Daniel Reast, a postgraduate researcher from the University of Portsmouth, UK, looks back at the development of British television comedy after the Second World War. He reflects on the way that the best comedy responds to situations occurring around the programme, and how social, political and cultural changes present comedy writers with material.
If there is one media format that the British people are continuously proud of, it is their comedy. Since the rapid expansion of television ownership in the 1950s and 1960s, the previously titanic media of radio and cinema would find themselves struggling to compete with the rise of television. This replacement can be attributed to the relatively low price of a television set, as well as television being much more accessible. With only three channels broadcasting until 1982 when Channel 4 began airing, it was normal to see massive audiences for certain programmes. The popular comedy programmes of the era were the most enticing for audiences. Fans and creators throw claims about whose programme was the most watched comedy show on British television, with the 1996 Only Fools and Horses Christmas Special being watched by 24.35 million people. Thus, there was a fierce competition and huge variety of comedies available in the 1970s and 1980s. This research concentrates on these two decades because of the immense quality and quantity available to explore. It must be said as well that the comedies of the two decades constitute a “Golden Age” in television broadcasting. There is also a distinct narrative to both decades. Comedy represented and reflected cultural concepts that were actively discussed and endured in Britain at the time. Culturally, there are three noticeable examples of markers which represented changes in British society. Social class, race and racism, and women in comedy are all conjunctive of socio-political changes occurring at the time. This research also focuses on two specific case studies which reflect changes in said society. The “Camp Queens” and Alternative Comedy Movement of the 1980s both embody new variants in both society. With a current stagnation in British comedy occurring, much can be learned from the comedies of this Golden Age. However, the possible creators of new comedies will no doubt be very pressured to replicate an iconic comedy programme.
The success of British comedy in the 1970s and 1980s can be attributed to a strong history of light entertainment in the British media, as well as civic attitudes to television broadcasting. Since the development of popular and accessible entertainment in the Victorian era, comedy was enjoyed by the public to escape from difficult times. Technological developments also facilitated a growing audience to comedy and light entertainment. Radio was the most penetrable of media formats to include comedy as a genre. Many comedy greats found themselves as well-established performers and writers in the radio era. After the Second World War and the increased ownership of television sets, these performers went on to have glistening careers on television. It must also be said that as Britain’s television industry was largely state directed, there was a greater sense of broadcasters reflecting audience’s views and wants. Even as commercial television was established with the creation of ITV in 1955, British comedy in particular has often performed as socio-cultural markers of historical change and is looked back on with nostalgic eyes.
Utilising cultural concepts
The two decades are distinctive in how they represented the changes in society. The 1970s can be seen as the most important decade in terms of setting a precedent for comedy production in Britain. The 1980s however had two different media doctrines that defined the audience’s comedic taste. The previously mentioned cultural markers had their most exposure in the 1970s, but that does not mean to say that the 1980s was truly revolutionary. To understand these cultural markers, it is necessary to show the response to changing situations in British society. For example, a lingering cultural marker is the integrated attitudes to social class and class stratification. Social class in Britain is a long-standing fascination. The obsession is found explicitly in the punchlines of British comedy, and throughout the 1970s many plots were dedicated to the concept of social class. There were even entire programmes dedicated to class stratification. A rarely used example in comedic analyses is the 1973 BBC1 series, Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads which focused on two working class men from Newcastle. The characters Bob and Terry are battling each other in their attitudes to social change. Bob has aspirations of embourgeoisement and wishes for a better life, while Terry is more concerned with football, women, and causing mischief. Terry’s stagnation is due to a five-year stint in the armed forces and is therefore left behind by the changes occurring around him. While his best friend Bob is enjoying a “white-collar” job and regular dinner parties and functions, Terry struggles to find his place amidst the failing industry of Newcastle. The plots of Likely Lads are symbolic of the industrial changes in Britain occurring throughout the 1970s. With industry failing to develop and seemingly constant economic difficulties, there is a sense of pathos to the experiences of Bob and Terry. The industrial landmarks of Newcastle are nostalgically viewed by both Bob and Terry as markers of their youth. Industrial strife and union power would continue until the Thatcher governments of the 1980s, and the working class would mourn their upbringing. Other comedies depicting the working class in Britain, such as Bread, Only Fools and Horses, and stand-up comedy programmes such as The Comedians, all responded to working class culture and were popular due to a universal sense of humour that was established with the working class.
However, there was a class renaissance in the 1970s that reflected the growing trend of social movement to the middle class. Situation comedies such as The Good Life, The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, and Terry and June all depicted middle class married couples who were respectable, dignified, and suburban. The male characters have (with the exception of Tom Good in The Good Life) a well-paid white-collar job in London and can support the lifestyles of their wives. The exceptional Reggie Perrin and the Good couple in The Good Life, while all socially defined as middle class, all rebel in their own way to the concept of middle class contentment. Reggie Perrin is more enhanced with deeper plotlines and connotations related to complacency, malaise, and faked suicide. More obtusely is the standing plot of The Good Life where the Good couple manage a hobby farm in the back garden of their detached house in Surbiton. These miniature revolts to middle class gratification result in comedic situations, but do also reflect anxieties about being middle class. Terry and June however, does not feature a revolt against the bourgeois, and has since been reviled by alternative comedians for being boring and smug. Social class in general was used by writers to make sense of the class structure in Britain, and ultimately make fun of the ridiculousness of the situation.
Reaffirming discriminatory ideologies
Another cultural element of British television comedy that lingered until its death was racist humour. In sitcoms such as Love Thy Neighbour, Till Death Us Do Part, and Curry and Chips, there was clear use of racist language jokes and slurs used to achieve an audience response. In this sense, comedy on television tapped into fears and anxieties about racialist politics of the era. Anti-immigration was a powerful message of some politicians and political groups, such as Enoch Powell and The National Front. The opposition to increased migration to the British Isles in the post-war period exacerbated an imperial decline caused by pro-independence movements in the former Empire. Imperial attitudes can be seen in Till Death with the main character, the infamous Alf Garnett, taking patriotism to the extreme by nailing portraits of Queen Victoria and Winston Churchill to the walls of his small flat in the East End of London. In Love Thy Neighbour, the main protagonist Eddie Booth is shocked to learn that a black couple from the Caribbean has moved into the house next to him. Conflict ensues and both male characters utilise racialist arguments to distance themselves from a neighbourly friendship, though both their wives are good friends with each other. Both protagonists are angry, and utilise racist slurs and language to make the audience laugh. However, this postcolonialism in British sitcom can be analysed in two ways: satisfying the racist viewer, or the anti-racist activist. Racist viewers would laugh at the obvious jokes being made at the expense of minorities, while the anti-racist viewer would be laughing at the absurdity that the situation provided. As a media format, the racialist comedy programmes were successful due to the subtext that the viewer gained from watching. As with social class, watching these programmes today is more cringeworthy than amusing and after the Alternative Comedy Movement’s influence of the 1980s, racist programming declined.
“The traditional consensus on the role of women in the British comedy industry suggests that it is very masculine and difficult to be successful. While the feminist movement made great strides in 1970s British politics, the cultural and media status for women was still very discriminatory.”
Discrimination is a keen marker of comedy in the 1970s and 1980s, with many punchlines oriented to establishing a social hierarchy and making fun of where you were on the “ladder”. Discrimination against women and homosexuals was still rife in the 1970s and staunch beliefs about masculinity and femininity were utilised in comedy to achieve a response. The traditional consensus on the role of women in the British comedy industry suggests that it is very masculine and difficult to be successful. While the feminist movement made great strides in 1970s British politics, the cultural and media status for women was still very discriminatory. And while it is true that more men appeared in comedies than women, there were strong female leads. In the aforementioned sitcom The Good Life, both wives played by Felicity Kendal and Penelope Keith rebelled against the traditional theses that bound them to servitude. Kendal’s character Barbara is supportive of her husband’s dream of self-sufficiency and actively engages in the farming experience, and in some cases even surprises her husband’s enthusiasm. Keith’s character, Margo, is an obsessive social climber who cannot understand the lifestyle of her neighbours. Her character is funny because of this difficulty in understanding the main character’s plots, and also due to her own middle-class anxieties. Penelope Keith would go onto adapt this character’s traits in her own vehicle sitcom To the Manor Born. Another strong female lead was Ria in Butterflies, played by Wendy Craig, a popular actress of the 1970s. Her character, written by Carla Lane, was discontent with her marriage and was contemplating an affair. This major dissatisfaction is written in a tragic form, with Ria failing to find a satisfying situation throughout the series. Comedy for female performers would change however with the advent of Women’s Liberation infusing itself into the ideology of the Alternative Comedy Movement in the 1980s.
“The comedy of discrimination made fun of the clear separations in British society and performed as a marker of identity and hierarchy for the audiences watching.”
Unlike the performance perils that women found themselves in with television comedy, homosexuals would find a comfortable home on television. The method that homosexual comedians used was the camp style popular with performers such as Kenneth Williams, Larry Grayson and John Inman. Adapting masculinity with the camp style, popular comedians would become household names and well-loved for their style. Limp wrists, sibilance, and flamboyance all marked the camp style as commercially successful. Larry Grayson in particular was hugely efficacious for homosexual representation on television in a time where homosexuality was only just legalised. Other camp queens include John Inman who played Mr Humphries in long-running sitcom Are You Being Served. The humour came from the flimsiness of the characters and the often-used innuendo and double entendre that sexualised the humour. A controversial camp queen that was prominent throughout the 1970s and 1980s was Dick Emery. Starring in his own show on both BBC and ITV, Emery portrayed a cavalcade of characters with one being an outrageously camp man called Clarence. Using catchphrases and suggestive mannerisms, Emery was hugely popular for its easy humour. However, Emery was actually heterosexual and attributed the success of his camp characters to the continued traditions of British theatre. The comedy of discrimination made fun of the clear separations in British society and performed as a marker of identity and hierarchy for the audiences watching.
And now for something completely different…
So far, the British comedy scene on television in the 1970s and 1980s has shown itself to be discriminatory and cringeworthy to modern audiences. Watching programmes from the 1970s is done with caution due to the potentially toxic content of the comedy. However, a change occurred in the early 1980s that would respond to this noxious scene of obvious intolerance. Drawing on the actions of Peter Cook and other satirists of the 1960s and the social power of punk music, The Comedy Store was founded in 1979 in Soho and hosted comedians fresh from universities and new to the business. These comedians were young, angry and shrewd. The comedy club was an instant success and acknowledging this new scene became a priority for television executives. The first popular television outing for alternative comedy was on BBC2 with the broadcasting of The Young Ones. The aim was to promote a more anarchistic and madcap humour that defined alternative comedy’s response to traditional populist comedy. The programme was a modern Monty Python for some, and represented a definite change in comedy for years to come. Another televisual outing for alternative comedy was The Comic Strip Presents which aired on the opening night of Channel 4 in 1982. The show was single episodes dedicated to separate stories and satires, one being Five Go Mad in Dorset a parody of The Famous Five stories by Enid Blyton. These plot-driven vehicles for the movement were not as popular as the well-established populist comedies however, and sadly the Alternative Comedy Movement goes unnoticed by many historians. However, the stand-up comedy shows Saturday Live and Friday Night Live which broadcasted from 1985 to 1988 did have a hidden influence on modern comedy. Initially the aim was to end discriminatory humour and create a more abstract experience between comedian and audience, but the material performed became more populist and basic as time went on. It was the use of observational and responding humour which would establish a new doctrine of stand-up comedy. Previously, stand-up comedy was anecdotal and formed of one-line jokes and predictable punchlines. Alternative comedy altered the method to reflect popular irony on universal everyday topics. The audience were able to resonate with the jokes described by the performers, which therefore made the comedy more reciprocal. The movement however has since faded into memory, but stand-up comedy reviewing commonly experienced problems has become much more common on television and in theatres to be enjoyed by a wider range of audiences. Populist comedy has now become the unwritten rule for television comedy, with more simplistic content being enjoyed than the hard-hitting abstract and political roots that defined the comedians.
The decline of laughter in Britain
Judging the actual impact of British television comedy is a difficult task, with no set of measures or parameters set for systematically calculating response. It must be said that comedy has become a hugely popular entertainment format. Comedy programmes developed by television executives are made to be placed at primetime and obtain mass viewers. However, while comedy is popular, the quality of writing from creators of modern comedy programmes has become stagnant, uninteresting, and repetitive. The current gem of BBC comedy is the sitcom Mrs Brown’s Boys. Written by Irish comedian Brendan O’Carroll, the programme has a huge following with the viewing public. The 2014 Christmas Special (a broadcasting staple for comedy programmes) was watched by 9.4 million people, and the show has received rewards from both BAFTA and the National Television Awards. The jokes are centred on O’Carroll cross-dressing as eponymous Agnes Brown falling over, swearing, and generally making a mockery of the character. Many critics have criticised the old-fashioned jokes, the cross-dressing and embarrassing production quality. The show has spawned a chat show, a film adaptation and further theatre tours. The programme polarises British people, with many purporting the show’s simplicity makes it easy to watch. The opposite argument suggests that the writing is lazy and completely unfunny.
“While British television is still broadcasted and admired across the globe, the majority of current exports are drama or documentary programmes.”
As a result of the popularity of this objectively basic sitcom, comedy on British television has shown itself to be a dying format or already dead. With pressure coming from American comedy programming, the rise and integration of comedy and entertainment into new media such as YouTube and Netflix, and a growing popularity with epic drama series such as Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones, British television comedy is no longer a unique worldwide phenomenon that has huge audiences and fan bases. While British television is still broadcasted and admired across the globe, the majority of current exports are drama or documentary programmes. However, media and comedy especially is largely a case of personal taste rather than absolute objective fact. Some could claim that Mrs Brown’s Boys is a miracle to comedy, and some could ignore the history of comedy on television. But, what comedy in the Golden Age has proved is that the best comedy responds to situations occurring around the programme; social, political, and cultural changes that present comedy writers with material. A receptive comedy resonates with the audience and mocks the situation, making people realise the ridiculousness of the situation and therefore laughing as a response. With British national pride ebbing, a restoration of the comedy that united its people needs to begin. Linked to this self-inflicted death of comedy is a continual lack of academic attention paid to the format, and British creations particularly. Very few academics touch comedy because the analysis of jokes can turn the meaning behind comedy creation into something more scientific. The format can be used as a measure for different subject analyses, not just media and cultural studies. This research was initially designed as a historical study, but with deeper examination it emerged as a criterion for politics, sociology, culture, and even psychology in some cases. With further effort from both academics and media creators, British comedy can re-emerge and pay deference to its universally admired ancestry.
Banks, M., & Swift, A. (1987). The Jokes On Us: Women in Comedy from Music Hall to the Present. London: Routledge.
Bebber, B. (2014). The Short Life of Curry and Chips: Racial Comedy on British Television in the 1960s. Journal of British Cinema and Television, 11(2-3), 213-235. https://doi.org/10.3366/jbctv.2014.0204
Bradley, P. (2010). “You Are Awful…But I Like You!”: The Politics of Camp in 1970s Television. In British Culture and Society in the 1970s: The Lost Decade (pp. 119-130). Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars.
Cook, W. (2001). The Comedy Store. London: Little Brown.
Crowther, B., & Pinfold, M. (1987). Bring Me Laughter: Four decades of TV comedy. London: Columbus Books.
Friedman, S. (2014). Comedy and Distinction: The Cultural Currency of a Good Sense of Humour. London: Routledge.
Gray, F. (1994). Women and Laughter. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-349-23275-8
Healy, M. (1995). Were We Being Served? Homosexual Representation in Popular British Comedy. Screen, 36(3), 243-256. https://doi.org/10.1093/screen/36.3.243
Irwin, M. (2015). “That’s the Last Time I Play the Tart for You, Jerry!”: Penelope Keith and British Television Situation Comedy. Critical Studies in Television, 10(2), 87-101. https://doi.org/10.7227/CST.10.2.7
Kamm, J., & Neumann, B. (Eds.). (2016). British TV Comedies: Cultural Concepts, Contexts and Controversies. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. https://doi.org/10.1057/9781137552952
Medhurst, A. (2007). A National Joke: Popular Comedy and English Cultural Identities. London: Routledge.
Mills, B. (2005). Television Sitcom. London: BFI.
Schaffer, G. (2010). “Till Death Us Do Part” and the BBC: Racial Politics and the British Working Classes 1965-75. Journal of Contemporary History, 45(2), 454-477. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022009409356914
Sontag, S. (1999). Notes on “Camp”. In F. Cleto (Ed.), Camp (pp. 53-65). Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Wagg, S. (1998). Because I Tell A Joke Or Two: Comedy, Politics and Social Difference. London: Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203208328
Wilmut, R., & Rosengard, P. (1989). Didn’t You Kill My Mother-in-Law? The Story of Alternative Comedy in Britain from The Comedy Store to Saturday Live. London: Methuen.