As you watched the revival of Are You Being Served?, with its gags about inside leg measurements, wobbly wands, big Bristols, perfumed ladywipes, floating balls and – phew – Jimmy Connors’s balls, what were you thinking?
That it was a tribute, a send-up and postmodern irony, all wrapped up in a Grace Brothers bag, which of course you wouldn’t have been charged 5p for? That you were allowed to laugh at the creaky gags but only in a knowingly superior way, because of course they’d be derided as appallingly un-PC if they turned up in a contemporary sitcom? That AYBS? was really best enjoyed with a bag of Twiglets and a packet of Matchmakers – and, while you’re scrubbing the oven, love, can you fetch me another glass of Liebfraumilch?
Or were you thinking what Frankie Boyle was thinking at the Edinburgh Television Festival last week when he declared that TV comedy, because it was frightened of taking risks, has gone stale and regressed decades?
“To me it seems like television is now back in 1978,” said Boyle, a comedian you’d never describe as risk-averse. “Most shows are variety shows and most sitcoms are family friendly. They’re remaking a lot of the old sitcoms and you wouldn’t really know there had ever been alternative comedy.”
Surely Boyle is right. Straight after Are You Being Served? on Sunday came a reheating of Porridge. Till Death Us Do Part will be disinterred on Thursday and in the coming weeks there will be new outings for Steptoe and Son and Hancock’s Half Hour.
These shows –some of them updated to the present, some taking the form of karaoke cover-versions, others using old scripts of episodes negligently wiped – are billed as a celebration of telly comedy. It’s 60 years this summer since the first British sitcom began, Tony Hancock introducing himself with a stammer that might not pass today’s rigorous inclusivity rules. (Though obviously this wouldn’t be as big a challenge to them as Alf Garnett calling his wife a “silly old moo” or Albert Steptoe scoffing at his son Harold’s new smoking jacket and calling him a “poof”.)
But what are these retreads if not soppy evidence of a nation that doesn’t really know where it’s going, only that it believes that the past was better? This season was planned before Brexit but, happening now, it seems to capture a mood. The past isn’t a foreign country as far as Britain, with its newly hardened attitude to the nations round about us, is concerned. The past is a good old British-made sitcom.
Look at Mrs Brown’s Boys, declared Britain’s favourite sitcom just as Boyle was getting to his feet to bemoan how safe and ratings-driven comedy has become. It’s a contemporary show which looks like it belongs in the hoary old 1970s. Some have claimed that because of the informal production style, with on-stage malarkey encouraged and retakes left in the final edit, it is playing with the traditions of sitcom and that makes it a meta-sitcom, clever and edgy. Here’s what I think: it’s complete pants and I’ve never laughed once.
At the same time as this poll the BBC announced it was working on a new comedy with John Cleese, despite him last year accusing the Beeb’s commissioning editors of having “no idea of what they’re doing” and vowing never to work with the corporation again.
I’m not sure Boyle will be thrilled about this and I can’t say I am. My five-year-old daughter bids farewell by saying “Goodbye ding-ding-ding-ding” because once upon a fantastic era for comedy Cleese did this in Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Fawlty Towers would be my specialist subject on Mastermind – Q: Name three things you cannot see from the window of a Torquay hotel. A: Sydney Opera House, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, herds of wildebeest sweeping majestically across the plain – and I would surely win it. But anything else Cleese does always suffers in comparison.
Following these classics is impossible and his memoirs and a revival of Fawlty for a commercial make me doubt he has anything new, or that funny, to say. And the BBC’s head of comedy, Shane Allen, doesn’t really inspire confidence in the new project when he says of Cleese: “He’s a comedy god and the door is always open to him. There are certain people who have earned their badges, who have got the right to do what they want.”
Seventies comedies are great, just as long as it’s still 1973 out there, and much as I often want it to be, and for all sorts of reasons, it’s not anymore. The comedy we watch right now will be time-capsuled, turning up later in those list-shows which attempt to shed some kind of light on the state of the nation at any given moment through the popular culture it liked. By 2066, 2016 is going to seem a strange, backward-looking interlude in our history indeed, when Mrs Brown’s Boys and all those old, old shows are recalled.
I thrilled to these sitcoms first time round. Before my critical faculties were developed to the frankly stunning level they exist at today, I thought Hugh and I, starring Terry Scott and Hugh Lloyd as flatmates always dreaming up hare-brained wheezes, was the funniest. This was what I told my mother at least, so I’d be allowed to stay up past 8pm on Mondays to watch it. One sitcom per week was the rule, but I had a wheeze and it worked. By Thursdays she’d forgotten about the earlier deal and I also got to see Steptoe and Son, truly the greatest of them all.
Stuffed bear, anatomical skeleton, gramophone, grandfather clock stuck at quarter-to-two, cardboard box full of dirty old man Harold’s cast-off false teeth … to compete for Mastermind’s Champion of Champions I’d choose the contents of that mingin’ cowp of a front room.
But, loved it then, don’t need to see it again.