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23 February 2016

In defence of the BBC’s revival of Are You Being Served?

Let’s stop pretending that the retail comedy’s return spells the death of originality.

By James Cooray Smith

The announcement the BBC is reviving the department store sitcom Are You Being Served? (1972-85) has prompted claims that television is running out of ideas. Yet, looked at from the broadcaster’s point of view, the revival – as part of a season celebrating 60 years of UK sitcoms – makes sense.

There’s demonstrably a big audience for revived versions of once-popular sitcoms. The 2007 Christmas revival of To The Manor Born (1979-81) attracted 10.35m viewers. The 2013 Christmas special Still Open All Hours, intended as a one-off revival of Open All Hours (1973-85), received 12.23m viewers and was one of the ten most-watched programmes of the year.

In 2014, the BBC turned down a revived Birds of a Feather (1989-98). This was picked up by ITV and became that channel’s highest rated comedy for 15 years. This generated complaints that the BBC let the programme “get away”, in a clear case of damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Nevertheless, it’s hard not to be sympathetic to complaints from people who see any revival as something that stops something new being made. (Even if the implication is almost always that this “something new” should be written by them).

Yet a single 30-minute episode – which is all that’s been commissioned – can’t be considered a massive drain on resources. If it proves popular, like Still Open All Hours did, there may be more, but in those circumstances you’d be hard-pressed to argue there shouldn’t be.

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Television isn’t about chasing audiences at all costs, yet equally it’s foolish to ignore what people actually watch.

Something that is more difficult to sympathise with are those complaints that any sort of revival constitutes proof that somebody, somewhere has “run out of ideas” or that culture generally is now too full of revivals and remakes and thus suffering from a dearth of originality.

This is, with matchless irony, just about the least original thought it’s possible for anyone to express.

In the 1990s it was still considered embarrassing for bands to reform after splitting up. The Sex Pistols reforming was taken to be an especial kind of betrayal (even though they are essentially as much a boyband as Boyzone). However, what we seem to have finally come to terms with over the last decade is that for bands to reform is the natural state of pop music.

It makes complete sense that restless young people should dissolve the creative partnerships through which they excel, becoming bored of each other’s company or contributions, or lost in the ferment of fame and lose track of what matters.

It also makes complete sense for such people, in more mature years, to want to rekindle those relationships. Whether that’s in search of renewed creativity or a quick buck, they’re going to find an audience, as their original teenage fans are going to be in their mid-thirties, with disposable income and not much to do in the evenings now the kids go out on their own.  

The cultural cringe surrounding this phenomenon was a result of pop music itself not having existed for long enough for us to understand that cycle: this isn’t an excuse available to those who object to revivals in film and television.

Such objections always elide several different kinds of project, pretending that, for example, a long-delayed sequel, a remake or a new adaptation of an individual source text are all somehow the same, rather than radically different creative options.

Strange words that try to cover all these eventualities emerge in language as a result. Tim Burton gifted us “re-imagine” while trying to explain that his (bad) 2001 film Planet of the Apes was neither a remake of the (good) 1968 film of the same title nor a separate adaption of the (excellent) 1963 novel La Planète des Singes.

Recently we’ve had to endure “reboot”. A term which, as a metaphor, falls to pieces if you think about it for more than four seconds.

Such words are pressed into service to pretend that a new episode of Doctor Who, a radical repurposing of several Dickens novels into a sort of prequel-soap, a fever-dream 19th-century reworking of the 21st-century version of Sherlock Holmes, and the first screen adaptation of a particular Agatha Christie novel for decades are all the same kind of thing and represent the same kind of failure. (These examples were actually conspicuous successes from last Christmas.)

The truth is that narrative media have always contained a huge number of revivals of different kinds. In the theatre, which is inherently ephemeral, this is usually understood as not being a bad thing, provided it’s part of a balanced diet. In television, plenty of revivals do well. Some far outstrip their predecessors creatively or commercially.

The resurrected Doctor Who is an award-winning flagship series in a way its earlier incarnation never was. Until days before the first episode aired, received wisdom in the industry was that the revival was an absurd indulgence that would fail miserably, which just goes to show how wrong such doomsayers can be.

Half the reason people object to revivals is that really successful ones are assumed not to be. Often they banish the gap between themselves and their predecessors. Doctor Who is now treated like it never went away. No one remembers that there was a five-year period where the James Bond films series was widely assumed to be over, or that the colour series of Steptoe and Son is a revival of the programme after half a decade.

The decades’ wait between iterations of Star Wars (which has definitely ended twice and is still going on) disappear when the films are snugly next to each other on a shelf. The decade between the two halves of Don Quixote is now forgotten and the book is published as a single unit.

The other option is that they eclipse the original entirely. Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads? is one of the peaks of UK television comedy, while people forget that The Beatles’ “Twist and Shout” is a cover, or that Humphrey Bogart’s Maltese Falcon is a remake of an adaptation.

It’s thus understandable that a TV commissioner would believe that a show that has worked before could work again. And, at its peak, Are You Being Served? could boast 22m viewers. That’s more than everything shown on TV this century apart from that bit of the London Olympics with James Bond and the Queen. It has a terrific cast and a Bafta-nominated comedy writer in Derren Litten. Add to that a marquee series title, and it’s a good pedigree.

Even speaking as an old telly nerd, I can’t get enthused about Are You Being Served? in any of its incarnations. This means I probably won’t be watching it. And you don’t have to either. But let’s accept that it’s silly to pretend that its existence is the death of art.

In short: I’ve little interest in your sitcom revival, but I’ll defend to the death your right to attempt it.

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