Don't panic! It's only another list

Hardly a month goes by without some poll or other trying to find the nation's favourite sitcom
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The Independent Online

The current edition of the Radio Times contains a list of 100 so-called situation comedies, from The Army Game, first transmitted in 1957, to this year's Early Doors. Readers are invited to fill in a voting form listing their 10 favourites, and the results will feature in a "major" series on BBC2 early next year, which will attempt to ascertain "once and for all" which is the nation's favourite sitcom.

Of course, hardly a month goes by without some poll or other trying to find the nation's favourite sitcom, and the "once and for all" carries all the authority of Sergeant Wilson trying to put his foot down with some of the more skittish members of the Walmington-on-Sea Home Guard. But if we can set aside the weariness that this eternal and meaningless quest engenders, not to mention the surefire certainty that Only Fools and Horses will finish top, with Fawlty Towers second and probably Dad's Army third, then several points are worth making.

First, situation comedy is a misnomer. The comedy of the above-mentioned Early Doors - beautifully written, observed and played by a team led by Craig Cash, co-creator of The Royle Family - lies not in situation but in the lack of situation, in the banality of everyday conversation. The Royle Family mined the same seam even more brilliantly. To call them situation comedies, begging comparison with On The Buses and 'Allo 'Allo, is like comparing racehorses with shirehorses. Four legs, big teeth, but entirely different breeds.

Moreover, what are the criteria? Does "greatest" mean funniest, or most influential? At least influence can be measured. And if influence is taken to mean legacy, in terms of impact on other programme-makers, then the five most influential and accordingly greatest "sitcoms" are arguably, in chronological order, Hancock's Half-Hour, Steptoe and Son, Porridge, Fawlty Towers and The Royle Family. That's a pretty fine list, but leaves out Del and Rodney Trotter altogether, which would get me lynched down the Dog and Duck.

As well as various practical objections to the exercise, I have an emotional one: this preoccupation with finding the finest of this, the funniest of that, is developing into an alarming national psychosis. As far as I can tell, it is unique to this country. The people of Denmark are not forever being asked to identify their favourite films, or holiday destinations. They don't have to choose the greatest Dane in the history of great Danes. Even America, which invariably has already contracted to the power of 10 any cultural disease we might catch, doesn't have anything like the penchant for list-making that has developed over here.

An Australian acquaintance ascribes it to our fondness for queuing, for placing things in order. He might well be right, although I see it as part of the socio-cultural dumbing-down process. Invite someone, willy-nilly, to list their five favourite rock anthems, or movie stars, and you have a conversation. Or, by extension, a television programme. It's the Pot Noodle effect: think of a subject and add hot water.

That said, I rather liked Pot Noodles when they were first introduced, and I'm as much a sucker for lists as anyone - except perhaps the BBC and Channel 4. There's no doubt a spot of list-making can enliven an evening. Around a dinner table in Melbourne earlier this year, I asked a bunch of Australians to name the greatest three Australian sports stars, unleashing a debate which continued for hours (Sir Donald Bradman was pretty much a given at number one, but numbers two and three were hotly contested, with suggestions ranging, I remember, from Walter Lindrum, a billiards player, to Phar Lap, a horse).

Even my own enthusiasm for list-making, however, has been worn down by sheer repetition and lack of originality. How unutterably dull it is to have to pick, yet again, the greatest sitcoms of all time. It would be a lot more fun to pick the worst. So, with the help of Mark Lewisohn's magisterial Radio Times Guide to TV Comedy, here are my selections for the worst three British sitcoms ever made.

In third place, Take A Letter Mr Jones, which ran on ITV in 1981 and starred, wait for it, John Inman as Rula Lenska's secretary. Second worst, Gimme Gimme Gimme - which is one of the Radio Times top 100, and indeed has a sizeable following, although I can never see beyond the rancid caricature, and it is propelled into my top three because it achieves the previously unthinkable, forcing me to switch off the magnificent Kathy Burke. As for my all-time lowest, it has to be Brighton Belles, ITV's execrable 1993 attempt, starring Wendy Craig for heaven's sake, to replicate The Golden Girls.

If you feel you can top this list for awfulness, do write in. But just to stay controversial, every worst-sitcom list must feature at least one of the Radio Times top 100. Is there anyone out there who loathes Only Fools and Horses? It would be good to know.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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