About ten years ago the BBC asked viewers to vote for Britain’s Best Sitcom. Everyone in the country was required by law to submit ten titles, from which a longlist of 100 was compiled. The ten most popular sitcoms were then put to a television audience, who proceeded to make the odd decision to elect as the nation’s favourite sitcom Only Fools and Horses, a programme nobody has ever actually seen, let alone enjoyed.
I can’t recall what I voted for precisely, but it definitely included a bunch of acknowledged classics like Fawlty Towers, Blackadder, Dad’s Army and The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, and a few more recent offerings like Father Ted and I’m Alan Partridge. One thing I recall vividly, though, was that I voted for a sitcom that all right-thinking people would consider anomalous among the company assembled above: Roy Clarke’s Last of the Summer Wine.
Why would I do this terrible thing? Well, I cringe at the memory, but I stand by the principle. The reason I voted for the lame duck of light entertainment is the same reason a guy would want to marry a guy: security.
It’s Sunday evening. You accidentally lean on the remote and change the channel to BBC1. You hear that familiar combination of guitar and harmonica, and your brain produces an automatic sympathetic reaction. You know for certain that if you keep watching for the next half hour you will see a bunch of hatchet-faced witches drinking tea and a wizened old man trying to fuck a peroxide blonde behind a hedge without his wife finding out — assuming, that is, you manage to make it to the end of the show without lapsing into a coma.
One might say something similar of Roy Clarke’s greatest international success, Keeping Up Appearances. This is a programme with a cast of broadly delineated characters – the domineering social climber, the henpecked husband, the nervous neighbour, the sex-hungry sister – who behave in exactly the way one would expect, week after week, in broadly identical plots. It’s stultifying if you watch more than one at a time, but people love its reliability.
It is broadly true, I suspect, that the greatest sitcoms are those which rely less on the repetition of familiar tropes or the deliberate invocation of comfort. A programme like Fawlty Towers thrives on the unpredictability of its central character. The situation of the comedy Steptoe and Son is profoundly uncomfortable: two men, bound by ties that cannot be broken, living together in unhappiness and squalor, the one constantly trying to escape, the other thwarting his plans, both aware deep down that escape is impossible. A programme like Dad’s Army may seem ostensibly conservative, because of the age of the characters and the fact that they often behave in a silly way (especially in the episodes where the men go out on manoeuvres, which are always the least interesting to me), but it is capable of great sharpness. Look at any number of episodes – ‘Branded’, in which Godfrey is discovered to have been a conscientious objector during the First World War and is ostracised by the platoon; ‘Getting the Bird’, where it is revealed that Wilson has a daughter he doesn’t wish anyone else to know about; ‘A Wilson (Manager)?’, in which the rivalry of Wilson and Mainwaring comes to a head when Wilson, junior to Mainwaring at Swallow Bank, is appointed manager of another branch. Situation comedy is capable of the poignant and the visceral. Last of the Summer Wine doesn’t aspire to that.
I once loved a comedy series on ITV called After Henry. I would have been eight years old, I suppose, probably not the target demographic of a programme about intergenerational tensions between women, but it had a super cast headed by Joan Sanderson and Prunella Scales, two incorrigibly funny actresses, and I responded to it instinctively. One never sees it nowadays, but the BBC radio series it grew out of pops up occasionally in the schedules, and on acquainting myself with the original I find it to be an unacknowledged masterpiece. The set-up of the thing is essentially conservative. Each week there is a new bone of contention between Sarah (Scales), her mother Eleanor (Sanderson), and her daughter Clare (Gerry Cowper in the radio series). Often Sarah finds herself the piggy in the middle, with her mother and daughter appearing to conspire against her, and seeks solace and counsel from her employer Russell, an eternally wise and patient gay bookseller who never transacts any business. It sounds stolid, but Simon Brett’s observation of the foibles of human relationships is absolutely pitch-perfect. Jane Austen couldn’t have written it better, and there is the same kind of satisfaction to be found in it as there is in Austen’s novels. If it rarely induces gales of laughter, it does induce waves of happiness.
Recent weeks have seen repeats of the 1990s BBC comedy 2point4 Children on one of the Freeview channels. This was a big hit with audiences in its day, a prime-time, family-oriented sitcom that was a curious mixture of the silly, the surreal and the sinister. The Porters live a blameless existence in Chiswick, the mother a caterer, the father a plumber. A memorable Christmas special in which an unusual internet message intended for Bill Clinton appears on the Porters’ computer, and their mischievous grandmother takes advantage of it to order a group of male strippers to the family house, was typical. I watched it in my youth because, well, I watched TV indiscriminately, but in fact it’s rather good. It gains a lot from the warm dynamic between the characters (I suppose I mean the actors too – one couldn’t ask for a more likeable bunch than the central trio of Belinda Lang, the late and very much lamented Gary Olsen, and Julia Hills). This is a loving family that is constantly bickering, that has problems to deal with like bulimia and depression and sexual harassment and financial hardship and the frequent deaths of pets left in their custody by the neighbours, and somehow the programme strikes a balance between poignancy and humour. The play of light and shade.
There are many more criteria by which to judge a comedy than simply whether it makes you laugh. I find the theme tune is often a good measure of the programme. The two Roy Clarke ones are a good example – Last of the Summer Wine gentle and lilting, Keeping Up Appearances fastidious like its protagonist, with rococo curlicues. The historic master of the British sitcom theme is Ronnie Hazlehurst, of course, responsible for the themes of many of those named above, but I think the baton has been passed to Howard Goodall. The Blackadder theme, I contend, is the greatest melody of the twentieth century, endlessly pliable (as witness its many manifestations over the years/centuries) and harmonically muscular. And look at his music for 2point4 Children. It’s not a great melody, perhaps, but it’s happy and irresistibly catchy and encapsulates the mood of the show perfectly. How can you not fall in love with a programme that starts like this?