Some of the best comedy on television over the years has been British. FromÂ great character actors, to classic one-liners, slapstick and satire, the British sure know how to make us laugh, and having been doing so for generations. As a tribute to the Brits, here is my much-loved list of the Top Ten British TV Comedies of all time. Enjoy!
10. The Office
British, not American. Gervais, not Carell. That’s the real show. A sit-com set in a fictitious office may sound dull, but The Office (2001-2003) is anything but. Manager David Brent (a deliciously cringe-worthy Gervais) is the politically incorrect face of Wernham Hogg paper merchants, “where life is stationary” (see, genius!), and he leads a mix-matched team of boggled-eyed employees including Martin Freeman, Mackenzie Crook and Lucy Davis. Cue comedy gold. The show’s charm lies in its razor sharp dialogue and mockumentary style filmmaking, with Brent often directly addressing the camera with his pathetic and sarcastic attempts at wit. One of the killer one-liners Gervais has given audiences over the years: “If your boss is getting you down, look at him through the prongs of a fork and imagine him in jail”. Good stuff.
Bursting onto the screen in this sci-fi tinged sit-com was comedy partners Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (in his first ever acting role) with up-and-coming director Edgar Wright behind the camera. Yes, it was Spaced that kick-started their Hollywood careers. Pegg played loveable layabout Tim Bisley, a struggling comic book artist who shacked up with his writer lady friend Daisy Steiner (Jessica Hynes). Rounding out the gang of misfits was Daisy’s fashionista friend Twist (Katy Carmichael, channelling Bubble from Ab Fab), the eccentric artist downstairs Brian (Mark Heap), Tim’s military mate Mike (Frost) and the predatory landlady Marsha (Julia Deakin). There isn’t a job or career prospect between the lot of them, and therein lies the fun of the show. Co-scribes Wright and Pegg created a semi-fantastical world of pop-culture references and job hunting, cementing their status as the geek kings of comedy.
8. Absolutely Fabulous
Soon after the success of French & Saunders, the latter unleashed her PR alter-ego Edina Monsoon on the BBC. Teaming up with Joanna Lumley as boozy bestie Patsy Stone, they launched two of the most hilarious female leads in modern comedy. Set against the backdrop of the cut-throat London fashion scene, the heavy-drinking, recreational drug-abusing mates indulge in the latest fads and antics in pathetic attempts to recapture their hip youth. The badly dressed pair is bookended by Edina’s bookish, disapproving daughter Saffy (Julia Sawalha) and ditzy PA Bubble (Jane Horrocks), with Mother (June Whitfield) always present to lend her opinion. Edina has some deliciously quotable lines, from “play some dubstep ““ dis is my hood” to “look, there’s a new disease called the Kardashians, darling”, whilst poofy-haired Patsy claimed to have not eaten since 1973. What’s not to love, sweetie darlings?
7. The Vicar of Dibley
Wouldn’t everyone just love a Geraldine Granger at their Church? I certainly would. Dawn French’s cuddly, funny female Vicar seemed like an odd heroine choice for a sitcom, but The Vicar of Dibley has proved itself an enduring concept. Penned by Richard Curtis (Notting Hill, Love Actually) and written specifically for French, the show’s light-hearted mix of religion and comedy was a winner for comedy audiences. Supporting French was Roger Lloyd Pack as crass farmer Owen, Trevor Peacock as stuttering Jim Trott, John Bluthal as the dead-boring Frank Pickle, Liz Smith as experimental-cook Letitia, Gary Waldhorn as pompous chairman David Horton, James Fleet as his bashful son Hugo and a scene-stealing Emma Chambers as the dim-witted, but always charming, Alice. And with guest appearances from Kylie Minogue, Peter Capaldi and Elton John (sort of) to boot, hilarious variety was guaranteed with every episode and holiday special (plus, who could forget the knock-knock jokes at the end of every episode).
“I’ve got a plan so cunning you could put a tail on it and call it a weasel!” Many phrases have been coined from this clever mock-historical comedy series (by Ben Elton and Richard Curtis ““ whose writing/directing talents feature a lot in this list) spanning four official seasons and covering four historical periods of history. Rowan Atkinson is at his intelligent, scathing best as Edmund Blackadder ““ a man who cares only for his own well-being and status. Flanked by two dummies George (Hugh Laurie) and Baldrick (Tony Robinson), Blackadder is the most threatening to authority, consistently testing the wits of Captain Darling (Tim McInnery as the reoccurring joke) and his pompous superior Colonel Melchett (Stephen Fry). Regulars include Bob (a woman) and the sex-obsessed Lord Flashheart (a windswept, blonde Rik Mayall). Shortly after the razor-sharp world of Blackadder wrapped up, Atkinson started doing Mr. Bean–clearly a man of great acting range.
5. Keeping Up Appearances
Patricia Routledge’s Hyacinth Bucket (“It’s pronounced Bouquet”) is one of the most formidable femaleÂ characters in comedy to this day. Her submissive husband Richard is consistently apologising on behalf of his snobbish wife, whilst her less than impressive family inadvertently undermine her every boastful word with their lower-class antics. The supporting cast is delightful: sister Rose is a man-eater, Daisy is lively but lazy and her husband Onslow is a beer-guzzling Northern slob. The girls’ senile father “Daddy” is constantly absconding, making for hilarious outings in hot (albeit embarrassing) pursuit. Neighbours and siblings Elizabeth and Emmet are a hilarious duo, unwillingly coaxed by Hyacinth into all of her ventures, with Liz in scene-stealing fashion every episode when negotiating Hyacinth’s brittle Royal Doulton. Legendary catchphrases: “riparian entertainment” and “minding the road” have snuck their way rather wonderfully into our modern vernacular.
4. Some Mother’s Do ‘Ave ‘Em
There is something intrinsically sweet about accident-prone, mega klutz Frank Spencer. Maybe its Michael Crawford’s wimpy, lanky appearance (with trademark trench coat and beret) paired with his desperateness, but whatever it is (and despite his inability to do anything right), you root for Frank all the way. His patient but perpetually worn out wifey Betty (Michele Dotrice) spends much of the show trying to get Frank out of further scrapes as he tries and fails his way through countless job interviews and projects. He has a knack for infuriating even the most placid of people in the community (think priests, doctors, etc), thus ensuring a splendid ruckus wherever he goes. No matter how much he stuffs things up though, Frank’s undisputed love for his wife (and later his daughter, Jessica) has forever endeared him to generations of “Oooh Betty” fans.
3. I’m Alan Partridge
Steve Coogan’s narcissist presenter Alan Gordon Partridge sure has done a lot for a fictional character. The one-time talk-show host’s series I’m Alan Partridge sees the Norwich DJ living in a Travel Tavern and caravan, all the while dragging his long-suffering PA Lynn along with him on his fruitless quest for popularity (and a second series at the BBC). His only friend, Michael the Geordie, makes for one of the best (albeit least understandable) television comedy sidekicks of the late Nineties to early Noughties. Not only a hilarious show that’s spawned just as funny spin-offs, but I’m Alan Partridge has also given us some delicious one-liners such as “smell my cheese!”, “butter my arse!”, “back of the net!” and of course his timeless catchphrase “AHA!”
2. Fawlty Towers
When John Cleese is on screen, he demands your attention, and no-one is as demanding as Basil Fawlty. He is paranoid, pathetic, rude, snobby, and offensive, and yet, he’s such a delight to watch. Whether he’s being bossed around by his dominating wife Sybil (the always delicious Prunella Scales) or doing the bossing himself to his hapless Catalan waiter Manuel (Andrew Sachs), Basil is constantly getting the wrong end of the stick. From Siberian hamsters, to veal substitutes, to flirtatious guests, the antics at Fawlty Towers are never-ending. Cleese’s hapless hotelier is a winning blend of slap-stick and satire, sandwiched between Scales and his co-star/co-writer/then-wife Connie Booth as waitress Polly. The show is exhausting but hilarious, and although it only ran for 12 episodes, leaves a lasting impression.
1. The Young Ones
The Young Ones was groundbreaking in its day and paved the way for an onslaught of comic talent. Fairly fresh out of college, writer/star Rik Mayall teamed up with then-girlfriend Lise Mayer and the up-and-coming Ben Elton to pen a sitcom based around four filthy flatmates and their young, dysfunctional lives. The show was an unconventional, energetic mix of theatre, punk-rock and puppetry, all played out on the squalid set of their share house. It was an instant hit, making overnight stars of its cultish leads. Mayall played wannabe-anarchist Rick ““ a tantrum throwing sociology student with an unhealthy love for Cliff Richard. Adrian Edmondson was Vyvyan ““ a violent, ginger punk with a penchant for demolition. Nigel Planer was Neil ““ a long-haired, manic-depressive, lentil-loving hippie, and Christopher Ryan was Mike ““ a scheming, smartly dressed, smooth-talking conman. Boasting regular cameos from Stephen Fry, Madness, French & Saunders and Robbie Coltrane, this crazy 80’s classic is a one-off masterpiece.