British comedy is typified by dry wit, slapstick visuals and strong comic actors. BBC comedy should, in theory, take the best of what is already a strong bunch and highlight the very best – and that’s what I’ve tried to do here.
I can’t help but apply a personal spin to these articles, and these are the shows I personally remember splitting my sides while I was growing up. Comedy doesn’t always age particularly gracefully, but all of these shows can still have me in fits of laughter to this day.
Lord Blackadder first graced screens in 1983 and soon became a hit comedy with a twist. The show eventually enjoyed four series, each set in a different period of history. Rowan Atkinson takes on the lead role of Blackadder, a scheming and sharp-witted prince determined to take the crown.
Locations include 1485 at the end of the middle ages, the late 1500s during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (affectionately known as “Queenie”), a period known as the Regency around 1800 and during the First World War in 1917 on the western front. While historical accuracy wasn’t the show’s key aim, it still did a good job of delivering jokes that would make your history teacher laugh.
Craig Charles, a man who became synonymous with battling robots, Coronation Street and class A drug use enjoyed his first real success as a comedy actor with Red Dwarf, a 1988 BBC sci-fi misadventure initially set aboard the giant “Red Dwarf” mining spacecraft.
The show was a hit, ran for a total of 9 series and has recently been rebooted by commercial outlet UKTV for another full series after 13 years off the air. In a lesson in how not to spin-off a localised version of a classic, Universal produced a US version of the show in the early 90s with disastrous consequences.
It may comes as a surprise that Fawlty Towers, being one of the most celebrated sitcoms the BBC has ever produced, only ever enjoyed two series of six episodes each. There’s actually a very good reason for this, and that’s because each episode took John Cleese (Basil) and Connie Booth (Polly) six weeks to write.
The finished product is highly demonstrative of this fact, with Basil becoming entwined in an elaborate mouse trap of a plot each week, producing some of Cleese’s finest performances on film.
One Foot In The Grave
Starring Richard Wilson in his most celebrated role as miserable old fart Victor Meldrew, One Foot In The Grave is one of those “when the penny drops” comedies that builds for much of each episode before the explosive – and hilarious – finale takes place.
It’s Victor’s rants and misfortune that provide the real punchlines, along with believable performances from his wife (Annette Crosby) and a neighbour who avoids him at all cost (Angus Deayton) . The American sitcom Cosby (starring Bill Cosby) was loosely based on the One Foot In The Grave premise.
The Office was Ricky Gervais’ first big success in his role as David Brent, a clueless regional manager for paper merchants Wernham Hogg. The series was created, written and directed by Gervais and Steven Merchant and ran for a total of two top-notch series totalling 14 episodes.
Unlike Red Dwarf, The Office has enjoyed a very successful US spin-off starring Steve Carrel. It’s an entirely different show compared with the original, and that’s probably what makes it so good. There are also French, German, French Canadian, Chilean, Israeli and Swedish versions.
The Thick Of It
Political comedies often rely on the understanding of the audience, and while The Thick Of It is very clever in its own satirical way, it doesn’t require an intricate knowledge of the British political system in order to be enjoyed.
The show’s plot and style bares a striking resemblance to real-life political fumbles and gaffes, with clueless MPs and tyrannical decision makers creating some real foot-in-mouth moments. A joint effort between BBC Films and the UK Film Council resulted in spin-off film In The Loop being released in 2009.
Only Fools and Horses
Only Fools And Horses holds the sitcom record for the highest number of viewers in any one episode at 24.3 million viewers in 1996. That’s over a third of the entire British population! Starring David Jason (Del Boy) and Nicholas Lyndhurst (Rodney) as brothers, the show follows the pair’s attempts to get rich quick from their Peckham flat.
It’s been hard to avoid the impact Del and Rodney have had on British culture, from the iconic yellow three wheeler (a Reliant Regal) to the cockney catchphrases and slang still used by children in schools up and down the country today.
I’m Alan Partridge
Feeding off the earlier success of The Day Today, a spoof BBC news program that I don’t have room to feature here, Steve Coogan took his Alan Partridge character to the next cringe-worthy level over two series of I’m Alan Partridge.
To briefly set the scene: imagine a greying middle-aged conservative micro-celebrity with an ego the size of BBC Television Centre ambling through life from one faux-pas to the next and you’re roughly there.
If you’re interested in watching some of these shows then you might want to consider subscribing to the BBC’s paid iPlayer service which is currently available in: France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Austria, Belgium, Ireland, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Portugal, Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Australia and Canada.
Visit: BBC Worldwide iPlayer Home
Of course, if you live in the UK (and pay the licence fee) you can watch BBC iPlayer for free.
This list has been kept rather orthodox and I’ve stuck to the mainstays. However if you’re willing to delve a little deeper into the BBC’s back catalogue then you’ll find shows like Nighty Night, Monkey Dust and Time Trumpet amongst classics like Are You Being Served? and Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em. If you’ve enjoyed this list then don’t forget to add your favourite BBC comedies to the comments, below.