Sitcoms, when they work, are beautiful things. Familiar characters and running jokes all brought together in easily digestible half-hour chunks of delicious, warming, audio-visual comfort food. So here, in no particular order, are seven favourites to see you through the coronacrisis:
The ultimate gang show, Jimmy Perry and David Croft’s seminal Dad’s Army is rarely off our screens. With BBC 2 repeats regularly commanding audience figures in their millions, Dad’s Army is adored by children and adults alike. What is the secret of the show’s success?
Obviously, the scripts are great – but it is the cast, particularly Arthur Lowe as pompous bank manager Captain Mainwaring and John Le Mesurier as effortlessly superior Sergeant Wilson, which takes Dad’s Army to the next level. Conflict abounds and, whilst the series is loved, particularly by younger viewers, for its broad-as-a-barn-door location capers, it’s the complex personal relationships and precision character comedy which keeps the nation coming back.
For more dramatic outings, see ‘Mum’s Army’, in which Mainwaring finds himself on the brink of an affair with Carmen Silvera’s fragrant Mrs. Gray, or ‘Branded’, when Godfrey reveals he’s a conscientious objector. For high farce, ‘Don’t Forget the Diver’ (Jones dresses up as a log) or ‘Ring Dem Bells’, the platoon play Nazi soldiers in a public information film, fit the bill. But I’ve always had a particular soft spot ‘Getting the Bird’: Walker hides 50 pigeons next to Mainwaring’s office and Sgt. Wilson hits the bottle.
For sitcom connoisseurs, Frasier is as good as it gets. A spin-off from Cheers, the series focusses on Dr Frasier Crane’s new life in Seattle – our eponymous hero, played with booming relish, having left Boston following his split with Lilith. There he builds a new career as as a radio psychiatrist, whilst re-establishing his relationship with his ex-cop father Martin and neurotic brother Niles.
The show is unusually British in its sympathies – a technically perfect comedy of manners, class conflict, farce and elegant wordplay underpin the humour. And, as with all great sitcoms, we fall in love with the characters. The will-they-won’t-they romance between Niles and Daphne – complicated by Niles’ divorce from Maris, and Daphne’s burgeoning relationship with Donny, his lawyer – add rare emotional depth. There are many fine, fine episodes of Frasier – ‘The Matchmaker’, ‘Look Before You Leap’ ‘They’re Playing Our Song’ – but my favourite is a late, unexpected entry: ‘Murder Most Maris’, in which Maris is arrested for killing her boyfriend, and the Cranes find themselves roped into the investigation – and the media storm.
The Golden Girls
Just beginning a well-deserved repeat run on Channel 5, The Golden Girls is the archetypal feel-good American sitcom – mixing wit and warmth with surprisingly brave subject matter (AIDs, polygamy, divorce, and chronic health conditions all feature in the storytelling). The four girls – Dorothy, Blanche, Rose and Dorothy’s mother Sophia – live together in Blanche’s house in Miami where, amongst the chintz and the cheesecake, they inject zest and vitality into each other’s retirement years.
If this is all sounds a bit schmaltzy, well, it is – but there’s plenty of acid too. By seasons 5 and 6, the plots were getting a touch formulaic, challenging the binge viewer (and Bea Arthur, who by 1990 was keen to move on) – though the precision dialogue never loses its bite. But the earlier Seasons, and the revitalised Season 7, sing. Talking of singing, my favourite episode is probably ‘An Illegitimate Turn’, in which Dorothy and Sophia take off Sonny and Cher.
Curb Your Enthusiasm
For me, this is Larry David’s work of genius. Improvised dialogue, choppy, handheld direction, and ‘Frolic’, Luciano Michelini’s spiky, esoteric theme tune (which spawned 1000 memes) all add to the charm – and yes, this show is charming. Holding it all together is a bravura performance from David: the Larry of Curb is wry, cynical, sweary, and actually – which is the key – the most reasonable person in the show.
From season 3 to 8, pretty much every episode is a classic – but my favourite? If I had to pick, ‘The Ida Funkhouser Roadside Memorial’. Death makes for the best farce.
The ultimate cult sitcom with mainstream appeal, the boys from the Dwarf burst onto our screens in 1988 and have been entertaining us ever since. Dave Lister, a curry-eating, lager-swilling vending machine repair man on the intergalactic mining vessel Red Dwarf, finds himself the last human in existence, with only Arnold Rimmer, a pompous, anally-retented hologram, Cat, a suave, preening, super-evolved Cat, Holly, the ship’s befuddled computer, and later Kryten – a service mechanoid – for company.
So enduring is Red Dwarf’s popularity that a number of new series – not to mention a recent feature length special, The Promised Land – are still delivering record ratings to Dave, where the sitcom has enjoyed a new lease of life over the past decade. But, for me, nothing can compete with the classic run. The writing was always top-notch, the performances on point, and the direction an innovative blend of multi-camera studio work and genre-pushing special effects, skilfully pieced together in front of an appreciative studio audience.
Between 1988 and 1999, the crew encountered psychotic simulants, shape-shifting mutants, emotion-sapping one-eyed space jellies and Ainsley Harriott. Favourite episode: for iconic Dwarf you can’t beat ‘Polymorph’, but I still chuckle at ‘Krytie TV’, an unashamedly schoolboyish late 90s outing in which Kryten, imprisoned with the others aboard a recreated Red Dwarf, sets up a soft-core porn channel, broadcasting live from the ladies showers.
Yes, (Prime) Minister
Famously, Margaret Thatcher’s favourite programme, Yes, Minister and its sequel Yes, Prime Minister is the cream of political sitcoms – in fact, it’s the cream of sitcoms, full-stop. Written by Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn (Jay, a right-wing Tory adviser; Lynn, a left-wing playwright and director), Yes, Minister conspicuously eschews partisan allegiances to skewer the universals of politics. In Paul Eddington’s Jim Hacker and Nigel Hawthorne’s Sir Humphrey Appleby, we find the British state in microcosm – with Derek Fowld’s Bernard Wooley stuck in the middle. Virtually every outing is a gem, with Hacker and Humphrey locked in a constant game of one-upmanship, as they find themselves climbing the greasy pole – together. My favourite episode is ‘The Key’, arguably the series’ most farcical instalment, in which Hacker, now Prime Minister and fed up with Humphrey calling the shots in Number 10, decides to take the oleaginous and loquacious Civil Servant’s key away.
Last of the Summer Wine
Roy Clarke’s 295 episode behemoth is most readily remembered for its knockabout slapstick – the infamous bathtub rolling down the hill (see 1993’s “Stop that Bath!”) – but the heart of Summer Wine is far richer and more lyrical. A bittersweet love letter to sun-kissed memories, the series focuses on three old school friends, now retired, as they roam the Yorkshire Dales, pondering lost loves, lost youths and getting into scrapes. The iconic trio was Foggy, Clegg and Compo – but I love the late-80s run, when incompetent inventor and ex-Prep school Headmaster Seymour Utterthwaite briefly became the ‘third man’. This is a beautiful show – with an iconic theme tune (a charming London cabbie once told me the theme music always made him cry), which on very special occasions also came with lyrics. I am not ashamed to admit that even I shed a tear when the lads buried Compo in 2001. The series was never quite the same without him, and shifted its focus from the trio stalking the hills, hidden from the glare of the town’s battle-axe womenfolk, to an ensemble piece with a roster of new characters played by old favourites from English comedy. It was still Sunday evening comfort television, but the magic had gone. Favourite episode: ‘Three Men and a Mangle’, in which the lads have to move Nora’s mangle across the town. Watch out for the Police!