Milly Sheed gives us a rundown on some of her favourite British comedies and why they should be given just as much attention as their American counterparts
To me, there is nothing more British than the sitcom. Originating from the BBC in the 1950s, the sitcom emerged as the perfect medium to express the humour inherent in our daily lives. There is no denying the British sense of humour is, itself, highly unique. Yet it still dominates, along with the USA, as a giant in comedy across the world. British humour can sometimes deter viewers by being too outlandish or “confusing”—and much more sobering than comedy ought to be.
The centuries-old tradition of sexual innuendo (dating back to the times of Shakespeare. Think: A Midsummer’s Night Dream), and a robust sense of pessimism are what make British comedy not only hilarious (in a more nuanced sense of the word) but ultimately highly confronting. This may not be what we want from a comedy when we sit down to watch. We might like to, instead, escape from the embarrassment and solemnity of every-day life. But British comedy does make us think, empathise with and root for loveable characters who, from the outside, seem mostly like blundering idiots. In this way, British comedy certainly leaves a lingering taste in your mouth.
British comedy has seemed to disappear from our TV screens here in New Zealand. Friends is broadcasted every single weekday at prime time, The Big Bang Theory three times a week, and Two and Half Men and Mom are screened just as often. American comedy is popular, and it’s satisfactory as it gets us that big, obvious laugh. This is all very well, but this ostentatious sense of optimism and blatant sexual punchlines can feel draining over time. A dose of realism about the world around us wouldn’t go amiss sometimes.
So here are my highly recommended British comedies, if you are looking to expand your sitcom-horizons. Next trip to The Warehouse? Rummage through those bargain bins and see if you can find one of these diamonds I suggest below. It may just make your day.
Set in France during WWII, owner of a café, René, tries to ride out the war as comfortably as possible. He happens to fail in this, however, as he involuntarily becomes entangled in the antics of the Resistance. Full of complex escapades and cultural paradigms, ‘Allo ‘Allo demonstrates the wonderful way in which the British invariably push through collective trauma and and transform it into satire.
A female vicar enters an old-fashioned community and manages to reshape the way the village interact and express love to each other. The cast of loveable, simple-minded parishioners will soon have a place in your heart as Geraldine Granger passes on her wisdom, support and unconditional love to them throughout their daily struggles. The Vicar of Dibley highlights the poignant theme of selflessness to our neighbours, no matter how much they can get on our nerves.
Forming a romance over the phone, Gavin and Stacey marry and attempt to start a life together which spans across two nations, and two diverse cultures. They must also weather challenges which threaten to separate them, including overbearing families and clingy best friends. You will soon be rooting for these unique, relatable characters. The show is a beautiful representation of the importance of family in battling the trials life throws at us. Available on Netflix.
You will no doubt relive those tortuous days of high school through this comedy, and through the awkward adolescent antics of the four main characters. If you went to a public high school, you will relate to Will, Simon, Jake and Neil on a spiritual level. The boys attempt to navigate their way through the social pressures of school, attempting to attract girls and look as cool as possible in the process. The crude and overtly blatant nature of the show just highlights its realism, often leaving the characters embarrassed and on the wrong side of popular. Available on Netflix.
The Office, filmed in a documentary-style, follows the manager of a paper merchant in an industrial part of Britain. David Brent is unlucky in his attempts to befriend his colleagues and appear as the ultimate “cool boss,” but is painfully and unknowingly the butt of all the jokes of his fellow workers. The Office perfectly marries the poignant reality of social acceptance and the drudgery of a 9-to-5 office job with comedy. Although Brent is the epitome of self-induced embarrassment and awkwardness, we love and empathise with him through the realism of his circumstances. Available on Netflix.
The epitome of British comedy culminates in Fawlty Towers. Written by and starring Monty Python’s John Cleese, Fawlty Towers follows the trouble and strife of the owner of a seaside village hotel, Basil Fawlty. With the help of his Spanish concierge and quick-thinking waitress, Basil openly harasses and abuses his customers, driving them from his hotel. Basil Fawlty’s distaste for the public is the focal point of comedy throughout the series, but we all can relate to Basil on some level for his fervent attempts at a quiet, undramatic lifestyle by the sea. Available on Netflix.