Where have all the new sit-coms gone?
With the BBC recently announcing remakes of classic TV comedy shows such as ‘Steptoe and Son’ and ‘Till Death Us Do Part’, ‘Are You Being Served?’, ‘Porridge’, ‘Up Pompeii’, ‘The Good Life’ and ‘Keeping Up Appearances including the re-development of the lost ‘Hancock Half Hour’ tapes, you wander whether some top TV executive has fallen into their comedy Tardis and taken us back to the seventies. Flared trousers intact.
But where’s the new sitcom comedy? The new ‘Steptoe’ or ‘Good Life’ script. There must be one from the many thousands that are sent in to Broadcasting House? Or are they too lazy to read them? The fact is developing fresh new Comedy is a risk, not just artistic but financial. Giving a green light to a new script especially if it’s a new writer is nearly always met with reticence.
Yet the BBC in their broadcasting wisdom choose two years ago to bring back its Comedy Playhouse series which had in the past been successful in finding new sit-coms. This year brought us three new scripts played by experienced casts, with all the comedies written in mockumentary style. ‘Hospital People’ presented performer Tom Binns taking on various roles inside a NHS hospital. These characters were caricatures of the often voluntary jobs people are asked to do in such organisations. Giving a further vehicle for his award winning character Ivan Brackenbury (the inept Hospital radio DJ) and his less known Ian D Montfort the psychic. A frustrated comedian in the guise of Terry, a Liverpool vicar worked well with all the main characters wrapped up with their own self-importance within a caring profession. All three sit-coms lacked narrative but certainly not characterisation as with ‘Broken Biscuits’ co-written by Craig Cash which follows five disparate groups of people, friends, partners and parents, watching their everyday lives as their individual stories unfold. The humour is subtle and comes very much from the character and their observations in life. All well observed as with Brenda the small time Guest House owner played beautifully by Alison Steadman; shouts up the stairs to the housekeeper ‘… and Mable make sure you give the toilet in that room a good slug of bleach … we had vegetarians in their last night’. ‘Stop/start’ a studio based sitcom with a laughter track was the least favourite of the three. It offered us three marriages in various states of disrepair starring John Thompson and Nigel Havers. This work did not seem to have the depth of the others and the constant references and short monologues to camera were too many, irritating and not particularly amusing.
The Comedy Playhouse series began in 1962 at the initiative of Tom Sloan, Head of BBC Light Entertainment. Galton and Simpson were no longer writing for Tony Hancock and Sloan got them into his office, offered them a ten-part series and told them they could write whatever they wanted. Sketch, sitcom or monologue. It was up to them. An Executive decision that would never happen in today’s television. This form of artistic TV freedom went out with black & white set. Galton and Simpson concentrated on sit-com, a format both of them liked and from the first ten episodes one caught the public’s attention called ‘The Offer’. This went on to become ‘Steptoe & Son’ spurning 58 episodes in 8 series (1962-1974) and two films. It also was remade in America under the title ‘Sanford & Son’ played by two black actors.
The first two series of Comedy Playhouse were written by Galton and Simpson, but further episodes were created by various writers. In all, 27 series started from a pilot in the Comedy Playhouse slot, these included Steptoe and Son, Meet the Wife, Till Death Us Do Part, All Gas and Gaiters, Up Pompeii!, Not in Front of the Children, Me Mammy, That’s Your Funeral, The Liver Birds, Are You Being Served? and Last of the Summer Wine, which is the world’s longest running sitcom, having run from January 1973 to August 2010 with changing casts and personnel. The first eight series of ‘Playhouse’ were in black-and-white, with the rest being in colour. Like many television programmes from the time, many of 1960s episodes are missing presumed wiped. This comedic conveyor belt of one-off unrelated sitcoms aired for 120 episodes from 1962 to 1975. It was brought back in 2014 as a further vehicle for new material, continuing this year with some interesting and aspiring scripts and characters. We can only hope that one meets with public and executive approval to go on and make the impact others made.
Matthew Willetts MA is the Director of Comicus who has over 35 years experience in television, film, theatre, and comedy club/cabaret entertainment, working as a performer, screenwriter, producer and agent. He lectured at Southampton Solent University in Comedy, Screenwriting, Television, Theatre & Radio. Matthew can sometimes be seen and heard on TV & Radio and often quoted in the national press and media publications. As well as speaking regularly at festivals and industry conferences, he has been a judge at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and the Montreux Television Festival.