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…