6 Classic British TV Comedies That Are Often Overlooked

Whenever you see one of those lists of the Top British Sitcoms in a Sunday supplement, or on one of those fatuous I Love [Insert Decade Here] TV shows, you can guarantee that it’s always going to be the usual suspects: Dad’s Army, Steptoe and Son, Rising Damp, The Young Ones, Blackadder, I’m Alan Partridge etc. And sure, those shows all deserve to be there – but there are others equally worthy of praise that nary get a mention. Here are 6 of my personal faves

SYKES (1972-1979)

Sykes is one of those curious anomalies that, like The Goodies, was well-loved and ran for ages, but the BBC seems determined to pretend never existed. Eric Sykes started off as a writer on The Goon Show and was making TV comedy under his own steam throughout the 60s, but it was his self-titled 1970s series where he really perfected his craft. It has the loosest of possible premises, hapless Eric and his twin sister Hattie (played by Carry On stalwart Hattie Jacques) live in a house together and various unlikely scenarios befall them. Sykes surrounds himself with a treasure trove of British comedy talent; Richard Wattis and Deryck Guyler are regulars, but there are notable guest shots from Jimmy Edwards, Peter Sellers, Joan Simms and many more. Each episode is a perfectly cut jewel, with Sykes’ already hilarious scripts leaving room for a copious amount of ad-libbing from its experienced cast – watch Hattie Jacques corpse on camera at Peter Sellers going off-script in the first series episode Stranger. Magnificent stuff!

GOING STRAIGHT (1978)

No-one doubts that Porridge was a classic British sitcom, but few remember its sequel Going Straight, charting the exploits of Ronnie Barker’s Norman Stanley ‘Fletch’ Fletcher upon his release from Slade Prison. Also returning from the original series are Richard Beckinsale as Lennie Godber and Patricia Brake as Fletch’s daughter Ingrid; his son Raymond, unseen in Porridge, is played by a young Nicholas Lyndhurst. The series was written by Porridge’s original writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais and produced by its producer Sydney Lotterby, so to all intents and purposes, Going Straight was a direct continuation of its illustrious predecessor, but it rarely gets included in repeat runs of the series or mentioned in the same breath. The fact that it only ran to one series was nothing to do with it not being a hit – it got very good ratings figures and won a BAFTA – but down to the unexpected early death of Richard Beckinsale shortly after the first series was aired (and before the Porridge spin-off film was even released in cinemas).

THE KIT CURRAN RADIO SHOW / KIT CURRAN (1984-1986)

Written by Andy Hamilton, The Kit Curran Radio Show was a sitcom concerning the misadventures of an obsessively self-promoting disc jockey in a small local radio station. Denis Lawson put in a fantastic performance as the lovable but incredibly annoying Kit, who is always running up against the long-suffering station manager played by sitcom veteran Brian Wilde. In the second series, co-written by Guy Jenkin and re-titled simply Kit Curran, Kit has been fired from Newtown Radio along with his colleagues Les Toms and Damien Appleby, and is running a pirate radio station whilst trying to launch an insane variety of get-rich-quick schemes. Personally, I think the second series is superior to the first as it gives wider scope for Kit’s madcap schemes, but they’re both very, very funny. Kit Curran got a random repeat late night on ITV in the 90s and both series cropped up in the early days of UK Gold, but it’s never been released on DVD and rarely gets a mention when the story of ITV sitcoms is being told, which is a damn shame.

NIGHTINGALES (1990-1993)

Before Father Ted, before The I.T. Crowd and before The Mighty Boosh, Paul Makin’s black comedy about night watchmen ushered in the era of surrealist sitcom, late at night on Channel 4 with very little fanfare. Channel 4’s comedy output was all over the place in its first decade and though they broke new ground with The Comic Strip Presents and Vic Reeves Big Night Out, they never really nailed a new kind of sitcom. They had Desmond’s of course, but though culturally significant, it hardly stretched the boundaries of the format; it wasn’t until Nightingales came along (within weeks of Vic Reeves Big Night Out) that they had something truly different. Surrealist comedy has fallen out of favour in the 80s, wounded by constant comparisons to Monty Python, but Nightingales injects a heady dose of surrealism into the standard ‘3 characters trapped’ sitcom format with great success. It also takes the Steptoe and Son step of casting actors rather than comedians, with Robert Lindsay, James Ellis and the wonderful David Threlfall looking like they’re having far too much fun making the series.

2 POINT 4 CHILDREN (1991-1999)

It seems almost churlish to describe 2point4 Children as overlooked; it ran for almost a decade and was incredibly popular in its time, bringing in ratings of up to 14 million, but if you see a  rundown of the BBC’s ‘classic’ comedy series, it’s unlikely to get a mention. Whereas they’d be happy to give a nod to the similarly themed My Family or Outnumbered, this populist sitcom just doesn’t fit into the BBC’s idea of itself as a font of ‘ground-breaking’ 90s comedy. Writer Andrew Marshall was a contemporary of Douglas Adams and supposedly the inspiration for Marvin the Paranoid Android; he takes the BBC suburban sitcom format, which had become quite staid at the time (3 years earlier they were still making Terry and June) and brought it into the 90s, introducing a series of bizarre and unlikely events that befall the unlucky Porter family. Along with One Foot in the Grave (written by another Adams contemporary David Renwick), this series set the template for the 90s sitcom, but for some reason never gets the love it so richly deserves.

DR. TERRIBLE’S HOUSE OF HORRIBLE (2001)

Steve Coogan and Alan Partridge is a bit like Peter Sellers and Inspector Clouseau; he’s an incredibly talented and versatile performer who wants to try new things, but he keeps getting dragged back to his most famous character. Thirteen years before Inside No.9 had great success with a similar concept, Dr. Terrible’s House of Horrible was an anthology series spoofing the golden age of British horror film, from Hammer to Amicus and beyond. With titles like Lesbian Vampire Lovers of Lust and Scream Satan Scream, it’s not difficult to see where they’re drawing their inspiration from. Coogan introduces each episode as the bald, aged Dr. Terrible and plays various parts throughout the episodes. In my favourite story Frenzy of Tongs, spoofing the politically incorrect Fu Manchu movies, he portrays the hero Nathan Blaze with a flawless Peter Wyngarde impersonation. Although critically acclaimed, the BBC didn’t pick it up for a second series and Steve Coogan was back playing Partridge the following year.

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