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A Recipe for the ‘Great British Sitcom’

Ursy Reynolds considers the ingredients which make British comedy such a distinctive and curious concoction.

It seems difficult to think of anything so integrally British as the phenomenon known as the ‘Great British Sitcom’. Up there with scones, Big Ben and the BBC, it is hailed as one of our much-loved cultural oddities, a strange and mystifying asset which is difficult to pin down. Yet in a time of Tory scandal and coronavirus disaster in Britain, I feel myself clinging to this odd, undefinable genre as a rock of national identity. Once, one of my international friends spending a while in the country asked me, perhaps within reason, how I could be proud to be British in a time with Brexit raging across every headline. With a rather shocked look at him, I said, “Have you never seen Doc Marten?”

When I say the ‘Great British Sitcom’, I mean the strange, often rather ambiguous comedy shows, usually to be found on a Friday evening, most enjoyed with a good glass of wine. The range runs from Peep Show, starring David Mitchell as a socially and romantically inept office worker, all the way to The Vicar of Dibley, starring Dawn French as a progressively-minded vicar in a conservative English village. In between these opposite ends of the spectrum lies The IT Crowd; The Inbetweeners; Spaced; Bad Education; Miranda; Outnumbered, and countless others. Though undoubtedly influenced by their predecessors, these shows are integrally different to something like The Two Ronnies sketches, or Laurel and Hardy pieces. Admittedly, 70s shows like Fawlty Towers or Are You Being Served? might serve as a bridge to this modern genre. But what exactly is it that makes the format so unquestionably British?

One thing that all of the modern shows listed have in common is situation, of course the most vital aspect of the ‘sitcom’ genre. Whether the focus is on the computer geeks of The IT Crowd or the schoolkids of The Inbetweeners, all of these shows have a group of characters attempting to navigate, with varying success, the throes of everyday British life. Whether their problems are romantic, social or otherwise, the general British awkwardness supersedes everything and drives the situation forward. And their problems, too, are often so relatable, especially for people who have grown up here: the references, the settings, the characters, too.

Whilst there are overlaps in the types of characters which populate British sitcoms – one can certainly see the influence of Dawn French’s vicar upon Miranda Hart’s Miranda – often the actual traits of a character play little part in this genre. The constantly battling family in Friday Night Dinner are very different to the pot-smoking young adults we see in Spaced, however, it seems simple to group these shows together under the umbrella of ‘The Great British Sitcom’. This is because differences in characters, such as age, ethnicity or experience don’t really affect a show’s place in the genre: this is all based, once again, on ‘situation’.

The backdrop of this situation is usually important; setting certainly plays a role in defining this genre. If we’re in an urban setting, we’re likely to get shots of Piccadilly Circus or the Houses of Parliament, or at least a sturdy-looking London skyline. A rural setting, on the other hand, is likely to feature cows, muddy fields, a good dose of rain and those nice, white semi-detached houses with the bay windows and a side garage (you know the ones) that crop up all over our fertile land. Admittedly, these shows often present a limited view of Britain – London-centric, southern-based – and generally skim over all the unpleasant bits, such as colonial history and Prince Andrew.

British humour is notorious for being a thing of great mystery to the rest of the world. I imagine that especially in the light of Brexit, the rest of Europe certainly see us as a lot of oddballs. Yet our little island, with its terrible weather and generally shocking cuisine, has bred a certain type of ‘let’s just get on with it’ humour that is possibly one of the most difficult British things to explain (aside from most of the Cabinet’s decisions, that is). Rather like us Brits ourselves, our jokes are silly, awkward, ridiculous, nuanced things. We seem to have a particular fondness for puns and other jokes based on our bastardised language (see Upstart Crow), as well as a good dose of what the Germans call ‘Schadenfreude’ – finding great humour in someone else’s passing misfortune (see The Inbetweeners). The surreal, too, also plays into many of our jokes (probably the result of all the hard water), and this is one of the most prominent features almost all of the television shows I have mentioned have in common. As comedic situations highten, they often become uttery ridiculous; consider Dawn French ballet dancing with Darcy Bussell in The Vicar of Dibley, or Simon Pegg believing he lives in a post-apocalyptic world in Spaced. We seem to love to toy with the abstract, perhaps simply leaning into our global reputation as a funny little island with a warped sense of humour.

This humour, I believe, is the one staple holding together the cluster of television we see as the Great British Sitcom. And so despite all the Government have done to ruin our international standing, I still find myself feeling fond of our strange little land. As it turned out, national identity exists not only is such things as politics and flags, but just as much in humour, settings, situations and friends. With that, I’ve got to dash – I’m on the final episode of This Country!

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