Why is ITV so bad at sitcom?

The last huge ITV sitcom was probably Men Behaving Badly – but even that, independently produced, floundered a bit until it moved to the BBC after two series. 

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Early in February, ITV’s head of studios, Kevin Lygo, announced the network was giving up on sitcom. Shortly afterwards, its controller for comedy, Saskia Schuster, engaged in damage control on twitter, reiterating that ITV remains committed to commissioning new sitcoms – but tacitly admitting that the series Lygo had held up as the last of an extinct breed, Birds of a Feather and Bad Move, have ended. At any rate: ITV1 has no current sitcoms, only whatever Schuster has in development.

Perhaps Lygo’s comments represented his intentions rather than firm policy shared with others: he did, after all, suggest the channel had never had much success with the form. But that’s odd, really, because historically ITV has been the home of the mass audience sitcom. You’d expect people at ITV to know that, for the simple reason that many of them whizz past on the higher numbered ITV channels in semi-permanent repeat loops.

The likes of the now-verboten Love Thy Neighbour or On the Buses routinely commanded audiences bigger than any programme this century, and those viewers weren’t passive. When these series spawned film versions, their audiences were happy to go out and pay hard cash to see the characters even though they could watch them at home for nothing. On the Buses was sufficiently popular that three films were made, all of them turning a profit. (The often-quoted fact that the first of these made more money in 1971 than Diamonds Are Forever should be seen in the light of the Bond film’s 30 December opening night.)

Whatever emerges from this semi-public tussle, though, this is not where we find ourselves now, and the decline of ITV’s preeminence in sitcom has been a long one. The revival of Birds of a Feather – originally a BBC series that it declined to resurrect – managed more than nine million viewers in its first week, but that doesn’t compare with the 12 million who watched the first Still Open All Hours.

BBC sitcom is often said to not be in rude health, but it still manages a variety of form and content within in it, and across all its channels. It’s a long way from Fleabag to Mrs Brown’s Boys or Not Going Out, and just as far to Detectorists or Cuckoo from all three. It might be five years since a BBC sitcom was in the top ten most watched TV programmes of the year, but the last time an ITV sitcom managed it was 1987.

The last huge ITV sitcom was probably Men Behaving Badly – but even that, independently produced by Hartswood Films, floundered a little until it moved to the BBC after two series. There it became an institution, in the ten most watched TV programmes of the year in 1997 and 1998, with Christmas specials attracting upwards of 15 million viewers. Benidorm (2007-18) might have run for 11 years, but it wasn’t central to the national conversation in the way recent ITV dramas have been. In truth, you only need to look at the absence of sitcom from ITV Christmas Day schedules to see how unimportant the genre has become to the network compared to the might of Downton Abbey, Victoria or Paul O’Grady’s For the Love of Dogs, come to that.

Even in the days when they dominated viewing figures, ITV’s sitcoms generally failed creatively compared to their BBC equivalents, and they are certainly less fondly remembered in retrospect. No ITV series featured in a recent poll to determine the top 20 UK sitcoms, and this is hardly a one off. A 2004 survey to find the top 100 saw no ITV series breach the top ten, with a dozen or so of its biggest hits in the bottom half of the list. Perhaps most damningly, a poll of polls aggregator saw only one purely ITV series in its top 50.

Blame may lie with the need for commercial break, making a “half hour” ITV sitcom several minutes shorter than a BBC one, and the success of Rising Damp, probably ITV’s best sitcom, has been partially attributed to the speed of Leonard Rossiter’s delivery: the programme’s scripts had to be longer in order to fill the runtime, meaning more happens, with more jokes per minute.

There are other possible reasons. More than one sitcom creator has indicated that you’d pitch to the BBC first, because you were guaranteed to own the concept. In fact On The Buses creators Chesney and Wolfe pitched it there before LWT. Maybe ITV companies mostly get pitched BBC cast offs.

If British sitcoms require threat, claustrophobia and characters who would not choose to be together then a well-developed “sit” is essential. Yet many ITV series lack this. It’s unclear why everyone is in hospital for years on end in Only When I Laugh (1979-82). It’s odd the cast of Duty Free (1984-86) return to a hotel that makes them miserable for successive holidays.

Never the Twain (1981-91), about the rivalry between two antique dealers whose shops and homes are both adjacent to each other, rattled through enormous amounts of contrived material in order to sustain the battles between its leads. Their adult children have a secret romance, and eventually marry despite both men forbidding it. Later they compete over who can dote more on their mutual grandson, fall in love with the same widow, and go into business together. The series’s basics don’t feel thought through.

Nevertheless, ITV can do it: it just needs the right writers and timely, if not urgent, subjects. The New Statesman (1987-92) exemplifies the turn of the Nineties better than any other series, comedic or dramatic. The Fosters (1976-77) broke new ground with its portrayal of an urban black family’s ordinary life. After Henry (1988-92) did the same with its portrayal of the relationships between three generations of women in the same family, forced by circumstances to live together. Watched by 14 million a week, it only ended because of the death of co-star Joan Sanderson.

Sitcom is an essential part of television’s balanced diet. But Lygo’s comment that the interactions of characters in Coronation Street would satisfy sitcom audiences unfortunately indicates a network still struggling to see any problem as lacking a Corrie-shaped solution. It really isn’t on to turn to sitcom’s audience and say, “Let them eat soap”.

James Cooray Smith is freelance writer specialising in TV and film history.