DEBATE: SITCOMS

A poll of sitcoms last week was topped by Seventies' shows. Are they the best? Of course, says Brian Viner, they don't make them like they used to. Ha ha, says Jane Bussmann, today's are much funnier
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BRIAN

VINER

YOU WOULDN'T expect stalwarts of the Mahler Appreciation Society to nominate Lennon and McCartney as their all-time favourite composers, and it was unlikely that readers of Classic Television magazine would choose their most cherished moment in screen comedy from an episode of Game On or even Men Behaving Badly. Nevertheless, the results of the magazine's poll echo what most of us feel - comedy ain't what it used to be, while nostalgia is as good as ever.

The comedy moment voted funnier than any other comes from a 1973 episode of Dad's Army. "Vot is your name?" demanded a U-boat captain of Private Pike. "Don't tell him, Pike," said Captain Mainwaring. Written down, it's not exactly side-splitting. But Arthur Lowe's timing made it hilarious. Who now can deliver a punchline like that? Lesley Joseph? Don't make me laugh.

Or rather, do make me laugh. I really, really want to. And I do, when I watch The Royle Family or The League of Gentlemen. Yet the ecstatic reception given to Victoria Wood's dinnerladies - which was good but not that good - shows what a poverty-stricken state British sitcom is in. And when a work of genius does come along, an Only Fools And Horses or a One Foot In The Grave, it is repeated until the end of time.

Incidentally, is it just my telly, or is it on all tellies that, no matter when you switch over to BBC1, you find Del Boy having a barney with Rodders? And even though you've seen it 100 times before, you watch it again, and laugh, and reflect that it doesn't really matter that they don't make 'em like they used to, because they still show the ones they used to make.

Even when every possible resource is ploughed into making a sitcom better, the result is still no funnier than the lamentable Days Like These. There have always been poor sitcoms, of course, but never was so much energy and hype expended on one so feeble. So, knowing that decent sitcoms are increasingly elusive, comedy producers chicken out and make panel shows instead, such as They Think It's All Over. I wish it were. It sums up all that is worst about TV comedy, being both offensively complacent and complacently offensive. Once upon a time, British TV comedy was represented by a world-weary Tony Hancock, an indignant Harold Steptoe, a frantic Basil Fawlty. Now, studio audiences go away satisfied if Nick Hancock has said "shag" enough times. In 40 years we've gone from Tony Hancock to Nick Hancock. Not exactly progress, is it?

I don't want to come over all Mary Whitehouse, but comedy writers had to be more inventive in the past. They couldn't get cheap laughs with naughty words. Take a look at a Galton and Simpson script some time and savour its ingenuity. Which brings me back to the poll. "The Blood Donor" episode of Hancock's Half-Hour - "A pint? Why that's very nearly an armful!" - featured at number seven, but sadly there was no room for the "Twelve Angry Men" episode - "Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you, did she die in vain?" I would put that right. And I would, in fairness, also find room for something more modern. Like Porridge.

Brian Viner is TV critic for the `Independent on Sunday'.

JANE

BUSSMANN

CRITICS INSIST there is nothing funny on television any more. There is a contrary argument: that yes there is. No one should deny there was a John Cleese before Fierce Creatures, but any list of classic comedy moments should also include the education of Father Dougal in Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews' Father Ted (Ted: "Now remember [shows toy cow] this is small, and this [points through window at cow] is far away"); Noel Edmonds pompously lecturing The Kids on the evils of a swallowing a "new drug" - brandishing a pill 10 inches across - in Chris Morris's Brass Eye; the deadpan "news" report of a feral horse plague on the London Underground in The Day Today.

Dad's Army writer Jimmy Perry deserves every royalty cheque but that doesn't mean everything that has come since has been rubbish. Channel 4 has Graham Norton, the funniest, most natural host since Parkinson. BBC2 has Simon Munnery, whose catchphrase, "Attention scum", may yet oust "Ooh, you are awful" from the Christmas compilations.

The history of TV comedy is subject to alarming revisionism. Obviously we remember the high spots like Rising Damp - we can't forget them since they are repeated ad infinitum. But the bulk of Seventies sitcoms weren't that hot - just think of Richard O'Sullivan mistaking the boss's wife for a gravy boat while accidentally getting part of his anatomy caught down the babysitter's cleavage.

It's harder to put a sitcom together these days, too. Jimmy Perry will be the first to tell you he got his techniques - and cast - from the rep theatre of the day. Rep theatre groups perfected the art of the weekly audience show, rehearsing and performing to a live audience over and over again until their timing was primed for a thousand "Don't tell him, Pike" moments. In the place of rep now we have the harsher training ground of stand-up comedy, where audiences think nothing of booing the turns offstage.

If comedy isn't perceived as the mighty force it once was, it's because of the spite spat that is scheduling, new shows being deliberately scuppered by rival networks. The most cynical Bruce Willis rubbish or 007 misogyny on the other side will stuff a new comedy's viewing figures and scupper your chances of the crucial, memorable second series. Even comedy shows with brilliant premises need a second series to find their feet - watch the pre-Ben Elton Blackadder episodes or the cack-handed animation of the early Simpsons episodes, when, in the throes of child star petulance, Bart was still missing his cues.

But there is a pinhole in the bucket over writer's heads: the US practice of commissioning much longer runs than the standard six-week Britcom. Thirteen weeks is long enough for viewers to notice a show, and almost long enough for schedulers to run out of blockbusters. There will be a second wave of British comedy. But Stressed Eric is still shit.

Jane Bussmann is the author of `Once In A Lifetime', and a comedy writer for BBC and Channel 4.

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