I’d never claim to be a comedy writer. It’s a hard row to hoe, whose best practitioners are among the finest writers in any genre, but who also suffer from chronic lack of respect – after all, it’s just a laugh, isn’t it? Still, I’ve written plenty of funny stuff in my time, including loads of animation and, with co-writer Peter Lawrence, several well-received comic novels and a bio of Keith Moon (not without laughs.) Equally to the point, I’m a lifelong comedy buff, the sort of person who’ll watch a TV sitcom if he’s familiar with the writer.
In a desperate attempt to hold back the effects of gravity and pizza, I row regularly. Not on the nearby Thames, but in the living room on a Water Rower, with a telly on the wall opposite to stave off tedium. Recently I acquired, via EBay, a collection of ‘classic’ British sitcoms on DVD, originally giveaways with the Daily Mail. Swallowing my natural aversion to the Rothermere product, I settled down, over the course of several weeks, to work my way through some landmark BBC comedy. I was interested to see which series stood the test of time and which didn’t. Were the seventies and eighties the high water mark of British TV comedy? Or would the water cooler shows of those times now seem dated, corny and irredeemably naff?
In some cases, my suspicions were confirmed, in others I was pleasantly surprised. Hancock is still great, due to the genius writing team of Simpson and Galton and the lad from East Cheam himself. Only Fools and Horses is still pretty funny, in spite of some rather iffy of-their-time racial references. One Foot In The Grave stands out for its superb plotting, the ability of writer David Renwick to drop surprise comic bombshells. I still enjoyed Hi De Hi – It Ain’t Half Hot Mum not so much. While comedy often deals in stereotype, Perry and Croft kept just the right side of the line in HDH, but went too far in Hot Mum. (Generally, they’re pitch perfect – witness the perennial appeal of Dad’s Army, still running forty-odd years after it was first shown.)
It’s been said that sitcom only works if everything works – script, cast, production – but watching these old shows made me realise how much good comedy relies on character. Plotting is great, gags are fine, but it’s the characters that reliably make us laugh. That’s usually why catchphrases work – they’re an integral part of the character that says them. Which leads me to Are You Being Served? This is a show that has attracted equal parts praise and opprobrium, both then and now. Does camp character Mr. Humphries present an unacceptable ‘mincing queen’ stereotype, or is he bravely out and proud in an era when the tabloid press routinely referred to gays as ‘poofs’ or worse? I always found the show funny (partly because I’d worked in a store very much like Grace Brothers) and looking back, I realise that again, it was the characters that made the show. The actors went to town on them, and in most cases it was their finest hour. Mollie Sugden was a fine actress with an impressive body of work, but she’ll always be remembered for her versatile and much-loved pussy.
Recently the BBC made a new ep of Are You Being Served?, with the show supposedly updated to the eighties. I tuned in without much hope – in my book, most remakes are pointless exercises – but was pleasantly surprised. I laughed quite a lot, and later, reviewing it in my mind, realized that writer and actors had again concentrated on the characters, sticking as closely as possible to the original template (and props to John ‘Boycey’ Challis here – his Captain Peacock was almost superior to Frank Thornton’s original.)
INTO THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY
But what of the modern product? Do we have anything these days that stands up to comparison with the so-called ‘golden age’ of the seventies and eighties? Here goes – and I’m aware that comedy is the most subjective of all the art forms, one man’s hilarity being another man’s knuckle-gnawing tedium. First of all, much of the comedy from that era often wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. I never found Till Death Us Do Part that funny (and a lot of it is wince-making now, despite writer Johnny Speight’s intention to satirise working-class Toryism rather than celebrate it.) Nor Steptoe and Son, nor The Good Life (although I loved Bob Larbey’s far less successful The Other One.)
Over the last couple of decades we’ve had the sharp satire of Ab Fab; the game-changing mockumentary style of The Office; the demented and often semi-surreal Father Ted; and the retro homage of Miranda. Which leads us to now. If you were to believe the pundits, TV comedy is currently a desert. I beg to differ. Plebs – writers Basden and Leifer – is sharp, filthy, and crucially, very funny. It’s been largely ignored, perhaps due to its berth on ITV3. Robert Popper’s Friday Night Dinner has got funnier and funnier as the series have progressed (in passing, Mark Heap’s loony neighbour is superb.) Greg Davies’s Man Down is consistently entertaining, and occasionally hilarious.
But to me the current reigning monarch of TV comedy is Sharon Horgan. A few years back Pulling raised the bar for anarchic, female-centric mayhem, and recently Catastrophe confirmed that Horgan has staying power. But with the recently broadcast one-off The Circuit, documenting a dinner party from the deepest abysses of hell, she staked a claim to Mike Leigh territory and established herself as a major comic writing talent.
Denmark has apparently got the happiest population in the world, and it does sound like a nice place to live. But it’s never going to produce a B B King or a Lenny Bruce, or for that matter a Hancock. Too happy, see? By the same token, the UK is full of miserable exploited bastards who are scraping by on fourpence a week and spending tuppence of it getting off their heads. But we’ve always produced great comedy, from music hall stage to the age of the podcast. In my opinion TV sitcom is in rude health, only matched by our reputation for stand-up. Nice to know we lead the world in something.