If there’s one thing Brits know how to do well it’s the time-honoured tradition of the great comedy sitcom. Whether it be surreal, realistic, dark, slapstick or everything inbetween, these are just a few of the best sitcoms the old Blighty has to offer.
10. The Royle Family (1998 – ?)
Occurring in real time, The Royle Family follows a working-class family as they lounge around the television, partaking in banal conversations. Revolving around the six main characters, each season has an overarching plot such as an upcoming wedding or pregnancy. However, there tends to be no real focus and the writing concentrates on the blandness of everyday life; the series opens with a plot around an expensive phone bill, a new job and buying jackets from a catalogue. 35 episodes have been broadcast over 14 years and it has remained enormously popular. The Christmas special, aired in 2012, was the 3rd most watched program of the day and attracted an audience of 9.9 million viewers.
9. Bottom (1991 – 1995)
Written by and starring Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson, Bottom follows flat-mates Richie and Eddie as they live on the dole in West London. The show is known for its over-the-top violent slapstick humour as the duo spend their time scheming ways to acquire sex, get pissed and inflicting as much physical pain on each other as possible. This includes forks to the eyes, fingers being cut off, penises getting set on fire and plenty of bones being broken. The show spawned five extremely popular live stage shows which were known for the actors often deviating from (or simply forgetting) the script and ab-libbing their way through scenes. Despite ending in 2003, there were constant rumours of a new series or reunion. Sadly, after the unfortunate death of Mayall in 2014, fans will have to make do with the 18 episodes produced.
8. One Foot in the Grave (1990 – 2000)
One Foot in the Grave stars Richard Wilson stars as Victor Meldrew; a cranky pensioner who constantly finds himself involved in machiavellian plots. Accompanied by his long-suffering and tolerant wife Margaret (who has the burden of acting as a comedic foil to his misfortunes), the series is noted for its use of jet-black humour. In the series finale, Margaret, who over time developed into a much more rounded character who was fiercely defensive of her marriage, is coping with the untimely death of Victor after he has been killed by a hit-and-run driver. After a series of flashbacks, she finally discovers the culprit and the audience is left to make up their own mind whether or not she took revenge through poisoning. Forever remembered as a grumpy character, many have argued that Victor is the only sane person in a world gone mad.
7. Father Ted (1995 – 1998)
Set on the fictional Craggy Island off the coast of Ireland, Father Ted follows a trio of priests who have been exiled due to their past indecencies. Joined by their housekeeper Mrs. Doyle, the trio are involved in humorously surreal situations – from defusing bombs on a milk-float to figuring out what the sheep-eating monster lurking in the moors is. The show won numerous BAFTAs and was widely critically acclaimed, especially for Dermot Morgan’s portrayal of the titular character. After his untimely death at the age of 45, the writers and producers saw an influx of suggestions for actors to replace him. However, the series was never revived – and rightly so.
6. Dad’s Army (1968 – 1977)
Dad’s Army is one of the few British sitcoms which could be considered ‘long-running’. Originally broadcast from 1968 to 1977 with a total of 80 episodes produced , the sitcom focused on the Home Guard during World War II. These local volunteers were usually ineligible for military service because of their age, hence the title. The series began with a loose narrative thread showing the platoon’s formation – including the distribution of wooden rifles and full uniforms – but as it progressed these over the hill soldiers eventually had run ins with the enemy in the form of downed German bombers. At its peak, Dad’s Army regularly attracted an audience of over 18 million viewers and, if nothing else, it will always be remembered for Captain Mainwaring’s ‘You stupid boy!’ – a putdown which has topped lists of the greatest television insults.
5. Blackadder (1983 – 1989)
Across the span of four seasons, Blackadder took us from medieval times, to the reign of Elizabeth I, then the 19th Century Regency Period, before finally ending in the trenches of World War I. This was all thanks to the character of Blackadder and his subsequent descendants – all portrayed by Rowan Atkinson. As the generations progress, each Blackadder becomes increasingly clever and perceptive, but at the cost of his social standing. Regardless, he remains ever cynical and cowardly, willing to take advantage of any situation for his personal benefit without a thought to his surroundings. Despite being renowned for its quick witted writing, the series finale in which the men went ‘over the top’ of the trenches to certain death has been noted to be exceptionally poignant as Blackadder is finally out of schemes and succumbs to the reality of war. With a supporting cast including Stephen Fry, Tony Robinson, Hugh Laurie and Miranda Richardson, Blackadder never skips a beat.
4. Only Fools and Horses (1981 – 1991)
Set in Peckham between 1981 and 1991, Only Fools and Horses follows the Trotter brothers Del Boy (portrayed by David Jason) and Rodney (Nicholas Lyndhurst). Del Boy, the elder of the two, is a fast talking, archetypal market trader who lives in a council flat and dreams of getting rich. True to form, all of his attempts prove to be nothing more than futile, using questionable ‘get rich quick’ schemes which range from selling sex dolls filled with an explosive gas to creating a motorcycle helmet wearable by Sikhs. In the series finale, the Trotter’s finally got the outcome they had always dreamed about after selling a pocket-watch for £6.2 million. The public seemed to support them as the episode attracted a then record breaking audience of 24.3 million viewers. Sadly, the so-called finale was followed up by some pretty disappointing one-off specials, but even these couldn’t diminish from the enjoyment of the Trotter’s earlier outings.
3. Vicar of Dibley (1994 – 2007))
In the Vicar of Dibley, Dawn French plays Geraldine Granger; a female vicar who is assigned to a parish in a small Oxfordshire village. Her biggest obstacle comes in the form of David Horton, the Chairman of the Parish Council who is vehemently against the appointment of a female pastor (although he does warm to her eventually). The rest of the council is made up of somewhat dim characters, allowing for a variety of comedic situations thanks to hilarious small-town misunderstandings. Each episode ends with Geraldine telling a joke to the unwitting Alice who either fails to grasp the punchline or feels the need to deconstruct the joke, leading to Geraldine’s own amusement. The series was a massively popular Sunday night treat and brought in big viewing figures each year.
2. The Office (2001 – 2003)
Ricky Gervais found international fame thanks to The Office; a mockumentary following the day-to-day lives of employees from a paper company based in the town of Slough. Headed by Gervais’ regional manager David Brent, most of comedy came from the character’s unsuccessful attempts at trying to become popular with his employees – often resulting in embarrassing or disastrous results. However, arguably the most important arc of the series was Tim’s love interest with Dawn, the friendly but engaged receptionist. By the season finale, Brent finally made his colleagues laugh and Tim got the girl of his dreams. Running for only 12 episodes and 2 specials, The Office was an instant hit and gained near-unanimous critical success as well as an American spin-off starring Steve Carell (which lasted more than 200 episodes). The show also became the first British comedy series in 25 years to be nominated for a Golden Globe – and the first to ever win not just one, but two.
1. Fawlty Towers (1975 – 1979)
John Cleese’s sitcom from the 70s has topped countless best British sitcom lists. Spanning just 12 episodes, the series centres on the rude owner of the titular hotel Basil Fawlty, his wife Sybil, the comparatively normal waitress Polly and the ill-fated Spanish waiter Manuel. Despite his best efforts, Basil finds himself in farcical situations as he has to deal with his increasingly eccentric and demanding guests. Arguably the most popular (and infamous) episode sees Basil suffering from a head-trauma whilst serving a bunch of German guests. As is the way with this type of scenario, Basil ends up upsetting them with his impersonations of Hitler and his constant comments about World War II – despite the fact that he keeps barking at his staff to not “mention the war!”. Although its tenure was brief, Fawlty Towers is widely considered to be British comedy at its finest.