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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

A British sitcom is a situation comedy 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 are brought together each episode. A common factor is the exploration of social mores, often with a mix of satire or pathos, in contrast to the sometimes uplifting sentiments of many classic American sitcoms. British comedies are typically produced in series of six episodes each.

Contents

Overview

Apart from the comparatively short series length of British sitcoms (generally ranging from 6 to 12 episodes per year, or "series," as opposed to 22 or 26 for American television programs, a "season"), there are few characteristics that can be identified to be singular to British comedies. The first significant British sitcom was arguably Hancock's Half Hour in the latter half of the 1950s, which was characterised by realism and irreverenceTemplate:Fact. It could be argued that ever since, the climate in British comedy has been divided between the realist and the irreverentTemplate:Fact. The realist strand has been maintained by such comedies as Dad's Army, Steptoe and Son (both 1960s), Fawlty Towers, The Good Life (both 1970s), Only Fools and Horses (1980s), Absolutely Fabulous (1990s), The Office and Peep Show (2000s), while the irreverent or surrealist strand has been developed by such comedies as The Young Ones, Bottom, The League of Gentlemen, Green Wing, and The Mighty Boosh.

Characteristics

Style

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. Template:Fact 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.

Novel approaches to the situation can be seen in Blackadder and Yes Minister, moving what is often a domestic or workplace genre into the corridors of power. Another popular development in recent years has been spoof television series, as in KYTV, People Like Us and The Office.

Themes

A key theme in many British sitcoms is social entrapment. Characters as diverse as Basil Fawlty, Granville, Mildred Roper, Edmund Blackadder, René Artois are constrained and contained by their situation, despite their inner longing to escape. Victor Meldrew is plagued by the banalities of his retired life, the characters in The Office are stuck in a pointless job, Rodney and Delboy in Only Fools And Horses are continuously trying to strike it rich and Eddie and Richie in Bottom are trapped together by their respective character flaws. Perhaps most blatantly, the characters in Porridge are prisoners.

The most significant theme that separates British sitcoms from those of other nations is the importance of the British class system. It is likely that there is no single character in the entire history of British sitcom who cannot be identified by their firmly entrenched position within it. Despite this, however, British sitcoms which are particularly class-driven, including Fawlty Towers and Only Fools And Horses have still proved massively popular around the world.

Form

The majority of British sitcoms comply with most general aspects of the sitcom form, such as being 25-30 minutes long, being recorded on studio sets, with a limited number of stationary cameras, and a studio audience. However, several notable sitcoms have experimented with this, especially in recent years (e.g. The Office or Peep Show). These characteristics do not always remain consistent throughout a show's history: the first series of 1980s sitcom Blackadder was shot almost entirely on location, but later (more celebrated) series reverted to the more standard system of a limited number of studio sets.

A key formal difference between British sitcoms and those produced elsewhere, particularly in America, is the writing process. Whereas American sitcoms are generally written by a large team of writers, based around an executive producer/chief writer (usually the person(s) who originally conceived the show), most British sitcoms are written by one or two people (again, usually the person(s) who originally conceived the show). This means that the quantity of output for an American sitcom is generally considerably higher than a British counterparts. It is traditional for British series to last 6 episodes, compared to American seasons of around 25. However this will generally lead to a more consistent level of quality for a British series. In many cases, British sitcoms are written with much closer interaction between writers and performers - in Blackadder, for instance, the actors often suggested extensive alterations to the scripts in rehearsal.

Farce is also a common formal device 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!.

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. It was a significant part of the BBC's battle to win back audiences from the new channel, ITV, and its populist Light Entertainment shows. 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.

Unlike many American sitcoms, most British sitcoms are produced by just one or two writers, and are sometimes characterised as having fewer jokes than those from other countries, focusing on the situation as much as the comedy. The measured approach engendered by a single writer or a close writing partnership can permit greater control over the programme's direction and a 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, Jimmy Perry and David Croft (who are also regarded to have been superlative as a writing partnership), Richard Curtis and Ben Elton, while the most notable writing partnerships include Rob Grant & Doug Naylor (Grant Naylor), Ray Galton & Alan Simpson, Dick Clement & Ian La Frenais and John Esmonde & Bob Larbey. This is in contrast to American sitcoms, for example, which traditionally employ teams of writers and attempt to include many jokes per episode.

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 race and 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 television comedy has depended on young talent; the Cambridge Footlights club, the London based Comic Strip club and the Edinburgh Fringe have been the breeding grounds for new modes of British comedy. The new wave of 1980s comedians produced The Young Ones, an anarchic, knockabout romp, and another series co-written by Ben Elton, the historical satire Blackadder.

Traditional sitcoms continued to prosper, however, particularly with John Sullivan's Only Fools and Horses which dominated the British sitcom scene in the 1980s and 1990s. 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 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 a spin-off from the radio series 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, Green Wing and Peep Show.

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

See also British comedy

British sitcoms overseas

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.

The most significant impediment to the success of British sitcoms in the USA, apart from differences in humour, is the low production rate of a typical show. Commercial networks expect to run at least 22 episodes in a complete season, although not all 22 are expected to be "in the can" when the season starts. In Britain, runs of as few as six episodes per series are more common, and thirteen is generally the maximum. Commercial networks in the USA expect to capture and hold a time slot against the competition, hopefully with follow-on effects for shows in later slots. British sitcoms generally fail in this regard. The "team writing" approach used in the USA is a necessary part of the high production approach. In contrast, writers on British sitcoms are usually limited to one or two and have been known to complain of exhaustion in producing their more limited runs, cases in point being John Cleese of Fawlty Towers and Jennifer Saunders of Absolutely Fabulous.

Recently, however, British sitcoms have started using teams of writers for their series. Examples include My Family, My Hero and Birds of a Feather. The sitcom Not Going Out also uses a writing team, but instead of a single writer writing one episode, two writers write the main body of the episode, then another team of writers (and sometimes members of the cast) will contribute more material to the existing episode.

Even in the more limited field of cable networks and syndication, British sitcoms suffer because more commercials are expected to be inserted in the show, compared to the number inserted if they are broadcast on a commercial channel in the UK. This interferes with the rhythm of the plot as interruptions occur at least three times during the show proper, compared to the maximum single break of a half-hour show in the UK.

Despite this, 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. Four 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); Keep It In The Family which became Too Close For Comfort; 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, The IT Crowd and Dad's Army have all failed to get beyond a pilot episode. Fawlty Towers was made into a short-lived sitcom called Payne. 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, was by far more successful.

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

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.

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. 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 also make up a large part of the audience of nearby American PBS channels, where they are able to view the British series unedited.

See also

Further reading

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




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