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The New Statesman pick of 90s sitcoms from Frasier to the Fresh Prince

And why they still matter to us today. 

Will and Grace, the sitcom about two women and their gay best friends which ran from 1998 to 2006, is coming back. No doubt that while some of the millions who watched it in the mid-Nineties and early 2000s will be celebrating, others, like New Statesman contributor Eleanor Margolis, think some things that were good in the Nineties should stay in the Nineties

But despite the huge audience figures, Will and Grace was just one chuckle in the sitcom smorgasbord that was the Nineties. In a time before TV on-demand, there was the golden hour of the evening – BBC Two at 6pm – when the nation's kids were served up sitcom after sitcom, and everyone was watching TV at the same time.

There were the character dramas – the emotional volleyball of Ross and Rachel – but also the day-to-day scrapes of the schoolyard heroes, the Fresh Prince and Bart Simpson (OK, we're bending the sitcom rules in favour of great TV), and the slapstick of Fathers Ted, Dougal and Jack.

Here, our writers reflect on how Nineties sitcoms shaped them, surprised them, or just left them cringing on the sofa:

Martin Crane's hideous chair was the true star of Frasier

Frasier has a proper emotional core, woven through the story from the beginning, writes Helen Lewis. It is about what happens when you move social classes. What you gain, and what you lose.

We laughed at Alan Partridge – little did we realise he heralded the age of Donald Trump

Nigel Farage famously copied failed fictional chat show host Alan Partridge's blazer, but the two men's resemblance is more than sartorial, writes Daniel Curtis. Partridge is indeed to return to our screens in the not-too-distant future as "the voice of hard Brexit". 

The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was radical – because it was so ordinary

An equivalent comedy – a majority-minority sitcom in which their ethnicities were an afterthought, rather than the central point of the joke – wouldn’t be made in the United Kingdom until 2016, writes Stephen Bush. 

Spaced's meta-sitcom showed how pop culture invades our everyday lives

Not an episode goes by without a slew of references to, or riffs on, some other show or piece of cinema, writes Jasper Jackson. 

It's outdated, wealthy and white – so why do I still reach for Sex and the City?

The girls live in a wealthy, white bubble – for a city as diverse as New York, the main cast was startlingly white – and the men they date are a veritable parade of investment bankers and lawyers, writes Sanjana Varghese. Yet, there is still something compelling about Sex and the City. 

The Simpsons: the greatest comedy of the Nineties (and not beyond)

Comedies in television history endure because they are tinged with sadness, and tell us something real about the human experience, writes Anna Leszkiewicz.

Why do so many Irish Catholics love being mocked by Father Ted?

The Catholic Church looms over everything in Father Ted, writes Julia Rampen, but less as a theology, and more as a hierarchical institution that is just asking to be turned upside down. 

Time travelling with That ’70s Show

The series about a group of Seventies teenagers doing nothing in particular in a small Wisconsin town first aired in the US in August 1998. Yo Zushi explains why retro comedy works so well.

Drop the Dead Donkey is why I wanted to be a journalist

As with most British sitcoms, most of the characters were utter wankers, writes Jonn Elledge. But the kind of wankers you'd want to be. 

Absolutely Fabulous will show future generations how fun life was before Brexit

Ab Fab is a love letter to being a citizen of the world – and the opportunities for hedonism that come with looking beyond the boring confines of Little England, writes Lizzie Palmer.

All the fuss over Brass Eye’s bad taste obscures its technical genius

OK, it's not strictly a sitcom, but it's topical, writes Tom Gatti. The show’s continued relevance confirms our suspicion that “fake news” is not a product of the digital era but has long been with us.

Why did immigrant families like mine see so much of ourselves in Only Fools and Horses?

Some people might think it strange that my Sri Lankan-born parents named me after Del Boy Trotter, writes Jason Murugesu. But it's hard to think of a show the British Asian community identified with more. 

The One Where Phoebe Googled: why modern technology would make Friends obsolete

Much as we may want it to, a Friends reunion would just not work in 2017, writes Natalia Bus. 

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The Last Wolf: Robert Winder's book examines the elusive concept of Englishness

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could this mean there is no such thing any more?

Is there anything more tiresome than debating the essence of “Englishness” – or any other national identity, come to that? Millions of words must have been spilt on this fruitless quest over the past century, generating gigatonnes of wind that could have been usefully harvested for energy. Each time, no “essence” is to be found, and everyone goes back to the beginning and starts again.

That’s how it used to be, anyway. More recently, in the wake of the Brexit vote and the divisions it has laid bare, the debate about who “we” are has become fraught and urgent. England, and Britain more widely, is hardly alone in its soul-searching. Arguments about belonging, culture, nationhood and identity are flooding across the Western world – and beyond – because people are increasingly unsure about who or where they are. The sweeping changes unleashed by hypercapitalism, technological change and unprecedented levels of migration are making rootlessness the norm, and the more people feel rootless the more they want to know where they belong and where they come from.

British politicians often respond to this by attempting to formulate some notion of our collective “values”. Here’s who we are, all 65 million of us, they say, and then proceed to read out a list of uniquely “British” things that only “British” people do, like valuing democracy, being tolerant with each other and standing in queues politely. These attempts at top-down unity are always failures, largely because, with the possible exception of the queuing, all the “values” asserted are pretty much universal. There’s nothing uniquely “British” about valuing the rule of law or freedom of speech (regularly clamping down on freedom of speech is a more reliably British virtue, if history is anything to go by). The failure of anyone to produce a list of “values” that are uniquely British – or English, or Welsh, or Scottish – suggests that they don’t exist. The island is just too teeming, diverse and disconnected now for much to be held in common at all.

So what, if anything, might define that elusive “Englishness”, the subject of Robert Winder’s new book? Cultural quirks, perhaps? I can confidently assert that the English know how to make a good cup of strong tea better than anyone else on earth (with the possible exception of the Irish), and we’re also world champions at dog shows, proper beer and indie guitar bands. But I’m not sure that these are things I would encourage my children to die patriotically in a trench for.

Winder offers a better answer, and it’s one that anyone brave or suicidal enough to pitch in to the contemporary European identity debate should consider. It offers a path through the horrible, thorny maze of arguments about race, ethnicity, migration and the like, towards something that, potentially, could unite people rather than divide them. What makes and forms a “people”, says Winder, in England as elsewhere, is the one thing they all share: the place itself. If there is an “Englishness” it is formed from the nature, literally, of England:

If we really wanted to search for the national identity, I thought, the real place to look was in the natural heritage of hills, valleys, rivers, stones and mists – the raw materials that had, over time, moulded the way we were. Landscape and history – the past and the elemental backdrop – were the only things we could truly claim as our own. Just as some plants thrive in sand and others in clay, so a national character is fed by nutrients it cannot alter.

Early on in the book, Winder quotes the novelist Lawrence Durrell, who makes the same case more provocatively:

I believe you could exterminate the French at a blow and resettle the land with Tartars, and within two generations discover… that the national characteristics were back at norm – the relentless metaphysical curiosity, the tenderness for good living and passionate individualism.

Durrell goes on to suggest that “a Cypriot who settled in London would in time become English, simply because human customs owe just as much to the local environment as to trees and flowers”. I’m in a position to test this hypothesis, because my grandmother was a Cypriot who settled in London. Did she become English? Well, she wore English clothes, lived in a bungalow, cooked roast dinners, won endless rosettes in endless dog shows and had her English friends call her Doris, because they had trouble pronouncing Demetra. On the other hand, she never lost her accent, her language or her connections to her homeland, and until the end of her life she made a mean baklava. I don’t know what any of that means, other than that labels can get confusing pretty quickly.

And that is Winder’s point: forget the labels, look at the land below your feet. That’s where your “identity” comes from. Take the last wolf in England, which gives the book its title. Allegedly killed in the 1290s by a Shropshire knight named Peter Corbet (the king had tasked this “mighty hunter” and other nobles with ridding the land of predators), the wolf’s end freed up the English to transform their landscape – in a way not available to many other European countries, whose wolf populations were too large and interlinked to kill off – into “the biggest sheep farm in the world”. This turned England, in the Middle Ages, into a wealthy wool economy. It was an agricultural revolution, shaping everything from land ownership to diet to class structures to the architecture of the Cotswolds, and it happened not just because the landscape was now wolfless, but because “the country was made for grass”.

The same soil and climate that made growing grass so easy did the same for wheat – which, mainly in the form of bread, has been the staple of the English diet from the rise of agriculture to the present day, when we eat more wheat than ever. Add in the later discovery of coal, which was found in rich seams across the country, and which gave rise to the Industrial Revolution and the British Empire, and Winder suggests, only slightly playfully, that the English national character can be summed up by way of an algebraic equation: e = cw4: “Englishness equals coal x wool, wheat and wet weather.”

The book’s central case – that “natural history might be a branch of political science” – is a necessary corrective to a public debate in which we are increasingly instructed to believe that virtually every aspect of our character is a “social construct”. Winder wants us to understand that much of it is actually a natural construct, which means in turn that our development is not entirely under our control. It’s not a message that many people want to hear in an age of selfies and consumer choice: “Just as each vineyard (or terroir) produces its own unique wine, so human beings are conditioned by their local landscape. We move around more now, so the lines are blurred, but the underlying skeleton of English culture – the bare bones of the national psyche – may have changed less than we think.”

I couldn’t help, as I read, wanting more detail on this “underlying skeleton”. Where are the folk songs, the rhymes and ballads? Where is the mythology? Where are the grainy details of the lives of the people who, throughout English history, were probably shaped by the landscape most of all, and who shaped it in turn – the peasantry? There are glimpses of all this, but there is also too much school-textbooky history of inventors and their inventions, of revolutions and wars. A book like this ought to start at the bottom – in the mud, in the mulch on the forest floor. I wanted an earthier, messier story.

Despite this, there is plenty to chew on here. The question that remained when it was over though, for this reviewer at least, was: is any of it true any more? It may once have been the case that human customs were formed by places, but is it now?

When people in England, or anywhere in the modern world, have more connection, via their handheld screens, with the mill race of global consumer “culture” than they do with the landscape around them, and when only a handful of us work on or really know that landscape, what chance does it have of forming the basis of our cultural life?

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could the reason simply be that there is no such thing any more; that the English, like other denizens of techno-post-modernity, are shaped not by their natural environment, but by the artificial one that is rising to enclose them like a silicon cocoon? When the heavy metals in your smartphone are mined in Indonesia, not Cornwall, what equation defines you – and do you even care? 

Paul Kingsnorth’s books include “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist ” (Faber & Faber)

The Last Wolf: the Hidden Springs of Englishness
Robert Winder
Little, Brown, 480pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon