British sitcom

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A British sitcom, is a situation comedy (sitcom) produced in the United Kingdom. Like sitcoms in most other countries, they tend to be based around a family, workplace or other institution where a group of contrasting characters can be brought together. A common factor is the exploration of social mores, often with a healthy dollop of satire or bathos, in contrast to the sometimes uplifting sentiments of many American sitcoms. British comedies are typically produced in series of six episodes each. More recently, the portmanteau term "Britcom" has been used by American commentators to distinguish the British idiom of situation comedy from its other (particularly American) counterparts.


[edit] Characteristics

British sitcoms are developed differently than their American counterparts. American sitcoms employ teams of writers and attempt to include as many jokes per episode as possible. The perception of what is a joke or what is funny varies with the audience. British sitcoms are produced by just one or two writers, and the jokes are fewer in number, but there is a longer build-up. The more measured approach engendered by a single writer or a close writing partnership can permit greater control over the programme's direction and a more structured approach to character and plot development. Individual writers who have made a significant contribution to the genre include John Sullivan, Johnny Speight, Roy Clarke, David Croft, Ben Elton, Jimmy Perry and Richard Curtis, while the most notable writing partnerships include Ray Galton & Alan Simpson, Dick Clement & Ian La Frenais and John Esmonde & Bob Larbey.

It is often the everyday wit and wordplay traditionally attributed to pubs, shop floors and staff rooms up and down the country that provides much of the comedy in many British sitcoms. [citation needed] The most sedately written series repudiate structured jokes altogether and attempt to reproduce an everyday environment with the intention of also reproducing its comedy. The forerunner of this style is probably Hancock's Half Hour on TV and radio in the 1950s. More recent examples of this hyperreal approach include The Royle Family and The Office as well as many British comedy-dramas. Their reliance on character-led, rather than plot-led, humour requires strongly defined characters with whom the audience can identify.

With fewer writers in a project, more unusual and complex fantasy worlds can be created. A significant subset of British comedy therefore consciously avoids traditional situation comedy themes and story lines to branch out into more unusual topics or narrative methods. Such freedom and experimentation is one of the benefits of the British approach and has produced such series as The League of Gentlemen, Marion and Geoff, 15 Storeys High, Spaced and Green Wing.

Farce is also a common theme in British sitcoms, exemplified by Fawlty Towers and 'Allo 'Allo!. The Restoration comedy tradition of bawdiness and innuendo has also been well served through series such as Are You Being Served? and Up Pompeii.

Novel approaches to comedy such as those taken by Blackadder and Yes Minister have challenged the idea of what constitutes a sitcom and have also injected variety into the mainstream. [citation needed] A popular development in recent years has been spoof television series, as in KYTV, The Day Today, People Like Us and The Office.

Another key theme in a large amount of British sitcoms is entrapment. Characters as diverse as Basil Fawlty, Edmund Blackadder, Captain Mainwaring and numerous others are trapped in their situations and seem to have some inner longing to escape from them. Victor Meldrew is plagued by the banalities of his life, David Brent is stuck in a pointless job (which he nevertheless tries to enjoy), and Rodney and Delboy in Only Fools And Horses are continuously trying to strike it rich.

[edit] History

The first true British sitcom was Pinwright's Progress, broadcast by the BBC from 1946 to 1947, but the form didn't really take off until the transfer of Hancock's Half Hour from BBC radio in the 1950s. The series remains the most successful and fondly remembered early sitcom, and was successful enough to run simultaneously on BBC Radio and television throughout the late 1950s. It was renowned for its ability to evacuate pubs and streets as listeners stayed at home to tune in to Hancock's latest misadventures. Hancock's Half Hour, with its emphasis on character and believable situations, was probably the most influential of all British sitcoms. In the 1960s its creators, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, would go on to write the almost equally popular Steptoe and Son, about a man's fractious relationship with his elderly father. The series was the first to cast established actors in the leading roles, instead of comedians.

In the same decade Johnny Speight's Till Death Us Do Part often caused a stir at the dinner table, inciting debate on political issues — particularly those surrounding immigration. Meanwhile, Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais created their series The Likely Lads. Clement and La Frenais would be among the most successful sitcom writing partnerships in Britain. Their later successes included Porridge and Auf Wiedersehen Pet.

The 1960s also saw the creation of Dad's Army, (BBC), The Liver Birds, (BBC) and On The Buses, (ITV).

The 1970s introduced several successful British sitcoms, including John Cleese and Connie Booth's farcical Fawlty Towers, John Esmonde and Bob Larbey's self-sufficiency comedy The Good Life, and Roy Clarke's Open All Hours and the long-running Last of the Summer Wine.

The commercial station ITV found success with Rising Damp, Man About the House, George and Mildred, and the now decidedly politically incorrect Love Thy Neighbour, based on the rivalry between a black man and his bigoted white neighbour. Mind Your Language spent each episode making fun of other nationalities and was dismissed by some critics as crude caricature, although it also sold surprisingly well abroad. ITV has had few successful sitcoms in recent years, with rare successes like Hardware appearing in off-peak time slots. Men Behaving Badly, one of the biggest successes of the 1990s, began life as an ITV series in 1992, before being cancelled and picked up by the BBC.

Since the 1960s, the Cambridge Footlights club, the London based Comic Strip club and the Edinburgh Festival have been the breeding grounds for much new talent in British comedy. The new wave of 1980s comedians produced The Young Ones, an anarchic, knockabout romp and, co-written by the same writer, the more sophisticated historical satire Blackadder.

Traditional sitcoms continued to prosper in the 1980s, however, particularly with John Sullivan's Only Fools and Horses which has dominated the British sitcom scene ever since its first episode in 1981. The series was voted "Britain's Best Sitcom" in the 2004 BBC poll of the same name. The 1980s also saw the unlikely success of the political satire Yes Minister and its sequel Yes, Prime Minister. Other hits included Esmonde and Larbey's suburban sitcom Ever Decreasing Circles, and the sci-fi/comedy hybrid Red Dwarf.

The unlikely story of three priests — one vain, one simple, one alcoholic — gave the 1990s one of its biggest hits in Father Ted. Shows such as Birds of a Feather and The Vicar of Dibley also maintained the popularity of the traditional sitcom, and One Foot in the Grave brought black comedy and suburban angst into the mainstream.

More unorthodox comedies, including The Royle Family, People Like Us and The League of Gentlemen, managed to breathe new life into the genre while appealing both to "mainstream" audiences and a new generation of viewers. Many of these more innovative series started life on BBC radio, building up a cult following before being remade for television. Other series that began in this way include The Mighty Boosh and The Day Today, the latter originally on radio as On the Hour.

The BBC has also begun using its digital channels BBC Three and BBC Four to build a following for off-beat series like The Thick of It. Many of these series have dispensed with the studio audience and canned laughter tracks altogether, in the manner of The Royle Family and The Office. The commercial station Channel 4 has also actively encouraged new writers to produce interesting work. Some of its recent successes include Father Ted, Spaced, Phoenix Nights, Black Books and Green Wing.

Many of the most critically acclaimed sitcoms of recent years have appeared on BBC2 and Channel 4, rather than on the more popular BBC1 and ITV channels. ITV has had very few successful situation comedies since the 1980s, while the only notable success for BBC1 in the last few years is the critically-derided My Family.

See also British comedy

[edit] British sitcoms overseas

[edit] United States

In the United States, British sitcoms are rarely seen on the commercial networks, but are often seen on the Public Broadcasting Service and increasingly on cable television, including BBC America and Comedy Central. Absolutely Fabulous enjoyed a significant following when it aired on Comedy Central in the 1990s, and The Office won a Golden Globe award in 2004 for "Best Television Series — Musical or Comedy", beating popular American favourites such as HBO's Sex and the City and NBC's Will & Grace.

A few British sitcoms were successfully reworked for U.S. audiences. Three notable examples are Steptoe and Son which became Sanford and Son, Man About the House, which became Three's Company on ABC (along with its spin-offs George and Mildred and Robin's Nest which became The Ropers and Three's a Crowd), and Till Death Us Do Part, which became All in the Family on CBS. Other series were not as lucky. Beanes of Boston, an Americanised version of Are You Being Served?, was not picked up in 1979, and remakes of Porridge, Red Dwarf, Fawlty Towers and Dad's Army have all failed to get beyond a pilot episode. In 2003, the U.S. version of Coupling, a series often compared to Friends, was cancelled shortly after premiering on NBC, but the network's American version of The Office, which debuted in 2005 and features Steve Carell in the lead, has thus far fared better.

Some British series have themselves been based on American examples, including The Upper Hand (a remake of Who's the Boss), and Brighton Belles, an unsuccessful Anglicised version of The Golden Girls. More recently, My Family used a team of writers to mimic American-style sitcoms.

[edit] Australia

Although many British comedies were shown on the three commercial TV networks in Australia in the 1970s and early 80s (e.g. On the Buses, Mind Your Language, Doctor in the House, The Upchat Line, The Upchat Connection, Haggard, Get Some In!, Sink or Swim, My Wife Next Door, The Piglet Files, 'Allo 'Allo, and Me and My Girl) the channels stopped showing them by the late 1980s. One issue was the difficulty of fitting a half-hour BBC sitcom (without adverts) into a 25-minute Australian TV slot with advertising breaks.

Australian commercial television channels made their own versions of popular British comedies during the 1970s, which featured major stars of the various series having come to Australia for some reason (within the series' storylines). Australian versions of British series, complete with their original British stars, included: Are You Being Served? (with John Inman as "Mr. Humphries"), Father, Dear Father (with Patrick Cargill as "Patrick Glover", and Noël Dyson as "Nanny"), Doctor in the House (with Robin Nedwell as "Dr. Duncan Waring", and Geoffrey Davies as "Dr. Dick Stuart Clark"), Love Thy Neighbour (with Jack Smethurst as "Eddie Booth"), and Up the Convicts (with Frankie Howerd in a Lurcio-style persona).

British programs (including sitcoms) have long been standard fare on the other major channel, ABC. The large majority of major BBC sitcoms aired in Australia have been shown on the ABC, with some of the British sitcoms having been re-aired many times. The station lacks ad breaks, being funded by the Australian Federal Government. With the national sense of humour often akin to the British one, tending to be dry, deadpan, ironic or sarcastic, British sitcoms are popular in Australia, and the major ones are widely available in public libraries and video and DVD shops. British sitcoms shown on the ABC include: Dad's Army, The Goodies, The Office, Absolutely Fabulous, Blackadder, Mr. Bean, Fawlty Towers, Yes Minister and Yes, Prime Minister, To the Manor Born, Porridge and Going Straight, The Good Life, Open All Hours, Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em, One Foot in the Grave, Red Dwarf, A Fine Romance, Bless This House, Butterflies, Goodnight Sweetheart, Only Fools and Horses, Chelmsford 123, Yes, Honestly, Fresh Fields and French Fields, May to December, Chance in a Million, Keep it in the Family, Man About the House, Robin's Nest and George and Mildred, You Must be the Husband, Home James, Don't Wait Up, Never the Twain, It Ain't Half Hot Mum, Last of the Summer Wine, Keeping Up Appearances, As Time Goes By, Birds of a Feather, Black Books, Gimme Gimme Gimme, My Family, My Hero, Brush Strokes, Men Behaving Badly, The Vicar of Dibley, The Young Ones, and Coupling.

[edit] Canada

Since the days of Benny Hill and Fawlty Towers, British series have always fared well and have developed cult status with many Canadians. The sense of humour is somewhat similar and transfers well with Canadians. What may be deemed "too much" for US TV goes down a storm in Canada. Similar to Australian TV, Canadian TV's 30 minute programming format is actually more like 20 minutes with 10 minutes of adverts; thus, many British series have to be edited to fit the format. Many Canadians in southern Ontario also make up a large part of the audience of nearby American PBS channels, where they are able to view the British series unedited.

[edit] Some popular British sitcoms

A selection of the hundreds of British situation comedies that have been made:

Whilst not sitcoms in the pure sense, people sometimes include TV comedy drama series as a sitcom when listing their favourites. By way of example, some popular comedy drama series are:

[edit] See also

[edit] Further reading

  • Lewisohn, Mark (2003) Radio Times Guide to TV Comedy. 2nd Ed. Revised — BBC Consumer Publishing. ISBN 0-563-48755-0

[edit] External links

[edit] Articles

[edit] Lists and guides

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British sitcom

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