Besides attracting the curiosity of American TV fans who love British culture, British sitcoms or Britcoms are also different for other reasons. As Garry Berman, author of “Best of the Britcoms: Revised Edition From Fawlty Towers to the Office”, points out in his book, UK sitcoms, especially good ones, don’t always go on forever like many American ones seem to do. For example, John Cleese’s “Fawlty Towers” ran for only 12 episodes over two seasons.
Berman’s book is an indispensible guide to the best British sitcoms going back to the ’70s. Among the sitcoms featured are “Are You Being Served?”, “Fawlty Towers,” “To the Manor Born,” “The Young Ones,” “The Black Adder,” “Red Dwarf,” “Keeping Up Appearances,” “Absolutely Fabulous,” “Father Ted,” “Coupling” and “The Office” (UK version). The entries give a digest view about why each is worth viewing.
Why do Americans have an enduring appreciation of Britcoms? “A long time ago, someone suggested to me that Americans like Britcoms so much mostly because we love hearing British accents,” Berman says. “But, for me, after so many years of viewing so many British programs, I hardly notice the accents anymore. But I still do hear the intelligence and creativity that goes into the best of these shows. I think we like them simply because they’re funny and so well done!”
What would Berman, also the author of “We’re Going to See The Beatles!: An Oral History of Beatlemania as Told by the Fans Who Were There,” call the most pioneering Britcoms? “That’s a tough one. I think some Britcoms have been pioneers in their own ways. Many have been quite conventional, even mediocre, but a few have broken new ground,” he says. “‘The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin,’ from the 1970s, was the first Britcom in serial form, with the storyline continuing from one episode to the next. ‘Yes, Minister’ from the early 80s, satirized the workings of government and politics with a sophistication that no sitcom– British or American–has matched since. ‘One Foot In The Grave,’ in the 90s, was not only brilliantly scripted, but employed innovative production techniques, such as using movable walls on the studio set, to allow the Meldrew’s house interior to be shot from any angle, instead of requiring the actors to face one direction (towards the cameras) in every scene. Subtle things, perhaps, but very important to the evolution of sitcoms.”
How have Britcoms influenced American shows? “I’m not sure if Britcoms really have influenced American shows,” he says. “Of course, we’ve seen American versions of established Britcoms. Most attempts to adapt the originals here have been failures, except for ‘The Office.’ But in the past decade, American sitcoms have, thankfully, begun to experiment more with the sitcom form. There has been an increase in single-camera shows, shot without studio audiences or laugh tracks, that go on location more, use black-out gags, narration, etc. (‘Malcolm In The Middle’ and, before that,’The Wonder Years’).They’ve really hit their stride recently, with shows such as ‘Modern Family,’ ‘The Middle,’ and ‘Raising Hope.'”
“But Britcoms,” says Berman, “still have been more consistently creative, and have been less afraid of exploring unusual settings or different time periods for sitcoms. In contrast, every American sitcom takes place in the present. But there have been imaginative period Britcoms like ‘Blackadder,’ several shows by producer David Croft, such as ‘Dad’s Army’ and ‘Hi-De-Hi,’ and the wonderful show ‘Goodnight Sweetheart,’ which jumps back and forth between the present day and World War II. Imagine an American sitcom doing that!”
Britcoms have been less restrained in sexual attitudes than American shows. Is this the most prevalent reason why they’re popular in the U.S. or is it something else? “I don’t think the permissive nature of some British sitcoms makes them popular here,” he says. “But in comparison, the powers-that-be in American television tend to look like a bunch of uptight prudes. Some of our sitcoms feature humorously blunt dialogue, but the major networks still have to answer to advertisers who, unfortunately, tend to buckle under the pressure of easily offended special interest groups, who spend their days threatening boycotts, and demanding apologies for jokes they disapprove of.
“Some of the Britcoms I enjoy most might get a tad naughty at times (‘Coupling’ being the most obvious recent example), and even throw in an occasional four-letter word, but British viewers seem to handle it all quite well,” he says. “And I hope reasonably intelligent American viewers know a well-written and genuinely funny sitcom when they see it, no matter how suggestive–or wholesome–it is.”
Asked which Britcom has been his favorite recently, he said, “I’d have to say ‘Extras’ is my most recent favorite. Seek it out! It is beyond brilliant, especially its second season, where it takes an already remarkable level of comedy and raises it even higher. Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant are geniuses, period.
“Another show, ‘Outnumbered,’ is only just now beginning to break onto PBS affiliates here. It is a semi-improvised show about a typical suburban family, with small children who drive their parents to both mental and physical exhaustion on a daily basis, and in hilarious but very realistic ways.”
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