Arts & Books: Save the suburban sofa

The controller of BBC1 has decided to chuck out the chintz. Peter Salmon wants to make British sitcoms funny, but he ignores the nation's favourite item of furniture at his peril.
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The Independent Culture
So, the sofa is to become an endangered species on British television. Earlier this week Peter Salmon, the controller of BBC1, announced that open season had been declared on the living-room-suite style of cosy domestic comedy. Such programmes were to be ushered from the screen and not particularly gently either, if we are to judge from the relish with which he boasted that he was "the net-curtain comedy killer, the man who took out a contract on suburban sofas and knitted pullovers". One can only hope that his hired assassins have good powers of discrimination and think carefully before they pull the trigger, because one of the best new comedy series for many seasons would have been unthinkable without this upholstered villain, this scapegoat with washable covers.

It's true that the sofa in question was faintly battered and almost certainly harboured atrocities in its deeper crevices. Along with that unidentifiable scurf which even the best-kept sofas secrete, you would have found Crunchie wrappers, old mascara bottles, a disposable cigarette lighter, and, more than likely, a baker's tariff, since one of the sofa's occupants had spent most of the first episode attempting to memorise the prices for various cakes and slices. Not Hyacinth Bouquet's sofa then, every cleft of which would have been vacuumed to a state of pristine inspectability.

This sofa, ash-smudged and dandruffed with biscuit crumbs, was virtually a non-speaking cast member in The Royle Family, Caroline Aherne's brilliant evocation of Northern family life - a series which limited itself to living room and kitchen with a kind of agoraphobic daring.

It is almost certainly exempt from the general cull - and not just because it inhabits the wildlife reserve of BBC2, where it is beyond the range of Mr Salmon's guns. More importantly still, the programme's sofa is a working-class piece of furniture and it is social attitudes rather more than subject matter that Salmon has in his sights. He didn't use the words middle-class - or was not reported to have done in any of the newspaper articles which covered the announcement - but that abused shorthand for the stolid and undemanding lay behind much of what he said. There are demographic hazards in such an attitude, as several old-school comedy writers pointed out. After all, not a few of the viewers for BBC1's programmes sit on a sofa as they watch and some of them even wear knitted pullovers to compound the sin. If Mr Salmon doubts the clout of this group of licence- payers, he can flick through any copy of the Radio Times as a reminder - along with the car ads and Franklin Mint collector's plates he will almost certainly find an advert for removable soft covers - precisely the kind of sensibility he has identified.

Of course this audience may not be as militant in defence of its pleasures as the actual writers who make a living out of them. Millions of people watched Next of Kin, a dire Penelope Keith vehicle which was one of the early trophies in Mr Salmon's display cabinet, but it is difficult to believe that even one of them will march on Television Centre to demand its reinstatement. What it was was not very funny - inasmuch as Mr Salmon was using his phrase as a shorthand for a yielding, down-stuffed kind of programme - and it is difficult to object to his general principle, which might be more accurately paraphrased as "fewer unfunny comedies".

The problem, as the example of The Royle Family shows, is that quality in the sitcom simply can't be defined by ruling out a certain type of subject matter. Ban clerical comedy because you were frightened by Derek Nimmo as a young media student and you've effectively killed The Vicar of Dibley before birth, a self-consciously old-fashioned kind of sitcom which nonetheless managed to give the dog collar a new kind of edge.

And being more precise doesn't really help. Mr Salmon said he wanted to get away from "whimsy" but how else would you describe the surreal inconsequentiality of Father Ted, the series which, for my money, included the funniest sitcom joke ever broadcast on television - the one in which Father Ted attempted to instruct Dougal in the mysteries of perspective. The scene was a tiny, rain-hammered caravan, with Ted and Dougal cramped on either side of a tiny table.

"No, Dougal", said Ted waving a small plastic cow at his mentally-challenged colleague, "this cow is small, that cow is far away."

There was then a perfectly timed pause before Dougal shook his head regretfully. "Sorry Ted, would you run through that one more time?"

Does that sublime moment demonstrate "bite", exactly? I suppose you might take it as mordant if you were an Irish clergyman, but even then you would be pushing it.

The danger of ruling out whole areas of subject matter - and by implication the audiences who live like that - is that you cramp the potential of writers you haven't even met yet. A sanctioned prejudice against the domestic and the middle-class is equally dangerous - because it fails to see how much excellent comedy has emerged from those notionally unpromising locations. What are the young, urban professionals of Friends if they are not middle class?

More crucially, one of the finest sitcoms in recent years, a massive international success, is based on the home life of an ordinary family of middle-class Americans from the very middle of middle America.

This situation is hardly novel. It has been exploited countless times before, from I Love Lucy to The Cosby Show, and yet The Simpsons has every quality Peter Salmon is looking for in seeking to refresh the image of BBC1 comedy. (It needs to be remembered that this is an image problem; the recent governors' strictures and much press coverage relate less to current reality than to past experience - Terry and June, cited in many papers as an example of shows that will suffer, hasn't been on screen for years).

The Simpsons is witty, inventive and sharp. It even came close to knocking Father Ted off the number one spot in my own personal pantheon; Homer is at home recovering from an injury and is visited by solicitous colleagues.

"They had a hell of a time replacing you," he is reassured, at which point we cut to an image of his empty work station in the nuclear power plant, where the all important lever is being held in place by a brick on a string.

Every episode of The Simpsons also begins with a running joke that should make Peter Salmon think harder about the terms in which he expresses his ambitions - a short sequence in which the entire family races to sit down together to watch the television. What they head for is a suburban sofa, and it is one that television comedy would be considerably poorer without.