BY Michael Bracewell in Frieze | 05 MAY 02
Featured in
Issue 67

Tears before bedtime

Melancholy in British sitcoms

BY Michael Bracewell in Frieze | 05 MAY 02

Set in a small seaside town during the austerity years of the 1950s, it focused on a shambolic but warm-hearted group of builders working on a new housing estate.

Their nemesis was their boss and timekeeper, a draconian petty bureaucrat with a high regard for his own authority. It was a gentle kind of comedy, but in the closing phrase of the voice-over that ran through the opening credits, when you might expect the reassuring twang of a jaunty quickstep, or a few little soft-shoe shuffling chords, came the words 'Before the world turned rotten and sour ...'. The phrase encapsulated the whole ethos of the British sitcom.

Pursuing that deeply English concern with remembering the past as a somehow 'better' place, Big Jim and The Figaro Club (1981) embodied a credo of miserabilism that runs through a whole swathe of British comedy and, indeed, British comedians. It's a depressive reflex, linking much of Britain's most pervasive and original humour to parallel miserabilist tracts - from the poetry of Philip Larkin to the films of Mike Leigh to the music of The Smiths. The common denominator of this melancholy is retrospection - of personal and cultural audit.

For today's audiences situation comedies made in the late 1970s and early 1980s will seem inextricably linked with their generational memories of childhood and adolescence. The kooky nuclear families of Bless This House (1971) or Bread(1985), locked in the same cultural grid as early hits by Adam Ant or David Bowie's Scary Monsters (1980), provide a kind of loose Esperanto of the past, the feel of which has been sourced in recent British Pop and television by artists ranging from Suede to Steve Coogan. And yet it is these precursors of the last decade's TV comedy - the so-called 'Golden Age of British Sitcom', stretching approximately from 1970 to 1985 - which have been the leading informant of contemporary television comedy. The 1990s abounded in ironic comic reference to shared televisual rites of passage - from the Pop nostalgia of Vic Reeves to the spoof chat shows of Coogan's Alan Partridge (Knowing Me, Knowing You, 1994).Big Jim and The Figaro Club was also a comedy that looked back in time - fancifully, perhaps - to an age before the complexities of consumer democracy; an age when the struggle between good and bad was supposedly a clear-cut affair. In this respect the comedy was a lament for a lost innocence, shot through with the troubling conviction - a running theme in sitcom - that the best of life is somehow over, its opportunities botched by circumstances or fate. This sadness, like the iconic melancholy of Tony Hancock, Kenneth Williams or Charles Hawtrey, has always been fixated on the oppression of the spirit by suburbia, routine and domesticity - of being trapped, above all, within the malaise of the self. Similarly, sitcom finds its subjects in ordinary things, and the best of its humour can seem like a kind of shadow play from Larkin's line that 'nothing, like something, happens anywhere.' 1 The sitcom, as a genre, connects the social realism of kitchen sink cinema of the late 1950s to the increasingly pantomime world of contemporary soap opera.

Recent television comedy such as Focus North (2000) has taken the very idea of the absurdist blandness of local news programmes from three decades ago, such as Nationwide, as a trigger for their meticulously constructed satires on info-tainment. They present a Britain as bleak and comic as the darkling scenarios of The League of Gentlemen (1999) - a comedy in which the British neuroses with order and class are reworked as televisual caricature. There have been few more targeted explorations of British 'non-space' than the depiction of the enforced exile in a Norwich Novotel of failed TV presenter Alan Partridge - a toothless monster attempting to come to terms with his beige cage.

But the history of the British sitcom, as a response to the national mood, is both convoluted and at times self-contradictory. What endures in the current rehabilitation of 'classic' sitcom melancholy, misanthropy and frustration, seen in recent shows such as Stella Street (1997) or The Office (2001), is the sense of cosmic struggle played out in microcosm. However, this conflict - usually between the individual and their hope - has deep roots. For each week of its brief run of six episodes Big Jim and The Figaro Club played out in miniature the battle at the heart of nearly all immediate postwar British comedy: the determination of the ordinary working bloke to overthrow the high-handed unfairness of both the System and the increasingly caricatured upper classes.

This was a theme that had evolved partly in reaction to the class-levelling effect of World War II; it was as though the British, having got into uniform and defeated Hitler, looked to comedy as a means of translating their experience of that conflict into humorous stories that doubled as a fundamental moral lesson: the locals must organize themselves to overcome the universal threat of those who would seek to control them by force.

The template of this dynamic can be seen in such Ealing Studios comedies as Passport to Pimlico (1949) or The Titfield Thunderbolt (1952). Here was a world of cheerful stoicism in response to the threat of oppression. This world formed the basis of the early 'Carry On' films made by Anglo-Amalgamated, such as Carry On Cabby (1962) and Carry On Nurse (1959), the latter concerning the patients on a male hospital ward uniting to overthrow the dictatorial matron, played with effortless ferocity by Hattie Jacques. This is an England in which the new civic services put in place by the postwar government - such as the very council estate that Big Jim and his mates are building on the edge of their seaside town - have inherited a certain militarism, to which the local population present the classic ambivalence of Englishness: thinking in terms of class (Us and Them), yet deeply resenting anyone who
gets above themselves.

But if this is the founding premise of postwar British comedy, so too is its collapse - the abandonment of a common struggle. Its replacement by a more contemporary sense of cynicism, failure and alienation was pivotal in the development of the British sitcom. The sense of the genre studying the dregs of a life revolving around the plughole of existence reached its apotheosis towards the end of the 1970s with a run of depressive sitcoms including The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin (1976) and Carla Lane's long-running Butterflies (1978), with its soft Folk theme song, 'Love Is Like a Butterfly'.

By the time of Britpop, and comedy's increasing involvement with a Pop cultural comedy of recognition, many of the sitcoms from the 1970s and early 1980s existed only as ciphers for an idea of the recent past: as the landscape of baby-boomer adolescence, like the memory of Marc Bolan or the unmodernized interiors of the London Underground. Pulp had only to source the colours of the 1970s (a washed-out blue to orange blandness) in order to make an unspoken statement about the inheritance of domestic memory. Somewhere on the edges of recent recollection the older sitcoms were reminders of a comedic revolt against the claustrophobia of daily routine way before broadband media.

Two of these earlier situation comedies took as their opening premise the leading character's lament for a life gone wrong: Leonard Rossiter's suicidal office worker Reggie Perrin and Wendy Craig's deeply depressed suburban housewife Ria, tired of life but unable to change it, in Butterflies. Ever Decreasing Circles (1984), the third in a triptych of ambiguous despair, presented the situation itself - a kind of Über-suburb of suffocating order and pettiness - as neurosis made landscape, like a middle-class version of the brooding terraces and canal-side bomb sites of kitchen sink films such as A Taste of Honey (1961). Another shuffle of the deck, though, and Ever Decreasing Circles could have been a side project by David Lynch - right down to the spookily normal neighbours Howard and Hilda, who always dress in identical anoraks. This is suburbia as Munchkinland, but without the Yellow Brick Road to the big city. All three comedies were laments for failed potential, revolving around the constitution of domesticity and routine - a trait recalling Larkin once again. In his poem 'Home Is So Sad' (1958), responding to the aged familiarity of familial domesticity, Larkin refines the complex abstractions of sadness to the two words of its final image: 'That vase'. This is a quiet, forceful closure to an account of the family home, which has somehow failed in what he calls its 'joyous shot at how things ought to be'. You might also be reminded of Morrissey, name-checking the school in Carry On Teacher (1959) in his lyric about leaving the family home, 'Late Night Maudlin Street' (1988), with its elegiac line 'A half life disappears today'.

As the sitcom explored existential themes of suburban torpor (a kind of Kafka with cupcakes), presenting the modern world as a place of neurosis and spiritual loneliness, it often seemed more at home in the stylized world of the 1940s and 1950s, before the common struggle became ingested as individual malaise. Through Dad's Army (1968), Hi-De-Hi (1981) and It 'Ain't 'Alf Hot, Mum (1974), screenwriters turned their comic brilliance to evoking that 'better place' mourned by the narrator at the start of Big Jim and The Figaro Club. This trio of sitcoms, happy in the pre-modern world of the Home Guard, the holiday camp and National Service in the last reaches of the Empire, described the reassurance of a simpler society in which the hierarchies of social institution protected us from our own capacity for disillusionment and disaffection. Wide open to accusations of sentimentality, but more than armoured by the precision of their characterization, the sitcoms of Perry and Croft remain in place as the fictional descendants of that better world of the imagined English past. Like their own subjects, they seem to belong to an older, less complicated society - one that the contemporary comedy of League of Gentlemen or Stella Street would turn on its head in a dystopic version of itself.

When sitcom pursues a 'better' world, it also raises the question of whether much of the bland middle ground of the genre was written to be comfortingly familiar rather than funny. This is the comedy of recognition as an anaesthetic - the Terry and June (1979) factor of positing the ubiquitous, amicably cranky couples of suburban sitcom as idealized neighbours. This is where, as old Marxists will point out, the sitcom becomes softly political; in its world of runaway lawnmowers and stunned milkmen, punctured pomposity and collapsing furniture, the 27 minutes of the average British sitcom was a window on class. By extension, this made the form perhaps more articulate of Britishness than almost any other popular medium - a trait that is picked up by contemporary comedy's deconstruction of demographic 'types' in their mediated form.

When audiences of nine or ten million were tuning in to their favourite sitcoms, they were relating above all to a comedy of social types: from Arthur Lowe's portrayal of Captain Mainwaring's ravenous ambition to embody the officer class in Dad's Army (Mainwaring's sombre musings on the nature of his unhappy marriage to the unseen but dominant Elizabeth were a study in confession) to Leonard Rossiter's sublime creation in Rising Damp (1974) of Rigsby, the proprietor of a gloomy, gothic boarding-house who shuttles at breakneck speed between cunning, cowardice and an intimation of himself as the ultimate matinee idol. In a character such as Rigsby the subsonic sadness has a kind of desperation to it, recalling Graham Greene's pronouncement in Journey without Maps (1936) that 'seediness has a very deep appeal; it seems to satisfy, temporarily, the sense of nostalgia for something lost; it seems to represent a stage further back'. Which is the rot and the sourness revisited, perhaps.

In a temporal sleight of hand the word 'sitcom' has become synonymous with an idea of the past; it retains the capacity to sum up the old broadcasting notion of television being 'the nation's hearth', with us all taking our place on the collective sofa to watch a miniaturized enactment of ... family life around a sofa. As a reasonably terrifying idea, with regards to the exploded dynamics of the family, this is a piece of cultural circuitry that re-routes our experience of sitcom back through Larkin's experience of familial domesticity.

Can sitcom play us back to ourselves, as potential Rias or Reggies, living - heaven help us - in the landscape of The League of Gentlemen? This is a theme - sitcom as life in a sitcom - that comedian Sean Hughes attempted, uneasily, to investigate in his first series for Channel 4 in the early 1990s. This was a time when a gradual disillusionment with sitcom possessed the programmers, as though they regarded the genre as reactionary and an impediment to the quest for their Holy Grail of 'youth programming'. Such a view resulted in a flurry of half-hour comedy spots such as Sean's Show (1992) and The Paul Merton Show (1996) - crypto-ironic takes on traditional comedy playing to the knowingness of the audience. With less contrived irony, however, the hit sitcom of the 1980s, The Young Ones (1982) shot straight from prime time to cult status, with barely a pause for breath. But how did this relate to sitcom's precursors?

During the 1970s, in sitcoms such as Man about the House (1973) and Are You Being Served? (1973), the genre's study of failure became a high camp exercise in dignity outraged and masculinity disempowered, reaching a high point of slapstick with Michael Crawford's Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em (1973) and its catch-phrase 'Oo, Betty!'. In Man about the House George and Mildred Roper (the latter played by Yootha Joyce, who would 'star' on the sleeve of Ask, 1986, by The Smiths) depicted a middle-aged couple attempting to come to terms with retirement. Their frustrations became fixed on George's excuses for avoiding sex and Mildred's long-suffering endurance of his slippered retreat into impotence. Similarly, the staff of Grace Bros. department store in Are You Being Served? played out a hugely complex algebra of sexual and social status, the tensions of which could turn a slightly raised eyebrow into the equivalent of a hurled ashtray. Innuendo, itself a consequence of archaism, is everything in this branch of sitcom, a veneering of gentility across plainly sexual banter. Innuendo denotes a repressive society in which formality is the constraint on feelings. Hence, in Are You Being Served? Mrs Slocombe's glorious riposte to Captain Peacock, who has got hold of her cat during the pitch darkness of a power cut: 'Captain Peacock! Will you please remove your hand from my pussy!'

Unlike their American counterparts, such as Bewitched (1964), The Dick van Dyke Show (1969) and later Cheers (1982), Taxi (1978) or Rhoda (1974), there was very little feel-good factor within the British sitcom of the 1970s and 1980s - no achievement of an independent life in the heart of the bustling city or sunny domesticity amid the hissing summer lawns in an idealized suburbia. In the UK sitcom land went from prisons to bed-sitting-rooms, and even the temperate suburbia of Terry and June was held in place by a rigid formality that made the rather weak jokes arise from outraging outmoded conventions. The manner in which the British sitcom was steeped in fatalism and bounded by formality meant that its humour was ill suited to the strategies of funky Postmodern comedians. Like Blackpool or Las Vegas, sitcom confounds irony. In recent years the most successful sitcoms have maintained the traditional formula of failure within banality: the 1990s were dominated by One Foot in the Grave(1990), a hymn to misanthropy, and Keeping Up Appearances (1974), Patricia Routlege's reworking, as Hyacinth Bucket ('pronounced "bouquet"'), of Penelope Keith's defining role as Margot, the suburban snob brought low, in The Good Life (1974). Similarly, Father Ted (1995) and his entrapment on a remote Irish island, the kitchen-centric mayhem of Absolutely Fabulous (1992) and the sofa-based claustrophobia of The Royle Family (1998) were all, like their miserabilist precursors, concerned with class and frustrated ambition within the oppression of a daily routine. It could have been 1974.

Sitcom generally fails when it attempts the Postmodern trope of making television itself the 'situation' of the comedy - spoofing video diaries, docu-soaps or the actual televisual format of sitcom. The knowingness of the conceit - a presumed sophistication of media literacy - all but suffocates the script and the acting, as well as robbing the form of the basic plot device which make a 27-minute drama sustain its force. Most recently, however, The Office achieved a seamless blend of classic sitcom miserabilism with the technical devices of a documentary - renewing for a new generation the ambiguous comedy of a dead-end job in a boring town.

The classic 'situations' of the sitcom - the boarding-house, the suburb, the corner shop, the holiday camp or the department store - provided an instant social landscape that maintained the idea of a Britain where everything was still in its place within an accepted social order. By the time that Postmodernism, as a rearrangement of intentionality and context, had ploughed its way through the fringes of comedy to the desks of commissioning editors, many of these classic 'situations' had found their place as the subjects for docu-soaps and reality TV. Here was a reversal of the sitcom, away from comedy of recognition into the anxiety of recognition. At the same time many of the characters and catch-phrases that typified the earlier age of sitcom found their way into the soaps - with Dot Cotton of Eastenders (1985) becoming a Mildred Roper comic character, for example. In the mid- to late 1990s, the cultural insistence on authenticity had become the single peg upon which many of television's hopes were hung, and the world of the sitcom - beyond a zappy, ironic version of itself - was allowed to decline. This state of affairs prompted an address on the Internet by veteran sitcom writer Vince Powell, who maintained that the 'ban on old-style British sitcoms ignores viewer-needs'.

The belief that the traditional sitcom embodies reactionary values prompted cultural commentators in the 1990s to take exception to the very history of the sitcom, regarding it as the ambassador of suburban values that by definition were demonized. Andy Medhurst, in an essay in Visions of Suburbia (1997), attempts a near-Marxist reading of the British sitcom, by finding the entire premise of suburban England to be offensive to his political orthodoxy. 'The suburban sitcom represents British comedy's most sustained attempt at embourgeoisement,' he snarls, 'its plots often concerned with the maintaining of genteel values against threats from outside or below.' Butterflies comes in for particular criticism as being offensive to both women in particular and society in general. Championing the cause of Ruby, the programme's comedy-cockney cleaning woman, Medhurst states, 'the programme's tentatively feminist critique of suburban domesticity is thus undercut by its hugely retrogressive presentation of class.'

And yet 'class' itself, within much of British sitcom, is seen as a ludicrous, lumbering and deliquescent construct - with the characters' dependence on it serving only to emphasize its fragility. Think of Alf Garnett in Till Death Us Do Part (1965) railing against absolutely everyone except the Queen and West Ham United, or of Harold Steptoe in Steptoe and Son (1962) - that poète maudit of the rag-and-bone yard - lamenting his true calling as a Fellini-esque bohemian, discussing existentialism over cocktails rather than mucking out the horse. Here then, is an individual struggle in a world of struggle, the history of which is the accretion of a particular temper. And it is this spirit - or, rather, the perceived disappearance of this spirit - which seems to prompt the mournful observation at the start of Big Jim and The Figaro Club. Perhaps 'the world turned rotten and sour' when the streamlining modernity of the 1960s began to do away with the ethos of austerity Britain and to bury its common morality beneath a brand new culture of supermarkets and Pop music, miniskirts and power stations. This sense of mourning for a period, and, more importantly, for an ethos of Englishness that has somehow passed, is crucial to the melancholy in British sitcom as both a genre and a form.

With this in mind, Big Jim and The Figaro Club can be seen as a definitive work for the very reason that it admits its predisposition to embitterment from the outset, and that its characters have not so much failed within society as been failed by society. The fact that their adventures are presented retrospectively by a nameless narrator (an elderly Big Jim perhaps, looking back on his life) adds a further sadness in our collective placing of sitcom somewhere on the sun-faded edges of current memory; a phenomenon caught between history and nostalgia. Today the whole idea of British situation comedy seems to represent not only an archaic world but an archaic form - Greene's 'stage further back' - in a manner not dissimilar to one of Martin Parr's Boring Postcards (1999), or a featureless civic centre from the early 1970s, or the ketchup-coloured Formica of a service station café - or 'that vase'.

Michael Bracewell is a writer based in the UK. His most recent book, The Space Between: Selected Writings on Art, is published by Ridinghouse, London.