I’m not sure the US has ever been more enthusiastic about British comedy than it is right now. Thanks to Veep and to Hulu’s uncensored screening of The Thick of it, excitement about Armando Iannucci has reached near-Olympic levels. And just last week, HBO announced a remake of award-winning BBC sitcom Getting On, a bleak take on nursing in an underfunded hospital.
Judging by shows like these as well critical faves like The Office and cult sitcoms from Peep Show to The IT Crowd, it must seem that all UK comedy shares a certain aesthetic. It’s painfully-observed, harshly-lit, darkly funny, and of course, full of swears.
But not all of our sitcoms are the same. They rarely get exported, but many of our most popular comedies are inexplicably popular, laugh-track-filled, seemingly dashed-off efforts that would be pulled at the pilot stage (if not sooner) across the pond. You may think America has churned out some trash, but at least it was given a budget, a team of writers, and an attempt to look glossy. The worst British sitcoms appear to have culled their best material from vaudeville (take their jokes… please). And audiences are expected to sit through all this without the reprieve of an ad break, in most cases.
Here, in no particular order, are ten British sitcoms to cherish… never having watched:
My Family (2000-2011)
My Family shot Kris Marshall to semi-fame (a little part in Love Actually and a seemingly life-long contract to advertise British Telecom) and turned Zoe Wanamaker and Robert Lindsay from classically trained, award-winning actors into “that stupid couple off the telly”. Before it was pulled from our screens last year, the two leads publicly admitted to hating most of the scripts, with Lindsay telling The Sunday Times: “Out of 100 episodes, maybe we’ve done ten that you can say are really good shows.” Sadly, that’s still an incredibly generous assessment.
Last Of The Summer Wine (1973-2010)
This probably says more about Britain than any quirky opening ceremony or obsession with tea leaves: a program about a trio of old men and the plans and pranks they dreamt up ran for 31 seasons over 37 years, until it was finally put out of its misery. It turned the tiny Yorkshire village of Holmfirth into a tourist destination, a scruffy senior called Compo into a cultural sensation, and spun off prequels, stage adaptations, and novelizations, not letting even lead actor’s deaths stop the wheels of production. It’s the longest-running sitcom in the world, and the one I’d most recommend switching on if you’re having trouble sleeping.
Birds Of A Feather (1989-1998)
A show centred around two working class sisters in their forties who move in together after their no-good husbands go to jail, every episode saw them think up new family-friendly ways to call their sexually liberated neighbor a slut while she berated them for being stupid and fat, respectively, a laugh track roared, and Gloria Steinem wept. Sometimes other stuff happened, but it was all so clichéd and horrible it can only have put viewers off ever visiting Essex, where the show was set. (An impulse that’s well founded, I know from bitter experience.)
On The Buses (1969-1972)
Rejected by the BBC but adored by viewers, On The Buses was a euphemism-packed (that’s what she said) Carry On-style “romp” set in the glamorous world of a bus depot. Confronting the important social issues of the era, from the class system to racial integration (there was a black character nicknamed “Chalky”; problem solved), the show was most concerned with demonstrating how difficult it is when work gets in the way of being a middle-aged lech. In case you’re wondering, yes, the fan club is open to international members. (Fnar.)
My Hero (2000-2006)
Father Ted alum Ardal O’Hanlon trashed the goodwill he’d built up with TV critics by starring as the sexily-named Thermoman in this lamentable show that’s not entirely dissimilar to The Greatest American Hero. Believe it or not, as many as eight million people watched at its peak, obviously keen to see a superhero who wasn’t debonair or in possession of any awe-inspiring tech but did have an alter-ego named George and a creepy talking baby so horribly CGI-ed it could have helmed its own horror franchise.
One Foot in the Grave (1990-2000)
If you ever hear a British man referred to as a “Victor Meldrew” (and if you visit our fair isle, it’s just a matter of time, such was the cultural impact of OFITG), this show is why. Meldrew’s our George Costanza, only older, far less funny, and with about a tenth of the charm. “Enjoyed” by a third of the population in the early ‘90s, the program’s only attempt at humor was an exasperated geriatric shrieking, “I don’t believe it!” at farcical set pieces (like finding a dead cat in the freezer, as you do) while his wife rolled her eyes and waited for the sweet release of death.
George and Mildred (1976-1979)
After the local council buys their urban home, our titular heroes move to the suburbs, where they’re forced to face up to the problems in their relationship. Tired of bouncing along in the sidecar of George’s motorbike, Mildred is desperate for exotic travel and new experiences, while her husband longs to maintain the status quo. For some reason, Mildred finds his grumpy demeanor, regressive attitudes and beige cardigans a turn-on and makes constant attempts to sex him up, which is a subversion of a tired TV trope, if not something anyone necessarily wanted to watch.
Two Pints of Lager And A Packet of Crisps (2001-2011)
Lucy Punch had a lucky escape when she was dumped from this execrable (and excrement-obsessed) so-called comedy after its original, unaired pilot. Based on the revolutionary concept of a group of straight, white twenty-somethings hanging out and occasionally having sex with each other, Two Pints was notable for embracing Britain’s proud binge-drinking culture… and little else. Toward the end of its run, even the writers had stopped caring, and opened the season eight finale to a public vote.
’Allo ‘Allo! (1982-1992)
Possibly educational, undeniably implausible, and in the grand tradition of British wartime sitcoms (cf: Dad’s Army, It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, Blackadder Goes Forth), ’Allo ‘Allo might not have been on screen my entire childhood, but it certainly felt like it was. Set in a café in Nazi-occupied France (naturally), the show found its humor (and I use the term loosely) in plotlines like a missing painting named The Fallen Madonna With The Big Boobies, exaggeratedly terrible accents (“Are we a-loon? I wish to tick with you”), and a saucy waitress’ copious references to German sausage. Mon Dieu.
Are You Being Served? (1972-1985)
Focusing on the staff of fictional London department store Grace Brothers, Served is still remembered fondly by 1970s nostalgia addicts and people who find nothing funnier than an older woman with garish hair and a posh voice making constant reference to her “pussy”. (She meant her cat, you pervs. Probably.) Meanwhile, John Inman played an offensively stereotypical gay man, mannequins malfunctioned, and sexual innuendoes abounded. An American remake was pulled from screens after just a few episodes, which was really for the best.
Diane Shipley is a freelance writer who lives and watches TV in England (unfortunately). She’s also contributed to The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, xoJane, and some other places.