The golden age of comedy? There was no such thing

..argues Chris Hallam

Has there ever been a golden age of British sitcom? Perhaps it’s time the whole idea was laid to rest.

Some would argue the case for the Seventies pointing to Dad’s Army, Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? and Fawlty Towers as signs of a landmark comedy decade. Others hark back to the Eighties, to Only Fools And Horses, Yes Minister/Prime Minister and my own personal favourite, Blackadder.

All of these shows are great and it’s certainly true the three or four main channels screened more sitcoms then than they do now. But it’s easy to forget how much dirge was often scheduled alongside the quality. Classic shows stick in our memory precisely because they were good; they have endured and have been repeated a lot for this reason. It’s easier to forget the likes of Mind Your Language, Bottle Boys, No Place Like Home, Duty Free and Home James. And this is a good thing. All of these shows were terrible. Even middle-of-the-road shows like Dear John, Don’t Wait Up and (if I’m feeling generous) Brush Stokes tend not to linger in the memory.

In today’s Correspondents article ‘Whatever Happened To The British sitcom?’ Jack Cooper nominated the period from the late Nineties to the mid 2000s as the golden age. He argues this era which included I’m Alan Partridge, The Office, The League of Gentlemen, 15 Storeys High, Father Ted, Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, Spaced and The Royle Family was so good that the sitcoms of 2012 look poor in comparison.

Now don’t get me wrong: I’m not disputing the claim that any of these were great comedies (patchy though Garth Marenghi was). But this is another problem with the concept of a ‘golden age’. People tend to draw on examples of the best comedies from an entire decade and then compare them to what’s on right now.

It’s an unfair comparison. There was never a time when the seven shows Jack lists were all having new series screened at once. Father Ted, for example, finished in 1997, comfortably before Spaced had even started in 1999. Spaced had finished before The Office started in 2001. The Office too had had its time by the time Garth Marenghi made its fairly fleeting appearance in 2004

In short: it’s not really fair to list the cream of a decade’s worth of comedy production and then compare it to 2012. There were more good books published in the period 1995 to 2005 too than there have been so far in 2012 too. It’s not because books were better then: it was a longer period of time.

Even ignoring this, I’m not actually convinced that the British sitcom scene in 2012 is as bad as Jack makes out anyway. Jack grudgingly admits Grandma’s House, Miranda and Fresh Meat are all enjoyable. He seems less keen on Not Going Out (which personally I would rate highly too) but mentions The IT Crowd, The Thick of It and Peep Show all of which are current shows, albeit ones which all started around the time of Jack’s ‘golden age’.

He complains that Vic and Bob are allowed ‘to do what they want’ as if this is a new thing: yet it was no less true ten or even 20 years ago. Conspicuously, he doesn’t mention the award-winning and critically acclaimed Rev. at all.

Even allowing the fact that The IT Crowd and Peep Show are presumably not much longer for this world, the list of sitcoms in the above paragraph really does not seem like a bad crop to me. No, it’s not a golden age either and despite inexplicably praising the dreadful How I Met Your Mother, Jack Cooper makes a good case for the strength of new US sitcoms, without even mentioning Modern Family.

But cast your minds back to the year 2000. US sitcoms like Frasier, Friends, Will And Grace and The Simpsons were wiping the floor with a British sitcom field which although often high quality (Spaced, The League of Gentlemen) rarely attracted big audiences even amongst Britons.

No, we are not going through a golden age of British sitcoms at the moment. But has there even been a single year when we have been? The likes of Rev, Miranda, Fresh Meat and Peep Show certainly suggest the British sitcom industry is in good shape. Yes, we should be receptive to innovative comedy ideas from the US. But we shouldn’t succumb to the British disease of needlessly doing ourselves down either.

Published: 30 Apr 2012

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