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.

Arts and Entertainment
Don’t send in the clowns: masks and make-up conceal true facial expressions, thwarting our instinct to read people’s minds through their faces, as seen in ‘It’
film
Arts and Entertainment
Go figure: Matt Parker, wearing the binary code scarf knitted by his mother
comedy Mathematician is using comedy nights to teach and preach sums
Arts and Entertainment
Ryan Gosling in 'Drive'
filmReview: Ryan Gosling is still there, but it's a very different film
Arts and Entertainment
Urban explorer: Rose Rouse has documented her walks around Harlesden, and the people that she’s encountered along the way
books Rouse's new book discusses her four-year tour of Harlesden
Arts and Entertainment
Shock of the news: Jake Gyllenhaal in ‘Nightcrawler’
film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Orson Welles made Citizen Kane at 25, and battled with Hollywood film studios thereafter
film
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Franco Zeffirelli's production of 'Aida' at Milan's famed La Scala opera house
operaLegendary opera director in battle with theatre over sale of one of his 'greatest' productions
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Juergen Wolf won the Young Masters Art Prize 2014 with his mixed media painting on wood, 'Untitled'
art
Arts and Entertainment
Iron Man and Captain America in a scene from
filmThe upcoming 'Black Panther' film will feature a solo black male lead, while a female superhero will take centre stage in 'Captain Marvel'
Arts and Entertainment
The Imperial War Museum, pictured, has campaigned to display copyrighted works during the First World War centenary
art
Arts and Entertainment
American Horror Story veteran Sarah Paulson plays conjoined twins Dot and Bette Tattler
tvReview: Yes, it’s depraved for the most part but strangely enough it has heart to it
Arts and Entertainment
The mind behind Game of Thrones George R. R. Martin
books

Will explain back story to fictional kingdom Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Dorothy in Return to Oz

film Unintentionally terrifying children's movies to get you howling (in fear, tears or laughter)
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Robert James-Collier as under-butler Thomas

TVLady Edith and Thomas show sad signs of the time
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Dad's Army cast hit the big screen

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
JK Rowling is releasing a new Harry Potter story about Dolores Umbridge

books
Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor finds himself in a forest version of London in Doctor Who episode 'In the Forest of the Night'
TVReview: Is the Doctor ever going stop frowning?
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

    The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

    Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
    The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

    Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

    Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

    Fall of the Berlin Wall

    It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
    Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

    What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

    Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
    A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

    Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

    Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
    Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

    'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

    A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

    Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

    The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
    Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

    Paul Scholes column

    Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
    Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

    Frank Warren column

    Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
    Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

    Adrian Heath's American dream...

    Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
    Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

    Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

    Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
    Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

    A Syrian general speaks

    A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
    ‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

    ‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

    Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

    Fall of the Berlin Wall

    History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
    How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

    Turn your mobile phone into easy money

    There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes