Back in 1977 I had a lively disagreement with ‘Greg’ Gregory, co-founder of the community theatre group I was then a member of, about the longevity of different types of comedy. I was a huge Monty Python fan at the time and I remember Greg saying that in 20 or 30 years’ time no one will be watching reruns of Python but they will still be watching Dad’s Army. I disagreed – sitcoms like Dad’s Army, I said, were tired and outmoded and had had their day — but of course I was wrong and he was right. Dad’s Army is still repeated regularly on TV, now nearly 50 years since first airing, while re-runs of Python long ago vanished from the schedules. Why should this be so?
The truth is that sketch shows such as Python, no matter how funny and innovative they may be at the time, don’t age well, while good sitcoms do. There are exceptions of course – there are always exceptions – such as the Pete & Dud sketches from Not Only But Also and some of the Two Ronnies sketches (most notably ‘Fork Handles’, which was voted the funniest comedy moment of the 1970s). But generally it’s the sitcoms from the 1960s-1980s we remember, not the sketch shows.
The reason for this can only be that sitcoms are usually built around character while sketches are usually built around an idea, and funny characters stand the test of time better than funny ideas. In fact many of the sitcoms I remember most fondly from my youth – Hancock’s Half Hour, Steptoe and Son, Whatever Happened to The Likely Lads, Fawlty Towers – were not just heavily character-based but also infused with that most British of obsessions, social class. In Tony Hancock, Harold Steptoe, Bob Ferris and Basil Fawlty we have aspirational characters who want to move up in the world, who want to be seen as sophisticated and discerning, but are held back by their father or best mate or spouse or by their own education or upbringing.
Class is everywhere in the classic British sitcom. Dad’s Army trades on the brilliantly simple inversion according to which bank manager Captain Mainwaring is superior in rank to genteel Sergeant Wilson. And those other seminal sitcoms of the period, Only Fools and Horses and Porridge, have at their centre a lovable rogue from the lower orders who either apes middle-class manners (Delboy Trotter) or wants to get one over on his social and institutional superiors (Fletcher). Another lovable rogue, Edmund Blackadder, is far smarter than his social betters – the aristocracy, the military high command, royalty – but is often let down in his machinations by his own deviousness.
Even the sketch-show skits we remember with most affection – to return briefly to that subject – frequently revolve around class. One of the most famous of all sketches from the 1960s is the one with John Cleese and the two Ronnies arranged in a line to represent different social strata. ‘I look down on him because he is lower class but I look up to him because he is upper class.’ And surely even the Pete and Dud sketches gained much of their humour from the interplay between a plebeian Dud and a would-be sophisticated Pete.
Back in the 1990s I had a go at writing a sitcom myself. It was called Syxties and centred around a 1960s theme pub run by a couple of old hippies, Ray and Dawn. I even got as far as a meeting at the BBC with commissioning editor Paul Mayhew Archer (co-writer of The Vicar of Dibley) but it never went any further. Perhaps the script just wasn’t funny enough. Officially the reason given for turning it down was that ‘it doesn’t have legs.’
But things have changed since then. I haven’t watched many sitcoms in recent years so I’m not an authority on this, but the ones I have enjoyed (The Office, Nighty Night, Detectorists) seem to me to have very little to do with social class. And no doubt this reflects a change in British society as a whole, where around a third of all young people now go to university and where upward mobility is much easier than it once was. If that’s the case maybe I should dust off my pilot for Syxties and re-submit it. It was just ahead of its time is all.