The shows with one foot in the grave

As a generation of favourites comes to an end, the search is on for new sit-coms. But the chances of finding them are slim
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Is it dead or merely sleeping?

Is it dead or merely sleeping?

That is the question a lot of television viewers seem to be asking about that great national institution, the British situation comedy.

Their query is partly prompted by the collective demise of several of the last decade's long-running favourites - One Foot in the Grave, Goodnight Sweetheart, Men Behaving Badly, Father Ted, and Absolutely Fabulous - with no obvious successor in the viewers' affections as yet, although AbFab is said to be on its way back.

They are also troubled by the apparently weed-like strangulation of the prime-time schedules by "people documentaries", "life-style programmes" and the infernal "quiz shows". The fear is that these cheaper programmes are a safer bet for the broadcasters than a rather more expensive sit-com that the audience may not like.

"Situation comedies certainly seem to have dried up at the moment," says Linda Seifert of SDA Associates, agents to some of the top comedy writers in the country. "There hasn't been that many getting made. I think we're at a crossroads where the 'three people on a sofa in a bed-sit format' has become exhausted."

Yet in the collective consciousness of the television audience, situation comedies have always occupied reassuring ground, and there is a long strand of folk memory that is entirely made up of magical scenes from comedies. A posturing Del Boy falling through the open flap of a wine-bar counter figured high up in 100 Greatest TV Moments last year, and more people will remember the Citroën 2CV being found in the skip outside Victor Meldrew's house than any of the conflated drama in soap operas.

A personal portfolio of pleasure include: Sergeant Ernie Bilko training a racehorse at night by attaching headlights to its bridle; anything in Ray Galton & Alan Simpson's The Blood Donor with Tony Hancock; or in their partitioned-house sequence in Steptoe and Son; the episode when Terry and Bob try to avoid hearing a football result in Dick Clement & La Frenais's Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?; and, from the same writers, the boiler-room trial scene, complete with disgraced judge, in Porridge; Gary and Neil farting merrily away in a birthing pool in Simon Nye's Men Behaving Badly.

Of course, situation comedies have also given us some of the worst television experiences, and a bad sitcom is more noxious than a plate of month-old seafood. Love Thy Neighbour or Mind Your Language weren't even funny in the non-PC era, but you could have sat equally stone-faced through last year's right-on lesbian comedy, Rhona. For the alchemy of a successful sit-com is so mysterious that the pursuit of gold from base metal seems plausible by comparison.

The known ingredients are a funny script, with a half-decent plot, and a star and a cast of actors who are capable of bringing the characters to life, saying the lines as if they'd just thought of them, and a director who knows the visual grammar of comedy. Add to these an appreciative "live" audience at the programme's recording, the perfect slot in the television schedule and, finally, catching the viewers at home in a convivial and receptive mood. But even with all these elements, a hit cannot be guaranteed. TV cemeteries are littered with the corpses of star-based comedies designed as a vehicle for a single ego - and nine times out of 10, that vehicle has been a hearse.

Like most sit-com writers, I have a handful of "lost pilots" gathering cobwebs in some television storage room. Even names such as Paul Nicholas, Tracey Ullman, Alfred Molina and Jim Broadbent couldn't secure a full series. And I recall with dread the recording of a cheery comedy in front of a Birmingham audience that had just heard Britain declare war on Argentina.

Perhaps the most crucial element, the one that must be "got right" from the very start is the "sit" itself. Humphrey Barclay, one of the great pioneers of comedy, first at the BBC and later at London Weekend, used to challenge his writers to "define the core of their comedy in a sentence". So, when I was co-writing two series of Agony for him in the late 1970s, the mantra was "it's about a woman who solves other people's problems but who can't sort out her own". By the same process you could see that the sustaining joke of Fawlty Towers was that Basil was a hotelier who hated the public, and later, in MBB, that Gary and Neil were more in love with each other than Dorothy or Debs.

Despite their difficulty, situation comedies remained a prized element in the schedules of all broadcasting companies well into the 1990s. Nobody thought twice about the cost of making "pilot" episodes, even if they didn't see the light of day. But many of the new, cost-conscious television executives of the post-1992 franchise era could only see this process as wasteful.

Occasionally, American formats were borrowed, on the basis that what had worked over there, should somehow get across here, but none of these attempts came off. And there was never much chance of the networks borrowing the expensive American sit-com model by hiring a team of writers for a year and coughing up for 26 episodes.

In any case, the "suits" thought by now that they had the means to know exactly what the audience wanted, by consulting focus groups or even the advertisers' demographic research, so that audiences could be broken down in terms of age and social class. Established comedy expertise suddenly had to defer to market research.

Geoff Posner, a producer and director of both sketch and situation comedies for virtually all the big names of the past 20 years - Lenny Henry, Victoria Wood, Harry Enfield - has a precise take on this change of climate.

"The broadcasters are more nervous now about comedy, partly because an episode can cost five times as much as a DIY programme - £250,000 to £50,000 - but cannot be five times more likely to be successful. That's the fundamental fear in TV, and that has meant that the commissioning process has become very brutal and callous. They won't make pilots anymore, so you have to endure a cold, table-reading of a script with executives trying to guess whether it's going to work. They have also become paralysed by anything that hasn't got an established comedy star in it. The end-result is that shows are getting made, or turned down, for non-comedic reasons."

Nevertheless Posner, who runs his own production company, remains dedicated to the situation comedy. "It's not dead by any means. A lot of talent has tended to migrate towards sketch shows or comedy dramas, and this may be a time when we're waiting for a younger generation of writers and performers to emerge."

One person who shares Posner's passion is ITV's head of comedy, Sioned William. With The Royle Family and Cold Feet cleaning up awards, it might be thought that the filmed, no-audience half-hour, or the 50-minute comedy drama would become the new paradigm. But William says she is a "great believer in situation comedy. It's a wonderful discipline, and when you get it right, with a live audience responding and the actors hitting their rhythm, you get that fantastic communal theatre experience."

The coming year will reveal whether such optimism is justified. After all, a nation enduring biblically bad weather, a collapsing rail system and a five-month election campaign is going to need a few laughs.