British comedy usually divides the room: some love it, some loathe it.
But people base their opinion on the shows they have seen, and these may not be the best. Before you pass judgement, try the following series.
1) The Office.
Made in 2001 by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, ‘The Office’ was praised to the heavens by critics and fans alike–and all of it deserved. The show is set in a dreary paper company (the wonderfully named ‘Wernham Hogg’) in the equally dreary town of Slough, where a documentary crew have filmed day to day life- we see the result.
Everyone has met the obnoxious office bully ‘Finchy’, the weasly, passive-aggressive Gareth; and everyone knows a girl like Dawn: sweet, funny, smart and engaged to the wrong man. In Tim, the central character, there is an Everyman: a college dropout, self-aware, self-mocking and kept sane only through humor.
Then of course there is Gervais’ ‘Brent’, candidate for greatest ever TV comic character. Were he simply an odious imbecile, he might have raised a laugh or two then been forgotten.
But Gervais grew into the part, adding humanity and depth to the man: deluded, yes, but beneath the bad jokes and showing off you sense the fear and loneliness of someone in the grips of mid-life meltdown.
2) Alan Partridge.
Loved and quoted by Brits more than Python, Alan Partridge is a study in deluded egotism. Alan, played by Steve Coogan, first appeared in a superb news spoof show called ‘The Day Today’ as a puffed up sports presenter.
In season 1, released in 1994 as ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’, he has his own chat show on which a variety of guests appear, most of whom Partridge despises or insults.
By season 2, he has been sacked and divorced and is living in a ghastly ‘travel tavern’, or motel, scraping by on local radio and scheming to return to TV.
In season 3, recovering from a nervous breakdown and now living in a caravan with a Russian bride, he remains as deluded and obnoxious as ever.
3) Peep Show.
One of the few British comedies to match The Office, Peep Show makes use of the ‘odd couple’ scenario.
Two former college friends share an apartment in London, one a lazy, shiftless ‘musician’, the other a stiff, repressed cynic. Mitchell and Webb had the brilliant idea of allowing viewers to overhear the main characters’ thoughts.
As in Friends, you have a bunch of twenty-somethings sharing an apartment and trying to ‘make it’ in the big city. But there the comparison ends.
Peep Show has none of the sickly mawkishness of Friends: harder, darker and more cynical, these are people whose chaotic, miserable lives are going nowhere.
4) Fawlty Towers.
Made in the mid-70s and composed of a mere 12 episodes, this show influenced generations of British comedians and continues to be revered on the island.
John Cleese came up with the idea when he and his fellow Pythons were staying in a hotel in the south west of England run by a rude, unhelpful manager. Basil Fawlty, played by Cleese, runs a hotel. But there is a problem: guests appear and expect him to serve them.
Cleese is on blistering form, throwing heart and soul into the part: like Brent, a man in the grips of a mid-life crisis, doing a job for which he is unsuited, married to a woman who frightens and belittles him, employing a waiter who cannot speak English and serving guests he loathes.
The most ‘British’ of the selections and something of an acquired taste, Blackadder is an oddity: a historical comedy consisting of 4 seasons (don’t watch the first, it is dreadful).
Each season is set in a different period of British history, but each stars the same character, ‘Edmund Blackadder’ (played by the incomparable Rowan Atkinson): clever, cynical and scheming.
The first season finds him in the medieval era, the second at the court of Elizabeth I, the third as butler to an 18th century prince and the fourth (the best) as an officer in World War 1.
Rather than sharp writing, the show relies on grotesque characters (Stephen Fry as the insane First World War general is especially good) and playful language.
Of course, some fans will disagree with this selection. It is true that many others deserve a mention: One Foot in the Grave, Man Down, Absolutely Fabulous, Phoenix Nights, The League of Gentleman and, especially, the sketch shows Harry Enfield, Little Britain, and The Fast Show (Brits will tell you it is better than Monty Python).
But the above five remain a pretty good introduction. Here you will find the two great strengths of British comedy on display: a dark, unsentimental, cynical edge and larger-than-life characters.