Sitcoms go out with a couple of class acts

It's not just the death of Victor Meldrew we'll be lamenting, argues Mark Simpson
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Here is the news: "I don't belieeeve it!" To fill the gap left by the demise of the Nine O'Clock News the Beeb is bringing back the nation's favourite misanthrope, Victor Meldrew, for one last moan. This is, we are told, the very final whingeing series of One Foot in the Grave and to make sure of this, Victor (Richard Wilson) actually dies in the final episode. Which will probably come as something of a relief for him, since it is, after all, what he's been waiting for ever since the series began in 1990.

Here is the news: "I don't belieeeve it!" To fill the gap left by the demise of the Nine O'Clock News the Beeb is bringing back the nation's favourite misanthrope, Victor Meldrew, for one last moan. This is, we are told, the very final whingeing series of One Foot in the Grave and to make sure of this, Victor (Richard Wilson) actually dies in the final episode. Which will probably come as something of a relief for him, since it is, after all, what he's been waiting for ever since the series began in 1990.

However, when Victor finally draws his last, indignant breath, it won't just be Britain's most loveable old git that we lose, but an institution as important as, well, the Nine O'Clock News. For years now, it's been clear that the great British sitcom has also had one foot in the grave. Victor is its last gasp.

You don't have to be a UK Gold subscriber to know that the sitcom has been in decline ever since the Seventies - the Golden Age of the BBC. It was such a rich decade for sitcoms because they were indispensable then. Everyone was bored, frustrated and repressed.

Croft and Perry's peerless BBC sitcom Are You Being Served? was the Seventies. Everyone is fed up, skiving and seething with resentment; nobody is "being served", in either sense of the phrase. So palpable is the frustration that Mrs Slocombe's pussy has a life of its own. As the rigid hierarchy of the doomed department store demonstrated, Seventies Britain was paralysed by class; sitcoms such as Rising Damp made fun of hopeless aspirations.

In the Eighties, as the economy picked up, sitcoms used time-travel to search out boredom and frustration. Croft and Perry retreated to a joyless Fifties holiday camp in Hi De Hi; Blackadder to Elizabethan England, or the trenches of the First World War. The North-South divide offered writers less costly time-travel by simply motoring up the M1 ( Bread, Last of the Summer Wine). And if you couldn't escape Essex Man, you had to make him inept (see Only Fools and Horses).

By the Nineties the younger generation had been lost to the smart-alec style of US sitcoms such as Roseanne, Cheers, Frasier and Friends. The reason for the success of these glossy "lifestyle sitcoms" was quite simple: post-1980s British were no longer so repressed, no longer so class-bound, no longer so bored. No longer so British.

So it's no coincidence that the Beeb is martialling The Royle Family along with One Foot to fill the crucial 9pm gap. Almost uniquely for a recent BBC sitcom, it's a great success and extremely funny. But then, Caroline Aherne is a genius, and the show is about a bored working-class Northern family where there's no hope, no serious aspiration - and no sex, except for bawdy jokes and "trying for babies". Although nominally contemporaneous, it's clearly located in the Seventies of Aherne's childhood.

The Royle Family, though, is not really a sitcom: it's an observational comic drama of details which depends on a great deal of irony. It's Bennett-esque. The overflowing ashtrays, the endless bacon sandwiches, the horror of vegetarians. It's the nostalgic snobbery of a generation that, like Aherne, has "done well for itself".

One Foot, the last true great British sitcom, isn't ironic. It is nostalgic, however, and very snobbish: Victor is supposed to be an ex-security guard, but he's clearly BBC middle class and his wife, Anne, speaks like a Brief Encounter extra. And like the BBC middle class today, he has the voice of entitlement but no money, and is tormented by the uncouth C2s who have moved on to his close, with their wads of cash, drunken wives and awful kids. Unlike Victor, they have sex, take drugs, play video games - and watch Sky instead of the BBC.

'One Foot in the Grave', 'The Royle Family': Monday, BBC1, 9pm, 9.30pm

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