Did Father Ted give studio sitcoms the last rites?

Liam Mullan on the state of TV comedy

In his recent Correspondents contribution, Dave Cohen launched a pre-emptive strike against the ‘death of the audience sitcom’ becoming an accepted fact. The critical savaging of Big Top and The Persuasionists so close to each other means commentators might jump to identifying a trend. And commentators only love one thing more than having a trend – and that coining a name for a trend that catches on…

I previously wrote a piece for Chortle that after Seinfeld the three-wall/three-camera sitcom had been essentially perfected as an art form, at least in the American tradition. But that does not mean I believe it has been mastered in the UK or that it’s a genre no longer capable of offering high-quality entertainment. Yet it is fashionable to lambast this most traditional of TV formats, and has been so for more than a decade.

Ricky Gervais and others with high opinions of their own comedic instincts have made it clear they wouldn’t touch audience sitcoms for fear of tainting their immaculate integrity. In Extras, Gervais and Stephen Merchant ridiculed the genre with the hilariously bad catchphrase-driven parody When The Whistle Blows. But a friend of mine recalls watching an episode with his mother: while he loved the usual comedy of embarrassment, his mum sat bemused – until one intentionally naff joke taken from the show-within-a-show got her chuckling heartily.

After any backlash there’s inevitably a backlash to the backlash. The possible tipping point back in the studio sitcom’s favour seemed to have been Peep Show writers Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain’s involvement with The Old Guys and then the debut of Miranda Hart’s vehicle Miranda. Unashamedly broad and taking a leaf out of many old-fashioned sitcoms, Miranda was even championed by writers on the fashionable, culture-obsessed Guardian.

I admit that I watched the first few episodes of Miranda wanting desperately to enjoy the show and to witness the rise of the oh-so-loveable Hart. Miranda wore its heart on its sleeve and cheerily waved to the audience at the end of the episode but I just couldn’t bring myself to wave back. I understand someone wishing to evoke memories of bygone sitcom, but surely our writers should be influenced by the likes of Yes Minister and not Hi-De-Hi!

A brilliant script is certainly the one crucial ingredient for a sitcom to be any good. Peep Show, The Inbetweeners and all other recent awards-laden quality fare have been the shows with the best scripts. The brilliant actors can only do so much: witness the distinction between Ardal O’Hanlan’s similar performances in Father Ted and My Hero.

Actors must still shoulder some responsibility for the apparent fall in quality in this genre. Look at the difference between Ralf Little’s performance in The Royle Family and then in Two Pints of Lager. Again, the disparity of the material is partly to blame but too many times actors seem to feel a studio audience sitcom is an excuse to mug and overact.

Katherine Parkinson’s performance in the first few episodes of The IT Crowd is almost insufferable, but she improved as time went on and she reined in her worst instincts to exaggerate and milk nearly everything.

Of course studio sitcoms will always appear more theatrical on screen – and the rhythm of dialogue in stage comedies should also be studied more by today’s writers. But while theatre acting plays to the people in the back row, the distance between the screen and the viewer remains the same for a sitcom in front of an audience and one shot on location.

Arthur Lowe’s Captain Mainwaring may be the best British sitcom character of all time; Lowe’s performance is masterful and appealed to the broadest possible audience, but he had subtle physicality and perfectly captured emotions. Rowan Atkinson’s various Blackadders had near perma-smirks and sarcastic quips in every episode, but the gradual slipping of his arrogant veneer as his situation worsened were a delight. Sometimes the amusement of a few hundred will have to be sacrificed for that of a few million.

Cohen made the point about scripts being ‘pulped into blandness by committee; and I would beg commissioners to look more thoroughly into the great sitcoms of the past – the Steptoe & Sons, the Porridges and the Likely Lads and attempt to better understand the reason that they are so loved.

More4 recently dedicated a night in celebration of Graham Linehan. His recent complaints on Charlie Brooker’s Gameswipe that writers in film and TV seem to have stopped reading books rings very true in modern sitcom writing. He is seen by most as the best writer in this field as he was partly and entirely responsible for the two best UK studio sitcoms of the past decade – Black Books and The IT Crowd (which still took a while to find its feet). His biggest influence in the current state of British comedy, though, is writing with Arthur Mathews the last truly great studio audience sitcom to come from Britain in Father Ted.

I realise that Father Ted is British in financing only and in all other areas it is an Irish sitcom. That is the problem. Every UK studio audience sitcom since Father Ted seems to have attempted, consciously or not, to ape Father Ted in dialogue, performance, rhythm, gag ratio and filming style.

For the past decades most British sitcoms made by British talent have been attempts to copy an Irish sitcom made by Irish talent. And it’s surely no coincidence that both Black Boos and The IT Crowd have Irish central talent. When one culture attempts to copy another’s artistic successes, the failure rate is high – as the slew of British sitcoms failing to make it across the Atlantic attests.

Our great sitcoms take their influences from the works of Ayckbourn, Galton & Simpson and others and are usually inspired by that British obsession: class.

Father Ted was far closer to the writing of Flann O’Brien and others from their homeland and is driven by Ireland’s historical dominance of religion above class. The flights of fancy our sitcoms now take ring hollow because they are not defiant and anarchic like The Young Ones ripping apart The Good Life, but instead try to recapture the brilliance of Ted’s whimsically surreal moments. This more light and carefree nature certainly does not echo what the British sitcom is traditionally about - and the sooner that’s realised by those creating them today the better.

Writers are often told ‘truths’ such as their script they must have three jokes to each page. This is plainly rubbish. If that were the case Only Fools And Horses would have never seen the light of day for all the pathos that inhabits nearly every episode. Porridge would not have been allowed to show the more philosophical moments between Fletcher and Godber in their cell, thus taking away the true heart of the show. While Porridge’s sequel Going Straight never reached the heights of its predecessor, the people who made it had the confidence to make a scene in the first episode where Fletcher and nemesis Mackay shared long stretches of dialogue that were equal parts funny, relevant to the charged political times of the era and, best of all, truly moving as these two enemies finally worked towards a better understanding of one another.

That is the universal nature of these shows which modern British sitcoms should aspire, and the success of Gavin and Stacey is evidence that it still exists.

But instead today’s studio sitcoms are driven by a faux-populism made by those who don’t understand a mass audience does not need to be talked down and constantly told jokes – whether good or bad, coming from within a completely natural and rhythmic flow or jammed in to fit the rigidly set criteria – in order to make sure they never forget they are watching a comedy.

Please do not take these as the ranting of a doom and gloom merchant. I think the past 20 years may have produced more TV comedy talent than any time before it. I want to laugh at every sitcom I watch. But when an audience laughs on-screen and I don’t, I feel anger, insulted and alone – which is surely the last thing an audience sitcom ever wants to achieve.

Published: 24 Feb 2010

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