Thursday, 13 August 2015

My Top Ten Favourite Sitcoms and the Glaring Omissions

Anyone who's been looking at this blog over the last few weeks will know that I've been going through my favourite ten British sitcoms. These are not shows which I think are objectively 'the best', or most technically brilliant, although I'd argue that on some of them. They are shows which I've grown up with, fallen in love with or which have inspired me to start writing, or, more likely, try harder. I explain more here. So here are my ten favourite shows:

1. Yes, Prime Minister
4. One Foot in the Grave
5. Hancock
6. Red Dwarf
7. Mr Don and Mr George
8. Black Books
9. Allo Allo
10. Bread

Yes. Bread. And there have been some glaring omissions. (I know. Glaring Omissions sounds like the kind of band a politician was in during their University days.) But no Fawlty Towers? No Only Fools and Horses? No Spaced? No Young Ones? NO HITCHHIKERS? NO DAD'S ARMY?! What on earth is going on?

I'm not sure which of those would make it into my Top Twenty. I'd certainly take Reggie Perrin, which was a huge hit in my household growing up, and frequently quoted. So sad to see David Nobbs' recent passing. I'd also take Rossiter in Rising Damp, which is majestic, and bears re-watching. Rigsby's pettiness and racism are written with brilliantly by Eric Chappell who also penned Only When I Laugh, which I really enjoyed for its simplicity. But then I also used to love Duty Free, Chance in a Million and Home to Roost but they're probably not Top 20 material, much as I liked at them at the time and can see their virtues.

A show that's improved with hindsight and my own aging is Ever Decreasing Circles, which is just brilliant, deranged and very special. And I've not even mentioned I'm Alan Partridge, which was hugely significant at a time when I was starting to get into comedy writing. And of course Fools and Horses would have to be in the Top 20. I'm not insane.

But Fawlty Towers? There are a couple of episodes I really enjoyed, the one with Mrs Richards most of all ("Is this a piece of your brain?"), and the one with the Germans, obviously. But overall, Fawlty Towers is just too farcical for me. It makes me want to curl up into a ball and block my ears. Also, if we're being mega-critical, the script doesn't serve Polly or Sybil well.

And Dad's Army? I admire it, but never found myself wanting to watch the endless repeats on the BBC. I always preferred It Ain't Half Hot Mum, especially the bits where Windor Davies shouts.

This could last for days, and ultimately won't get us anywhere. (Gah! I'd COMPLETELY forgotten about Dear John!) But what it is worth noting is how important sitcoms are; how dear to our hearts they become; how long we cherish them for; how many times we're able to watch them. TV Commissioners take note. Panel games do not have the same effect, must as I love Would I Lie To You?

One more thing. How many of these great shows are written by writers? Writers rather than writer-performers. Maybe there's nothing in this. Back in the day, writer-performers did sketch shows and variety show, not sitcoms so much. Eric Sykes was a rare exception. As is Fawlty Towers. I make this point here.

Writers don't give you a performance, but maybe they give you a greater chance at longevity or something more elusive and ethereal. Today, the majority of shows are at least co-written by the star: Bad Education, Man Down, Toast, Miranda, Mrs Brown, Not Going Out, Car Share, The Trip, Detectorists, People Just Do Nothing, Yonderland, Brian Pern, The Wrong Mans. I could go on. For a bit longer anyway. The Revs, the Peep Shows and the Uncles are rarer than ever.

As the Edinburgh Fringe get bigger every year and more and more producers attend looking for the next big thing, my worry is the writer-only talent is getting over-looked, but it needs nurturing and encouraging as much, if not more than, the writer-performer talent. That's what I'm taking away from this arbitrary exercise and blast of nostalgia. Feel free to draw your own conclusions.

Also, might want to think about getting my book, Writing That Sitcom, which is available for the Kindle/Kindle App via Amazon here.

Alternatively, it's available as a bog-standard PDF here.

People seem to like the book, found it useful and have been kind enough to say so:

"If you want to write a sitcom - particularly for the UK market - I defy you to read this book and NOT be a better writer as a result." Matt White, Amazon

And listen to the Sitcom Geeks podcast here.


  1. I sometimes attempt to try and devise my own episode of "Only When I Laugh" as a way of 'counting sheep' to fall asleep, but never get very far! As you say, hats off to the writers of all our great sitcoms, they deserve far more credit than they eve receive!

  2. Hi James. I'm an increasingly nerdish sitcom enthusiast myself (currently embroiled in a project of watching the first series of every British sitcom I can lay my hands on). I watch sitcoms from t'other side of the pond too, clearly deliberately absent here, and have just re-started Frasier.

    The first episode of Frasier has to be one of the greatest first episodes ever. The skill in having clear, constructive concept set-up play in such a complete manner, without losing any of the humour (well, humor) is pretty ace. Can you think of any British sitcoms where the first episode is the set-up of the 'Sit' bit of the sitcom? The Good Life springs to mind, but can't think of any more.

  3. Great list! Mine is: BlackAdder, GreenWing, Jam and Jerusalem, Miranda, Chelmsford 123, Outnumbered, Reggie Perrin, Red Dwarf, The Office, Black Books. Plus I'm getting into Bluestone 42!