Failing British sit-coms in search of new Friends

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The Independent Online
Has Anyone Seen My Pussy? could only be a Channel 4 documentary. This one is about the use of innuendo in the British situation comedy and is the centrepiece to a weekend-long celebration of the much-maligned television genre to be shown at the end of this month.

It will look at how the sit-com has developed and changed over the years and will also examine the influence of America's massive output of sit- coms. A series of mini-sit-coms using the British alternative comedians Matt Lucas and Bob Mortimer will parody the US brand of formula sit-com in shows called My Gay Dads and I'm Bland Yet All My Friends Are Krazy.

Stuart Cosgrove, Channel 4's controller of arts and entertainment, believes the weekend is timely because of debate about the merits of British and American sit-coms and the popularity of shows such as Friends and Frasier.

He believes the success of US imports comes down to familiarity. He said: "Because sit-coms are about characters, they take time to work. People need to get to know the characters and their catch-phrases. Shows like Only Fools and Horses and One Foot in the Grave took until their third series to really take off.

"So while Father Ted is very much an authored work, written by two people, Friends is part of a Los Angles sit-com industry and has 34 writers. That means you have eight episodes of Father Ted a year compared with 36 episodes a year of Friends. That in turn means US sit-coms can become familiar with the audience and take off very quickly."

This is one explanation, he believes, why the US's prime- time schedules are dominated by sit-coms, while it is drama and soaps that dominate in the UK. There, he says, they have made the investment in sit-com, while here comedy budgets are being attracted to cheaper comedy game-show formats like Have I Got News For You."

A further difference was that here most critically acclaimed sit-coms had moved out of peak time to after the 9pm watershed. Only One Foot in the Grave and repeats of Only Fools and Horses remain in the centre of the mainstream.

Mr Cosgrove feels this is a function of British comedy writers turning their back on the cosy Terry and June-style suburban sit-com world.

"The closest to that form we have now is One Foot in the Grave," said Mr Cosgrove. "And it is very different.

"It is never explicitly stated, but the couple have lost a child at some time in the past and it is as if they are just waiting to die. There is a much darker melancholy permeating the show than in traditional comedies."

Mr Cosgrove believes that the BBC's early Eighties hit The Young Ones marked a major sea- change in the kind of sit-com writers wanted to create.

"The Young Ones deconstructed the rules of the sit-com with time-warps, people walking through walls and bands playing in the middle of the living room. Father Ted wouldn't exist without it - it is The Young Ones in a seminary.

"But it has to be remembered that the classic, timeless sit-coms, like Steptoe and Son, were never just the bourgeoisie in their living-rooms."

Has Anyone Seen My Pussy? explores how, by moving to later in the evening, sit-com writers could stop saying coconuts when they meant to say tits and how The Young Ones helped introduce a more up-front language that is used by shows like Men Behaving Badly or Absolutely Fabulous.