L'essence du rire


Omnibus's history of the British sitcom, Laughter in the House (Wednesdays, BBC1), reads television as social history. A well archived three-part series, it traces the path from Life with the Lyons to the Men Behaving Badly masturbation trilogy of last Christmas. But, as questions go, how we got from timid A to tawdry Z is hardly one of the great unanswerables. Our sense of humour has tracked social attitudes. End of thesis. The more interesting question, which Laughter in the House answers obliquely, is: what makes a sitcom British? And to tackle that question you would put at the front end of the series not a clip from Men Behaving Badly but a segment of the puzzlingly regressive All Along the Watchtower (Sundays, BBC1).

The documentary's first insight is that British sitcoms quickly assumed a fundamentally different shape from their American inspirations. Denis Norden recalled the BBC's head of light entertainment, Ronnie Waldman, showing his producers an episode of America's 1950s hit The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. To a man, they said such a show could not possibly work in Britain. Ozzie and Harriet Nelson owned a car and a fridge. Britain was so stratified that such affluence would alienate half the audience. The BBC's creative response was to employ Ben Lyon and his wife Bebe Daniels, American comedians who had made their home in London during the war. The Lyons could be forgiven their luxuries.

But this was the wrong solution. The answer was to make social discomfort the comedy's very subject; for class is not a British taboo but a British turn-on. Anthony Aloysius St John Hancock, Albert and Harold Steptoe, Alf and Elsie Garnett personified a working-class so deep down the piles of income, intellect and social grace that all of Britain could examine them from a position of altitude. Hancock, for example, as his co-creator Alan Simpson explained, was a combination of every conceivable human failure, fatally compounded by a belief that he was a genius: "Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you?" we heard him rant in a parody of Twelve Angry Men. "Did she die in vain?"

Don Warrington, who played the superior-sounding black lodger in Rising Damp, neatly summarises the matter: "British sitcom works when it is all about class - class you aspire to and class you don't have." Rigsby from Rising Damp boasts that his father "once got off a bus rather than sit next to a woman with bare arms". Basil Fawlty resents serving all his guests, unless they are unequivocally of superior rank. The essence of Dad's Army is not the actual war, but the grammar school blimp Mainwaring's temporary social victory over the public school Wilson.

Having established this thesis, however, the programme muddles it next week by insisting that the "golden age" of sitcom was the 1970s. But, except for the greats, 1970s sitcoms shared the assumption of the age that the 1960s had "cured" class. They became besotted instead by "social change", in their writers' tin heads a synonym for premarital sex - although immigration (Love Thy Neighbour) and self-sufficiency (The Good Life) had their moments.

Realism drained out of sitcoms with the arrival of colour television. Sharing the monochrome of 1960s social realist films somehow encouraged the griminess and aggression of Steptoe and Till Death Do Us Part. The colour clips of both shows' later editions revealed a slackening in tension, although John Cleese took no notice of the trend towards pastel in Fawlty Towers, Andrew Sachs complaining to Cleese about the violence of Basil's assaults on Manuel.

And so to All Along the Watchtower. Has this fledgling missed out on the youth serum labelled "alternative" that saved the sitcom in the 1980s, or does it simply need a stronger dose? The comedy's situation is alternative enough: a three-man RAF early-warning station in north Scotland headed by a wing commander who does not appreciate that the cold war is over. The premise and Roger Blake's performance as the mad commander had their whimsical way with me at first. The charm quickly ran to fat, however. Now I watch it ornithologically, spotting where its constituent ideas have migrated from and wondering why it fails to fly.

The Omnibus documentary helps. The three RAF men are variations of the old man/stupid young man/pompous boss format of Dad's Army, which was itself taken from Will Hay's 1937 comedy Oh, Mr Porter!. The situation of a male trio trapped in a remote posting is cribbed from Father Ted (with Christopher Lang's ironist Flight Lieutenant Harrison as Ted). The essential comedy of a military machine without a war to fight dates from ITV's Army Game in the 1950s. Meanwhile, down the road a tatty-inn sitcom struggles on in tandem, paying cursory tribute to Fawlty Towers. The pub's all-Scottish inhabitants are varieties of racist jokes: mean (the landlord) or alcoholic (the local bar-prop played by Tom Watson) or violent (the local talent's invisible boyfriend, Alastair). What does All Along the Watchtower lack?

Class, of course. In every sense.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the London "Evening Standard"

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 26 March 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Eating people is wrong