The death of British sitcoms couldn't have come at a worse time – but maybe Alan Partridge can save us?
Imagine if just for half an hour a week, we could forget that we hate our neighbours’ guts and have a good communal laugh instead
Your age is defined by the sitcoms you watched growing up. I was born in 1960, so I was fed – along with Bird’s angel delight and the occasional Findus crispy pancake – a diet of Seventies sitcoms.
Those that remain forever in my memory are Porridge (I fancied Richard Beckinsale), Man about the House (oh how I longed to live in a groovy flat-share with my nylons drying over the bath), The Liver Birds (ditto) and The Good Life. I still think Penelope Keith’s portrayal of Margo Leadbetter is one of the finest creations ever seen on the small screen. Everything about that character was minutely observed and even her accessories were works of art.
As an adult, working at what I felt was the coalface of comedy, ie in the clubs and pubs, I became rather sneery of sitcoms. Possibly because in the Eighties, apart from The Young Ones and Blackadder, very few of them seemed to reflect the changes that were going on in live comedy. This was a decade of transition which was reflected in a slightly queasy mix of sitcoms, some of which would be seen as politically extremely dodgy now.
But whether you watch sitcoms or not, is immaterial, what you don’t expect is for them to vanish off our screens.
Somehow you always imagine them to be there, like Quality Street in a tin at Xmas and going home to your parent’s house and seeing the sofa in the same place. Sitcoms aren’t there just to make you laugh, they’re there to reassure you that the country is in proper working order and that we are still able to have a good laugh at ourselves. Hmmm..?
So whilst many channels are chock-a-block with sitcom repeats, some of which are more than 40 years old, last week ITV axed the last two it was still making, Jack Dee’s Bad Move and the much hardier Birds of a Feather.
The BBC originally broadcast Birds from 1989-1998 before it migrated across to ITV for a reboot in 2014. The resulting opening episode on ITV, 15 years after it had last been screened, attracted a mammoth 8 million viewers, giving ITV its highest-rated comedy in almost 15 years. Not bad considering the trio of female stars were all well over 50.
But it seems not even the Chigwell three were safe from ITV boss Kevin Lygo’s axe. When asked where viewers should go to now for laughs, Lygo blithely commented they could watch Coronation Street. Which just goes to show how dismissive even people in the business can be about both the art of writing soap and the art of writing sitcom.
The trouble is, writing and making sitcoms is hard work and expensive. It’s also a risky business and as we all know, these days telly is all about the ratings and woe betide the programmes that don’t hit their targets.
A good sitcom will often reflect the mood of the nation and at the moment our current mood is upset and angry and you can more or less guarantee that whatever anyone makes, even if one half of the country loves it, the other half will hate it.
Being divided has become our natural default position, and anyway, maybe we are too depressed to make jolly TV at the moment? It’s safer to make cheap panel games and reality shows. Who needs costumes, props and sets when you can stick a few bods behind a desk made from a couple of bits of MDF?
The sitcom is part of our British heritage, but it’s being eroded. Will anyone really look back on Love Island 2018 (even though it was the really good one with Jack and Dani) and remember it with the same fondness as watching Father Ted?
Of course we don’t watch telly like we used to, and there are plenty of ways to find comedy without relying on our terrestrial channels.
Two of my must-watch programmes, Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Friends from College, are available on either Amazon or Netflix, but although American sitcoms are great, it would be a shame if we didn’t keep our own flag flying. Now more than ever, we could really do with something that got the nation sitting down on its sofas at the same time every week, for a proper communal laugh.
Imagine that. Imagine if just for half an hour a week, we could forget that we hate our neighbours’ guts, forget about how anxious we feel and have a good laugh instead, a proper laugh, a proper breathless, tear-wiping laugh, just imagine how good that would make us all feel.
Thank goodness then for the imminent return of the patron saint of British comedy, Steve Coogan, whose new six-week series, This Time with Alan Partridge, starts soon and might be the only thing that gets us through Brexit.
Welcome back, Alan, your country needs you, more than you could ever imagine.