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The Week In Radio: No domestic bliss from these safe suburban sitcoms

  • @FionaSturges

What pops into your head when you think of sitcoms? Middle-class households filled with Ikea furniture? Acne-dappled teenagers slumped on sofas delivering withering put-downs to their parents? Neighbours with personality disorders who don't knock before coming into the house? Scripts so rotten that their terrible stench lingers in the memory for years to come?

There was a long period where the British sitcom, and its slightly smarter sibling the comedy drama, seemed destined to stay indoors though in recent years it has broadened its reach. And yet still the domestic archetype of the suburban family prevails in long-running TV success stories, from My Family and Life of Riley to Outnumbered.

One of the advantages of radio is that the usual backdrops can easily be avoided. Want to set your latest two-hander in the jungles of Borneo? Why not? Want to see a marriage crumbling on the International Space Station? Go ahead, knock yourself out. You might think that scriptwriters would be liberated by such a limitless proposition. With a sound-effects department and our imaginations entirely at their disposal, they can take their protagonist and drop them literally anywhere they like.

And yet radio writers cling to middle-class domestic reality just like their counterparts in television. Father Figure, Radio 2's latest sitcom about the trials of a modern house husband, written by and starring comedian Jason Byrne, at least jettisoned the usual clattering of crockery and the sound of a front door slamming that invariably points to a semi-detached in Chislehurst. In fact, the family in question were on their way to a wedding and crammed into a hatchback somewhere along the M4.

Byrne was Tom, the put-upon father and husband marooned in the driver's seat fielding questions about when he'll get a bigger car, when they will arrive at their destination, will the vol-au-vents survive the journey and is the bride pregnant. Chief moaner was Mary (Pauline McLynn, better know as Father Ted's Mrs Doyle), Tom's God-fearing mother who couldn't hide her disapproval at her daughter-in-law's decision to hire a cleaner and was a martyr to her husband, Pat, and his failing memory ("you can't even find your way about the house"). Tom's wife, Elaine, was only marginally more reasonable, exhorting her husband to use the hard shoulder to avoid the traffic that had come to a standstill.

Of course, a standstill was required to accommodate half an hour of bickering designed to show the cultural and ideological gaps that remain between the generations. An interminable gag around the word "dogging" ("In the old days of dogging, you'd get a prize for best-dressed," declared Mary) not only underlined the shifting patterns of language but also the way that contemporary comedies, despite acknowledging the variable family set-ups, continue to peddle ancient clichés of dotty old ladies, bossy wives and terminally embarrassed teens.

Another sitcom, Mr and Mrs Smith, began a fortnight ago on Radio 4. Its premise is also resolutely domestic, revolving around a married couple, Annabelle and Will, seeking marriage guidance through a counsellor named Guy. A set-up that prompts neat flashbacks to the previous week's events. It had its moments, though, like Father Figure, was similarly short sighted in its vision of a couple hampered by their inability to communicate. My advice to Annabelle and Will? Take a holiday. Go skydiving. Ditch the usual routine. Sometimes a change of scene is all that's required.