Who Killed the British Sitcom?

David Liddiment
In case you missed it (ratings 1 million), Who Killed the British Sitcom? was a rather well researched look at trends in British television comedy over the last 30 years.

Presented by David Liddiment, the former director of ITV programmes, the show examined two questions: why British TV schedules are no longer as packed with sitcoms as they were in the 70s; and why there have been so few home-grown ‘classics’ of the genre of late. It came up with five ‘suspects’, including alternative comedy, digital TV and reality TV, and asked whether their arrival had killed off the traditional British sitcom.

It’s always interesting when someone like Liddiment or Greg Dyke makes a programme: they commissioned programmes based on their opinions of what makes a good show, so what happens when they get given a chance to make one themselves? Can they walk the walk? Liddiment, a former investigative journalist and director, clearly knows how to put together a programme and the whole thing gripped from start to finish (unlike Dyke’s last effort).

Galton and Simpson

Most of the show was fascinating, with interviews from most of the major TV comedy writers of British TV history, including John Sullivan, Galton and Simpson, Ben Elton and Carla Lane, exposing how much the commissioning system for comedy had changed since the 50s. Lane appeared particularly galled that no one would commission her to write a 13-part sitcom simply for passing their door – even though she lost her ability to generate decent original content years ago.

The most eye-opening comments came from Victoria Wood, whose unremarkable Dinnerladies, much beloved by older folk, I’d regarded as archaic and dull. She revealed she’d originally intended it as an ER-style show, with multiple cameras swooping in and out of the cast as characters went about their work. Instead, what could have been her crowning achievement, was turned into a standard 70s-style studio piece that she herself was embarrassed by.

Who Killed the British Sitcom?‘s problems stemmed from a certain flabbiness of argument. There were obvious gaps in Liddiment’s coverage of sitcom history, whether for personal or political reasons. For instance, none of the shockingly bad sitcoms that have graced our airwaves over the years, such as ITV’s Babes in the Wood, were mentioned as potential devaluers of the sitcom currency.

Indeed, the idea that anyone in charge of the networks (such as Liddiment) may have been responsible for the demise of the sitcom was entirely overlooked, even though the comments of Wood and others highlighted these failings. Liddiment also ignored certain facts that didn’t gel with his thesis: the high-quality, team-written US sitcoms that Liddiment says undermined the British approach and which he hints should be the model for British sitcom production are actually in trouble in the US, with most of the networks struggling to find shows that last longer than six episodes. Most long-running US sitcoms also suffer from a gradual ‘blanding’ and simplifying of characters to make it easier for ever-changing teams to fit gags to stories, as the inconsistencies of Friends‘ characterisations over the years demonstrated. It seems odd, therefore, for him to suggest this as a solution for generating new classics.

Liddiment’s failure to actively attach blame anywhere even extends to the ‘suspects’ he identifies. None of them is ever fingered as the cause, merely listed as a potential subverter of the genre without much evidence given for its alleged effects. Despite this, Liddiment then goes on to conclude his case proven, without having said what his case was. He then goes on to suggest that maybe everything is all right and that the sitcom is just changing, again without much supporting evidence.

As a polemic, Who Killed the British Sitcom? was fascinating, and with a little tightening up in the narration, it could have been an outstanding piece of television. In its present state, it is at least an interesting examination of British television comedy history. Catch it in repeats if you can.

  • Rob

    I didn’t see this, though I wanted to watch it. can’t remember why I didn’t.
    I think the main problem with the British sitcom has been the tendency for them to be associated with one – or two – writers, so that they become vehicles for a character actor – like Victoria Wood, Jennifer Saunders – and reliant on that actor/writer wanting to do more, and being able to do more.
    With character-based comedy – Black Books, for example – there’s nowhere to go if the character can never change, or NOT be drunk, or something.
    My Name is Earl looks promising, because it’s based on the idea that the guy wants to change things. The Friends crew wanted to be richer/happier etc.
    There’s an unwillingness, too, to tie actors into roles in the way they do in the US. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, because shows like Friends always deteriorate when the “per episode” fee for the actor gets too high. In the case of Friends, it became too expensive to have many scenes with all 6 actors together, so the ensemble fragmented into pairings, with each actor getting so many screen minutes.
    Shows like Seinfeld work with a strong production team and a rotating team of writers. Imagine how much better later series of Ab Fab might have been, if written by other people. What we’d all have liked is another 3 seasons of The Good Life, another 5 years of The Likely Lads (not necessarily by Clement/La Frenais).
    I quite liked Dinnerladies myself. There were some good lines, but it was too focussed on Wood herself, and too static. I think you need at least 3 sets to keep things interesting, with a “wild card” 4th set to mix things up a bit.