British sitcom

A British sitcom or a Britcom[1] is a situational comedy programme produced for British television. Although styles of sitcom have changed over the years they tend to be based on a family, workplace or other institution, where the same group of contrasting characters is brought together in each episode. British sitcoms are typically produced in one or more series of six episodes. Most such series are conceived and developed by one or two writers.

The majority of British sitcoms are 30 minutes long and are recorded on studio sets in a multiple-camera setup. A subset of British comedy consciously avoids traditional situation comedy themes and storylines to branch out into more unusual topics or narrative methods. Blackadder (1983–1989) and Yes Minister (1980–1988, 2013) moved what is often a domestic or workplace genre into the corridors of power. A later development was the mockumentary in such series as The Office (2001–2003).


Early yearsEdit

The first British television sitcom was Pinwright's Progress, broadcast by the BBC from 1946 to 1947,[2] but the form did not take off until the transfer of Hancock's Half Hour from BBC radio in 1956.[3] Hancock biographer John Fisher dates the first use of the term 'situation comedy' in British broadcasting to a BBC memo dated 31 March 1953 written by producer Peter Eton, suggesting the format as the ideal vehicle for Hancock's comedic style.[4] "Hancock's persona of the pompous loser out of his depth in an uncomprehending society still informs many programmes today", according to Phil Wickham.[5] Some of the scripts written for Hancock by Ray Galton and Alan Simpson almost repudiated a narrative structure altogether and attempted to reproduce an everyday environment with the intention of also reproducing its comedy. ITV's most successful sitcom of this period was probably The Army Game (1957–1961),[6] featuring some of the comedians who would soon appear in the Carry On film series.

In the 1960s the BBC produced the earliest of Richard Waring's domestic comedies, Marriage Lines (1961–1966), with Richard Briers and Prunella Scales and a then-rare workplace[7] comedy with The Rag Trade (1961–1963, 1977–1978). Two long-running series began around this time, Steptoe and Son (1962–1965, 1970–1974) and Till Death Us Do Part (1965–1968, 1972–1975), the latter criticised by Clean-Up TV campaigner Mary Whitehouse for its bad language.[8] With Steptoe (and The Likely Lads, 1964–1966) producers began to cast straight actors, rather than comedians,[9] around whom earlier series like Whack-O! (1956–1960, 1971–1972), with Jimmy Edwards, or those featuring Hancock, had been built.

A gentle mockery of Britain's 'finest hour' occurred with the home guard comedy Dad's Army (1968–1977) and the church with All Gas and Gaiters[10] (1966–1971). Women generally had very secondary roles at this time, though various series with Wendy Craig in the leading role and those developed by scriptwriter Carla Lane, the first successful female writer in the form,[11] were challenges to this situation. Lane's career initially began in collaboration with other writers on The Liver Birds (1969–1979, 1996).

The 1970sEdit

The 1970s is often regarded as the golden era of British sitcom. Well-remembered series include John Cleese and Connie Booth's farcical Fawlty Towers (1975, 1979), John Esmonde and Bob Larbey's self-sufficiency comedy The Good Life (1975–78). Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? (1973–74), a sequel to the earlier show, surpassed the original, while the same writers (Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais) provided Ronnie Barker with his most successful sitcom vehicle, Porridge (1974–77). Barker also starred (along with David Jason) in Open All Hours (1973, 1976–85), written by Roy Clarke. Clarke's long-running Last of the Summer Wine began in 1973 and ended in 2010, becoming the world's longest running sitcom.

The commercial station ITV had popular successes with Rising Damp (1974–78, sometimes called the best of all ITV sitcoms),[12] Man About the House (1973–76) and George and Mildred (1976–79). Rising Damp star Leonard Rossiter also played the lead role in the BBC's highly popular The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin (1976–79). The decline in cinema attendance in this period meant that many of these series were turned into cinema films;[13] the first film version of On the Buses (1969–73) was the biggest hit at the British box office in 1971.[14] According to Jeff Evans, On the Buses is a "cheerfully vulgar comedy" in which "leering and innuendo dominate."[15] Some of the network's other ratings successes from this era are now considered politically incorrect. Series such as Love Thy Neighbour (1972–76)[16] and Mind Your Language (1977–79, 1986),[17] which attempted to find humour in racial or ethnic conflict and misunderstandings, were increasingly criticised over time.[18]

Increasing relaxation in regard to the discussion of sex meant farce became a familiar form in the 1970s used in series like Up Pompeii! (1969–70, 1975, 1991),[19] and Are You Being Served? (1972, 1973–85).[20]

The 1980sEdit

In the 1980s the emerging alternative comedians began to encroach on British sitcoms, partly as a response to such series as Terry and June (1979–87) being perceived as containing "complacent gentility, outmoded social attitudes and bourgeois sensibilities".[21] The alternatives incursion began with The Young Ones (1982–84), written by Rik Mayall, Ben Elton and others, and continued with Blackadder (1983–89). Mayall was also the star of The New Statesman (1987–92), a series created by Maurice Gran and Laurence Marks, whose biggest success, Birds of a Feather (1989–98, 2014–), also deviated from British practice in being scripted by a team of writers.

Only Fools and Horses, one of the most successful of all British sitcoms, began in 1981 and was the most durable of several series written and created by John Sullivan. Other hits included the political satire Yes Minister (1980–84) and its sequel Yes, Prime Minister (1986–88), Esmonde and Larbey's suburban sitcom Ever Decreasing Circles (1984–89) and the sci-fi-comedy Red Dwarf (1988–). Other shows such as 'Allo 'Allo! (1984–92) were reminiscent of 1970s sitcoms such as Are You Being Served? and Dad's Army[22] unsurprising in light of the fact that all three involved the writer/producer David Croft and two were co-written by Jeremy Lloyd. Also worth mentioning is the short lived Roman Britain sitcom Chelmsford 123 (1988–1990) which has fallen into relative obscurity.

The 1990sEdit

The new Channel 4 began to have successful long-running situation comedies. Desmond's (1989–94) was the first British sitcom with a black cast set in the workplace,[23] and Drop the Dead Donkey (1990–98) brought topicality to the form as it was recorded close to transmission.

Some of the biggest hits of the 1990s were Father Ted, Men Behaving Badly, Game On, Absolutely Fabulous, I'm Alan Partridge, Keeping Up Appearances, Goodnight Sweetheart, Bottom, The Brittas Empire, The Thin Blue Line, Mr. Bean, The Vicar of Dibley and One Foot in the Grave. (BBC Worldwide confirmed in February 2016 that Keeping Up Appearances is the corporation's most exported television programme, being sold nearly 1,000 times to overseas broadcasters.[24])

A final David Croft sitcom, Oh, Doctor Beeching aired from 1995 until 1997.

Since 2000Edit

Around the Millennium period and onward into the 2000s examples of the hyperreal approach pioneered by Galton and Simpson in some of their Hancock scripts, and I'm Alan Partridge, appeared in sitcoms like The Royle Family, The Office, Early Doors, and Gavin & Stacey, as well as many British dramedies.

The BBC has also begun using their digital channels BBC Three and BBC Four to build a following for off-beat series including The Thick of It. Channel 4 has had successes with Spaced, Black Books, Phoenix Nights, Peep Show, Green Wing, The IT Crowd, The Inbetweeners, Friday Night Dinner and Derry Girls.

The conventional sitcom has declined in importance in the schedules over time (in many cases superseded by the mixture of comedy and drama in dramedy series such as Doc Martin and Hamish Macbeth) although the form is not extinct. Some popular sitcoms in the UK during the last ten years include Outnumbered; Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps, about a group of young people sharing a flat in Runcorn, which ended its ninth series in 2011;The IT Crowd (2006–2013) about IT work colleagues.

At the BBC, the late 2000s and early 2010s saw a major resurgence in traditional-style sitcoms filmed in front of a studio audience and featuring a laughter track, such as Not Going Out written by Lee Mack, Miranda, Reggie Perrin (a remake of the 1970s series The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin), Big Top, Irish sitcom Mrs Brown's Boys and In with the Flynns. The most successful BBC sitcom of the 2000s and early 2010s was My Family, which ran for 11 series from 2000 to 2011, came 24th in the Britain’s Best Sitcom poll in 2004 and was the most watched sitcom in the United Kingdom in 2008.

ITV also revisited sitcoms upon their rebranding in 2013. Birds of a Feather returned with another series over a decade after its conclusion and received critical acclaim. Focus on sitcoms has since been redirected to sister channel ITV2, which airs American sitcoms like The Big Bang Theory.

British sitcoms overseasEdit

United StatesEdit

British sitcoms are often seen on the Public Broadcasting Service, usually thanks to the effort of WGBH and increasingly on cable television, including BBC America and Comedy Central. Are You Being Served?, Keeping up Appearances and As Time Goes By became sleeper hits when they aired on the Public Broadcasting Service, while Absolutely Fabulous enjoyed a significant following when it aired on Comedy Central and The Office won a Golden Globe award in 2004 for "Best Television Series—Musical or Comedy", beating popular American favourites such as Sex and the City and Will & Grace. Most PBS stations affectionately refer to British sitcoms as "Britcoms".

Several British sitcoms have been successfully remade for the American market. Notable examples include Steptoe and Son which became Sanford and Son, Till Death Us Do Part, which became All in the Family and The Office which was remade into an American series of the same name. Three's Company, a remake of Man About the House, spawned identical spinoffs: The Ropers (George and Mildred) and Three's a Crowd (Robin's Nest). Other American remakes of British sitcoms include The Rear Guard which was based on Dad's Army, and What a Country! which was based on Mind Your Language. More recently, shows such as The Inbetweeners have been adapted, as well as Misfits and The Thick of It as Veep. A large number of US adaptations end up being cancelled early or are not commissioned after their pilots are created. Another notable difference, which has been both positive and negative depending upon the skill of the cast and writers, is the American media culture of 20+ episode seasons as opposed to the British which usually has fewer than 10 episodes per series.

Australia and New ZealandEdit

In Australia, many British comedy series are aired on the ABC, which is the Australian equivalent of the BBC. British shows are also sometimes shown on the three commercial television networks in Australia; in particular Network Seven screened many popular UK sitcoms during the 1970s. In New Zealand, state-run Television New Zealand also broadcast many popular British series. The majority of British comedies now air in both countries on the subscription channels The Comedy Channel and UKTV.

Australian commercial television channels made their own versions of popular British comedies during the 1970s often using members of the original casts. These included: Are You Being Served?, Father, Dear Father, Doctor Down Under, Love Thy Neighbour. In both countries, locally written and made sitcoms have historically often been heavily influenced by the structure of British sitcoms (such as in the New Zealand sitcom Gliding On).


In the 1980s, India's national stations Doordarshan showed Fawlty Towers, Yes, Minister and Mind Your Language.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ "Britcom | Definition of Britcom by Oxford Dictionary on also meaning of Britcom". Lexico Dictionaries | English. Retrieved 29 December 2020.
  2. ^ "Pinwright's Progress", British Comedy Guide website
  3. ^ Anthony Clark "Hancock's Half Hour (1956-60)", BFI screenonline
  4. ^ John Fisher Tony Hancock. The Definitive Biography, London: Harper Collins, 2008, p.138
  5. ^ Phil Wickham "Sitcom", BFI screenonline
  6. ^ "The Army Game" Archived 9 July 2009 at the Wayback Machine, Television Heaven website
  7. ^ John Oliver "Chesney, Ronald (1920-) and Wolfe, Ronald (1924-)", BFI screenonline
  8. ^ Jonathan Brown "Mary Whitehouse: To some a crank, to others a warrior: Mary Whitehouse On", The Independent, 24 November 2001
  9. ^ John Oliver "Galton, Ray (1930-) and Simpson, Alan (1929-)", BFI screenonline
  10. ^ "All Gas and Gaiters", BBC Comedy website
  11. ^ Julia Hallam "Lane, Carla (1937-)", BFI screenonline
  12. ^ Phil Wickham "Rising Damp (1974–78)", BFI screenonline
  13. ^ Matthew Coniam "A Users Guide to the Great British Sitcom Movie", Kettering: The Fanzine of Elderly British Comedy, [n.d., c.2003] No.1, p.3-9
  14. ^ "On the Buses" Archived 29 June 2011 at the Wayback Machine, Television Heaven website
  15. ^ Jeff Evans The Penguin TV Companion, London: Penguin, 2006, p.621
  16. ^ Vic Pratt "Love Thy Neighbour (1972–76)", BFI screenonline
  17. ^ Vic Pratt "Mind Your Language (1977–79, 1986)", BFI screenonline
  18. ^ Mark Duguid "Race and the Sitcom", BFI screenonline
  19. ^ Anthony Clark "Up Pompeii! (1970)", BFI screenonline
  20. ^ Phil Wickham "Are You Being Served? (1972, 1973–85)", BFI screenonline
  21. ^ Matthew Coniam "Terry and June (1979-87)", BFI screenonline
  22. ^ Hannah Hamad "'Allo 'Allo (1984-92)"!, BFI screenonline
  23. ^ Ali Jaafar "Desmond's (1988-94)", BFI screenonline
  24. ^ "BBC's most popular show overseas is...Keeping Up Appearances". The Independent. 18 February 2016. Retrieved 2 March 2016.

Further readingEdit

  • Cook, Jim, ed. B.F.I. Dossier 17: Television Sitcom, (London: British Film Institute, 1982).
  • Gray, Frances. "Privacy, embarrassment and social power: British sitcom." in Beyond a Joke (Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2005) pp. 146-161.
  • Gray, Frances. "British sitcom: a rather sad story." in Women and Laughter (Palgrave, London, 1994) pp. 80-111.
  • Griffin, Jeffrey, “The Americanization of The Office: a comparison of the offbeat NBC sitcom and its British predecessor.” Journal of Popular Film and Television 35 (2008): 154-16
  • Heaney, Dermot. "Taboo infringement and layered comedy: a linguistic analysis of convolution in Gervais and Merchant's Life's Too Short." Comedy Studies 7.2 (2016): 152-168.
  • Hunt, Leon. Cult British TV Comedy: From Reeves and Mortimer to Psychoville (Manchester University Press, 2015).
  • Kamm, Jürgen, and Birgit Neumann, eds. British TV comedies: Cultural concepts, contexts and controversies (Springer, 2016).
  • Kilborn, Richard. "A golden age of British sitcom? Hancock’s Half Hour and Steptoe and Son." in British TV Comedies (Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2016) pp. 23-35.
  • Lewisohn, Mark (2003) Radio Times Guide to TV Comedy. 2nd Ed. Revised — BBC Consumer Publishing. ISBN 0-563-48755-0
  • Mills, Brett. Television Sitcom (London: BFI, 2005).
  • Mills, Brett. "The television sitcom." in The Routledge Companion to British Media History (Routledge, 2014) pp. 469-477.
  • Mortimer, Claire. "Angry old women: Peggy Mount and the performance of female ageing in the British sitcom." Critical Studies in Television 10.2 (2015): 71-86.
  • Schwind, Kai Hanno. "‘Chilled-out entertainers’–multi-layered sitcom performances in the British and American version of The Office." Comedy Studies 5.1 (2014): 20-32.
  • Wickham, Phil. "Twenty-First Century British Sitcom and ‘the Hidden Injuries of Class’." in Social Class and Television Drama in Contemporary Britain (Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2017) pp. 201-213.
  • Zalmanovich, Tal. "Sharing a laugh: Sitcoms and the production of post-imperial Britain, 1945–1980 (PhD disssertation, Rutgers University, 2013) online.

External linksEdit