Sitcoms in a different class

Steve Bennett on the festive comedy hits

I’m looking a the ratings chart of the top 100 most-watched shows for the first week in December. It is, as it is most weeks, dominated by soaps and reality shows. Only at No 49 comes the first comedy programme, Have I Got News For You, and all the way down to No 94 for the first sitcom, Outnumbered. As a genre, comedy is almost invisible.

But look how the story changes at Christmas. Miranda wiped the floor with everyone. Mrs Brown was a smash. Outnumbered and the Royles, too. At a time where sitcom is supposed to be struggling, it proves that a narrative comedy – or at least the right narrative comedy – can still find a place in the national psyche.

Of course, Christmas is different. It’s probably the only time of year when TV is, largely, still watched in families, rather than with everyone tucked away with their own screen and so the broader shows will triumph (Peep Show mightn’t find favour with granny, even if it is currently top of its game). But just how well comedy has done this Christmas might provide food for thought for broadcasters and, hopefully, further increase investment in the genre.

ITV, especially, has shied away from comedy in recent years, not least because a half-hour format doesn’t fit so well amid its schedules of hour-long shows with multiple ad breaks. Admirably, the BBC, has always said it is on the lookout for mainstream sitcom hits for its flagship channel, complaining that a stumbling block is that writers and comedians tend to want to work away from the spotlight – and perhaps in more fashionable niche spots where it’s about kudos not ratings.

Certainly there’s an old-fashionedness to some of the festive big-hitters that doesn’t make them popular among the comedy cognoscenti. Mrs Brown’s Boys revels in cheesy set-ups and corny jokes, while the slapstick of Miranda can resemble a post-millennial Some Mothers Do Ave Em. But Outnumbered has breathed fresh life into the family sitcom, and it’s easy to forget just how groundbreaking the Royle Family was when Caroline Aherne first created it, now that it’s become so familiar.

One interesting point to note is that each of these hits is rooted firmly in a class structure. The Royles and Mrs Brown staunchly working-class; Outnumbered’s Brockman family are unashamedly middle-class; and Miranda Hart makes capital of her position at the upper-middle end of the scale.

Comedy has always been about class, of course. But there’s a crucial difference between the current crop and those classic sitcoms which have stood the test of time. These days everyone is happy within their place in the world, whereas in the past much of the humour came from people trying to ‘better themselves’, but failing dismally because of their inner faults.

Think Del Boy’s gauche attempts at cocktail-supping sophistication; Basil Fawlty’s unachievable ambitions to run a classy hotel; Captain Mainwaring clumsily executing the authority that comes naturally to the better-bred Sergeant Wilson; or Tony Hancock’s delusional and pretentious aspirations of grandeur.

Social mobility – or at least the aspirations of that - seem to have been dropped from comedies. After years of scripts carrying the message that any attempt to escape your station in life is doomed, it seems the inhabitants of sitcomland have decided to accept the status quo. Or perhaps society has changed: being middle-class or upper-class is almost an embarrassment now; and when a plumber earns substantially more than a desk-jockey, where’s the need to ‘escape’ the class label.

Or perhaps it’s the sign of broadcasters’ increased obsession with demographics and marketing in this multi-channel world. It’s easier to ‘sell’ a show based on the idea that a section of the audience will identify with the fictional characters, and therefore want to watch. Though the idea that Galton and Simpson targeted Steptoe and Son only towards those who knew the grimy life of a rag-and-bone man first-hand is laughable.

Along with the segregation, comes a sense that ‘working-class’ comedy has become a euphemism for output that, frankly, isn’t very good. That somehow working-class comedy is the likes of Roy Chubby Brown telling tired jokes, while middle-class comedy is sophisticated, nuanced stuff the plebs are too thick to get. Universal ‘funny is funny’ is hard to find. The likes of Mrs Brown and Miranda are pretty divisive, with huge swathes of the audience actively hating them, in a way that never seemed evident with the likes of Fawlty Towers or Blackadder (at least from series two) that worked across class boundaries.

Today’s approach has may also have limitations as the community of who write and perform comedy, which has long had a middle-class bent, is becoming almost the exclusive preserve of those with a bit of money. The live circuit, certainly, requires a commitment to an unpaid apprenticeship that is near-impossible for those without certain means. Becoming a stand-up might once have seemed a way out of poverty – now it seems a sure-fire route towards it.

Will that mean that TV comedies becoming increasingly biased to the middle classes, too. Commissioners will always be alert to such pitfalls – but if they are middle-class too, isn’t there a danger they will make token decisions based on the patronising idea of what they assume working-class people want?

We should hope not... but hope alone might not be enough if broadcasters are not to deter future working-class writers such as John Sullivan from making programmes everyone can enjoy, whether they shop at Lidl or Waitrose.

Published: 1 Jan 2013

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