Most of us have shelves at home groaning under the weight of DVD box sets, those tidy bricks where season after season of our favourite shows are gathered in one cherished package. Spare a thought, however, for the slim volumes taking up minimal space.
A sitcom that truly strikes a chord with an audience can be a licence to both punch lines and print money, running for years on end to secure a place in the comedic hall of fame, should such a thing exist. Others fall by the wayside, because of poor ratings, the short-sightedness of TV commissioners, or perhaps due to their lead actors and writers getting better offers to more swiftly climb the showbiz greasy pole.
While not being so bold as to claiming the 20 programmes featured below are cruelly overlooked solid gold classics, they are all notable for one reason or another, and most are worth a second look. Many of them were worth at least a second run…
The Strange World Of Gurney Slade (1960)
Seven years before The Prisoner brought mind-being surrealism to prime time, crooner Anthony Newley created and played the title role in this cult-friendly absurdist fantasy. Slade was an actor in a low-rent sitcom who would walk off-set and strike up a succession of imagined conversations with animals, inanimate objects and figures leaping out of advertising billboards. Arguably, television itself was still too young to be satirised in such an off-kilter manner, but the series proved a launch pad for writers Sid Green and Dick Hills, who went on to fashion slightly less fanciful sketches for Morecambe & Wise.
Curry And Chips (1969)
Written by Till Death Us Do Part creator Johnny Speight and based on an idea by Spike Milligan, this workplace sitcom’s attempts to confront and belittle bigotry polarised audiences, despite its makers’ proven track records. Milligan “blacked up” to play an Asian man bearing the brunt of his fellow factory employees’ prejudices – not considered especially controversial in an era when millions tuned in to The Black & White Minstrel Show every week. The presence of another established name, Eric Sykes, as the shop foreman gave Speight the chance to use the stars’ conversations as a forum to address racial issues, but the programme’s seemingly good intentions were lost in a fog of poorly-judged cheap gags.
Thick As Thieves (1974)
Between the screening of its pilot Prisoner And Escort and the BBC commissioning a full series of Porridge, writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais penned this similarly-themed quickie for ITV. Bob Hoskins played a burglar who, upon finishing a three-year sentence behind bars, arrived home to find his wife shacked up with his best friend and fellow old lag John Thaw. Thus, the scene was set for an eyebrow-raising ménage a trois, with the supposedly reformed jailbirds indulging in the kind of barroom philosophising the writers had previously honed on The Likely Lads.
The Top Secret Life Of Edgar Briggs (1974)
Producer Humphrey Barclay tried to secure the small screen rights to Inspector Clouseau as a leading-man vehicle for David Jason after his acclaimed second banana work in Open All Hours with Ronnie Barker. When negotiations came to naught, Barclay commissioned a sitcom based on a near carbon copy character, centred on the exploits of the accident-prone assistant to the commander of a fictionalised MI6. Ironically, Jason’s Only Fools And Horses co-star Nicholas Lyndhurst would fare better with a strikingly similar inept spy premise; The Piglet Files ran for three series in the early ‘90s.
Four Idle Hands (1976)
At a time when jobless numbers were sky-rocketing, it’s perhaps surprising that the one comedy to boldly address unemployment turned up in a teatime slot and was squarely aimed at a viewing audience of children. Future Quadrophenia star Phil Daniels and Ray Burdis played a pair of 16-year-old school leavers struggling to find meaningful work, their awkward path through adolescent punctuated by a succession of dead-end jobs, invariably scuppered by ill-conceived practical jokes and slapstick mishaps. The leads hankered for the rapidly disappearing innocence of their youth as they negotiated the onslaught of maturity in a fun but thought-provoking premise that played like a mash-up of Grange Hill and Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads?
The Losers (1978)
Reggie Perrin and Rising Damp’s Rupert Rigsby established Leonard Rossiter as a safe pair of comedic hands, but manipulative wrestling manager Sydney Foskett failed to complete a hat-trick of successes. Written by satirist and future Punch editor Alan Coren, the series’ biting premise (with a wry nod to World Of Sport on Saturday afternoons) had the spiv-like Foskett representing a stable of fighters who would intentionally throw bouts so that their boss could make a killing on bets and bribes. Chief among his “losers” was dim-witted fairground worker Nigel, played by Alfred Molina in his first television role.
Police Squad! (1982)
The writing and directing trio behind the surprise hit 1980 disaster movie spoof Airplane! turned to one of the film’s stars to anchor their next project, a lovingly-crafted pastiche of bygone cop shows. Leslie Nielsen, for years a steely-faced dramatic actor, was reborn as Detective Frank Drebin, whose deadpan demeanour never slipped once as Zucker, Abrahams & Zucker piled on the clichés and outlandish plot devices. Despite earning two Grammy nominations, the series was cancelled after just six episodes, bigwigs at ABC deciding its pace, dialogue-heavy scripts and elabaroate sight gags demanded too much effort from viewers – a move TV Guide magazine called “the most stupid reason a network ever gave for ending a series.” Drebin – and Nielsen – would return six years later, however, in the big screen Naked Gun franchise.
Whoops Apocalypse (1982)
With Thatcher in Downing Street and Reagan in the White House, a comedy about the threat of nuclear oblivion made for rich pickings. The old guard welcomed the new in an all-star cast that included Barry Morse (US President Johnny Cyclops), Peter Jones (a deluded Prime Minister convinced he was Superman), John Cleese (a master-of-disguise mercenary terrorist) rubbing shoulders with Alexei Sayle and Rik Mayall – the series aired six months before the debut of The Young Ones. A big screen remake headed by Peter Cook followed in 1986, but failed to capture the original’s irreverence or biting satirical commentary on international politics, while co-writer David Renwick went on to create, and write every episode of, One Foot In The Grave and Jonathan Creek.
Alan Bleasdale’s TV follow-up to Boys From The Blackstuff revived a lovable loser character who’d previously appeared on radio and a one-off BBC drama. Scully (Andrew Schofield) was a schoolboy dreamer, all too aware that his last days of learning may only lead to an unemployment scrapheap on Merseyside. To help him get through his everyday struggles he called upon imaginary conversations with his Liverpool football hero Kenny Dalglish, who appears in the series as himself (a plot device Ken Loach would use 20 years later with the Cantona fan of his cinema release Looking For Eric). Typically, Bleasdale weaved a fabric that combined pertinent social commentary and near farcical humour, topped off with a memorable theme song (Turning The Town Red), written and performed by Elvis Costello, who also made his acting debut as Scully’s simpleton big brother.
Filthy, Rich & Catflap (1987)
The beyond-expectations success of The Young Ones meant the main players could pretty much write their own ticket at the BBC, so writer Ben Elton came up with an often corrosive parody of old-school celebrity culture. Nigel Planer ditched lentil-friend Neil’s hippy threads to become ageing spiv agent Ralph Filthy, tasked with finding work for “showbiz personality” Richard Rich (Rik Mayall), whose day-to-day needs were attended to by scruffy minder Eddie Catflap (Adrian Edmondson). Arguably ahead of its time, the series featured real-life celebs playing exaggerated versions of themselves (breakfast telly heroine Anne Diamond is particularly game), but the Mayall and Edmondson characters had more legs when unsubtly tweaked to become the social misfits of Bottom.
Andy Capp (1988)
A staple of the Daily Mirror’s cartoon strip page since 1957, Reg Smythe’s workshy northerner was briefly brought to life by James Bolam in scripts written by Billy Liar author Keith Waterhouse. Although the breaking of the “fourth wall” with characters talking straight to camera is commonplace today, it was still a relative novelty in the ‘80s, and having the layabout and his long-suffering spouse Flo (Paula Tilbrook) directly address viewers gave the series a connection to the original strip. Purists weren’t overly impressed, however, pointing out that the newspaper Andy’s face was mostly unseen.
Full Stretch (1993)
The prolific pens of Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais were behind this series centred on a limousine company run by a former footballer (Kevin McNally). Closer to the pair’s comedy drama Auf Wiedersehen, Pet than their studio-bound Likely Lads or Porridge, it failed to win over a large audience, and is arguably best remembered for an episode in which David Bowie appears as himself – a decade before he cropped up in Ricky Gervais’s Extras. “I really like Tin Machine,” clumsy chauffer Tarquin tells his sleeping passenger, before nipping out for a sandwich and allowing his car and its superstar cargo to be towed away.
The first sitcom by Father Ted creators Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews starred Alexei Sayle as struggling artist Alain Degout, eking out a living on the Left Bank of the Seine in the 1920s, while (in his eyes) less talented painters get all the glory. Neil Morrissey co-starred as foppish playboy Rochet, but unlike the BBC’s long-running ‘Allo ‘Allo none of the characters feigned comedy foreign accents and delivered the lines in their own voices. Indeed, the writers’ own cameo appearance saw them play the most Irish-sounding gendarmes in history.
A savage – and at times slapstick - satire of the film industry, Action! starred Jay Mohr as ruthless producer Peter Dragon, intent on making it to the top despite a string of crude box office flops. A wisecracking hooker, played by Illeana Douglas, joined his creative team to help reverse the company’s fortunes, while the likes of Keanu Reeves, Salma Hayek and Sandra Bullock appeared as themselves, the latter at odds with Dragon for uploading their sex tape onto the internet. Only eight of the 13 episodes were aired by the Fox network before the series was pulled for being “too hostile” to the movie biz, the remainder eventually finding their way onto a DVD release.
Written by Father Ted’s Arthur Mathews, with usual collaborator Graham Linehan credited as co-creator, Hippies made mirth from a fictional counter-culture magazine (Mouth) in late 1960s Notting Hill, edited by an ineffectual Simon Pegg and a staff including such comedy stalwarts as Julian Rhind-Tutt and Sally Phillips. Several episodes took their cue from real-life events (John & Yoko’s “bed-in”, the infamous trial of underground publication Oz), although the broader brief was to poke fun at all aspects of the so-called permissive society. A second series was commissioned, but Mathews opted not to continue, supposedly burned by the first run’s lukewarm critical reception.
Los Dos Bros (2001)
Picture the unbridled sibling rivalry of Liam and Noel Gallagher combined with the knockabout physical comedy of Laurel & Hardy (or even Tom & Jerry), and you have Los Dos Bros. It debuted as a single half-hour in Channel 4’s Comedy Lab showcase in 1999, and it would be two years before half-brothers Darren Boyd and Cavan Clerkin were fully let loose in a cavalcade of cartoon violence. Light on plots, it largely comprised increasingly outlandish stunts (test-driving a monster truck, dentist visits), linked by the pair’s joint therapy sessions presided over by a heard but unseen Vicki Pepperdine.
The pages of Private Eye have been the home of spoilt ageing rock star Gary Bloke since 1987, but his transition to screen wasn’t a success. The usually reliable Harry Enfield appeared to base the central character more on newly-crowned reality TV star Ozzy Osbourne than on the broader foibles of the protagonist in cartoonist Charles Beattie’s original strip, while the woeful miscasting of Amanda Holden as Gary’s wife Debs (a minor supporting character in print) gave the series the air of a bog-standard domestic sitcom in an ill-fitting scenario. Parachuted into a pre-watershed Friday night slot on BBC1, the more outrageous drugs references of the cartoon were all but dispensed with, making Bloke the most boring rocker on the planet.
The makers of the much-loved hospital-based Green Wing attempted to pull off a similar trick by transplanting the format to a university. An ensemble of larger-than-life characters rolled up their sleeves for run-ins with authority, petty personal squabbles and romantic frustration, without the daring and invention of the series’ predecessor. Andy Nyman was brilliant as the self-involved vice chancellor Jonty de Wolfe, but subplots like an awkward love triangle seemed shamelessly Xeroxed from Green Wing. Watch out for early roles by now ubiquitous stand-ups Sara Pascoe as a ditzy member of the admin staff and Katherine Ryan as a ruthless bean counter.
A wartime sitcom with a difference, starring and co-written by Inbetweeners alumni Simon Bird and Joe Thomas as conscientious objectors sitting out the conflict in a sleepy English hamlet in 1915. Understandably, the womenfolk whose husbands and sons are away in the trenches treated the lads with contempt, defacing their cottage with graffiti and burning effigies on the village lawn. Essentially, Bird was the heart of the piece, playing an exasperated character not a million miles removed from Inbetweeners’ “briefcase wanker” Will Mackenzie, but few viewers warmed to his cowardly reincarnation.
Hello Ladies (2013)
Like Seinfeld, Roseanne and Everybody Loves Raymond, the initial jumping-off point for Hello Ladies was its star’s stand-up persona, although loser-in-love limey Stephen Merchant didn’t make as big a mark without long-standing writing/directing partner Ricky Gervais. Exploiting his perceived nerd persona to the max, Merchant starred as
an Englishman working in Los Angeles whose efforts to woo women came to nought (the show’s title was spoken by Merchant at least twice per episode). The HBO network, who’d previously part-bankrolled Extras, pulled the plug midway through the run of nine episodes, but had the good grace to commission a feature-length closer the following year (Hello Ladies: The Movie) to tie up the plot’s loose ends.
Written by Terry Staunton
Category: It Makes You Think
Written by Pete Bassett