British comedy, in film, radio and television, is known for its consistently peculiar characters, plots and settings, and has produced some of the most famous and memorable comic actors and characters.
—Punch and Judy showman Glyn Edwards.
British comedy history is measured in centuries. Shakespeare incorporated many chase scenes and beatings into his comedies, such as in his play The Comedy of Errors. The quarrelsome couple Punch and Judy made their first recorded appearance in Britain in 1662, when Samuel Pepys noted a “pretty” puppet play being performed in Covent Garden, London. The various episodes of Punch and Judy are performed in the spirit of outrageous comedy — often provoking shocked laughter — and are dominated by the anarchic clowning of Mr. Punch.
Satire has been a major feature of comedy in the British isles for centuries. The pictorial satire of William Hogarth was a precursor to the development of political cartoons in 18th century England. The medium developed under the direction of its greatest exponent, James Gillray from London, who has been referred to as the father of the political cartoon. With his satirical works calling the king (George III), prime ministers and generals (especially Napoleon) to account, Gillray's wit and keen sense of the ridiculous made him the pre-eminent cartoonist of the era.
In early 19th century England, pantomime acquired its present form which includes slapstick comedy and featured the first mainstream clown Joseph Grimaldi, while comedy routines also featured heavily in British music hall theatre which became popular in the 1850s. British comedians who honed their skills at pantomime and music hall sketches include Charlie Chaplin, Stan Laurel, George Formby and Dan Leno. The influential English music hall comedian and theatre impresario Fred Karno developed a form of sketch comedy without dialogue in the 1890s, and Chaplin and Laurel were among the young comedians who worked for him as part of "Fred Karno's Army".
Radio comedy in Britain has been almost exclusively the preserve of the BBC, and a number of British radio comedies achieved considerable renown in the second half of the 20th century.
In the 1940s and 1950s, variety dominated the schedules, and popular series included ITMA and Much Binding in the Marsh. In the mid-1950s, however, two notable series emerged which would help to shape the future of radio and television comedy in Britain. The Goons (Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan and Harry Secombe) starred in their own anarchic series The Goon Show which ran throughout the 1950s. At the same time, the BBC was also running Hancock's Half Hour starring Tony Hancock, the first of a new generation of comedies based on believable characters and situations. Hancock's Half Hour later transferred to TV and was phenomenally successful throughout the 1950s, running concurrently on radio and television until 1960.
Another notable radio show was the double entendre-laden Round the Horne (1965–1968), a sequel to the earlier series Beyond Our Ken, which ran from 1959 to 1964. I'm Sorry, I'll Read That Again gained a devoted youth following in the late 1960s.
Later radio shows made use of the panel game format, including the long-running Just a Minute (from 1967 to date) and I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue (from 1972), and The News Quiz (from 1977), which often broadcast a dozen of so episodes a year, normally split over two series broadcast at different points in the year. The success of the panel show format has in turn has influenced TV series like Have I Got News for You (from 1990), They Think It's All Over (from 1995) and Mock the Week (from 2005). .
BBC Radio has continued to be a breeding ground for new talent and many programmes have transferred successfully to television in recent years, including Whose Line is it Anyway?, Goodness Gracious Me, Knowing Me, Knowing You and Little Britain.
Although many popular shows of recent years began life on BBC Radio, there have been many successful and influential series which were designed purely for TV. In contrast to their US counterparts, which have seasons of up to 26 episodes a year, British sit-coms traditionally have series of just 6 episodes. The main reason for this is that British shows are generally written by one or two dedicated writers - often the people that created the show in the first place - as opposed to the US model of having a larger writing team. In part, this is a reflection of the difference between the size of the TV audience in the two countries, and the economics of television production; for decades sit-coms were the shows on US television that delivered the highest ratings; in Britain the highest ratings figures were normally for soap operas, which generally run several times a week, year-in year-out, and as a result generally required larger writing teams.
Following the success of Hancock's Half Hour and Steptoe and Son, the sitcom became firmly entrenched in the television schedules. Some of the most successful examples include To The Manor Born, As Time Goes By, Steptoe and Son, Dad's Army, Keeping Up Appearances, Red Dwarf, The Likely Lads, Fawlty Towers, Allo Allo, The Good Life, Are You Being Served?, Yes Minister, Only Fools and Horses, Drop The Dead Donkey, Men Behaving Badly, The IT Crowd, Absolutely Fabulous, The Vicar of Dibley, The Mighty Boosh, Father Ted, Mr. Bean, Blackadder, One Foot in the Grave, The Brittas Empire, I'm Alan Partridge, Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em, Porridge, The Thin Blue Line, Spaced, On the Buses, A Fine Romance, Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, Girls On Top, Black Books, The Office, The League of Gentlemen, 2point4 Children, My Family, My Hero, Benidorm, The Old Guys, The Royle Family, Peep Show, The New Statesman, Shine On Harvey Moon, Last of the Summer Wine, The Young Ones, Bottom, Coupling, dinnerladies, Open All Hours, Gimme, Gimme, Gimme, Outnumbered, Game On, Mrs. Brown's Boys, Not Going Out, Birds Of A Feather, Goodnight Sweetheart, Rising Damp, Desmond's and Miranda.
The BBC has generally been dominant in television comedy, but the commercial stations have also had some successes. ITV's most successful sitcoms were generally produced in the 1970s, including Rising Damp, On the Buses, George and Mildred, Man About The House and the now unfashionable Love Thy Neighbour. Other BBC series are Early Doors with James McAvoy and Grandma's House with Simon Amstell.
Commercial station Channel 4 has been more successful than ITV with situation comedies in recent years. Some of the better-known examples are Chelmsford 123, Chance in a Million, Drop the Dead Donkey, Spaced, Father Ted (which was set in Ireland instead of Great Britain), Black Books, Desmond's, Teachers, Peep Show, Green Wing, The Inbetweeners, The IT Crowd, Shameless and Da Ali G Show.
Other formats have also been popular, with sketch shows, stand-up comedy, impressionists and even puppet shows finding success. Although impressionists experienced a lull in popularity in the 1990s, the recent success of Dead Ringers (another BBC Radio cross-over) and Alistair McGowan's Big Impression has been notable.
The most notable satirical comedies are the ground-breaking 1960s series That Was The Week That Was, 1980s series Not the Nine O'Clock News, and ITV's puppet show Spitting Image. One of the most-watched shows of the 1980s and early 1990s, Spitting Image was a satire of politics, entertainment, sport and British culture of the era, and at its peak it was watched by 15 million people. British satire has also washed over into Quiz shows – popular examples include the news quiz Have I Got News for You, Mock the Week, 8 out of 10 cats and music-based Never Mind The Buzzcocks.
One of the most influential groups in comedy is Monty Python. Their Flying Circus sketch show aired on the BBC between 1969-1974. The group itself consisted of six members, Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin. All were UK-born except Gilliam, who was US-born. Chapman, Cleese, and Idle attended the University of Cambridge, while Jones and Palin attended the University of Oxford. Gilliam was an alumnus of Occidental College. The Pythons went on to produce a large body of other legendary work including two TV specials for Germany, four feature films, a concert film, and various documentary specials detailing the group's history. Their unique brand of humor has had a profound influence on British comedy and on comedy in general. They themselves had been influenced by The Goons and Spike Milligan's Q series. Python found surprising popularity in the US in the 1970s, as did the less cerebral humour of Benny Hill and his ITV sketch series The Benny Hill Show.
Vic Reeves Big Night Out influenced the style of a whole new generation of comics in the 1990s until the present day.
The 1990s and 2000s (decade) have also seen the rise of a new set of British comedians who have made innovative contributions mainly in the form of sitcoms. Programmes such as Mr. Bean, Green Wing, Peep Show, Black Books, Teachers, Spaced, Smack the Pony, Big Train, The Office, and Extras have used editing, surreal humour and cultural references to great effect. A loose clique of stars, including Simon Pegg, Dylan Moran, Jessica Stevenson, Mark Heap, Ricky Gervais, Tamsin Greig and Bill Bailey have revolved around these series, with the most obvious acknowledgement of this coming in the scene in the film Shaun of the Dead when the two groups of survivors troop past each other, with cameos galore.
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- BBC – BBC THREE – Listings