Don't panic! The sitcom's not dead

Steve Bennett on the myth of a comedy 'golden age'

Whenever an icon of comedy dies, broadcasters traditionally dust down a long-forgotten episode of their greatest work to screen in tribute. But in David Croft’s case, there is almost no need for such formalities. Dad’s Army repeats are still in the schedules – and still hugely popular, drawing audiences of well over two million more than four decades after the show was created.

Obituaries recall a golden age of comedy. ‘They don’t make ‘em like they used to’ is the familiar cry... after all, which sitcoms of today could possibly have such longevity?

Who knows? But the the idea there ever was such a golden age is surely no more than rose-tinted nostalgia.

Dad’s Army is by any measure, a classic. By setting it in a past with which they were intimately familiar, Croft and writing partner Jimmy Perry cleverly gave the show a timeless quality. But it is the unforgettable characters, warm comradeship, witty writing, impeccable ensemble cast and evocative theme tune that created the perfect storm for comedy

But such a brilliant, enduring sitcom is rare for any era. That’s exactly why we treasure them, while our memory for the countless comedy turkeys fades.

Any broadcaster or comedy writer will tell you sitcom is a notoriously difficult genre to get right, and the failure rate is high. Also launched within a couple of years of Croft and Perry’s finest half-hour were sitcoms such as Who Is Sylvia?, It’s Awfully Bad For Your Eyes Darling, The Old Campaigner and Not In Front Of The Children. Does that catalogue of forgotten shows sound like the product of a ‘golden era’? There is surely a very good reason why these aren’t available on DVD.

But when a comedy does work, it becomes a unique, but vital, part of our national fabric. What defines a nation if not its sense of humour? Fawlty Towers, Blackadder, Only Fools And Horses and Dad’s Army are certainly ingrained in the British psyche.

What comedies of the past decade might join that list? The Office almost certainly could – even if at the time of its launch, few would have predicted it. Even Croft was doubtful, saying as late as 2004: ‘It's a wonderful performance, but will we be seeing it in ten years' time?’ He preferred My Hero, with Ardal O’Hanlon as the domesticated superhero.

But then he might be forgiven for backing the wrong horse. Few sitcoms are instant hits. We grow to love them as we – and the writers – come to know the characters better.

Blackadder’s first series could generously be described as ‘patchy’. Fawlty Towers’ debut was famously earned John Cleese a review headlined ‘Long John short on jokes’. And America’s most successful sitcom, Seinfeld, was almost cancelled after one series.

Some critics were even lukewarm about Dad’s Army’s first episode in 1968, with The Times, for example, thinking it went too easy on a ‘hallowed wartime institution’. In the age of Twitter, armchair critics can passionately dismiss a sitcom even before the opening credits have finished, so it takes a bold TV executive to have the courage of their convictions, and allow a comedy the space to develop.

But despite the risks, we have not been starved of strong British comedies of late: Outnumbered, Peep Show Miranda, The Thick Of It, The Inbetweeners, Rev, Gavin & Stacey, Benidorm, Not Going Out, The IT Crowd... surely there is plenty in that eclectic batch that will stand the test of time.

One obvious change since the era when British viewers were were first introduced to the Warmington-on-Sea Home Guard is the explosion of channels and screens. Gone are the days when families gather around one set and every TV programme became a national talking point. The tendency now is for targeted, niche comedies. Yet while mainstream hits are harder to find, Miranda has shown it is possible.

Not that big audiences are a guarantee of longevity. It’s often mentioned that the 1977 Morecambe and Wise Christmas Day special was seen by 28 million viewers... but it wasn’t event the biggest audience that day. The comedian who preceded them got better ratings, but you don’t hear much from Mike Yarwood these days. For some reason, demand for Harold Wilson impersonations seems to have dried up.

The world has lost a little laughter last week, but reports that the great British sitcom died with David Croft are greatly exaggerated. There can really only be two words for those worrying about the state of TV comedy: ‘Don’t panic!’

This article first appeared in Scotland's Sunday Post at the weekend.

Published: 4 Oct 2011

We see you are using AdBlocker software. Chortle relies on advertisers to fund this website so it’s free for you, so we would ask that you disable it for this site. Our ads are non-intrusive and relevant. Help keep Chortle viable.