Welcome to ClassicSitcoms.co.uk, I've been lazy here and until I can think of anything better I have "borrowed" a potted history of British sitcoms from Wikipedia! ;)
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A British sitcom is a situation comedy (sitcom) produced in the United Kingdom. Like sitcoms in most other countries, they tend to be based around a family, workplace or other institution where a group of contrasting characters can be brought together. A common factor is the exploration of social mores, often with a mix of satire or pathos, in contrast to the sometimes uplifting sentiments of many American sitcoms. British comedies are typically produced in series of six episodes each. More recently, the portmanteau term "Britcom" has been used by American commentators to distinguish the British idiom of situation comedy from its other (particularly American) counterparts.
The first true British sitcom was Pinwright's Progress, broadcast by the BBC from 1946 to 1947, but the form didn't really take off until the transfer of Hancock's Half Hour from BBC radio in the 1950s. The series remains the most successful and fondly remembered early sitcom, and was successful enough to run simultaneously on BBC Radio and television throughout the late 1950s. It was renowned for its ability to evacuate pubs and streets as listeners stayed at home to tune in to Hancock's latest misadventures. Hancock's Half Hour, with its emphasis on character and believable situations, was probably the most influential of all British sitcoms. In the 1960s its creators, Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, would go on to write the almost equally popular Steptoe and Son, about a man's fractious relationship with his elderly father. The series was the first to cast established actors in the leading roles, instead of comedians.
Unlike American sitcoms, British sitcoms are produced by just one or two writers, and are sometimes characterised as having fewer jokes than those from other countries, and with longer build-ups. The measured approach engendered by a single writer or a close writing partnership can permit greater control over the programme's direction and a structured approach to character and plot development. Individual writers who have made a significant contribution to the genre include John Sullivan, Johnny Speight, Roy Clarke, Jimmy Perry and David Croft (who are also regarded to have been superlative as a writing partnership), Richard Curtis and Ben Elton, while the most notable writing partnerships include Rob Grant & Doug Naylor (Grant Naylor), Ray Galton & Alan Simpson, Dick Clement & Ian La Frenais and John Esmonde & Bob Larbey. This is in contrast to American sitcoms, for example, which traditionally employ teams of writers and attempt to include many jokes per episode.
In the same decade Johnny Speight's Till Death Us Do Part often caused a stir at the dinner table, inciting debate on political issues — particularly those surrounding race and immigration. Meanwhile, Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais created their series The Likely Lads. Clement and La Frenais would be among the most successful sitcom writing partnerships in Britain. Their later successes included Porridge and Auf Wiedersehen Pet.
The 1960s also saw the creation of Dad's Army, (BBC), The Liver Birds, (BBC) and On The Buses, (ITV).
The 1970s introduced several successful British sitcoms, including John Cleese and Connie Booth's farcical Fawlty Towers, John Esmonde and Bob Larbey's self-sufficiency comedy The Good Life, and Roy Clarke's Open All Hours and the long-running Last of the Summer Wine.
The commercial station ITV found success with Rising Damp, Man About the House, George and Mildred, and the now decidedly politically incorrect Love Thy Neighbour, based on the rivalry between a black man and his bigoted white neighbour. Mind Your Language spent each episode making fun of other nationalities and was dismissed by some critics as crude caricature, although it also sold surprisingly well abroad. ITV has had few successful sitcoms in recent years, with rare successes like Hardware appearing in off-peak time slots. Men Behaving Badly, one of the biggest successes of the 1990s, began life as an ITV series in 1992, before being cancelled and picked up by the BBC.
Since the 1960s, the Cambridge Footlights club, the London based Comic Strip club and the Edinburgh Fringe have been the breeding grounds for much new talent in British comedy. The new wave of 1980s comedians produced The Young Ones, an anarchic, knockabout romp and, co-written by the same writer, the more sophisticated historical satire Blackadder.
Traditional sitcoms continued to prosper, however, particularly with John Sullivan's Only Fools and Horses which dominated the British sitcom scene in the 1980s and 1990s. The series was voted "Britain's Best Sitcom" in the 2004 BBC poll of the same name. The 1980s also saw the unlikely success of the political satire Yes Minister and its sequel Yes, Prime Minister. Other hits included Esmonde and Larbey's suburban sitcom Ever Decreasing Circles, and the sci-fi-comedy Red Dwarf.
The unlikely story of three priests — one vain, one simple, one alcoholic — gave the 1990s one of its biggest hits in Father Ted. Shows such as Birds of a Feather and The Vicar of Dibley also maintained the popularity of the traditional sitcom, and One Foot in the Grave brought black comedy and suburban angst into the mainstream.
More unorthodox comedies, including The Royle Family, People Like Us and The League of Gentlemen, managed to breathe new life into the genre while appealing both to "mainstream" audiences and a new generation of viewers. Many of these more innovative series started life on BBC radio, building up a cult following before being remade for television. Other series that began in this way include The Mighty Boosh and The Day Today, the latter a spin-off from the radio series On the Hour.
The BBC has also begun using its digital channels BBC Three and BBC Four to build a following for off-beat series like The Thick of It. Many of these series have dispensed with the studio audience and canned laughter tracks altogether, in the manner of The Royle Family and The Office. The commercial station Channel 4 has also actively encouraged new writers to produce interesting work. Some of its recent successes include Father Ted, Spaced, Phoenix Nights, Black Books, Green Wing and Peep Show.
Many of the most critically acclaimed sitcoms of recent years have appeared on BBC2 and Channel 4, rather than on the more popular BBC1 and ITV channels. ITV has had very few successful situation comedies since the 1980s, while the only notable success for BBC1 in the last few years is the critically-derided My Family.