5 Of The Best Britcoms


Not sure why this subject came up; a discussion about writers producing continuous original work perhaps, and a love of cataloguing…

A flawed, difficult young woman deals with her London family and romance. ‘Fleabag’ was a game-changer (although it eventually suffered from over-hype) with writer-star Phoebe Waller-Cates breaking the fourth wall and – in a genuinely clever first – getting caught doing it by her on-off priest boyfriend, who saw through her defences. The series wrong-footed viewers expecting punchlines, with the comedy coming from character, especially from her permanently harassed sister and Fleabag’s hateful but talented stepmother, played by Olivia Coleman. The strong, characterful females handled mostly weak, ineffectual males’ and it unfolded like a feature film rather than a running-on-the-spot series, but I bet it returns – the BBC has never left its cash cows alone.

Staff in a hospital ward lead messy, complicated lives. 2006’s ‘Green Wing’ was an award-winning two-season series that helped to create stars including Olivia Coleman and Stephen Mangan. It avoided anything to do with medicine or patients, and concentrated entirely on the staff. Box-setting it now, ‘Green Wing’ still feels different to any other show. It is balletically choreographed, so it comes as no surprise to find that the cast had a movement coach. Everyone had a signature look, walk and run, usually synched to the excellent soundtrack. And the makers had an innovative way of dealing with the dull bits – they simply fast-forwarded through them. ‘Green Wing’ balanced its male/female ratio very nicely too. And the occasional moment of total surreality – the camel, the naked flute-playing, the dead dwarf – worked in its favour.

We’ve had this before but it has become comfort viewing. A government department screws up and deals with the fall-out each week. When ‘The Thick of It’ started it hit the ground running, its dialogue so bitterly sharp, its plotting so tangled that replays were needed to follow everything. Every episode felt drenched in comical panic and fear. It became known as the modern ‘Yes, Minister’ and if it lacked that show’s calm eloquence it made up in other ways, especially in the character of Malcolm Tucker, its imaginatively foul-mouthed leader. The gentler ‘Veep’ followed. ‘W1A’ was a similar series from the BBC, set in the BBC, about inane interdepartmental politics. It takes a certain kind of brazen arrogance to parody your own uselessness, but was very funny if infuriating.

What did Beverly from ‘Abigail’s Party do next? As her husband is dying of cancer, Jill steals the husband of a wheelchair-bound neighbour. ‘Nighty Night’ was through-the-fingers television, squirm-making and incredibly inappropriate. Creator Julia Davis was never better here, but after going as far over the bad taste line as it is humanly possible to go, she moved on to Hunderby, a mystifyingly unfunny period comedy. The London Times called ‘Nighty Night’ ‘a blistering wall of superbly unredeemed cruelty that manages to trample over every social convention in a pair of cheap stilettos.’ I doubt it’s even showable now.

What to choose for a fifth? ‘Catastrophe’ was smart but too cute for me. ‘Father Ted’ offered the most complete alternate worldview, with its emphasis on strange priests and obsessive islanders, but I come back to ‘Black Books’, three seasons from Dylan Moran and Graham Lineham about a misanthropic bookshop owner and the much-abused friend (Bill Bailey) who always bails him out. Favourite episode; the pair look after a wine expert’s house and are told they can drink all the non-valuable wine they like…


21 comments on “5 Of The Best Britcoms”

  1. Wild Edric says:

    I’m not sure you could class Father Ted as a ‘Brit’ Com.

    I’d vote for Detectorists. Favourite scene “I really won the lottery the day Maggie left me”.

    Also features Arthur Bryant 😉

  2. Ian Luck says:

    My favourite ‘Black Books’ (and I wish that it had been on before I worked in a bookshop – it could have been fun to have ‘Bernard’ days) episode, is where Manny has had enough of Bernard’s rudeness, and leaves. He then becomes a huge star in the shady world of ‘Beard porn’. It’s one of the most beautifully silly things you’ll ever see. Bill Bailey is, of course, wonderful. I reckon, if it came to it, he’d be a shoe-in to play the B&M version of Aleister Crowley. Comedy actors can very often play dark roles well – I remember Bob Monkhouse doing it, and even odder, I saw a show once with the late, great Terry Wogan (playing a version of himself) threatening someone with violence, and it was chilling. Who would have thought?

  3. Debra Matheney says:

    I could watch Peter Capaldi all day long. The Thick of It was brilliant and sadly truer than any of us can probably imagine. Thanks for getting my day started with this reminder of how feckless politics can be. Now off to watch some news, the real stuff, which is even more disturbing these days. We (the US) can send a man to the moon but we can’t provide diapers, soap, food and other basics to children in our “care”. I am beyond angry, I just can’t find a word for it.

  4. Bernard says:

    Is obscenity really a prerequisite for humour? Personally, I could not get beyond the first few minutes of most of these. Bryant and May are enjoyable and often funny without this ingredient.

  5. SteveB says:

    I‘d vote for black books too! Love the episode where Bill Bailey plays the piano.
    I found Fleabag clever but too knowing and also (I think unconsciously) arrogant.
    That talk about ‚winning the lottery‘ reminds me of Alf Garnet when his wife goes on a plane journey. In those days you could buy insurance from machines at the airport and Alf buys one on his wife and looking at the piece of paper says ‚If I win…‘

  6. SteveB says:

    Julia Davis was also good in Chris Morris‘s Jam – see sketch about stupid people (on youtube)

  7. Ian Luck says:

    Julia Davis is such a good actor, that you begin to wonder what she’s like in real life. I have the ‘Blue Jam’ CD, which in places, is as black as an event horizon, especially on the “should I be laughing at this?” ‘Unconcerned Parents’ sketch. Julia Davis plays the mum of a missing child… If Chris Morris released this now, he’d probably be lynched.

  8. Richard says:

    Ian Luck – Try the Joan and Jericha podcast. It’s not quite a real life Julia Davis, but it’s probably close. It is also excruciatingly funny at times.

  9. Rachel Green says:

    Not comedy but an inquiry into your vast film knowledge. A B/W film, 60s or seventies, about a young man traveling Britain and doing odd jobs for money. One section of the film has him sign up for a two week drug trial, where he finds out the first night than a fellow trial-er has has his head transplanted onto the body of a pig. Any idea what the film was?

  10. Gary Hart says:

    Rachel, Is the film your thinking of ‘O Lucky Man!’ (1973)
    Found a review here and it sounds similar:


  11. Kenneth Mann says:

    Britannia Hospital

  12. Adam says:

    The Inbetweeners was the closest any comedy has come to accurately portraying teenage boys, and it was very, very funny.

  13. Ian Luck says:

    ‘O Lucky Man!’, and ‘Britannia Hospital’ are the second and third parts of a trilogy (part the first being ‘If’) directed by Lindsay Anderson, and starring Malcolm McDowall,as ‘Mick Travis’. Nightmarishly dark comedies all. The last one containing a ‘Frankenstein’ type creature, created from various odds and sods from dead, and not quite dead patients of the titular hospital. Also notable for featuring a pre ‘Return Of The Jedi’ Mark Hamill; the last screen appearance of the brilliant Arthur Lowe; and a scenery-chewing performance by the always watchable and entertaining Graham Crowden, reprising his deranged surgeon/mad scientist from ‘O Lucky Man’. Barking mad, full of ideas, a truly ‘What The Fuck?’ movie, and one that I love. Weirdly, if you’re British, and only if you’re British, you will know that a great many of the bizarre events, bullshit, lies, obfuscation, petty beaurocracy, pig-ignorance, petty mindedness, and casual bastardy, prevalent in this movie are things faced by us Brits on a daily basis. (Still waiting for a patchwork homunculus, though. It could happen.)

  14. Ian Luck says:

    And I’m kicking myself as I notice that I spelled the childishly simple word ‘Bureaucracy’ incorrectly. Sodding bollocks.

  15. Ian Luck says:

    Adam – ‘The Inbetweeners’ was great, as we all knew people like that. They were so well drawn. It also gave the world the best childish insult ever (that a friend of mine surprised me by using, the other day) All together: “BUS WANKERS!”

  16. Laura Humphrey says:

    Too much coffee and The Sweeney box set best episode of Black Books for me. Did anyone ever watch/remember Operation Good Guys, spoof fly on the wall documentary about a disastrous police unit. Probably my favourite comedy, followed by I Didn’t Know You Cared, superb surreal Northern humour from the Peter Tinniswood books. Phoenix Nights Peter Kay?

  17. Rachel Green says:

    Gareth, Kenneth and Ian, Thank you very much indeed. I will look out for the trilogy.

  18. Rachel Green says:

    Gary, not Gareth. Sorry!

  19. Rachel Green says:

    “Raised by Wolves” has me in hysterics every time I watch it.
    Also “Outnumbered” was very funny.

  20. Wayne Mook says:

    I still like Porridge, ‘A Night In’ is poignant; the sorrow, fear, boredom and comedy used to get through the night inside is splendid and funny. The opening with keys turning, doors shutting, the footsteps and the voice of the judge, ‘Norman Stanley Fletcher…’ all create that feeling of claustrophobia and incarceration. Oddly enough it’s one of the few comedy that tackles boredom with success.

    Blue Jam is surreal, the plumbed in baby on radio & tv is horrific and funny, it’s the plumber who makes it.

    With swearing doesn’t make any difference in most cases, in fact the taboo and class connotations they carry can increase the comedy when used correctly.


  21. Ian Luck says:

    Porridge, by Dick Clement, and Ian LaFrenais, is one of those comedies that will always be funny;
    Like ‘Dad’s Army’, it is of it’s time, but also timeless. There are situations and dialogue that will still resonate many years from now. I always wanted to know what advice Fletch gave Mr Barrowclough to help his marriage – whatever it was, Barrowclough was always grateful, thanking Fletch on several occasions. The constant baiting of the martinet MacKay was always a delight, too. Like most TV sitcoms, it had a cinema movie. Unlike most sitcoms, the movie was great, containing some great lines, and unlike the TV show, where HM Prison Slade was meant to be somewhere bleak in Northumberland, or thereabouts, the BBC filmed some shots in HMP Chelmsford, and the exterior shots were, I believe, parts of the Hertfordshire Council Depot in St. Albans. The movie could afford to film out in the middle of nowhere. The dialogue is great, as always, with this misunderstanding being something that stuck:

    GOVERNOR: I hear that the celebrity coming here might be that fellow Jimmy Tarbrush.
    MACKAY: Buck, sir.
    GOVERNOR: Yes, that’s him. Buck Tarbrush.

    My brother’s favourite line (apart from the wonderfully unpleasant sounding insult ‘Scroat’), is from a Christmas episode:

    FLETCHER: Young Godber was so insistent that it wasn’t his Christmas pud that gave everyone the runs, he had three helpings.
    MR BARROWCLOUGH: So where is he then?
    FLETCHER (Pause): Still in the bog.

    It made my brother laugh when he was a kid, and it still does, partially to Ronnie Barker’s immaculate comedy timing. Porridge, on paper, shouldn’t have worked, but great writing, and a brilliant cast – Peter Vaughn, as gangster ‘Genial’ Harry Grout, for example. Hearing him say the two words: “Ello, Fletch”, and seeing that terrifying humourless smile, meant that Fletch was probably going to have a labour worthy of Hercules, toe-punted his way, whether he wanted it or not.
    Yes, I’d say Porridge worked.

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