When it arrived on our screens in 2002, Spooks was truly revolutionary. British telly had mastered the cerebral spy thriller – most notably with the BBC’s revered adaptation of John le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, starring Alec Guinness as master spy George Smiley – but Spooks was different.
Sitcoms as perfectly realised and executed as Channel 4’s Drop the Dead Donkey are exceedingly rare. That this newsroom caper, set mostly in the offices of Globelink News, was a topical satire, filmed partly the day before transmission to keep the material as up to date as possible, speaks volumes of the skills of creators Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin, the brilliant ensemble cast and its director, the energetic Liddy Oldroyd. Unusually, Oldroyd directed all six series, some 65 episodes. Tragically, she died in 2002, aged 47, four years after Drop the Dead Donkey ended.
To create a successful sitcom is one of the most difficult tasks in the TV firmament. To create a successful British sitcom that survives for 12 years, nine series and 54 episodes is staggering.
Unlike in the US, producers rarely have writers rooms on this side of the Atlantic, where teams of wordsmiths endlessly hone scripts to keep a show up and running. Remember, Fawlty Towers closed its doors after just two six-part series.
It’s a sign of a true TV phenomenon when any one of a handful of catchphrases, a haircut, a song about a malodorous puss or just a single word – “Pivot!” - can instantly propel you back to the turn of the millennium and six people gathered in a West Village apartment, always strangely affordable, or on their local coffee shop sofa, always strangely available.
There is, surely, no more fitting comfort comedy for lockdown than The Good Life, a tale of stay-at-home self-sufficiency. Tom and Barbara Good were the original artisan couple: sowing spuds, brewing booze and weaving wool.
The 1970s BBC sitcom was created by John Esmonde and Bob Larbey, friends since their Clapham schooldays, who had already created one comedy classic, ITV’s Please Sir!. That starred John Alderton as an idealistic English teacher at a tough secondary school.
Seen again, almost three decades on, with the world at a virtual standstill due to Covid-19, Pole to Pole can induce mixed reactions. Michael Palin’s most adventurous trek is a delight. It overflows with the presenter’s love of travel and discovery, which, frustratingly, is precisely what we are missing right now.… Our only option is to soak up the sights and hope that, one day soon, we will be able to follow in Palin’s footsteps.
Father Ted is one of TV’s greatest British sitcoms – up there with other giants of the genre such as Fawlty Towers, Gavin and Stacey and The Thick of It. It is plain loopy – daft, surreal, edgy in its debunking of the Church and blessed by four timeless characters.
From a distance of close to half a century, London is almost unrecognisable. Cortinas and Consuls squeal around a semi-derelict city, pockmarked by Second World War bomb sites. Houses and shops are dilapidated, a permanent pall of smoke hangs in the boozers; people look old, even those who aren’t. Everything is grey.
Everything except detective inspector Jack Regan’s iconic brown suit and green kipper tie. And he was always hungry for nicking villains: “We’re the Sweeney, son, and we haven’t had any dinner – you’ve kept us waiting.”
If you can judge a sitcom solely on the strength of its catchphrases, Only Fools and Horses is a gem. Three decades on from its heyday, Derek “Del Boy” Trotter’s sayings – “lovely jubbly”, “you plonker” and “cushty” – are part of our everyday language. We even remember his terrible Franglais – “mange tout, mange tout, as the French say” – by which Del meant “no problem”.