Wednesday, March 08, 2006

You’re having a laugh, aintcha?

(This should have been posted weeks ago, when it would have been vaguely topical. I still thought it might be worth putting up, though. I'd welcome any comments, especially from those who knows anything about the contents of Iannucci's lectures or saw the episode of 'Imagine'.)

For whatever reason, the state of the British sitcom has been something of a hot topic of late, and as comedy is a subject very close to my heart I decided I’d pitch in with some thoughts.

Armando Iannucci – possessor of a near-peerless comedy CV but most recently director, producer and co-writer of BBC4’s ‘The Thick Of It’ – has delivered a series of lectures on the future of the British sitcom, while an episode of another BBC4 programme, Alan Yentob’s vanity arts show ‘Imagine’, was devoted to an exploration of the subject. Unfortunately, I heard or read precious little about either of these, but I did however come across the broadsheet article in which Yentob’s former BBC compadre Greg Dyke lamented the decline of the traditional sitcom. The article was occasioned by nothing more than the fact that there were recently more hours of repeated “classic” sitcoms like ‘Dad’s Army’ than there were of new shows – the implication being that the British sitcom is dead.

It all struck me as a load of sepia-tinted drivel.

It’s true that the “sits” are now in many cases much further removed from the realms of reality than ‘The Good Life’ and ‘Fawlty Towers’. Peter Baynham’s ‘I Am Not An Animal’, for instance, was an animated sitcom about a group of animals freed from a vivisection clinic with the collective but misguided belief that they knew how to function in human society. Meanwhile, I wouldn’t deny that ‘The Mighty Boosh’ is the work of two incredibly imaginative / severely disturbed individuals (Julian Barrett and Noel Fielding), but even the literally fabulous worlds they conjure up – like the grotesque characters of Mark Gatiss, Reece Shearsmith, Steve Pemberton and Jeremy Dyson in ‘The League Of Gentlemen’ or (to a lesser extent) of Julia Davis in ‘Nighty Night’ – bear at least some relation to our own, however tangential.

Some people – and I imagine Dyke might be one of them – might complain that it’s easy to be funny when you let your imagination run riot and create extraordinary situations, but much harder to wring humour from the mundane reality of everyday existence. True, perhaps, but then of late sitcom writers have proven themselves astonishingly adept at this too. The creators of ‘Spaced’ and ‘Peep Show’ have forged comic gold out of the ostensibly jaded raw material of cohabiting characters, but the benchmark for this type of sitcom is, of course, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s ‘The Office’, its nondescript title and subtle writing inch-perfect. Perhaps even more remarkable, however, is ‘The Smoking Room’, set in a single room in a nondescript office, with all the added constraints that brings to bear upon the writers. (Also worth a mention on that score: Paul Whitehouse’s ‘Help’, set entirely in a psychotherapist’s office.)

Some people – and, again, I imagine Dyke might be one of them – might complain about the apparently ceaseless movement towards extremity that ‘Nighty Night’ represents; they don’t make ‘em like they used to etc etc. It’s true that today’s sitcoms are in general sharper, harsher and darker in tone than their much-celebrated (and much-repeated) predecessors, often as likely to induce unease and nausea as laughter and a warm glow to the extent that you watch through your fingers, at least metaphorically speaking. But then comedy is often not just about getting laughs and the feelgood factor, it should also be about stimulating and provoking the viewer, and pushing boundaries. In any case, would you rather watch Compo careering down a hillside in a wheeled bathtub for the umpteenth time, or Tubbs suckling a pig and Jill chucking chicken tikka under a closed door in an attempt to convince Glenn that it’s her afterbirth?

One related point Dyke did make that I can’t dispute is the disappearance of the middle ground. He suggested that ‘The Vicar Of Dibley’ was the last sitcom with family appeal to garner a mass mainstream audience. ‘My Hero’ and ‘My Family’ have been attempts to fill the void, but without success, mainly because they’re shite (in any case, the latter has featured a cunt joke, so it’s not exactly ‘Keeping Up Appearances’). We just don’t do the MOR American-style sitcom anymore.

What is also striking (though it was ignored by Dyke) is the apparent complete disinterest in sitcoms currently exhibited by ITV. This would be a major concern were it not for the fact that the BBC and Channel 4 seem determined to compensate. BBC3 in particular has proved a godsend for aspiring comic writers, allowing them to effectively trial their creations on a channel conferred with a degree of prestige by virtue of being under the BBC umbrella, before then transferring them (if successful) to the corporation’s terrestrial channels.

The output of the BBC and Channel 4 illustrates that to suggest that the British sitcom in general is dead, or creatively bankrupt, is to do the country’s comic writers an unforgivable disservice. Take a look at the last ten years – fantastic sitcoms everywhere. In addition to those mentioned above I might add: ‘I’m Alan Partridge’, ‘Black Books’, ‘Green Wing’, ‘Phoenix Nights’, ‘Happiness’, ‘Nathan Barley’, ‘Catterick’, ‘Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace’, ‘The Royle Family’… No sooner had the BBC2 run of ‘The Thick Of It’ finished than ‘The IT Crowd’ and ‘Hyperdrive’ started.

Of course, not all of these will survive for posterity, partly because they belong to a particular moment in British cultural and social history (though so does a sitcom like ‘Open All Hours’, and that still raises more than a chuckle). Neither has every sitcom of the last ten years been of a uniformly high quality as (say) ‘Blackadder Goes Forth’. Ricky Gervais and Peter Kay came a-cropper last year with ‘Extras’ and ‘Max & Paddy’s Road To Nowhere’ respectively, and I wouldn’t lose any sleep if every episode of ‘Two Pints Of Lager And A Packet Of Crisps’, ‘Swiss Toni’, ‘Time Gentlemen Please’, ‘Early Doors’ and ‘Hardware’ was destroyed in a massive fire. In fact I’d be more than happy to play the role of arsonist.

But the odd dud is inevitable when so many new sitcoms are being produced – most are well-conceived, well-written, astute and (most important of all) genuinely funny. Commentators like Dyke were probably sounding the sitcom’s death knell when ‘The Young Ones’ first appeared.

Unlike a certain parrot, then, the British sitcom is not dead. Neither is it sleeping. In fact, it’s in rude good health.

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