TELEVISION / A funny situation: Mark Lawson has been watching sitcoms and laughing. Has he gone mad? Or has he been watching One Foot in the Grave, Chef] and The Brittas Empire?

ON Monday, watching government ministers attempting once again to explain that the economy and the pound were essentially in good health, I felt an unusual twinge of sympathy. For I was about to attempt what is, on the surface, an even less plausible piece of evangelism. Abhorrence of the British television situation comedy - or the suggestion that a piece of work in one of the loftier artistic disciplines, like a play or a novel, is of sit-com level - has long been one of the handiest critical brickbats. But my mission today is to suggest that we are currently blessed with a run of unusually intelligent and original sit-coms.

It is true that examples of the abhorred norm still abound. To establish the baseline, where better to begin than Grace And Favour (BBC1, Mondays)? This is a perfect exhibit, though regrettably not yet a museum one, of what the phrase 'British situation comedy' summons up; a faltering carry on of Carry On. The dialogue observes a punishing regime of tittering verbal coincidence. Mr Humphries, a limp eternal bachelor, is described by a colleague as 'uppity', allowing him lispingly to riposte: 'I've never been called uppity before - well, not about my work, anyway. . . '. Any homosexuals offended by this ideologically whiskery depiction have the consolation of being joined by women viewers. A buxom woman in a plunge blouse, conveniently given open-air sports cars to discuss, comments, 'It's lovely to drive with the top down. . . ', while the camera wobbles towards her cleavage in support.

Grace And Favour does not even have the excuse of being a good idea badly done, being a bad idea badly done. A decade ago, the same characters were a hit in Are You Being Served? Although, even then, schoolboy erection jokes were a firm favourite of the script, the show had two consistent bonuses: the mild originality of the setting (a department store) and the humour provided by the fierce hierarchies of senior, middle and junior management. With bullseye miscalculation, Grace And Favour - in which the store staff have jointly inherited a country hotel from the shop's late boss - abandons both place and power games.

There is also, it must be admitted, propaganda for the genre's detractors in Second Thoughts (LWT, Fridays). Though not actually a sequel to a previous hit show, it is spiritually one: a continuation of the line in family humour mined by Wendy Craig in And Mother Makes Five in the 70s. The marriage of Bill and Faith, a second for both parties, is complicated by teenage children and the fact that Bill's new boss is his ex-wife, Lisa, a fact to which we will not add the exclamation mark for which it pants. A typical plot involves Bill, suffering from nervous tummy, under doctor's orders to avoid stress, a stipulation which family life does not always permit. (Exclamation mark again denied.) A standard exchange between mother and daughter about teenage boyfriend runs: 'Kevin just wants to stay here for a bit. . . ' 'A bit of what?'

Yet these stenching specimens - of the cosy-homophobic-sexist and cosy-domestic sit-com respectively - are no longer the routine style of television humour. The defence will now draw the court's attention to three situation comedies which take risks of tone, content and production.

One Foot In The Grave (BBC1, Sundays), by David Renwick, has some generic connection with Till Death Us Do Part, although the hero Victor Meldrew (Richard Wilson) is an Alf Garnett of the middle-classes and one whose anger manifests itself in psychopathic domestic pettinesses - his neighbours need Neighbourhood Watch because of him - rather than saloon-bar bigotry. The realities of the geriatric state are also more squarely faced. The extent to which Victor is actually insane is left moot by dramatist and actor, but he would have eaten that last great Surbiton sit-com character, Terry in Terry And June, as a cocktail snack.

Managing to appeal to 15 million viewers, the skill of the script is in planting a broad farce set-up - this week, Victor was buried up to his neck in the back garden by a workman with whom he disagreed - with darker seeds. Victor, suddenly a sit-com version of one of Beckett's buried heads, was thus embroiled in the soil when he received, from his tearful wife, the the news of her mother's death. Burdened for years by the mother-in-law joke, British comedy had symbolically reached the mother-in-law non-joke, with one of the participants himself in a psuedo tomb.

The Brittas Empire (BBC1, Thursdays) is further evidence that popular comedy need not be lobotomised. Written by Richard Fegen and Andrew Norriss, this is a sitcom with a novel situation (a leisure centre), although it is true that the central character - Brittas, the psychotically thick-skinned manager, played by Chris Barrie - is a more confident yuppie cousin of Michael Crawford's Frank Spencer in the late Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em, with the decent comic twist that this version never realises his limitations.

It can also be objected that the show is not free of British wit's fundamental obsession with bottoms: in one episode, Brittas was required to suck the poison from a tarantula bite suffered by one of his staff. The spider had, inevitably, entered the man's trousers. (This week's One Foot In The Grave engineered a hermit crab's bite to the testicles, an interesting essay on insects and sexual organs in the sitcom perhaps offering itself to some student of the medium.) Even so, The Brittas Empire also takes less predictable risks with taste, as in the recent scene in which Brittas contrived to electrocute several Pentecostalists using the centre's pool for total immersion baptisms. This may risk sickness, but then again, the form was dying of niceness.

Lenny Henry's new show Chef] (BBC1, Thursdays) is already a permanent walking, talking innovation in being the first peaktime British television sit-com with a majority of black characters - shameful light- years after America's The Cosby Show - but also because it provides further examples of a detectable linguistic shift in the form. Peter Tilbury's scripts confirm that the pun (usually sexual) has been replaced as the single unifying currency of the genre by the inventive metaphor, the sarcastic riff. As Gareth Blackstock, a kitchen Hitler, Henry roars at a sous-chef: 'On a scale of evolution, I am God, she is Einstein, and you are a mud-dwelling unicellular spot of jelly, with a predilection for consuming its own excrement. . . '

Although always inviting overwriting, this verbal style at least stretches the lungs of the actor (Henry times them impeccably) and the ears of the viewer more than routine innuendo.

Perhaps, as for those government ministers defending the economy, these 'green shoots' of new British humour will prove dubious. But I think it may reasonably be argued that with these shows - along with Drop The Dead Donkey on Channel 4, for its character gags rather than the show-off topical lines, and Jennifer Saunders' Absolutely Fabulous due to return to BBC2 - British television may at least be taking one foot out of the grave.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment

Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices