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From the first London screenings of the Lumiere Brothers' L'Arroseur arrosé in 1896, comedy has been a British cinema staple. It was a natural form for filmmakers needing to make an immediate impact in one shot: the catalogues of pioneers R.W. Paul, G.A. Smith, James Williamson, Cecil Hepworth and Bamforth include numerous comedy shorts. Often, the entire film was based around a single visual gag, such as Smith's The Miller and the Sweep (1897) or Hepworth's Explosion of a Motor Car (1900).

By 1910, British comedy stars had begun to emerge. Although the London-born Charles Chaplin and Lancastrian Stan Laurel went to America prior to making their first films, Pimple (Fred Evans) and Winky (Reginald Switz) were almost as popular in Britain in the 1910s.

British silent comedy generally failed to match the artistic achievements of contemporaries in the US and France, but Adrian Brunel made some imaginative comedy shorts in the 1920s, and Bonzo the Dog became a homegrown cartoon star. Britain's most successful silent comedian, Walter Forde, would become a distinguished director in the 1930s.

The coming of sound had a major impact on British comedy, not least because it allowed the exploitation of older British comic traditions whose impact was as much verbal as visual. The Aldwych farces of the early 1930s (usually written by Ben Travers and directed by Tom Walls) were hugely successful, as were films featuring Arthur Askey, Cicely Courtneidge, Gracie Fields, George Formby, Leslie Fuller, Will Hay, Jack Hulbert, Arthur Lucan, Jessie Matthews, Max Miller, Anna Neagle, Frank Randle and The Crazy Gang, while Richard Massingham's eccentric shorts enlivened many programmes.

1930s comedies were typically carefree and unrealistic affairs, but things changed with the onset of war. Stars like Hay, Askey and Formby added political elements to their knockabout comedies, while writer-directors Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat turned to social commentary of impressive range, blending realistic wartime scenarios with barbed satire in Two Thousand Women (1944) and The Rake's Progress (1945).

Postwar British comedies generally followed Launder & Gilliat's model, notably the films made at Ealing Studios between 1946 and 1955 (the best known titles being Whisky Galore! (1948), Passport to Pimlico, Kind Hearts and Coronets (both 1949), The Lavender Hill Mob, The Man in the White Suit (both 1951) and The Ladykillers (1955)). The Ealing style was based around witty observation of an all too recognisable Britain, its performers were character actors like Alec Guinness rather than comedians, and its influence was vast.

In the 1950s, Launder & Gilliat returned to light comedy with the St Trinian's cycle, while John and Roy Boulting satirised British institutions in Private's Progress (1957), Carlton-Browne of the F.O. (1958) and I'm All Right Jack (1959). The Rank Organisation scored huge successes with Genevieve (1953) and slapstick vehicles for Norman Wisdom such as Trouble in Store (1953), while the Doctor series spawned by the medical comedy Doctor in the House (1955) ran into the 1970s. Other highlights from the decade included The Smallest Show On Earth (1957) and School for Scoundrels (1960), while key performers included Ian Carmichael, Margaret Rutherford, Peter Sellers, Alastair Sim and Terry-Thomas.

The British New Wave of the early 1960s initially meant kitchen-sink realism, but Billy Liar and Tom Jones both enlivened cinema screens in 1963. The following year, A Hard Day's Night was much more than just a Beatles promotional vehicle. The work of its American-born director Richard Lester was hugely influential, as was the early 1960s satire boom, which paved the way for unprecedentedly dark comedies like Dr Strangelove (1964), The Ruling Class (1972) and Britannia Hospital (1982), turning deadly serious issues into risk-taking farce.

But the most successful comedy cycle of this period, running from 1958 to 1978, was the Carry On series - cheerfully vulgar farces usually featuring any or all of Kenneth Connor, Jim Dale, Charles Hawtrey, Hattie Jacques, Sid James, Joan Sims, Kenneth Williams and Barbara Windsor, whose situations and innuendo-laden jokes owed much to music-hall tradition. By the 1970s, the concept ran out of steam, with EMI's similar but raunchier Confessions cycle and other sex comedies claiming to deliver what the Carry Ons only hinted at.

Most recent innovative British comedy has originated on television - even big-screen successes often involve television comedians. Sometimes the films are direct spin-offs - Till Death Us Do Part (1968), On the Buses (1971), Porridge (1979), Bean (1997) and Johnny English (2003) (the latter expanded from credit card commercials) - or big-screen vehicles tailored for TV stars: Tony Hancock (The Rebel, 1960), Morecambe & Wise (The Intelligence Men, 1965), Dick Emery (Ooh... You Are Awful, 1972), Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones (Morons From Outer Space, 1985), Martin Clunes (Staggered, 1994) and Steve Coogan (The Parole Officer, 2001).

The team behind Monty Python's Flying Circus (BBC, 1969-74) made the most successful cinema transition, their big-screen output ranging from hit-and-miss sketch compilations to the impressively coherent if controversial Life of Brian (1979). The Comic Strip, a leading collective of 'alternative' comedians, showed promise with The Supergrass (1985) that was squandered on the disastrous Eat the Rich (1988).

Recent British comedy auteurs include Mike Leigh (High Hopes, 1988; Life is Sweet, 1990), Bruce Robinson (Withnail & I, 1986; How To Get Ahead in Advertising, 1989), Bill Forsyth (Gregory's Girl, 1980; Local Hero, 1983), Peter Chelsom (Hear My Song, 1990; Funny Bones, 1994) and animator Nick Park (Creature Comforts, 1989; Chicken Run, 1999; Wallace and Gromit). Notably successful comedy writers include Willy Russell (Educating Rita, 1983; Shirley Valentine, 1989), Richard Curtis (Four Weddings and a Funeral, 1994; Notting Hill, 1999) and Roddy Doyle (The Commitments, 1990; The Snapper, 1993; The Van, 1996; When Brendan Met Trudy, 2000).

Many recent comedies are distinctively regional, whether from Yorkshire (A Private Function, 1984; Brassed Off, 1996; The Full Monty, 1997), Liverpool (Letter to Brezhnev, 1985), Manchester (24 Hour Party People, 2002), Scotland (Bill Forsyth's films; Restless Natives, 1985; Trainspotting, 1996), Wales (Leaving Lenin, 1993; The Englishman Who Went Up A Hill And Came Down A Mountain, 1995; Twin Town, 1997) or Ireland (Roddy Doyle; lottery romp Waking Ned, 1999). There were even comedies about the Northern Ireland Troubles in No Surrender (1986) and Divorcing Jack (1998), while Guy Ritchie made two romps about Cockney criminals: Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and Snatch (2000).

Period comedies include heritage cinema parody Stiff Upper Lips (1997), Mike Leigh's Topsy-Turvy (1999) and Robert Altman's Gosford Park (2001), while other notable hits include Hope and Glory (1987), A Fish Called Wanda (1987), Nuns on the Run (1990), Sliding Doors (1998), Shakespeare in Love (1998), Bridget Jones's Diary (2001) and About A Boy (2002).

Britain's ethnic minorities have also made crossover hits. Following Hanif Kureishi's My Beautiful Laundrette (1986), such films as Bhaji on the Beach (1993), East is East (1999) and Bend It Like Beckham (2002) wittily exploited Anglo-Asian diversity, while Leon the Pig Farmer (1992) was the first British Jewish comedy. The first Black and Chinese British comedy breakthroughs have yet to materialise, but Playing Away, Ping Pong (both 1986), Peggy Su (1998) and Dog Eat Dog (2002) show possible ways forward.

Michael Brooke

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