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?

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The Independent Culture
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.