Arts: Survival of the wittiest

With shows like The Royle Family and Spaced British sitcom is evolving rapidly. Is competition from the US encouraging a reinvention of the genre? By Michael Collins

T he sitcom in front of an audience is dead,' Victoria Wood said recently in the course of an interview, lamenting its passing and declaring that working without an audience is dull and deadly.

Rigor mortis actually set in a while ago, for that breed of comedy series filmed before a live studio audience and transmitted in six self-contained half-hour instalments. The current series of Dinnerladies will be the last of Wood's first ever sitcom, and may be one of the last of its kind to bring in the awards and the ratings. She remains one of the few writers that can make a studio-based sitcom consistently funny and watchable.

But despite her pedigree, even this writer's recent offering was subjected to the kind of changes that are altering the shape of comedy on British television. Each programme was recorded before two audiences, in order to get the best reaction to the lines. And there are 10 programmes in this run. Comedy series have been gradually growing in length of late, in a bid to emulate their Stateside counterparts.

This is why Sky has proved so appealing to comedians like David Baddiel, who recently took up the offer to write a 20-part sitcom for the channel, whereas terrestrial TV would normallly offer a six-week run. There's gold in them there scripts, what with the prospect of lengthy airings on all Murdoch networks.

It is not just the length of series that is altering the sitcom archetype. The genre has begun to escape from the shackles of slapstick, farce and laughter tracks. Increasingly, the way to shoot a sitcom these days is like a feature film, and cut out the guffaws. The BBC can be credited with kick-starting the trend - badly - with the risible Lenny Henry vehicle Chef. But it is Granada's output that has got the attention, with shows like The Royle Family, The Grimleys and the much anticipated Bob Martin, with Michael Barrymore cast as a chatshow host, in his first acting role.

However, each of these series has beeen eager to distance itself from the title of sitcom, settling instead for the tag "comedy drama". Of the new order, only Channel 4's critically-acclaimed Spaced cites itself as a sitcom. It has been nominated in three categories for this year's British Comedy Awards and a second series has been commissioned, although it is not expected to air until late 2001. Like The Royle Family, it has reinvented the form by subverting it.

Both series take traditional sitcom set-up as a starting point, and drag it to an extreme. Caroline Aherne's concept emerged within a television culture that was warming to docu-soaps, and a quest for what TV executives called "reality entertainment", in a bid to make stars of the public. In the house of Royle, the one-room-and-a-family scenario - in which the Sturm und Drang in the Garnett family was once played out - frames a life on TV, lived in front of a TV, that is as dull and uneventful as real life.

Spaced relies on the flatshare format that was the basis for Man About The House, and in Marsha Klein, actress Julia Deakin has created the finest chain-smoking, frustrated comic landlady, since Mildred Roper slipped on her banana-print trousers and pursued Robin Tripp.

Where Spaced differs from others in the running, and why it has set a precedent for a brand, spanking new sitcom style - of which Channel 4's Small Potatoes is the latest offering - is in its references, the world it represents, and the way that world is filmed. Spaced is a sitcom that wants to be a cartoon edited like a commercial.

For the greater part, the series appears to have been inspired by American animation like The Simpsons, which has provided a home for the kind of writing and ideas that would never have found an outlet in live-action TV comedy, until now. (It's also telling that Homer and his family, with their funny hair, and skin the tint of marzipan, can somehow seem more lovable, and more believable than many a cast of characters in a contemporary comedy series.) The speedy camerawork, frenetic pace, and editing of Spaced owes more to pop promos and TV ads. The whips and zooms are as frequent as the in-jokes.

Both in its reference points within the writing, and the style in which it is shot, Spaced is something that TV comedy hasn't rarely been for a long time: modern. The success of Absolutely Fabulous was, in part, because it was the first sitcom to use cultural references concerning fashion, pop and media that were relevant to the Nineties. Previously, apparently modern-day sitcoms inhabited a world in which Tupperware and the Osmonds were the stuff of key jokes.

When the series writers, Simon Pegg and Jessica Stevenson, created Spaced, with them at the helm, playing Tim Bisley and Daisy Steiner, it was because there were no recognisable twentysomething characters to be found in comedy on the small screen. Tim plays an unemployed graphic artist; Daisy is unemployed and an aspiring journalist. Traditionally, the slacker in comedy has always provided something of a political voice, whether it's been Anthony Booth's "Scouse git" in Till Death Us Do Part, Hywel Bennett's Shelley, or Robert Lindsay's Citizen Smith. Here, the slacker tag is not a link to politics, but a theme that has characterised popular culture in the Nineties: infantilism.

Tim loves paintballing and skateboarding. Daisy is a composite of girlie voices, rolling eyes and silly impressions. The kind of act that the likes of Dawn French and Caroline Quentin have made their own. Although Jessica Stevenson does it to better effect. The jokes are found in the visuals, and the sampling of references that have been absorbed by the characters (PlayStation games, Star Wars, Scooby Doo ), in the soundtrack, and in the quick-fire flashbacks and dream sequences that flesh out the characters' past lives and current fantasy worlds.

The first rule of the best sitcoms has always been to create a self- contained world with its own rules and themes, either different from the one outside, or at odds with it. And from this, the comedy comes. whether that world is an army barracks, hospital, police station, the Shepherd's Bush home of two rag-and-bone-men, or the more absurd worlds of the most successful American 1960s' comedies, such as The Beverly Hillbillies and The Munsters.

Sitcom often fails when the world it portrays becomes simply the average middle-class family. Jim Royle and his family succeeded because the closely-observed mundaneness of their world made them extraordinary. And as Spaced has ultimately brought a fresh filmic style, and introduced a different world and a different generation into sitcom land, it has done so as comedians of the previous generation are reduced to playing comedy vicars and queens, as contract players at the BBC. It also pulled in decent ratings. All without the components that have become crucial in the commissioning process in television: a pilot, a focus group and a big name in the lead.

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