I feel it’s a little cliche to call anything ‘quintessentially British’, it’s one of those buzz words that the media like to use for some reasons, like calling something ‘on acid’ if it’s a little bit wacky.
While I can’t stand that sort of thing, how else do you adequately describe a list of comedies renowned for their Britishness? The ‘most’ British is just wrong, ‘feels most British’ is just cumbersome and unwieldy, so until we all sit down, and come up with a new adjective as apt as ‘quintessentially’, I guess I’m going to have to be forced to be banal by the English language, this is all on your heads. Thanks Obama.
I feel like we’ve gotten off on the wrong foot, to make it up to you I will give you a list of British comedy series that are worth a watch, you’re welcome.
You might think it’s bad form to start a list of top British comedy series with a series from Ireland, but it was produced by Channel 4 (from England), so semantically I am correct (the best form of being correct).
Father Ted is a series about 3 priests which for whatever reason have been sent to a parish on Craggy Island, a fictional island on the coast of Ireland in a form of exile. The main character is Father Ted (funnily enough) a priest who is a bitter, cynical and morally dubious and Father Dougal is a naive man child and Father Jack is an abusive alcoholic, they are cared for by their house keeper Mrs Doyle, who is on a good day quirky and on a bad day slightly insane, she has a slight obsession for tea and sandwiches.
The episodes are centered around these characters getting into hi-jinx, usually with Ted playing straight man to Dougal’s idiocy, Mrs Doyle’s lunacy and Jack’s drunk antics (including his jumping through the front room window on several occasions). Said hi-jinx usually involves Ted’s competing with his rival Father Dick Byrne from Rugged Island, visits from other colourful characters, usually priests and misunderstandings with the people of Craggy Island.
Father Ted was written by Arthur Matthews and Graham Linehan, it is incredibly quotable, it is also a great series to marathon.
Alan Partridge is an iconic character, to such a degree that for most Brits, just the shouting of his signature catch phrases “aha” can incite laughter, eye rolling or a shrug that says “oh, an Alan Partridge catchphrase, that’s a thing that happened.”
The character originated on BBC radio 4, on the parody current affairs program On The Hour, which later went to television as The Day Today, where he was the sports presenter, the character later received a spin-off chat show Knowing Me Knowing You with Alan Partridge first on Radio 4 and later television.
I’m Alan Partridge picks up from after the cancelling of his chat show, Alan lives in a travel lodge and has returned to the world of radio broadcasting as a DJ on Radio Norwich, though he is constantly trying to get back onto the television in the first series and save himself from obscurity in season 2.
Alan Partridge is a total knob, he lacks even the most fundamental of social skills and is very outspoken over his right wing views, commonly confusing and offending those who he interacts with, for example in one episode he tells Irish producers (one played by Graham Linehan) that the potato famine came about from “fussy eaters”. He is also dependent on his assistant Lynn, who he treats with contempt.
I’m Alan Partridge was written by Armando Iannucci, Peter Baynham and Steve Coogan, a lot of it is cringe comedy, so it depends on your level to withstand cringe whether or not you can marathon it, provides great exercise from rolling on the floor laughing.
A lot of sitcoms are centered around a lead character that is played by a stand-up comedian, with the character being largely based around their stand-up material and persona (Everybody Loves Raymond and Louie come to mind) in this case the main character Bernard Black is played by comedian Dylan Moran.
Bernard Black is an Irish misanthrope, he is a book store owner that hates people and likes drinking and smoking. He is joined by the quirky Manny (played by Bill Bailey), who’s a weird mix of childish but also self-sufficient to the point that Bernard and Manny become co-dependent, the form a contrast of pessimistic nihilist and optimistic go-getter. In the middle is the neurotic Fran (played by Tamsin Greig) who reminds me a lot of Elaine from Seinfeld, she seeks social approval, and thinks she’s the least neurotic of the group while in reality she is possibly more.
The plot usually revolves around the differing outlooks of the characters, Manny seeks self-improvement, Fran seeks higher social status and Bernard Black just wants to sit with a bottle of wine, a good book and some cigarettes.
Black Books was created by Dylan Moran and Graham Linehan, it is another series perfect to marathon with an 18 episode run, preferably with a bottle of wine, you can jump in anywhere as there is very little in the way of continuity, although there a 2 episode arc at the end of season 2, that said it is best enjoyed from the start.
What’s this? Another series written largely by Graham Linehan that features a character with social aspirations trying to raise their social standing and tries to bring 2 socially inept characters with them?
That was harsher than it was intended, and while Graham Linehan seems to have that as a core dynamic between his characters (of which there are usually 3), he still manages to create lovable characters and hilarious situations, circumstances and premises. (Starting to thinks I started this article to gush about Graham Linehan)
The IT Crowd revolves around 3 characters who work in the IT department of Reynholm Industries, Jen, an ambitious go-getter, delusional about her social awkwardness who is willing to overstate her own abilities to try and get ahead (usually ending in hilarious misunderstandings and hi-jinx), Roy (nerd #1), the slightly more socially aware of the nerds, who is very neurotic, particularly in the ways of love (usually endings in hilarious misunderstanding and hi-jinx) and Moss (nerd #2), probably the least socially aware man on the planet, whose misunderstanding of anything other than technology or science fiction usually ends in hilarious hi-jinx. There’s also a goth called Richmond who lives in the stationary cupboard.
The word zany is thrown around a lot, but I consider IT Crowd quite zany, perhaps quirky, the situations are quite ludicrous, though not to an unrealistic degree. Perfect to marathon due to it’s 18 episode run, although there is some cringe.
Red Dwarf was a favourite of mine when I was a kid, we had season 3 recorded on VHS, and I would watch season 3 over and over again, occasionally being able to watch the latest episodes on the BBC the rare occasion I was allowed to stay up to watch it, it was like nothing I’d never seen before, characters you could sink your teeth into, Rimmer the hapless pedant with ambition but no motivation or follow through, the diamond in the smeg Lister, the self-centered Cat and Kryten a service robot, obsessed with being more human.
The series is centered around Lister, a crewman on the space ship Red Dwarf manages to survive a radiation leak that wipes out the rest of the crew, due to being in suspended animation for smuggling a cat on board, due to the severity of the radiation, he is re-awoken a million years into the future, he is stuck with Rimmer (a bunk mate he loathed, now reanimated as a hologram), a humanoid cat from a race that evolved from his pregnant cat and in later seasons Kryten, a neurotic robot obsessed with laundry, they have wacky space adventures and try to occupy themselves in a large ship with dwindling resources and no women)
Red Dwarf was written by Rob Grant and Doug Naylor, it originated as an odd couple style sitcom in space, but expanded to sci-fi parody in later seasons. I could probably write a book about Red Dwarf, and many in its loyal fan base could probably say the same, I sincerely consider it a cult classic, great to marathon, but season by season, as it has a 9 series run.
There is a grand tradition of great sketch comedy shows in Britain: Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Fry and Laurie, Armstrong and Miller, Catherine Tate – there was even a show on ITV called “The Sketch Show” (bit on the nose isn’t it?).
That Mitchell and Webb Look feels like the latest in great British sketch comedy, capturing a balance between clever, surreal and accessible, subject matter is varied, their more famous sketches involving casual dialogue between Nazi soldiers on the eastern front, inappropriate snooker commentators who spend their time drinking and smoking in their booth and their game show parody Numberwang, with rules that I’m pretty sure contradict themselves episode to episode.
My personal favourite series of sketches are ‘stay indoors’, set on a broadcast of a game show set after a post-apocalyptic event, it gets fairly dark as it goes along, but the situation alone is hilarious in a dark way.
I don’t think there’s anything featuring these 2 that I can’t recommend, this feels like their magnum opus (although time will tell), you could be tempted to watch the individual sketches via YouTube, however these sketches are better enjoyed as a full package episode by episode, as intended by the creators.
I’ll be honest, I kinda wanted to gush about Stewart Lee a little bit, so accept that while you’re indulging me, I’m also subversively recommending a great comedy series.
Stewart Lee is a comedian that employs meta-comedy, making use of deconstruction, repetition and call-backs, sometimes going as far as explaining the joke, managing to make it even funnier.
Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle is a show that features stand-up in combination with sketches (in series 1) and a series of interviews where Lee defends his material under combative scrutiny (from Armando Iannucci in series 2 and Chris Morris in series 3). The stand up is Lee’s standard fare, as he discusses topics like political correctness, satire and politics.
Admittedly this is the least accessible of the series on my list, but it’s something different from the 2 camera sitcom, sketch show or panel show that seems to be in vogue all year round, it may be considered for the pseudo-intellectual or fan of comedy, but if you feel like something a little bit different you should check this out.
Obviously you can marathon it, considering the run time of a British season is 6 episodes, see that’s funny because I’m deconstructing my own article…. perhaps I’ll leave the deconstructing to Lee.
I wasn’t originally going to include a panel show in, perhaps because the panel show format hasn’t taken off in the same way outside of the UK, so I feared that whatever I recommended wouldn’t be accessible, mainly as the country I currently live in (New Zealand) rarely airs British panels shows, the two exceptions being Q.I and Would I Lie To You.
Upon reflection I decided that despite these issues, these 2 shows had received moderate popularity outside of the U.K, in particular Q.I.
Q.I is produced by BBC veteran John Lloyd, hosted by Stephen Fry, and features 4 panelists, Alan Davies and 3 guest panelists (usually comedians). The Q.I stands for ‘Quite Interesting’ with the goal of the game to not be ‘correct’ but ‘interesting’, with interesting answers rewarded by giving points and obvious (wrong) answers punished by taking points away.
Q.I is a great mixture of funny and interesting, Fry and Davies have great chemistry, a lot of the humour being derived by Fry’s attempt to provide education and culture being derailed by a tangent by Davies.
This show is fairly quotable, memetic, and provides some great facts to impress your friends at a dinner party or at a drinks, has a longer run time so may not be the best to marathon, even season by season.
The Young Ones is a classic, it is a product of its time, an anarchic celebration of the growing alternative comedy movement.
Running from 1982 to 1984 The Young Ones revolved around 4 students living in Thatchers Britain, the punk Vivian, the hippie Neil, the pretentious poet Rick, and the cool one…. hang on let me look it up…. ah, Mike (#research).
The series employs satire, incredibly violent slapstick and a level of surreal, as the 4 characters play out their days living in a London house, and often violently clash, Rick walks around thinking he’s a profound rebel, Neil is put upon, given all the household tasks, and is happy to act the martyr, Vivian breaks things and hits people, and Mike… does cool things I suppose, I think he has some girls in his room once.
4th wall breaking is common, but doesn’t take away from the sense of fun, while the series doesn’t take itself too seriously, the actors still manage to remain in character. Once an episode Alexei Sayle (a comedian well known on the alternative comedy circuit) came in as a character, and essentially did a few minutes of stand up in character.
The Young Ones is violent and anarchic fun, but it never feels stupid. Written by Ben Elton, Rik Mayall (R.I.P) and Lise Mayer. Great to marathon.
Blackadder, a series usually referred to as “Rowan Atkinson’s other show”, is another fan favourite from when I was a kid, I remember watching Blackadder Goes Forth so many times I could probably quote selected scenes off by heart.
Created by Richard Curtis (yes the one who did Notting Hill) and Rowan Atkinson, Blackadder was a show detailing the slimy and unpopular son of a king, Edmund Plantagenet (who renamed himself “The Black Adder”, who’s attempts at gaining power got usually left him worse for wear, it was terribly witty and contained a lot of humour based on Shakespeare, it was a critical flop.
Luckily back in the 80s the BBC trusted talented writers and let them have a second go at it, and enlisted writer Ben Elton (who was hot stuff in the 80s), what came out was a lot funnier, Blackadder imagined as a relative of the Edmund from the first series named Edmund Blackadder (the same first name seems to be a trend in the family, that have seemed to have picked Blackadder up as a surname), who is a nobleman in Queen Elizabeth I’s court. This trend continued into a third and forth season set in King George IV’s household and World War I respectively.
Much of the humour revolves around Edmund Blackadder being the only sane man among colourful people with power and an idiotic servant Baldrick, whom not to trust if he says he has a cunning plan. A common theme seems to be the ill effects of having the stupidly insane in power, Edmund constantly seeming like he’s walking on eggshells, some self-created as he is fairly morally dubious.
In my personal opinion the show gets better every series, is filled with long and pithy dialogue, usually in the form of a mean-spirited insult delivered from Blackadder himself, perfect to marathon, season 1 isn’t a terrible season, but you’re free to give it a skip unless you’re a completionist.
P.S For anyone asking why Fawlty Towers isn’t on the list, Fawlty Towers is a well-known comedy institution, no more needs to be said, those asking where Little Britain is, eh, it’s ok, you only need to watch 1 or 2 episodes till you can predict what are quite easily telegraphed jokes #catchphrases.