Vijay wrote: As Time Goes By from 9 PM to 9:30. We ignored it at first because we'd always just see the intro and assume it was some dumb sappy romcom or something. Then at one point, for reasons I can't remember anymore, my dad started watching it and realized it was actually hilarious, in a subtle sort of way. Eventually, he got me to watch it with him, and finally, even my brother started to give it a chance. As Time Goes By is like 90% of the reason why I know Judi Dench even exists (shocking, I know).
It's a really good and under-rated sitcom - underrated because its elderly stars and 'gentle' style make it quite unfashionable. It's a great example of what I think is, or was, the distinctive style of British sitcoms from, say, 1975 through to, say, 1995 - in that it's deeply character-based. Many British sitcoms, including this, didn't hire comedians, but instead hired respected 'straight' actors, who are able to give a degree of pathos that you don't normally find in US comedies, and much of the comedy flows out of this grounded, 'realistic' portrayal of a usually tragic situation. [ATGB isn't exactly 'tragic', but it is nostalgic and wistful and filled with small moments of sadness and regret, while overall maintain a cheerful attitude].
And of course, this is the pinnacle of that casting policy. Judi Dench is an amazing actress, and Geoffrey Palmer (though he has done other comedies as well) gives a wonderfully soulful, laconic performance. There's sometimes slapstick and farce and catchphrases and whatnot, but most of the comedy just comes from the fantastic central performances (and the writing that takes advantage of it).
Keeping Up Appearances
which honestly is way sillier than As Time Goes By
I used to love it when I was growing up, but I have to admit, my brother and dad were right: It is
largely predictable with the same lines repeated over and over. Still funny, though.
Onslow seems to have been my dad's favorite character. Keeping Up Appearances
was taken off at one point, then put back in, then As Time Goes By
was taken off, then this was taken off as well, and then it was like what's even the point of watching British comedies on TV anymore (even though KUA probably still is aired every now and then for all I know or care)?
I really liked KUA as a child... but I think that's the right age for it. It relies heavily on catchphrases and over-the-top slapstick, and is very repetitive. Even then, though, the performances are good - so much of the humour comes not from the zany side, but from Onslow and Richard as the straight men.
After 10:00, it was always highly variable. Sometimes, they'd air The Vicar of Dibley, which I never watched because no one else in my family really seemed to care for it.
It's more highbrow than KUA, but less highbrow than ATGB. I liked it, but I used to think of it as something mildly amusing, rather than must-watch TV. Even today, it's something I wouldn't mind having on in a room if someone else were watching it, but wouldn't bother to watch myself - it's got some funny bits, but it's not really magnetic.
Sometimes, they had Are You Being Served? which my dad and brother did like, but I think I've only watched a full episode of it like once?? I'm not sure why I had so much trouble watching that. Who knows. Maybe I kept falling asleep, or someone else kept falling asleep; I think it usually aired here around 10:30.
Oh gods. It's good to know that shows like this (and It Ain't Half Hot Mum
, and Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em
and so on) used to exist, because they explain why adults could find Keeping Up Appearances
both hilarious and intellectual by comparison. That really was the dark end of the Dark Ages of comedy...
Very rarely, they had Fawlty Towers (also not particularly sophisticated humor, but still, it was hilarious so everybody loved it), usually fairly late, maybe around 11.
Fawlty Towers is genuinely hilarious, and although there's a lot of blunt slapstick it's also smarter than people remember, with plenty of wordplay, satire, and cunning farce. Unfortunately, there aren't many episodes, and everyone knows them all, so they're overexposed and it's easy to forget how good they are if you don't already know all the lines.
[example: everyone remembers the Don't Mention the War bit, for the catchphrase and the silly walk. But the same bit also contains lines like:
GERMAN: Will you stop talking about the war?
BASIL: Me? You started it!
GERMAN: We did NOT start it!
BASIL: Yes you did, you invaded Poland!]
There was also Goodnight Sweetheart,
Saw a bit of that. Iirc it's more of a comedy drama? I always like Nicholas Lyndhurst (the star), and kind of liked the show, but not enough to remember anything about it other than the premise.
A Fine Romance,
The other Judi Dench thing? Never saw it. There were a huge number of those things in that era, from the better things like To the Manor Born down to the lower-brow things like Corbett's "Sorry!" (which somehow ran for 7 years, apparently?). Most of them didn't get many repeats.
the #1 series of my childhood. It takes that verismo style and puts it in a sitcom, and it's just so, so brilliant. Again, at its best it works as a nightmarish short play about people trapped in hell, which also happens to have jokes. The first two seasons are intentionally dour, claustrophobic sitcom; series 3 to 6 bring in more action and adventure. Series 7 has one good episode, one other good scene, and is otherwise poor. Series 8 is an abomination unto the Lord. Series 9 is apparently much worse than that, but I've never managed to watch it. Series 10 through 12 (which is concluding this week) are like a tribute band - an imitation that's just not the same, but still at times good in its own right. It's worth watching out of nostalgia and for the good bits, but it's quite hit and miss (though you could scrape together a decent season out of the best episodes in all three series).
Series 1 is still working things out, and the best are series 4 and 5, but the first six series are all must-watch TV, in my opinion (certainly 2-6).
In terms of style, it combines brilliant character work (a highlight is S3's "Marooned", which plays out almost entirely as a two-hander for the two central characters starving/freezing to death in a crashed spaceship, talking about their lives), brilliant verbal comedy, brilliant plotting, and the occasional visual gag. It's so endlessly quotable.
I think my dad tried watching the British version of The Office, but he didn't get it, so we only watched the American version until that started getting WAY too overdramatic.
Can't stand it myself, though I recognise the value. I struggle with that sort of cringe comedy.
There was The Thin Blue Line
Kind of a resuscitation of the old campy style of British comedy - but done quite well. Again, it's a show where some really mediocre writing and predictable comedy is elevated greatly by two genuinely genius actors (Rowan Atkinson as the idiot, and the criminally overlooked David Haig (Olivier-winning serious stage actor*) as the straightman. But I doubt I'd be too impressed by it as an adult in 2017.
, The Peter Principle (or The Boss, as it's known on this side of the pond for some reason),
Never heard of it. Though v.s. re: great straight actors (here, Jim Broadbent).
This show falls into a period of time where things are too recent to be endlessly-repeated "classics", but too old and dated to be new and fresh.
The comedy I watched around that time was Next of Kin
. I should rewatch that some time. It clearly has fans - it's got an 8.5 on IMDB - but it's never repeated and you never hear about it (that 8.5 comes from only 100 ratings, as opposed to ATGB's 8.3 from 3,005 ratings). It's about an out-of-touch, old-fashioned married couple about to retire to the south of france, when suddenly their child dies horribly in a car crash, and they're forced to become the guardians of their three traumatised young grandchildren.
[*reads that back.* Yup, that's a Traditional British Sitcom all right!]
and eventually, Reggie Perrin
Incredibly cliché, but unusual for its era in being intentionally
, ironically cliché in a postmodern fashion. The first episode is certainly worth watching as a little miniature study in why modern life is Hell; the rest of the first season is less tight, but still has virtues. I wouldn't bother with it after that, or with the more recent revived series, or with the even more recent remake.
, Last of the Summer Wine,
I watched it every week as a child; but ye gods a lot of it was shit. How many times can an elderly person roll down a hill going 'woah!' and collide with something amusing and still actually be funny? Now, I've since gathered that the early series were actually quite good... but then there were 37 years (295 episodes) of going downhill (no pun intended).
and After You've Gone... After You've Gone seemed weirdly Americanized to me, at least sometimes.
Never heard of it. I've long ago lost track of most modern sitcoms - probably My Family
was the last I paid attention to. [My Family isn't as bad as people say it is - or it wasn't, but again, 11 series was far, far too many. And come on, even if you don't like the comedy - it's a show starring Robert Lindsay and Zoe Wanamaker!] But anyway, if it seems Americanised i wouldn't be surprised - it's not 1990 anymore, and the distinctiveness of British comedy has certainly been eroded over time. At least, the distinctiveness of good British comedy. Obviously, atrocities like Mrs Brown's Boys
do represent an authentic strain of British sitcom all the way back to the days of Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em
and the like. It's just a strain that ought to be killed with the infernal fury of a nuclear firestorm, unfortunately.
Worth watching a few episodes, particularly as a child. But although it's his most famous export, it's Atkinson criminally underusing his comic talents.
Chef! I remember Chef! I don't remember anything about it, though. Anything with Lenny Henry can't be entirely bad, I guess.
which always managed to put me to sleep because it's a whole damn hour long and we always watched it in bed.
Actually, it's only 30 minutes - it just seems like an hour, perhaps. But it and Yes Prime Minister are genius, and continue to be of lasting utility in understanding modern politics.
The same was true of Absolutely Fabulous
Didn't appeal to me.
Other comedies we watched thanks to Netflix were Father Ted (if that even counts)
Oh yes, it certainly counts as a comedy - it's not really a documentary, though it's closer to it than you might think. My grandparents hated it for its mockery of Ireland and the Church... but in many ways it's really accurate.
The Good Life (or Good Neighbors as it's called here; my dad grew up watching this)
Along with As Time Goes By, the pinnacle of that style of cosy, 'gentle' sitcom.
, Monty Python
So overrated that it's underrated. (everyone thinks 'oh, Monty Python, so overrated', and indeed a lot of the sketches are mediocre, but that conceals the fact that there were genuinely great bits too). But it's sketch, so a different genre from the sitcoms.
Brilliant, though unfortunately I know almost every line by heart by now.
, Jeeves and Wooster
Yay! It's not a crowdpleaser - too much farce for the highbrow, too much witty 1920s period stuff for the lowbrow - but the early seasons of J&W are excellent narrative comedy. And Fry and Laurie are just perfect
in it - not only were they born for those roles, but it seems like the roles were written just for them.
, The IT Crowd, and Black Books.
I must get into those some day - I've liked bits I've seen, but never sat down and watched them.
Never watched it, so I'll contain my grumpy-old-man skepticism. And I do love Hugh Dennis.
If you want British sitcomes, of which there are hundreds, there are a few of the big ones that you haven't mentioned yet.
From the Dark Ages, the classic is Dad's Army
. It helps if you're under 10 or over 70. I actually have really fond memories of it. You kind of have to accept that most of it isn't very funny - it was in an era when they tried to make everything appeal to everybody, so while there are some genuinely funny lines and characterisation and clever plotting, there's also a lot of terrible (I mean not just crass, but lazy) slapstick and catchphrases and really obvious stuff that the studio audience laugh uproariously at, and you kind of have to endure through all that for the good moments. Kind of a cultural touchstone, though. (your name vill ALSO go on zee list!
). 'Allo 'allo
is the sillier younger sibling, about the French Resistence and the Holocaust and so on - it's too silly and ridiculous for me, though it does have some good moment.
There was also, at the darker side of things, Till Death Us Do Part
(about an outspoken racist), and Steptoe and Son
about rag-and-bone men. You don't hear much about them these days, but they used to be iconic.
From the era of Gentle Sitcoms, we've already mentioned The Good Life
(near the beginning of the era) and As Time Goes By
(at the end), but the big one you're missing is Porridge
(1973-1977). It's about Ronnie Barker as a career criminal serving a five-year jail term. It's very good. It probably is too old to appeal to most young people today, but it's sharp and clever, an if you like old British comedies it's one of, if not the, best.
Later on, there's also One Foot in the Grave
, about an old man, "Victor Meldrew", being irritated by things. It's another of those shows that was actually good once, with a pleasantly dark edge (like the bitter, going-slightly-mad sibling to As Time Goes By
), but that is dismissed in the popular imagination due to carrying on for six years with increasing silliness and increasing reliance on a catchphrase. ["I... don't... be-LIEVE it!", he says. Hilarious. You may have seen the Father Ted episode where Father Ted says "I... don't... be-LIEVE it!" to its star...]
From a similar (slightly earlier) era but a later style, there's Drop the Dead Donkey
, a satirical sitcom set in a newsroom (much of it written in the week of broadcast). The topical jokes are obviously a bit obscure now (but in another sense, timeless!) but it's a masterpiece of character-based, very smart (usually) comedy. The first season is still working out how it's meant to work, and the last couple, returns after a hiatus, are a tired rehash with only occasional value, but S2-4 are brilliant, even today. [to be fair, I can't really remember how good 5 is]
Oh, and Men Behaving Badly
! That's the other thing I watched as a kid. It's like a parodically inversion of those gentle sitcoms - it has many of the same tropes, but it's about two horny, drunk, disgusting bachelors and their longsuffering girlfriends (well, one longsuffering girlfriend, one unattainable object of desire). It's not of the quality of something like DTDD, but it's better than you might think - it's a sort of middle path between the staid sitcoms and the rebellious, zany stuff like The Young Ones
- it has sex and drink and drugs, but it also has genuine pathos and wit.
And the most obvious exclusion: Only Fools and Horses
. Again, don't judge it on the ill-considered christmas specials long, long after its prime. OFAH was never the best in any particular respect, but it's probably the most succesfull middlebrow comedy: a bit broad, a bit clever, a bit racy, a bit staid. And some brilliant moments, though sadly spoiled by overshowing.
Later still, dinnerladies
and The Royle Family
had massive followings, though I never saw much of them; Spaced
, meanwhile, was a cult phenomenon.
FWIW, the BBC did a "Britain's Best Sitcom" poll in 2004. 100-to-10 here
. There's not a lot out of the top 50 that's worth knowing about if you're under 60, I don't think, except Spaced
(#66) and Black Books (#58) and arguably The New Statesman
(#61), which is a ridiculously over-the-top, Rik-Mayall-starring parody of House of Cards
and Yes, Minister
, about an evil Tory MP, Alan B'stard. I didn't like it that much, but some love it.
If you like silly slapstick with a side of pathetic pathos, The Brittas Empire
(#47) (about an inept leisure centre manager) is near the top of that game, although I suspect it's not aged too well. 2.4 Children
was the popular thin in the 90s. Oh, I'm Alan Partridge
(#42)! A classic, but not for everybody. Likewise, The League of Gentlemen
is a cult classic (#41), though that's as much sketch as sitcom, I think. I watched so much Birds of a Feather
(#38) as a kid - a sitcom about working-class women, with more than a hint of soap opera to it. Perrin, Thin Blue Line, Young Ones, dinnerladies, ATGB, My Family, The Office, Drop the Dead Donkey, etc, are all in the 40-to-20 range.
Their top 20 are:
Are You Being Served?
The Royle Family
Men Behaving Badly
Steptoe and Son
Last of the Summer Wine
Keeping Up Appearances
One Foot in the Grave
The Good Life
Open All Hours (seriously? ugh.)
The Vicar of Dibley
and, #1, Only Fools and Horses.