation by introducing topics like the roles of the support cast, or the writers, but these inevitably made little difference to the quality of debate. Carol Vorderman’s view on the writing of The Vicar of Dibley was: “You have to remember that it was written at a time when there was a lot of controversy about women vicars,” while Vaughan reminded us that: “Porridge is the only one that was written about a proper situation”. Predictably, as the debate became more monotonous, the number of inserts increased, and lame devices were introduced, such as revealing which shows were in the bottom three, and getting their advocates to make a last appeal before the bottom two were cast aside (ignoring the implication that the previous 10 weeks’ voting had therefore been meaningless). It was a sign that the programme had run its course when even the advocates started to acknowledge that the only real interest was in seeing what finished second to Only Fools and Horses.
Duly, the Trotters did indeed win, just as we knew they would from the second the BBC announced the competition. The only vaguely interesting thing about the victory was that the show’s legendary status obviously hadn’t been irreparably damaged by the dreadful trio of Christmas specials that left so many of us open-mouthed with embarrassment. Indeed, the issue of Only Fools and Horses becoming a weak soap opera rather than a sitcom was one of the few worthy contributions made by Johnny Vaughan, but this swiftly forgotten. Second was Blackadder, and third was The Vicar of Dibley. The fact that this fairly bland sitcom can be ranked above the likes of Dad’s Army (number 4), Steptoe and Son (15), Hancock (30), The Young Ones (31), and Phoenix Nights (36), paints a miserable picture of the nation’s sense of humour, or at least would do, if you were to ascribe the whole thing as being remotely important.
In theory, Britain’s Best Sitcom should have been interesting viewing. What prevented it from being so was the insistence on dragging out a two-hour countdown to become a 12-week bore; the shameless attempts to persuade the public to keep heightening their phone bills; and the very simple fact that it is extremely difficult to keep talking about why you love a particular sitcom without endlessly repeating yourself. Whereas with Great Britons, it is more than feasible to fill an hour talking about your hero’s various achievements, it is nigh-on impossible to talk about sitcoms without quickly being reduced to the likes of: “That Ronnie Barker, eh? Genius, I reckon”.
Oh, and for the record – ot he top 10, my vote went to Yes Minister, while my true favourite sitcom, Ever Decreasing Circles, languished at number 52. Why Ever Decreasing Circles? Well … um … that Richard Briers, eh? Genius, I reckon.