TV UK, 18 April

Has the demise of the class system killed the British sitcom?

Dolan Cummings

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My friend Brendan, who really ought to be the star of his own sitcom, and will be if I ever get round to writing one, has a theory about British sitcoms.

He thinks that they stopped being funny because of the demise of the British class system. The classic British sitcoms, like Fawlty Towers, Rising Damp and Dad’s Army, all hinged on the intricacies of etiquette, snobbery, and resentment. Now that the old rituals and conventions have collapsed, the clichés and caricatures of the class system don’t work any more. We are left with meaningless dross.

Occasionally, there are rumblings that the Brits are back. Spaced and Black Books (both on Channel 4) were well reviewed, though I was not convinced. The latest Great White Hope is The Book Group (Channel 4 again, Fridays at 9.30pm). This isn’t exactly about class, but it is certainly a comedy of contemporary manners.

The trick is putting an American in Glasgow, in order to play the otherness of each off the other. The English viewer presumably spends half the time sympathising with Claire’s having to put up with these uncouth Glaswegians, and the other sympathising with the Glaswegians for having to put up with such an uptight American bitch. Three footballers’ wives join the mix at right angles, alternating between continental nuttiness and down-to-earth normality.

Did you like that point about ‘otherness’? Very bookish. Did you know that if you say the word ‘other’ in a Glasgow accent, it sounds like ‘udder’? Actually, Glasgow is a very literary city. Not only did it produce me, but when I lived there I was in a very sophisticated book club, nothing like the one depicted in the programme. For a start, we didn’t have any women. They’d only have used the group to meet eligible men.

Don’t look so outraged: that’s what happens in The Book Group. Claire, the terrible American snob, was initially attracted to Barney, a ponce with an English accent who’s doing a PhD on Gabriel Garcia Marquez. (You can do a PhD on Gabriel Garcia Marquez? We read one of his books – it was mince.) Later, the focus shifts on to the burly but wheelchair-bound Kenny. I think Rab is probably gay.

There is something not right about mixed socialising. That’s largely what’s wrong with Friends. Even E4’s adverts for Friends are horrible, encouraging young men to join their girlfriends (in the girlie sense of the word) on the sofa, to eat Doritos and watch the Friends/ER double bill, in some foul ritual of emasculation. Live your own sitcom.

Speaking of ER, Scrubs (Sky One, Thursdays at 10pm) is half as long, twice as funny, and demonstrates that the Americans still have the edge on sitcoms. Like The Book Group, Scrubs stars an uptight female, the delightful Eliot, played by Sarah Chalke, who was the older Becky in Roseanne. In lieu of a class system, Scrubs has fun with the professional hierarchies and personal rivalries of the American medical system. Eliot and the other characters are a delicate balance of stereotype and reality, which seems to be the secret of effective sitcoms.

I’ll have to bear that in mind when I’m writing my own. I’ve learned another trick from The Book Group: this week’s episode has a guest slot for Stuart Cosgrove, Channel 4’s head of programmes for nations and regions, and his wee pal Tam Cowan, who play the TV football commentators. Who says the class system is dead?

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

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