The last laugh

The sitcom Coupling, hailed as the British Friends, has been axed by US TV bosses after just four ep

For a country that prides itself on its self-deprecatory sense of humour, it is odd how loud we are in our satisfaction when the Americans buy our TV comedy shows. The news that The Office, The Royle Family, Cutting It and Dinnerladies are due for American adaptations will bring another glow of self-contentment. The psychology seems clear enough: while we watch shows such as Friends or The Simpsons in our millions, we need to cling to the fantasy that uncouth America hungers for our wit and sophistication. Beyond the fact that there are a lot of US networks, I am less clear why they buy in as much as they do. Another point of pride with us is our gift for irony, but do American viewers of Seinfeld and Frasier feel so deprived of this commodity that the networks are obliged to import it? And is Sex and the City so low on prurient humour that Americans have to top up by shipping in Men Behaving Badly from their fellow puritans?

Along with our complacency at exports goes the assumption that every British comedy will prove a winner. In fact, no British or foreign TV comedy has made it big with US audiences in recent years. One can see why: with a public used to the snappiest American fare, Men Behaving Badly was never going to cut it, and Dinnerladies seems an unlikely hit. What we really do well are British exports of an altogether less aspiring kind: populist swill, such as Big Brother.

Taking pride in the international success of, say, Fawlty Towers is fair enough - although we should remember the painful symbolism: Basil was all about soaring pretension and an inability to run the shop, which made the show a genuine piece of national self-deprecation. But why puff out our cock-robin chests simply because some production of witless crudity attracts hordes of viewers in the United States? There is an audience for everything in America, and except for the cynical backers of such programmes, numbers there or here prove nothing. The fact that some two million pornographic magazines are bought in Britain each week does not validate the product.

I could be wrong, and The Royle Family and Dinnerladies may catch on as quirky cults, but they are undeserving even of that. Unlike The Office - a one-gag, one-man show, but an up-to-date idea with universal potential - they hail from what should be another era. And that is the problem behind our dearth of TV humour. Naturally, there are good programmes - I'm Alan Partridge or Absolutely Fabulous at its best - although I can think of no truly exceptional exceptions, and nothing really original: Little Britain is really heavy political satire, of which there is no shortage, a successor to The League of Gentlemen's grotesquerie.

Too often our TV series are haunted by the ghost of the English social comedy, an unhealthily introverted, self-pleasuring and frequently feeble genre, be it in the overrated works of Anthony Powell and Kingsley Amis or Four Weddings and a Funeral. And often the high quality of our acting merely disguises an underlying vacuity by giving the flimsiest material a coating of gloss. The very term "character acting", at which we excel, implies stock roles. Ticking off recognisable social types and situations can afford passing entertainment, but that is all. Whether in theatre, literature or TV comedy, this is the Mr Bun the Baker syndrome, by which I mean our mania for fixed social categories, for up/down thinking, for modes of humour or reflection that come neatly boxed. Sometimes they change the labels, but almost never the boxes.

In much of our TV comedy, this translates into a conservative, parochial humour that tells us nothing new about the world. However surreal the goings-on, the assumption behind them is that in our wry, affectionate English way we love things the way they are. Hence the achingly entitled The Royle Family, the northern version (I assume) of the equally dysfunctional and equally lovable royals. So long may each of us keep to our sequence in the social pack, our Mr Bun the Baker stations in life, and God bless us all.

Are such shows condescending? You bet. But as Michael Portillo has just demonstrated by adopting the role of a single mother for a week in a documentary, in Britain condescension sells. You could never get away with what he did in France or America, but here people give their betters credit just for noticing their existence, and see nothing wrong with toffs being paid £15,000 to see how they live. As a savvy Greek grocer I know said, apropos the late Alan Clark, the English don't mind people pissing on them, provided it's from a great height. When it comes to micturating on the masses while stroking their curly little heads, as the American networks are the first to recognise when they buy in our grosser TV trash, there is no beating the Brits.

You only have to compare the titles of British and American TV soaps and comedies to see the problem. Dinnerladies, The Royle Family, EastEnders, Coronation Street - the very names reflect our strangulating social postures, signalling to us that the characters are common folk whose humour and warm-heartedness we should treasure and whose misfortunes deserve our commiseration. Behind the cosiness of it all is the usual, top-down English thing: a phonily demotic culture where nothing is on the level. Ally McBeal, Frasier, Seinfeld, Friends, The Simpsons - in America, the titles tend to refer to individuals or intimate groups who are allowed out of their social boxes and given freedom to make comic successes of themselves.

The pity of it is that, as many stand-up shows prove, we are hardly lacking in comic talent. The average British TV comedy is not unfunny: it is too easily watchable. Little mental effort is needed to enjoy the familiar. Viewers of American comedy are more likely to need to stay alert; you never know what the characters might say or where their lives are going. Talking to British and American students as a politician, I remember the same feeling. Taking questions from an audience at the University of Chicago, nine out of ten of whom were non-Anglo-Saxons, you couldn't be sure what would hit you, or how you would respond. Americans use elite talent in TV production, and I could imagine a couple of them ending up making supersmart sitcoms. Addressing less ethnically mixed and more obviously privileged English students at Oxbridge, I could be sure that questions would be loaded with smarmily anti-elitist sentiments and sugary social concerns, and of what my comeback would be. So goes the English game. In retrospect, I remember a couple of types who might well go on to make whatever succeeds Big Brother; Peter Bazalgette, who has cleaned up on the show, was president of the Cambridge Union. In Britain, the left has won in culture, the right in economics, and together they conspire to dumb things down, each of them noisily invoking, should anyone object, the divine right of popular taste.

The quality of the American product is sometimes ascribed to the fortunes spent on scriptwriting, doubtless a factor, though the truth is less consoling. The good American stuff is not just more finely honed, it is more intelligent. When you find yourself listening hard, it is not just to get the accent; it is to keep up. The cleverest American shows credit their audiences with an ability to follow a more rapid-fire level of smart-talk than would be tolerable in endlessly patronising Britain. (It is curious how, away from the sitcoms, we do better, as in panel shows such as Have I Got News for You or - if you can take him - the new Stephen Fry show on BBC2.) Nor is it just comedy at which the Americans excel: drama series such as The Sopranos and Six Feet Under are very much sharper than anything we produce.

How is it that imported programmes about a sometimes semi-alien culture can be so successful over here? For the age-old reason that they transcend their local limits, to the point where we can recognise contemporary life more closely in the zanily nihilistic urban existence of a group of New Yorkers, or in a shrink from Seattle with no capacity to heal himself, than in domestically produced humour fatally freighted with traditionalist social baggage. In Britain, a dank provincialism and antique politics rule. The screenwriter Jimmy McGovern inadvertently summed up the problem when he said: "You've got to have stories to tell, and you don't get the great stories from the safe lives of the middle classes." Tell it to George Eliot, or to the makers of Frasier.

George Walden's latest book, Who's a Dandy?, is published by Gibson Square