What would they make of it – John Osborne, Bill Naughton, John Braine, Alan Sillitoe, all those angry young men who, in the 1960s, proclaimed that there was drama in ordinary life? Their own works may no longer be so very widely read. But a bowdlerised approximation of their influence is everywhere – in the soaps that dominate the television schedules, in the police or hospital dramas that run and run, spawning spin-offs as they go, and in the comedies of ordinary manners that, year after year, decade after decade, are greeted as if they have broken fresh new ground – and, usually, scheduled on one of the non-terrestrial channels as if they are a brave experiment.
It is not surprising that a medium as democratic, as domestic and as intimate as television should be so crowded with actors playing real people. But it is surprising that, despite its 50-year history of dominance, the drama and the comedy of the normal should continue to be viewed, somehow, as a daring revelation. The BBC3 hit show, Gavin & Stacey, is the latest programme to be launched and heralded in this fashion.
The show, from what I've seen of it, is amiable, unpretentious, well-scripted, nicely acted and archly amusing. It's a good series, taking its place in a well-worn comedic progression, stretching back to The Liver Birds, and hysterically rediscovered as recently as a couple of years back, when Ricky Gervais's The Office was itself greeted as utterly unique, when really it was merely a sitcom of excellent quality. What a shame it is that such a thing is still seen as a holy grail.
Like The Office before it, Gavin & Stacey has gathered an extraordinary fistful of accolades during this year's televisual awards season. Sadly, blanket agreement about the singularity of the show says more about the failures of television in general than it does about the successes of the programme itself.
James Corden, who co-writes the show as well as acting in it, questioned the wisdom of the judges in not nominating Gavin & Stacey in the sitcom category, as he headed into the Bafta ceremony the other night. He seemed happy enough later to be going home clutching the prize for best comedy performance, and sharing with the rest of the team the audience award (beating off such hoary old competitors as The Apprentice and Strictly Come Dancing). But, actually, his observation was absolutely the right one to make. He must find it tiresome in the extreme that it had to be made at all.
The odd thing is that the very next thing Gervais did, after The Office broke out so spectacularly from BBC2, was to write not one but two comedy series that took as their subject matter the refusal of mainstream television to liberalise its idea of what a sitcom ought to be. Extras was entirely concerned with ridiculing the deathly conservatism of sitcom-making, the demand for a live audience, for a laughter track, for catchphrases, and for stagey sets.
Gavin & Stacey has none of these. One of the characters is seen in her dreary job, poised in a booth in an amusement arcade, using humour as spirited people invariably do, as a bulwark against boredom and depression. Gavin and Stacey themselves are seen shuttling about between their respective home towns, out in the real world, heading up and down the motorway, slotting into their respective communities and managing a long-distance romance between their two sets of peers, even though they themselves are a couple, just as people these days very often do.
Is it something this banal that stops Gavin & Stacey from being considered, unequivocally, as a sitcom: the impossibility of filming it on a sound-stage, like Steptoe and Son, without even the possibility of a laughter track to reassure television neophytes that this is just like a special night at the theatre, yet at home? When a soap opera decamps to the seaside, or goes abroad for a funeral, the impression given is that here is a daring escape from soap-reality, like a school trip or a works day out. Except that school trips are rarely as unambitious these days as visits to the seaside, and works outings faded away as people got cars and holiday choices all of their own.
Much popular television still seems to exist in this post-war world, in which only crime, injury or paternalistic intervention can possibly get a straight, normal person out of the house or out of the pub. Kitchen sink drama telly is something that executives can cope with, maybe because of the literary antecedents it can cite. Kitchen sink comedy, however, is still something, for some odd reason, to be approached with caution.
There's nothing new in complaining endlessly about the poor state of British telly, and the complaint is so often repeated that it is among the most tiresome clichés of modern life. Yet there is something particularly sad about an industry that goes belly-up anew every time a show comes along and portrays ordinary people's lives as complex and funny, and strikes a chord with audiences who like nothing more than a good laugh, in their lives, or on the telly. The big trouble with Gavin & Stacey is that it should not, in this day and age, be quite the thrilling novelty that it is.