A British sitcom is a situation comedy programme produced for British television. Although styles of sitcom have changed over the years they tend to be based on a family, workplace or other institution, where the same group of contrasting characters is brought together in each episode. British sitcoms are typically produced in one or more series of six episodes. Most such series are conceived and developed by one or two writers.
The majority of British sitcoms are 30 minutes long and are recorded on studio sets in a multiple-camera setup. A subset of British comedy consciously avoids traditional situation comedy themes and storylines to branch out into more unusual topics or narrative methods. Novel approaches to the situation can be seen in Blackadder and Yes Minister, moving what is often a domestic or workplace genre into the corridors of power. Another popular development in recent years has been the mockumentary.
The first British television sitcom was Pinwright's Progress, broadcast by the BBC from 1946 to 1947, but the form did not take off until the transfer of Hancock's Half Hour from BBC radio in 1956. Hancock biographer John Fisher dates the first use of the term 'situation comedy' in British broadcasting to a BBC memo dated 31 March 1953 written by producer Peter Eton, suggesting the format as the ideal vehicle for Hancock's comedic style. "Hancock's persona of the pompous loser out of his depth in an uncomprehending society still informs many programmes today", according to Phil Wickham. Some of the scripts written for Hancock by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson almost repudiated a narrative structure altogether and attempted to reproduce an everyday environment with the intention of also reproducing its comedy. ITV's most successful sitcom of this period was probably The Army Game (1957–61), featuring some of the comedians who would soon appear in the Carry On film series.
In the 1960s the BBC produced the earliest of Richard Waring's domestic comedies, Marriage Lines (1961–66), with Richard Briers and Prunella Scales, and a then-rare workplace comedy with The Rag Trade (1961–63, 1977–78). Two long-running series began around this time, Steptoe and Son (1962–65, 1970–74) and Till Death Us Do Part (1965–68, 1972–75), the latter criticised by Clean-Up TV campaigner Mary Whitehouse for its bad language. With Steptoe (and The Likely Lads, 1964–66) producers began to cast straight actors, rather than comedians, around whom earlier series like Whack-O! (1956–60, 1971–72), with Jimmy Edwards, or those featuring Hancock, had been built.
A gentle mockery of Britain's 'finest hour' occurred with the home guard comedy Dad's Army (1968–77) and the church with All Gas and Gaiters (1966–71). Women generally had very secondary roles at this time, though various series with Wendy Craig in the leading role and those developed by scriptwriter Carla Lane, the first successful female writer in the form, were challenges to this situation. Lane's career initially began in collaboration with other writers on The Liver Birds (1969–79, 1996).
The 1970s is often regarded as the golden era of British sitcom. Well-remembered series include John Cleese and Connie Booth's farcical Fawlty Towers, John Esmonde and Bob Larbey's self-sufficiency comedy The Good Life. Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads?, a sequel to the earlier show, surpassed the original, while the same writers (Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais) provided Ronnie Barker with his most successful sitcom vehicle, Porridge (1974–77). Barker also starred (along with David Jason) in the very popular Open All Hours (1976–85), written by Roy Clarke. Clarke's long-running Last of the Summer Wine began in 1973 and ended in 2010, becoming the world's longest running sitcom.
The commercial station ITV had popular successes with Rising Damp (1974–78, sometimes called the best of all ITV sitcoms), Man About the House (1973–76) and George and Mildred (1976–79). Rising Damp's star, Leonard Rossiter, also played the lead role in the BBC's highly popular The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin (1976–79). The decline in cinema attendance in this period meant that many of these series were turned into cinema films; the first film version of On the Buses (1969–73) was the biggest hit at the British box office in 1971. According to Jeff Evans, On the Buses is a "cheerfully vulgar comedy" in which "leering and innuendo dominate." Some of the network's other ratings successes from this era are 'politically incorrect' too. Series such as Love Thy Neighbour and Mind Your Language, which attempted to find humour in racial or ethnic conflict and misunderstandings, became increasingly criticised in later years.
In the 1980s the emerging alternative comedians began to encroach on British sitcoms, partly as a response to such series as Terry and June (1979–87) being perceived as containing "complacent gentility, outmoded social attitudes and bourgeois sensibilities". The alternatives incursion began with The Young Ones (1982–84), written by Rik Mayall, Ben Elton and others, and continued with Blackadder (1983–89). Mayall was also the star of The New Statesman (1987–92), a series created by Maurice Gran and Laurence Marks, whose biggest success, Birds of a Feather (1989–98, 2014–), also deviated from British practice in being scripted by a team of writers.
Only Fools and Horses, one of the most successful of all British sitcoms, began in 1981 and was the most durable of several series written and created by John Sullivan. Other hits included the political satire Yes Minister (1980–84) and its sequel Yes, Prime Minister (1986–88), Esmonde and Larbey's suburban sitcom Ever Decreasing Circles (1984–89) and the sci-fi-comedy Red Dwarf (1988–). Other shows such as 'Allo 'Allo! (1984–92) were reminiscent of 1970s sitcoms such as Are You Being Served? and Dad's Army.
The new Channel 4 began to have successful long-running situation comedies. Desmond's (1989–94) was the first British sitcom with a black cast set in the workplace, and Drop the Dead Donkey (1990–98) brought topicality to the form as it was recorded close to transmission.
Some of the biggest hits of the 1990s were Father Ted, Men Behaving Badly, Absolutely Fabulous, I'm Alan Partridge, Keeping Up Appearances, Goodnight Sweetheart, The Vicar of Dibley and One Foot in the Grave. Later examples of the hyperreal approach pioneered by Galton and Simpson in some of their Hancock scripts include The Royle Family, Early Doors, Gavin & Stacey and The Office, as well as many British dramedies.
The BBC has also begun using their digital channels BBC Three and BBC Four to build a following for off-beat series like The Thick of It. Channel 4 has had recent successes with Spaced, Phoenix Nights, Black Books, Green Wing, Peep Show and The Inbetweeners.
The conventional sitcom has declined in importance in the schedules over time (in many cases superseded by the mixture of comedy and drama in dramedy series such as Doc Martin and Hamish Macbeth) although the form is not extinct. Some popular sitcoms in the UK during the last ten years include Outnumbered; Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps, which ended its ninth series in 2011; and The IT Crowd (2006-2013). At the BBC, the late 2000s and early 2010s have seen a major resurgence in traditional-style sitcoms filmed in front of a studio audience and featuring a laughter track, such as Not Going Out, Miranda, Reggie Perrin (a remake of the 1970s series The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin), Big Top, Mrs Brown's Boys, Friday Night Dinner, and In with the Flynns.
British sitcoms overseas
British sitcoms are often seen on the Public Broadcasting Service, usually thanks to the effort of WGBH, and increasingly on cable television, including BBC America and Comedy Central. Are You Being Served?, Keeping up Appearances and As Time Goes By became sleeper hits when they aired on the Public Broadcasting Service, while Absolutely Fabulous enjoyed a significant following when it aired on Comedy Central, and The Office won a Golden Globe award in 2004 for "Best Television Series—Musical or Comedy", beating popular American favourites such as HBO's Sex and the City and NBC's Will & Grace. Most PBS stations affectionately refer to British sitcoms as "Britcoms".
Several British sitcoms have been successfully remade for the American market. Notable examples include Steptoe and Son which became Sanford and Son, Till Death Us Do Part, which became All in the Family on CBS and The Office which was remade into an American series of the same name. More recently, shows such as The Inbetweeners have been adapted as well as Misfits. However, it should be noted that a large number of US adaptations end up being cancelled early or are not commissioned after their pilots are created. Another notable difference, which has been both positive and negative depending upon the skill of the cast and writers, is the American media culture of 20+ episode seasons as opposed to the British which usually has less than 10 episodes per series.
Australia and New Zealand
In Australia, many British comedy series are aired on the ABC, which is the Australian equivalent of the BBC. British shows are also sometimes shown on the three commercial television networks in Australia; in particular Network Seven screened many popular UK sitcoms during the 1970s. In New Zealand, state-run Television New Zealand also broadcast many popular British series. The majority of British comedies now air in both countries on the subscription channels The Comedy Channel and UKTV.
Australian commercial television channels made their own versions of popular British comedies during the 1970s often using members of the original casts. These included: Are You Being Served?, Father, Dear Father, Doctor Down Under, Love Thy Neighbour. In both countries, locally written and made sitcoms have historically often been heavily influenced by the structure of British sitcoms (such as in the New Zealand sitcom Gliding On).
- British comedy
- British humour
- List of BBC sitcoms
- List of American television series based on British television series
- List of comedies
- List of films based on British sitcoms
- "Pinwright's Progress", British Comedy Guide website
- Anthony Clark "Hancock's Half Hour (1956-60)", BFI screenonline
- John Fisher Tony Hancock. The Definitive Biography, London: Harper Collins, 2008, p.138
- Phil Wickham "Sitcom", BFI screenonline
- "The Army Game", Television Heaven website
- John Oliver "Chesney, Ronald (1920-) and Wolfe, Ronald (1924-)", BFI screenonline
- Jonathan Brown "Mary Whitehouse: To some a crank, to others a warrior: Mary Whitehouse On", The Independent, 24 November 2001
- John Oliver "Galton, Ray (1930-) and Simpson, Alan (1929-)", BFI screenonline
- "All Gas and Gaiters", BBC Comedy website
- Julia Hallam "Lane, Carla (1937-)", BFI screenonline
- Phil Wickham "Rising Damp (1974-78)", BFI screenonline
- Matthew Coniam "A Users Guide to the Great British Sitcom Movie", Kettering: The Fanzine of Elderly British Comedy, [n.d., c.2003] No.1, p.3-9
- "On the Buses", Television Heaven website
- Jeff Evans The Penguin TV Companion, London: Penguin, 2006, p.621
- Vic Pratt "Love Thy Neighbour (1972-76)", BFI screenonline
- Vic Pratt "Mind Your Language (1977-79, 1986)", BFI screenonline
- Mark Duguid "Race and the Sitcom", BFI screenonline
- Anthony Clark "Up Pompeii! (1970)", BFI screenonline
- Phil Wickham "Are You Being Served? (1973-85)", BFI screenonline
- Matthew Coniam "Terry and June (1979-87)", BFI screenonline
- Hannah Hamad "'Allo 'Allo (1984-92)"!, BFI screenonline
- Ali Jaafar "Desmond's (1988-94)", BFI screenonline
- Lewisohn, Mark (2003) Radio Times Guide to TV Comedy. 2nd Ed. Revised — BBC Consumer Publishing. ISBN 0-563-48755-0
- The Classic British Sitcoms Forum
- BBC Britain's Best Sitcom
- British Comedy Guide
- Martin Wainwright, The Guardian, 7 June 2005, "Del Boy is top of the class, say sitcom scientists" – scientist develops formula for measuring (British) sitcom success