TV comedy checks in to the sanatorium

The great British sitcom may have run out of steam. Vanessa Thorpe on the bizarre new offerings intended to keep us watching
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The Independent Online
The television sitcom - all spiralling misunderstandings and plywood scenery - is back with a vengeance this winter: nine new series are awaiting transmission.

But plausible ideas seem harder than ever to come by; and in the next few months the biggest sitcom-writing guns around are going to be trained on your sitting room, bringing some of the most unlikely storylines ever written to your small screen.

There will be shows written by John Sullivan (of Only Fools and Horses) about a mini-cab firm; by Roy Clarke (of Last of The Summer Wine and Keeping up Appearances) about a computer company boss; by Andrew Marshall (of 2 Point 4 Children) about a father and son, and two by Simon Nye (of Men Behaving Badly) including one, The Last Salute, about AA and RAC patrolmen of the early Sixties. Meanwhile, ITV is screening Duck Patrol, written by Jan Etherington and Gavin Petrie, which centres on the antics of the river police. And Ray Galton, doyen of the format, has turned to his own life for inspiration: his latest offering, Get Well Soon, is based on his own life, and his meeting with the Steptoe and Son co-writer Alan Simpson, in a TB sanatorium.

"Finding the plots used to be lot easier for me than the writing," he confesses. "Nowadays, I find the ideas much more difficult. Practically everything has been done."

The key to successful television comedy has always been the right balance between strong characterisation and situation - even if the plot stretches credibility. The BBC, which is broadcasting seven out of the nine new series, has had major successes in the past with comedies which match this standard - Dad's Army, for instance, or One Foot in the Grave or, more recently, Absolutely Fabulous.

Galton's new show, written with John Antrobus, starts this evening on BBC1 at 6.40pm and is set after the Second World War, during a long period of incarcer-ation in a sanatorium in Surrey.

It was Antrobus who first suggested the sanatorium as a comedy venue. Galton acknowledges that some viewers are likely to feel that the show is in bad taste.

"But we are not making fun of death. You can't avoid the fact that people died. The dying part is not the main ingredient in the show, though," he explains.

The TB idea sounds macabre, but it is not all that odd a premise for a show when compared with Eddie Izzard's failed pilot for Cows, a sitcom which was going to milk all the comic potential of a family of cows who lived in a human domestic setting. For Galton, this was one wacky premise too far.

Galton and Antrobus profess to place much more weight on characterisation than on such gimmicky settings for their work.

Geoffrey Perkins, head of BBC comedy for the past two years, makes a similar distinction between character-based comedies and those based around a silly set of circumstances or "high concept". He has staked his reputation at the BBC on bringing the British public a wide range of fresh sitcoms, yet his first two shows out of the box this autumn have been something of a disappointment, as he conceded this week.

The response from audiences and critics to both Bloomin' Marvellous, the playwright John Godber's account of parents-to-be, and Prince Among Men, which stars Chris Barrie as a former footballer, has been muted in the extreme.

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