British sitcom

From Academic Kids

A British sitcom is a situation comedy (sitcom) produced in the United Kingdom. The genre can be difficult to classify as it covers a wide range of styles and situations. A common factor is the exploration of social mores, often with a healthy dollop of satire or bathos, in contrast to the sometimes uplifting sentiments of many American sitcoms. British comedies are typically produced in series of six episodes each. In the United States, British sitcoms are rarely seen on the commercial networks, but are often seen on the Public Broadcasting Service and increasingly on cable television, including BBC America. In the U.S., the genre is sometimes referred to as Britcoms, a portmanteau from the words British and comedy and a play on the word sitcom.



As the traditional British situation comedy is produced by just one or two writers its comedy is often of a less exuberant nature than situation comedies produced in other countries. (Sitcoms produced by teams of writers creating jokes in the competitive atmosphere of a writers' room will naturally have a high ratio of punch-lines). Although it may be argued that a sitcom's raison d'Ítre is to pack as many gags as possible into a half hour, the more measured approach engendered by a single writer or a close writing partnership permits greater control over the programme's direction and a more structured approach to character and plot development. The need for rapid-fire jokes can make the establishment of multi-dimensional characters much harder.

It is often the everyday wit and wordplay traditionally attributed to pubs, shop floors and staff rooms up and down the country that provides much of the comedy in many Britcoms. The most sedately written British sitcoms repudiate structured jokes altogether and attempt to reproduce an everyday environment with the intention of also reproducing its comedy. Examples of this hyperreal approach include The Royle Family and Last of the Summer Wine as well as many British comedy-dramas. Their reliance on character-led, rather than plot-led, humour requires strongly defined characters with whom the audience can identify.

With fewer writers in a project, more unusual and complex fantasy worlds can be created. A significant subset of British comedy therefore consciously avoids traditional situation comedy themes and story lines to branch out into more unusual topics or narrative methods. Such freedom and experimentation is one of the benefits of the British approach and has produced such series as The League of Gentlemen, Marion and Geoff and 15 Storeys High.

Novel approaches to to comedy such as those taken by Blackadder, I'm Alan Partridge and Yes, Minister have challenged the idea of what constitutes a sitcom and have also injected variety into the often bland mainstream. Many started life on radio, building up a cult following before being remade for television. Publicly funded BBC radio is an important source of new sitcom talent, although other broadcasters such as Channel 4 also actively encourage new writers to produce possibly challenging work.

Farce is also a common theme in British sitcoms, exemplified by Fawlty Towers. The Restoration comedy tradition of bawdiness and innuendo has also been well served through series such as Are You Being Served? and Up Pompeii. Other programmes such as Coupling and My Family have attempted to mimic American sitcoms, although Britain has never produced successful rivals to the most popular US shows such as The Simpsons.


The most successful and fondly remembered early British sitcom was Hancock's Half Hour on BBC Radio in the 1950s. It was renowned for its ability to evacuate pubs and streets as listeners stayed home to tune in to Hancock's latest misadventures.

In the 1960s Till Death Us Do Part often caused a stir at the dinner table, inciting debate on political issues — particularly those surrounding immigration. Steptoe and Son, about a man's fractious relationship with his elderly father, is another classic from that decade.

The 1970s brought us Mind Your Language which, far from flirting with racial stereotypes, actually spent the entire 30 minutes of each episode in a long, loving, relationship with the — now frowned upon — business of making fun of other nationalities. Less controversially, and much more fondly remembered from this period, was Fawlty Towers — just don't mention the war.

The new wave of 1980s comedians brought us The Young Ones, an anarchic, knockabout romp and, co-written by the same writer, Blackadder. While young guns were challenging the genre, the traditional sitcom continued to prosper, with such shows as Only Fools and Horses, which has dominated the British sitcom scene ever since and was recently voted Britain's favourite sitcom, and Last of the Summer Wine gaining a place in the nation's heart.

The unlikely story of three priests — one vain, one simple, one comatose — gave the 1990s one of its biggest hits in Father Ted. While shows such as One Foot in the Grave maintained the popularity and critical acclaim of the traditional Britcom, unorthodox comedies, including The Royle Family and The League of Gentlemen, managed to breathe new life into the genre while appealing both to "mainstream" audiences and a new generation of viewers.

In the 2000s The Office became such a monolith in the genre, it can be difficult to peer round it to see anything else that has been on, though My Family and Phoenix Nights continue to command loyal followings.

Since the 1970s, the Cambridge Footlights club, the London based The Comic Strip club and the Edinburgh Festival have been the breeding grounds for much new talent in British comedy.

A number of writers have made significant contributions to the genre. They include Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais, David Croft, Richard Curtis, Ben Elton and John Lloyd.

Britcoms in the U.S.

Many British sitcoms air or have aired in the United States on local PBS television stations, Comedy Central, and BBC America.

A few Britcoms were successfully reworked for U.S. audiences. Two notable examples are Man About the House, which became Three's Company on ABC, and Till Death Us Do Part, which became All in the Family on CBS. Other Britcoms were not as lucky. Beanes of Boston, an Americanised version of Are You Being Served?, was not picked up in 1979. In 2003, Coupling, a Britcom often compared to Friends, was cancelled shortly after the American version premiered on NBC.

Some Britcoms can stand very well on their own in the U.S. Absolutely Fabulous enjoyed a significant following when it aired on Comedy Central in the 1990s. The Office won a Golden Globe award in 2004 for "Best Television Series — Musical or Comedy", beating out popular American favourites such as HBO's Sex and the City and NBC's Will & Grace.

Britcoms in Australia

Although many British comedies were shown on the free-to-air TV networks in Australia in the 1970s and early 80s (e.g. On the Buses, Mind Your Language, Doctor in the House, The Upchat Line and Get Some In!) they had fallen out of favour by the late 1980s. One issue was the difficulty of fitting a half-hour BBC Britcom (without adverts) into a 25-minute Australian TV slot with advertising breaks.

British programs (including Britcoms) have long been standard fare on the ABC. Absolutely Fabulous and Red Dwarf are very popular with Australian audiences and are often re-aired. Keeping Up Appearances also often appears. Other recently-aired Britcoms include Black Books, Gimme Gimme Gimme, and Coupling.

Some popular British sitcoms

A selection of the hundreds of British situation comedies that have been made:

See also

Further reading

  • Lewisohn, Mark (2003) Radio Times Guide to TV Comedy. 2nd Ed. Revised — BBC Consumer Publishing. ISBN 0563487550

External links



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