Why Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer are the living embodiment of the death of British comedy – Aidan Smith

Prime Minister and Labour leader are a comedy double-act for modern times (ie, not funny) and can only dream of Steptoe & Son's mass appeal

So far, this has been a general election campaign devoid of humour. If you don’t count Rishi Sunak looking like the fall guy in an ancient slapstick routine involving a bucket of water, the laughs quotient has been non-existent, with Keir Starmer not proving himself the zany funster some might have hoped.

What are you saying, that comedy isn’t strictly their job? Well, it wasn’t strictly Boris Johnson’s job but look how he managed to turn his premiership into a stand-up routine lasting three-and-a-bit years. Starmer and Sunak needn’t go that far but maybe they could loosen up a bit. If they were to deviate even slightly from their established personas – respectively, managerial sternness and tech-bro yappiness, possibly having just returned from a team-building weekend in the woods – then they might do themselves some good, their prospective voters some good and also the national mood. Perhaps, too, the double act you never knew you craved could do the gags game some good.

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The BBC, for so long the preeminent ticklers of our collective funny bone, have been warning that the situation comedy is in danger of extinction. And they admit that too many of their own shows have been too worthy, too issue-led and simply too unfunny. “Audiences want to laugh about things they see in their own lives – relatable characters, recognisable worlds, familiar voices,” says the Corporation’s director of comedy, Jon Petrie, who’s issued an urgent “Save our Sitcoms” appeal.

Harry H Corbett and Wilfrid Brambell starred in the television series Steptoe and Son in the days when sitcoms were funny (Picture: Mike Lawn/Fox Photos/Getty Images)Harry H Corbett and Wilfrid Brambell starred in the television series Steptoe and Son in the days when sitcoms were funny (Picture: Mike Lawn/Fox Photos/Getty Images)
Harry H Corbett and Wilfrid Brambell starred in the television series Steptoe and Son in the days when sitcoms were funny (Picture: Mike Lawn/Fox Photos/Getty Images)
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Sitcom with Shakespearian touch

Where is the new Only Fools and Horses? The next Dad’s Army? But it’s another venerable classic referenced in the debate which has been making me think of our improbable duo – and, setting aside their own potential for mirth for a moment, the relief Sunak and Starmer should be feeling about not having to compete with two absolute comedy colossi.

Steptoe & Son told of the eternal struggle between a father and son running a rag-and-bone enterprise. It could be Shakespearian. It could, given that the central characters co-existed in close proximity with one always trying and failing to escape, evoke Samuel Beckett. But it was always hilarious, our greatest-ever sitcom.

The genius writers were Ray Galton and Alan Simpson. Wilfrid Brambell was Albert Steptoe and Harry H Corbett was Harold, his aspirational but thwarted progeny. The show ran from 1962 and 1974 and the power and influence it wielded was astonishing, not least over government and politicians.

Another Galton-Simpson juggernaut, Hancock’s Half Hour starring Tony Hancock, would have sitting prime ministers pondering the date for a general election to first check the TV schedules to ensure there wouldn’t be a clash which might keep voters away from the polling stations. It was 60 years ago that such concerns came to an almighty head, almost costing one of Starmer’s predecessors a Labour victory.

In 1964, the best-known and most-respected ’arold in Britain lived at 26a Oil Drum Lane, drove a horse and cart and constantly referred to his father as a “dirty old man”. It was not the one hoping to take up residence at 10 Downing Street – ’arold Wilson.

BBC accused of plot against Labour

The election of that year was called for October 15. Wilson would have been aware of the incredible popularity of Steptoe & Son – regular Thursday night audience: 28 million. Six decades ago, that was virtually half the country. Considering himself a man of the people, Wilson surely watched the show and, with its 1964 season having run earlier that year, might have thought the date was safe. But he hadn’t banked on there being a repeat run.

Panicking, he lobbied the BBC to shift the episode, fearing that even a second screening would harm the working-class vote. He turned up at the home of director-general Sir Hugh Greene and accused the Beeb of a dastardly plot. Green recalled later: “I told him that he really must know that was untrue and unless he withdrew the remark there was no point in us discussing anything.”

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Wilson relented and the two men shared a tense drink but the next day Greene appeased Wilson by shifting the programme from early evening to 9pm when, in that era, the polling stations closed. “He was very grateful,” said Greene, “and thought the switch could make a difference to him of about 20 seats.” In the event, Wilson won by just four.

They don’t make ’em like Steptoe & Son anymore and, in recent times, the BBC have tried post-modern comedies, ironic comedies, spot-the-joke comedies, the comedy of cruelty and comedies where you don’t know whether to cry or cancel the licence fee. Now there’s an attempt to recapture the glory days of shows which didn’t try to be too clever or daring but always had what Petrie stresses was a “high joke score”.

Popular, family entertainment

So he’s urging creatives: “Send us fewer comedies that are ‘an exploration’ of something and more that know where their funny bones are… less ‘vital pieces’ and ‘comfort baths’ and more ‘toe-curlingly funny’, ‘gleeful’ and ‘laugh out loud’.”

Did “popular” and “family entertainment” become dirty words? The dirty old man would cackle at that because the rag-and-bone sitcom never had any trouble locating its funny bone. Reimagining Steptoe & Son with Starmer and Sunak, very much a modern, unfunny pairing, is a bit of a challenge.

I’ve dug out the episode which almost did for Labour 60 years ago and a few lines chime with now, including: “I don’t know whether you realise it, father, but the Chinese is on the move.” Maybe Sunak could be Albert, suddenly rich thanks to premium bonds, and dressing extravagantly. Then again perhaps he’s more like Harold, the younger man, desperate to leave an impossible situation far behind him. One thing, though: both he and Starmer can only dream of that kind of approval rating, that kind of universal love.

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