British sitcom

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A British sitcom is a situation comedy (sitcom) produced in the United Kingdom. Like sitcoms in most other countries, they tend to be based around a family, workplace or other institution where a group of contrasting characters can be brought together. A common factor is the exploration of social mores, often with a healthy dollop of satire or bathos, in contrast to the sometimes uplifting sentiments of many American sitcoms. British comedies are typically produced in series of six episodes each.


Unlike American sitcoms, which employ teams of writers and attempt to cram as many jokes into half an hour as possible, the traditional British situation comedy is produced by just one or two writers. Although it may be argued that a sitcom's raison d'être is to pack as many gags as possible into a half hour, the more measured approach engendered by a single writer or a close writing partnership permits greater control over the programme's direction and a more structured approach to character and plot development. A need for rapid-fire jokes can make the establishment of multi-dimensional characters much harder. The British approach therefore gives greater freedom to individual writers and more opportunities for character development. Individual writers who have made a significant contribution to the genre include John Sullivan, Johnny Speight, Roy Clarke, David Croft, Ben Elton, Jimmy Perry and Richard Curtis, while the most notable writing partnerships include Ray Galton & Alan Simpson, Dick Clement & Ian La Frenais, and John Esmonde & Bob Larbey.

It is often the everyday wit and wordplay traditionally attributed to pubs, shop floors and staff rooms up and down the country that provides much of the comedy in many British sitcoms. The most sedately written series repudiate structured jokes altogether and attempt to reproduce an everyday environment with the intention of also reproducing its comedy. The forerunner of this style is probably Hancock's Half Hour on T.V. and radio in the 1950s. More recent examples of this hyperreal approach include The Royle Family and The Office as well as many British comedy-dramas. Their reliance on character-led, rather than plot-led, humour requires strongly defined characters with whom the audience can identify.

With fewer writers in a project, more unusual and complex fantasy worlds can be created. A significant subset of British comedy therefore consciously avoids traditional situation comedy themes and story lines to branch out into more unusual topics or narrative methods. Such freedom and experimentation is one of the benefits of the British approach and has produced such series as The League of Gentlemen, Marion and Geoff and 15 Storeys High.

Farce is also a common theme in British sitcoms, exemplified by Fawlty Towers. The Restoration comedy tradition of bawdiness and innuendo has also been well served through series such as Are You Being Served? and Up Pompeii.

Novel approaches to comedy such as those taken by Blackadder and Yes, Minister have challenged the idea of what constitutes a sitcom and have also injected variety into the mainstream. A popular development in recent years has been spoof television series, as in KYTV, The Day Today, People Like Us and The Office.


The first true British sitcom was Pinwright's Progress, broadcast by the BBC from 1946 to 1947. The most successful and fondly remembered early sitcom was Hancock's Half Hour which ran simultaneously on BBC Radio and television in the 1950s. It was renowned for its ability to evacuate pubs and streets as listeners stayed at home to tune in to Hancock's latest misadventures. Hancock's Half Hour, with its emphasis on character and believable situations, was probably the most influential of all British sitcoms. In the following decade its creators, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, would go on to write the almost equally popular Steptoe and Son, about a man's fractious relationship with his elderly father.

In the same decade Johnny Speight's Till Death Us Do Part often caused a stir at the dinner table, inciting debate on political issues — particularly those surrounding immigration. Meanwhile, Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais created their series The Likely Lads. Clement and La Frenais would be among the most successful sitcom writing partnerships in Britain. Their later successes included Porridge and Auf Wiedersehen Pet.

The 1970s produced many of the most successful British sitcoms, including John Cleese and Connie Booth's farcical Fawlty Towers, John Esmonde and Bob Larbey's self-sufficiency comedy The Good Life, and Roy Clarke's long-running Open All Hours and Last of the Summer Wine. Jimmy Perry and David Croft's Dad's Army also reached the peak of its popularity during the decade and remains one of the mostly fondly remembered of all British TV series.

The commercial station ITV also enjoyed its most successful decade for sitcoms with Rising Damp, Man About the House, George and Mildred and On the Buses, as well as the now unfashionable Love Thy Neighbour (based on the rivalry between a black man and his bigoted white neighbour) and Mind Your Language, which spent each episode making fun of other nationalities. ITV has had few successful sitcoms in recent years, with rare successes like Hardware appearing in off-peak time slots. Men Behaving Badly, one of the biggest successes of the 1990s, began life as an ITV series, before being cancelled and picked up by the BBC.

Since the 1970s, the Cambridge Footlights club, the London based Comic Strip club and the Edinburgh Festival have been the breeding grounds for much new talent in British comedy. The new wave of 1980s comedians produced The Young Ones, an anarchic, knockabout romp and, co-written by the same writer, the more sophisticated historical satire Blackadder.

Traditional sitcoms continued to prosper, however, with such shows as John Sullivan's Only Fools and Horses, which has dominated the British sitcom scene ever since and was voted "Britain's Best Sitcom" in the 2004 BBC poll of the same name. The 1980s also saw the unlikely success of the sophisticated political satire Yes Minister and its sequel Yes Prime Minister. Other hits included Esmonde and Bob Larbey's suburban sitcom Ever Decreasing Circles, and the sci-fi/comedy hybrid Red Dwarf.

The unlikely story of three priests — one vain, one simple, one comatose — gave the 1990s one of its biggest hits in Father Ted. Shows such as Birds of a Feather and The Vicar of Dibley also maintained the popularity of the traditional sitcom, and One Foot in the Grave brought black comedy and suburban angst into the mainstream.

More unorthodox comedies, including The Royle Family, People Like Us and The League of Gentlemen, managed to breathe new life into the genre while appealing both to "mainstream" audiences and a new generation of viewers. Many of these more innovative series started life on BBC radio, building up a cult following before being remade for television. Other series that began in this way include The Mighty Boosh and The Day Today, the latter originally on radio as On the Hour.

The BBC has also begun using its digital channels BBC Three and BBC Four to build a following for off-beat series like The Thick of It. Many of these series have dispensed with the studio audience and canned laughter tracks altogether, in the manner of The Royle Family and The Office. The commercial station Channel 4 has also actively encouraged new writers to produce interesting work. Some of its recent successes include Father Ted, Spaced, Phoenix Nights and Black Books.

Many of the most critically acclaimed sitcoms of recent years have appeared on BBC2 and Channel 4, rather than on the more popular BBC1 and ITV channels. ITV has had very few successful situation comedies since the 1980s, while the only notable success for BBC1 in the last few years is the critically-derided My Family.

See also British comedy

British sitcoms overseas

United States

In the United States, British sitcoms are rarely seen on the commercial networks, but are often seen on the Public Broadcasting Service and increasingly on cable television, including BBC America and Comedy Central. In the U.S. and Canada, the genre is sometimes referred to as Britcoms, a portmanteau from the words British and comedy and a play on the word sitcom.

Absolutely Fabulous enjoyed a significant following when it aired on Comedy Central in the 1990s, 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.

A few British sitcoms were successfully reworked for U.S. audiences. Three notable examples are Steptoe and Son which became Sanford and Son, Man About the House, which became Three's Company on ABC, and Till Death Us Do Part, which became All in the Family on CBS. Other series were not as lucky. Beanes of Boston, an Americanised version of Are You Being Served?, was not picked up in 1979, and remakes of Porridge, Red Dwarf, Fawlty Towers and even Dad's Army have all failed to get beyond a pilot episode. In 2003, the U.S. version of Coupling, a series often compared to Friends, was cancelled shortly after premiering on NBC.

Some British series have themselves been based on American examples, including The Upper Hand (a remake of Who's the Boss), and Brighton Belles, an unsuccessful Anglicised version of The Golden Girls. More recently, My Family used a team of writers to mimic American-style sitcoms.


Although many British comedies were shown on the free-to-air TV networks in Australia in the 1970s and early 80s (e.g. On the Buses, Mind Your Language, Doctor in the House, The Upchat Line and Get Some In!) they had fallen out of favour by the late 1980s. One issue was the difficulty of fitting a half-hour BBC Britcom (without adverts) into a 25-minute Australian TV slot with advertising breaks.

British programs (including sitcoms) have long been standard fare on the ABC; the station lacks ad breaks, being funded by the Australian Federal Government. Absolutely Fabulous and Red Dwarf are very popular with Australian audiences and are often re-aired. Keeping Up Appearances also often appears. Others recently-aired include Black Books, Gimme Gimme Gimme, and Coupling.


Since the days of Benny Hill and Fawlty Towers, British series have always fared well and have developed cult status with many Canadians. The sense of humour is somewhat similar and transfers well with Canadians. What may be deemed "too much" for US TV goes down a storm in Canada. Similar to Australian TV, Canadian TV's 30 min programming format is actually more like 20 min with 10 min of adverts; thus, many britcoms have to be edited to fit the format.

Some popular British sitcoms

A selection of the hundreds of British situation comedies that have been made:

See also

Further reading

  • Lewisohn, Mark (2003) Radio Times Guide to TV Comedy. 2nd Ed. Revised — BBC Consumer Publishing. ISBN 0563487550

External links