Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie as Jeeves and Wooster (Rex Features)

    Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie as Jeeves and Wooster (Rex Features)

    Golden oldies: Britain’s best vintage comedy

    21 April 2020

    There’s only so many episodes of Mrs Brown’s Boys, the Mash Report or However Many Cats with Jimmy Carr one can stomach before longing for the sweet embrace of Hades. Usually, its about a fifth of one, but sadly that is what passes for comedy on TV these days.

    In the time of coronavirus, levity is what we all need to lift the spirits. Thankfully, Britain has a reputation for churning out the best comedy, and there is an almost inexhaustible supply of historic gold to be found, especially online.

    The best old sitcoms, stand up and stars of the silver screen are just what the nation needs to get us through these long housebound days — not everything on Netflix is notable, and Amazon Prime is hit and miss. So why not do yourself a favour, and when next looking for something to bring a smile to your face, take a trip back in time to see some of Britain’s best comedy.


    “Hello, hello old fruit!” The gap-toothed cad worked his way across some of the best comic films of the 50’s and 60’s, from ‘The Naked Truth’ to ‘I’m Alright Jack’. Either would be a dead cert to brighten up your day, and stand the test of time, though really, if you want the true genius, ‘Monte Carlo Or Bust’, or best of all, ‘School For Scoundrels’ — where he starred alongside Alastair Sim. The pair also collaborated on another educational caper — one of the original (and far, far superior) St Trinians films, with Sim in the iconic role of the headmistress, Miss Fritton. Black and white it may have been, but Terry-Thomas’ work was far more colourful than any modern movie.

    Fry and Laurie

    Having gone on to major successes in ‘House’ and as the host of ‘QI,’ Hugh Laurie and his old friend Stephen Fry have been cracking wise for decades. As well as dipping in and out of various series of ‘Blackadder,’ they were also responsible for the brilliant sketch show ‘A Bit of Fry and Laurie’ — though perhaps best of all was their reprisal of PG Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster and his man, Jeeves, across four series in the early ‘90s. All of them, gloriously, are available on YouTube.

    Billy Connolly

    The Big Yin, it was recently announced, would no longer be doing shows as his health has deteriorated over recent years. But YouTube is a wonderful resource for all his very best stand up, and you can spend hours of your day crying with laughter, as Connolly recounts tales of men in Glasgow’s shipyards’ shared lavatories, or the story of the hitman, paid “by the bullet”, and instructed to shoot an unfaithful wife between the eyes and her lover in his nether regions, trying to save his client cash by doing it with one shot.

    Peter Sellers

    Of course best known for his time spent as Chief Inspector Clouseau across various Pink Panther films, this would be enough in itself, but Sellers’ repertoire goes far beyond that, including Stanley Kubrick’s masterful black comedy, ‘Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb,’ for which he was nominated for the 1964 academy award for best actor — no small feat for a comic role. No one’s saying you need to stop worrying, or learn to love the lockdown, but Sellers’ films will make it a little easier.

    Eddie Izzard

    Before he became a Labour activist, Eddie Izzard was a comedian. Or at least, there existed a time when his comedy outshone his activism. But though those days are long gone, the memory remains — as do his majestic stand up shows. ‘Dress to Kill’ gave us “cake or death?” , monkeys with guns and the history of flags, whilst ‘Circle’ breathed life into the Death Star Canteen, Jesus preaching to the dinosaurs in a saloon bar, and God (as played by James Mason) creating life on Earth based on the monsters he’d witnessed in his dreams the night before, after ‘testing’ the first batch of drugs he’d planted. They were simpler, happier times — before Izzard was a bore, and before lockdown was boring us.

    Dave Allen

    Due to the relative rareness of the footage of his shows, Dave Allen doesn’t get too much airtime these days, even by the standards of the treasures on this list. That’s not to say that he isn’t worth watching, though — his jokes are some of the best. Perhaps a little dated — these were the days when smoking and drinking in a TV studio were allowed — and particularly pointed for his fellow Irishmen on the subject of his homeland and the Catholic Church. YouTube (the magical source of rare comic antiquities) has thrown up a number of his shows and routines, from cunning nuns tricking people into buying them booze to Australians using sheep as cheep lawnmowers.

    Victoria Wood

    Long, long before we had Joe Wicks doing exercise videos for the nation, we had Victoria Woods’ step aerobics routine. Not that it would get you in shape, mind, but it would give your stomach muscles a good workout. Woods was perhaps the finest comedian of her generation, known for ‘Victoria Wood As Seen On TV’ and the sitcom ‘Dinnerladies’. Though if you want a real treat, the ‘complete season’ of her spoof soap opera, ‘Acorn Antiques,’ has been edited together on the internet, featuring the likes of Julie Walters and Celie Imrie.