Dad's Army creator Jimmy Perry on his favourite episode
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Over on BBC1, last month’s re-runs of Fawlty Towers were enjoyed by more than 2.6million people. And on BBC4, the sitcom hour featuring Reggie Perrin and Yes Minister, has been racking up from 450,000 to 600,000 viewers. Which all goes to show that, even in this woke age, there is something timeless about these TV treasures. So just what is it about these classics of yesteryear that we can’t get enough of? Why is it that the aforementioned sitcoms, together with so many others from the Seventies and Eighties, still resonate powerfully with the public while many contemporary comedies disappear without trace after a single series?
The late Jeremy Lloyd, who co-wrote Are You Being Served? and ‘Allo, ‘Allo!, once told me: “The most memorable characters are those you’d like to have around for dinner, even if they’re pompous like Captain Mainwaring in Dad’s Army, my all-time favourite sitcom character.”
Lloyd, responsible – along with David Croft – for creating the likes of Mr Humphries, Mrs Slocombe and René Artois, was lamenting the decline in strong characters from modern day comedies. “The problem is that sitcoms aren’t given a chance to grow now. Unless they’re an instant hit, they’re scrapped. Consequently, audiences don’t have time to get to know the characters.”
Eric Chappell, whose output included Rising Damp, Only When I Laugh and Duty Free, concurs with Lloyd. “To work, you’ve got to take risks, spend money and give sitcoms time to grow,” he explains.
“Most don’t attract big audiences on the first outing. Rising Damp’s first series failed to reach the Top 20, but by the third we’d topped the ratings’ chart. Successful comedies are rare these days.
“New shows have to be given as much time as possible but in the world of commercial TV – where my shows were shown – pressures in terms of advertising revenues are now so intense that decisions regarding a show’s future are often made too hastily.”
The lion’s share of sitcoms we still enjoy today were written by writers who had experienced life and played out by actors who had learnt their trade via years of repertory theatre – sadly, an avenue mostly now closed to today’s budding actors.
“By the time they arrived on TV, they were fully-formed, middle-aged performers who could play a multitude of roles,” observed Lloyd, adding that actors in more recent times “leave drama school and go straight into TV”, missing out on the grounding.
“This must play a part in their ability to bring characters alive on screen – the perfect recipe for easily forgotten characters.”
Lloyd also believed that writers couldn’t create strong identifiable characters unless they’d experienced the world, too. He recalled: “I had ten jobs, including plumber, road digger and department store sales assistant before I started writing.”
Graeme Garden, one third of The Goodies and a regular panellist on Radio 4’s I’m Sorry, I Haven’t A Clue, believes the cosy style of comedy is another reason the classics have transcended the decades.
“Although we’re inclined to look back with rose-tinted specs, it’s true that with few exceptions there was plenty of warmth in comedies from that era – something many people miss in today’s sitcoms,” says Graeme.
He cites the US import Schitt’s Creek as the only recent comedy he’s enjoyed. “It’s a wonderful pure sitcom which has gone back to basics and is beautifully done. Now there is a lot of comedy of embarrassment and humiliation. In a way, it’s easier to do.
“I always thought it was easier to draw an ugly face than a beautiful one. People want to make their mark and a quick way of doing it is to shock and push the boundaries.”
In most of the classics, serious smut and innuendo are virtually non-existent, according to Jeffrey Holland, who made his name as Spike in Hi-De-Hi!, just one of many gems from the estimable writing team of Jimmy Perry and David Croft.
“It was good clean family fun,” he says. “People don’t write that anymore, they try to be smart and think it’s funny being rude. Call me old-fashioned, but I think that’s what is wrong with comedies now.”
Sue Holderness struck gold when she joined the cast of Only Fools and Horses as Marlene, wife of car dealer Boycie, and agrees that vulgarity played no part in sitcoms like Only Fools.
“They were written for all ages to enjoy. John Sullivan had grandparents and children in his life when writing Only Fools and wanted every generation to be able to sit together and be entertained without fear of embarrassment or discomfort.
The main characters don’t swear, don’t take drugs, they care for both young and old and have big hearts. Well, maybe not Boycie!”
“Also, each episode had a jolly good story, including a proper beginning, middle and end. They always managed to make you laugh, but because the audience learns to like and care about the characters, they can also sometimes make you cry. What more can you ask?”
According to Aaron Brown, editor of the online British Comedy Guide, other factors also weigh in to different extents.
“In decades past, sitcoms were often less specific than today in their setting and characterisation,” he says. “They portrayed broader, more widely recognisable and identifiable character types, putting those characters into different situations every single week.
“By contrast, most sitcoms today follow a single plot across one – or even multiple – series. If a viewer doesn’t engage with that storyline from episode one, there’s no change to it and nothing to get them coming back to try further episodes. Naturally, this also inhibits casual repeat viewing, as you can’t dip in and watch an isolated story.”
Less reliance on jokes seems to be a trademark of today’s shows, too.
“The propensity of modern sitcoms to explore a very specific plot rather than a wider theme does, perhaps, lead to technically stronger writing than many popular comedies of yesteryear.
But it also seems to be laden with the burden of fewer jokes and those – whether visual, verbal, character-based or plot-driven – are the ultimate be-all and endall when making broadcast comedy. It’s those that viewers will tune in to see and come back for, along with the range of settings, stories and broader character types.”
One of the most popular sitcoms of the 1990s was David Renwick’s One Foot in the Grave, starring Richard Wilson as grumpy Victor Meldrew and Annette Crosbie as his wife.
David is in no doubt that comedy today is, on the whole, far different. “It’s gradually evolved away from what we’d call the more traditional form,” he explains. “Shows like Fawlty Towers, for example, adhered to a very classic, recognisable format: essentially a finely-tuned farce in a realistic setting.
“Others, like Dad’s Army, rely almost entirely on funny characters while the plots are secondary. Perrin is different again, coming from an author, David Nobbs, with his own unique flair for literate eccentricity.”
When considering the classics we remember so fondly, David points out that virtually all are built around at least one or two exceptionally funny actors. “Maybe the difference today is that so many writers come from a background of stand-up. So their instincts for how to generate a laugh will be largely coloured by their own techniques in performance.
“This, perhaps, gives you a different starting point, without the same emphasis on ideas and construction.
“Maybe that’s why a lot of stuff today seems to thrive on attitude and adrenalin. “I suppose every generation wants to feel they’re progressing to something more sophisticated. And although a lot of the tricks and mechanisms we used in the Seventies and Eighties may be acceptable in a nostalgic context, it’s like trends in music – people want to feel they’ve moved on.”
David, who also writes Jonathan Creek, says the level of executive scrutiny nowadays is far greater. “I can imagine a lot of very heavy intellectual arguments taking place at the expense of raw comic intuition, which is rarely helpful,” he says.
“For better or worse, in the old days producers and writers were pretty much left to make their own decisions, so there was a much greater chance of a truly organic project.”
Writers such as Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais – who penned, among others, Porridge and The Likely Lads – certainly benefited from the freedom bestowed upon them by the BBC hierarchy back in the 1960s and 1970s.
Both of their most popular sitcoms soon became hits, helped, says California-based Dick Clement, by the lack of channels.
“There were only three then so if a show sounded promising, millions watched. This meant that you had more instant hits and it may well be why we remember them with such affection.
“In that respect, it was truly a golden era. I tend to think that this is what we’re nostalgic about – a time when families sat around the box at a regular time with eager anticipation. No one was texting or checking their messages.
“We don’t watch TV that way anymore. We’re overwhelmed with choice, so tend to wait until a friend recommends that we take a look at something they enjoyed. It was quite a while before I watched Schitt’s Creek – I think the title put me off initially. Once I started, I was hooked.”
As for the future of situation comedy, Dick isn’t writing it off. He adds: “I don’t feel comedy is dying – funny is still funny. And we definitely look back through rose-tinted glasses, remembering the good stuff. There was rubbish out there as well.”
So, with the likes of Dad’s Army and all the other successes from the ’70s and ’80s still bringing a smile to the viewing public’s face, will we be watching any of today’s offerings in decades to come?
Sadly, not everyone shares Dick Clement’s optimism.
“Besides, even if there were such good sitcoms today, families don’t sit down like they used to, partly because the kids are in their rooms playing on their console,” says Jeffrey Holland. “The viewing public has changed – probably forever.”
Check out the British Comedy Guide at comedy.co.uk
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